Baltimore’s theaters and musical ensembles are resuming in-person performances after an 18-month hiatus, making the performing arts the last major sector of Maryland society to open its doors to paying customers following the COVID-19 pandemic.
And that unusual hush you’re detecting, that almost audible inhalation, is the sound of actors, directors and musicians statewide holding their collective breaths that when the curtain finally rises and they gaze across the footlights for the first time, there will be people seated in the audience, looking back.
“We never expected to be reopening during a surge in COVID-19 cases,” said Alec Lawson, director of experience and operations for Baltimore Center Stage. In response to the escalating infection rate, President Joe Biden announced sweeping new vaccine mandates this month that are expected to affect 100 million Americans.
“The situation is changing almost day to day because of the pandemic,” Lawson said. “There is a segment of our audience that is supercautious, and we respect that.”
In mid-August, Everyman Theatre became the first area troupe to resume live performances indoors with its production of “Steel Magnolias” featuring a powerhouse cast of local actresses. This month, Baltimore Center Stage, Theatre Project, The Lyric and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra opened the first public shows in their halls.
When Ron Lake, 65, of Washington, attended a recent matinee of “Steel Magnolias” with a friend, the mere act of settling into his seat and silencing his cellphone felt like a celebration.
“It’s frankly been devastating not to be able to see live performances for the past 18 months,” he said.
Other troupes — Baltimore Choral Arts Society, Shriver Hall Concert Series, Rep Stage and the Hippodrome Theatre among others — will welcome visitors in November or early December.
While capacity limits on venues have been lifted statewide, Baltimore City requires masking indoors in public spaces.
Beyond that, safety measures differ slightly among the performing arts groups: The BSO, for instance, will not accept negative COVID-19 tests as an alternative to vaccination. In contrast, Center Stage and Everyman will admit patrons with negative results from COVID tests taken in the past 72 hours, though the former accepts only the more reliable PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test.
Most groups are barring concessions, at least temporarily, ensuring customers remain masked. Several have installed touchless restroom facilities. The BSO has increased the number of entrances and exits to Meyerhoff Symphony Hall so audience members don’t all pass through the same doors.
Everyman has a sophisticated heating and cooling system in which staff members can adjust levers to increase and direct air circulation, ensuring that fresh air continually flows through the building. Center Stage has installed ultraviolet lights on its HVAC equipment and in elevators.
At Everyman, “because we were the first theater in Baltimore to reopen, all eyes have been on us,” said Vincent Lancisi, founder and artistic director. “All the other groups want to know how we’re doing.”
While the answer, Lancisi said, “was a little disappointing” ― he estimates attendance averaged 50% during the run of “Magnolias” — his experience reflects that of performing arts groups nationwide.
A recent study by WolfBrown, a California-based consulting firm that conducts market research for nonprofit cultural groups, recorded a precipitous drop in the readiness of audiences to return to live arts events. In mid-July, when it appeared that COVID-19 was waning and that it might be safe to resume pre-pandemic activities, 61% of ticket buyers across the U.S. reported being willing to attend in-person performances. A month later, after the delta variant engulfed the U.S. and reports surfaced of “breakthrough” cases of COVID-19 among the fully vaccinated, that figure plummeted to 37%.
“The writing is on the wall: COVID is going to be with us for a long time,” said WolfBrown principal Alan Brown, whose Audience Outlook Monitor analyzes monthly survey responses from 660 arts groups.
“Many in the arts audiences are older folks,” he said. “Some have preexisting conditions or are caregivers for people who are vulnerable. That segment of the population has gotten larger over the last six weeks, not smaller.”
The surge of COVID infections fueled by delta has been “long, slower-spreading and sustained,” according to Brown. He doesn’t expect ticket sales to pick up until October, accelerating nearer the holidays and coinciding with an expected decline in new cases of the virus. Even so, between 30% and 40% of arts audiences don’t anticipate returning to in-person performances before 2022, he said.
Allison Burr-Livingstone, vice president and chief advancement officer of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, said new subscriptions to Maryland’s largest arts group are comparable to totals from previous years, though subscription renewals have decreased.
“Patrons should expect to see smaller houses this fall at our classical and pops programs,” she said. “We’ve found that many of our customers are backloading their subscriptions to the second half of the season in 2022. We’re hoping that customers who did not renew their subscriptions will feel comfortable buying single tickets.”
The Audience Outlook Monitor concluded that stringent safety requirements — such as masking mandates or proof of vaccination — that have reduced the number of gym-goers and airline passengers have had the opposite effect on arts audiences.
For Judy Lobbin, 79, of Columbia, Everyman’s requirements that audience members be masked and show proof of vaccination was enough to overcome her nervousness about the safety of large gatherings.
“I do have trepidation,” she said. “The delta variant makes me very uncomfortable.”
She was relieved to find Everyman’s audience members complying with the rules.
“I have missed ... going to the theater,” she said.
Between 40% and 50% of arts patrons nationwide won’t consider attending a cultural event unless proof of vaccination is required, the research study found, and Brown expects that percentage to increase.
“Everyone was astonished at how quickly arts audiences got vaccinated,” he said, adding that between 90% and 98% of arts audiences nationwide have been fully jabbed, outpacing the overall population in every region of the U.S. “Arts audiences are by and large supereducated,” he said. “They read the news and they’re up on the latest research.”
In response, arts groups nationwide opted overwhelmingly to require audiences to wear masks and submit proof of vaccination, even ahead of Biden’s recent remarks urging large entertainment venues and arenas to require vaccinations or proof of a negative test for entry.
Before a recent performance of “Steel Magnolias,” theatergoers queued up in Everyman’s vestibule. Ushers cross-checked vaccination certificates against driver’s licenses or other forms of identification before allowing ticket buyers inside the building.
“I’ve never seen an industry pivot so quickly,” Brown said. “This all happened in six weeks. The arts groups saw the data and figured out that requiring masks and proof of vaccination was the only way to avoid social distancing, which kills their revenue models. These restrictions are the ticket to selling 100% of capacity.”
In addition, several local arts groups (including the BSO, Center Stage and Everyman) have begun selling two types of tickets: in person and virtual, an approach that would have been unthinkable before the pandemic.
Though the Audience Outlook Monitor found that arts lovers’ consumption of digital content has declined in recent months, few people expect to do without online options entirely. About half of arts patrons expect digital content to play a small role in their cultural lives in the future, the study found.
“As this virus unfolds, we expect people to flip between the two,” Lawson said. “We want our customers to be comfortable in whatever way they can.”
For a significant group of arts lovers, nothing can replace the thrill of a live performance.
A late August matinee of “Steel Magnolias” was two-thirds full. After company member Kyle Prue began his curtain speech with an enthusiastic “Welcome back!” the audience burst into applause.
For theater lover Ben Hoffman, 35, of Edgewater, not even the most skillful digital production can replicate the energy radiating from the stage and toward bodies in plush velvet seats. He has found that there are lines of communication that open up only when actors and audiences inhabit the same physical space.
“I love live theater,” Hoffman said. “This is the first chance I’ve had to see it. When the actors are standing in front of you, you can feel their emotions.”