RBTL, other local theaters grapple with long, dark season of entertainment discontent
This is, John Parkhurst says, “the longest intermission of our lives.”
As we churn toward what epidemiologists predict will be the darkest period yet of the coronavirus pandemic, venues such as Rochester’s Auditorium Theatre are shuttered in uncertainty.
“Right now, you plan for the worst and hope for the best,” says Parkhurst, chief operating officer of the Rochester Broadway Theatre League. “And if we can be open in March or April, it’s still a possibility.”
If that possibility does happen, it will still have been a year since the Auditorium Theater -- the humongous, 92-year-old, one-time Masonic Temple at 885 E. Main St. -- presented any live events.
There have been no Broadway productions, no rock concerts, no Jerry Seinfeld, no “Nutcracker” for your holiday. As Parkhurst talks, what rare activity that has occurred onstage is taking place, with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra rehearsing in front of 2,400 empty seats. The RPO, yet another local arts institution stifled by COVID-19, has been streaming shows from the venue.
But that’s about it these days. Mostly, it’s a waiting game.
“We’re part of, I think, it’s 10 theaters across the state,” Parkhurst says, “that we’re lobbying with the governor right now, because we can’t be told we can open next week. It doesn’t work that way for us. We need a couple months lead time because shows have to mount, tours have to be put together. And because we’re a touring venue, we rely on people coming from around the country.”
“For touring attractions, the whole country’s got to be on the same page. Because these tours, as you know, are in New York today and Ohio tomorrow.”
If there’s good news to be found, Parkhurst says “people are buying tickets and buying subscriptions every day,” to support the RBTL’s Broadway-style lineup. And so far, the only production to cancel during the coronavirus intermission has been “Hello, Dolly.”
So goodbye, Dolly. But other productions are being pushed back. “Cats” has had three dates, and is waiting on a fourth. The big prize, the return of “Hamilton,” is scheduled for an April 27 opening. That’s right about when Parkhurst sees that “possibility” of the Auditorium reopening.
The touring shows’ road map is confusing. The RBTL’s 2019-20 season is colliding with the 2020-21 season -- overlaps that Parkhurst sees as likely extending into the next two or three seasons.
The road for the return of concerts seems even more fraught with open manholes.
“I think a lot of people are hoping for the summer,” Parkhurst says. “We’re holding a couple of dates; most of our dates are in the fall right now for concerts. We’re putting dates on hold constantly. I think we’ll know more after the first of the year just how we get through these next few months.”
The New York state guidelines, and the torrid pace of the latest wave of COVID-19 infections, are not working in favor of any of this happening. “We can’t really operate at 25% capacity -- the numbers just don’t work,” Parkhurst says. “We have to operate at 100% capacity for most of our shows.”
In general, area theaters seem to have accepted that reality. The stages at both Geva Theatre Center and Blackfriars Theatre are silent. Geva’s season has been pushed back to January. In place of live theater, it is offering online content that directly addresses this past summer of Black Lives Matter. That includes “Recognition Radio: An Audio Play Festival Celebrating Black Voices,” which consists of four plays by Black writers and directors.
Blackfriars doesn’t have any shows scheduled until January. Its annual fundraiser, the Season Soiree, goes virtual on Nov. 21, and Blackfriars’ content has been limited to online as well. Unleashed! Improv was doing a series on Zoom, most recently “Day of the Dead Presidents,” a holiday mash-up of Presidents Day and Mexico’s Day of the Dead.
And Blackfriars has also been posting BT Couch Concerts on its YouTube channel. They include Blackfriars Theatre performers such as local drag queen Mrs. Kasha Davis singing show tunes and lamenting how Blackfriars had once looked into presenting “Mame” but couldn’t get the rights “because they said I wasn’t a lady.”
A smattering of the corporate movie theaters, or indies such as Brockport’s The Strand, are active after the state permitted them to open a couple of weeks ago. And at first, The Little Theatre, the Cinema Theater, and the George Eastman Museum’s Dryden Theatre welcomed the news. Now they’ve decided there’s simply no point in going forward, as new and tighter guidelines address the latest COVID-19 resurgence. All three are offering films streamed online.
So the stars are not in alignment for theaters, especially older ones. Anticipating what will be expected for a venue to provide a healthy environment for its audiences, Parkhurst says, “We’ve enhanced deep-cleaning procedures.”
But there’s uncertainty as to what else will be asked of the Auditorium and its sprawling architecture once Gov. Andrew Cuomo hits the all-clear klaxon. In particular, there are questions surrounding those things seen crouching gremlin-like on many theater rooftops: the heating, ventilation and air conditioning units, or HVAC.
“Venues like the Aud, these are unique assets to our community, they were all built in the ’20s, or earlier,” Parkhurst says. “And so, just to come in and change the HVAC system doesn’t happen overnight, so you have to have a plan. So we’ve had like three or four different contractors in here looking at what we can do. And we’ll do that once we get the final word from the authorities what they want to see in here. You hear all different stories, before we spend that kind of money, because we’re probably looking at $75,000 to $100,000.”
“Before we spend the money, we just want to make sure it’s the right plan, because money is a little tight.”
It’s not simply a matter of preserving the arts for arts’ sake. The arts, as the government folks like to say, is a significant economic driver.
“We’re doing everything we can to keep this place up and running,” Parkhurst says.
“It’s a sad state. Who would have ever thought we’d see this in our lifetime? I’ve been doing this 50 years. I’ve got so many people, you know, that rely on us for business, for their livelihoods, that are unemployed. It’s so sad.”
Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.