For months, a silence fell across Nebraska’s auditoriums and theaters. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, spaces where excited patrons once congregated were forced to remain empty.
But now, as many theaters around the state are starting their second full seasons in the pandemic, a sense of hope for venue staff abounds as they welcome patrons back in full.
Located on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s campus, the Lied Center for Performing Arts must follow all COVID-19 safety protocols implemented by the university, which includes a mask mandate. Matthew Boring, associate director of marketing and patron development, said the Lied Center works closely with the university and the Lincoln-Lancaster Health Department to adapt to shifting protocols and provide as safe a theater-going experience as possible.
“We want to be flexible,” he said. “We want to give options, but we also want to have shows. We want to be able to support and pay artists and bring entertainment in. And so it’s really … that collaborative effort that makes it possible to have shows.”
However, the center also has to take into consideration the safety protocols of the artists and productions it hosts. The Lied Center brought the first Broadway show to Nebraska — “Escape to Margaritaville” the weekend of Sept. 10-12 — since the pandemic began. As an Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) production, Lied Center backstage workers had to show proof of vaccination even though that’s not required by the university.
“Escape to Margaritaville” was also the largest production of any kind at the Lied Center since the pandemic started, Boring said. Operating at full capacity, the center hosted a few thousand patrons in its auditorium for each show.
And venues like the Lied need the crowds to recover from the pandemic. Like many industries, performing arts venues took a major financial hit over the last 18 months. According to non-profit Americans for the Arts, performing arts organizations have experienced financial losses of over $900 million, and 69% of those surveyed expect “severe” losses. Boring said around half of the Lied Center’s budget comes from ticket sales, so an inability to safely host patrons was a major problem.
“It’s just not long-term sustainable,” he said.
During spring of 2020 and into the 2020-2021 season, the Lied Center adapted to bring the arts to its audience in new ways. Through its virtual — Lied Live Online — and mobile — Music on the Move — concert series, the center was able to provide a much higher level of programming than many of its counterparts around the country, Boring said.
“I think it’s just because everyone on our staff, in all departments recognizes that … our mission is to educate, inspire and entertain Nebraskans,” he said. “And so if we’re not presenting things, there aren’t things on stage, there aren’t education opportunities, then we’re not fulfilling our mission.”
For venues down the industry food chain like the Nebraska Repertory Theatre and the Kearney Community Theatre, safety issues have been key throughout the pandemic. Andy Park, artistic director for the Nebraska Repertory Theatre in Lincoln, said the venue was required to hire somebody to monitor vaccination and testing status and have its filtration system analyzed due to the Rep’s involvement with the AEA, on top of following any university guidelines. They also filmed many of their shows, including “Dracula,” so their audience could stream it live.
Park said his contacts throughout the performing arts industry have expressed their distress with trying to stay afloat during the last year-and-a-half.
“It’s not good,” Park said. “Everyone is struggling. I don’t think any of us could have imagined what we were up against. Everyone has their hands out because everyone is desperate, and that’s not just in performing arts, it’s all arts.”
Judy Rozema, executive director for the Kearney Community Theatre, said they’ve had to cancel multiple shows throughout the pandemic — sometimes halfway through the performance slate — because of safety concerns. KCT is planning for full capacity this season, offering both shows that require masks and shows that don’t so patrons are comfortable with attending either way.
With COVID-19 cases rising in the state, representatives from these venues recognize that “back to normal” may not last. But, despite the desperate need for patrons in seats this season, they are confident they will continue to adapt if the industry shuts down again to keep bringing the arts to their communities.
“We’ve discussed how important it is for people to experience the arts in such a time of turmoil,” Rozema said. “I think it’s really important for people to stay grounded, and hopefully we can help with that through the performing arts.”