Casting a wide net, the COVID-19 threat has ensnared local theaters, leaving stages bare and seats empty.
Under orders to close, the theaters have canceled ongoing or scheduled productions and rescheduled other events, and they are scrambling to replace the audience revenue upon which they can no longer count.
“It’s pretty scary,” said Tam DeBolt, executive director of Terrific New Theatre, a Birmingham institution for 41 years. “I’ve never experienced anything like this in my life. Theaters close all the time. It happens all over the country — every day, I’m sure. But something like this, it’s devastating for everybody.”
TNT, a nonprofit, was in the midst of a lavish run of two dramas — Thornton Wilder’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” and a sequel, “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” by the playwright Lucas Hnath.
“The set is still up and all the costumes are still hanging in the theater,” DeBolt said. “We just shut it down and walked away from it … We were gambling that this was going to be a great project that people wanted to see … and we were hoping that it was going to be a big revenue source to us.”
Last month, as the COVID-19 threat mounted in Alabama, state Health Officer Scott Harris and Jefferson County Health Officer Mark Wilson issued orders closing theaters, bowling alleys, museums, racetracks and other venues listed as “nonessential businesses.”
Before the closures, Beth Kitchin, a longtime local theater performer, had seen her friend Bates Redwine in “The Ice Front,” a drama set in Nazi-occupied Norway, during its opening weekend at Birmingham Festival Theatre.
Now “The Ice Front” is on ice.
“This decision has been extremely difficult but ultimately, it is what is best for our community,” states a message on the BFT website.
Other websites or Facebook pages for other theaters show the same difficult decisions being made.
At South City Theatre in Pelham, The Acting Up Kids Workshop: Canceled. “The Diary of Anne Frank:” Originally scheduled for this month; now postponed until September.
At the Leeds Theatre and Arts Center, a voice message states, “We regret to say that all of our performances, plays, entertainment have been canceled until further notice. As you know, this is due to the virus. Be cautious.”
In Trussville, the Arts Council of the Trussville Area has made “the sad but necessary decision” to cancel its production of the family friendly melodrama “Deadwood Dick.”
“When I think about it as an actor, I think about all the hard work that goes into these plays,” Kitchin said. “And when you get to take what you’ve been working so hard on — you’ve birthed it basically, the baby has been birthed — … you can’t show it to the world, and that audience that you worked so hard for doesn’t get to see the fruits of your labor.”
However, Kitchin said, she has heard no one complaining about the closure order. “We know that COVID is much more serious, and the public health is the top concern,” she said.
On local theater web pages, expressions of regret and hope and pleas for continued support often accompany the announced postponements, cancellations and new dates for upcoming productions.
“It saddens us greatly to tell you that due to the public health risk accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic, we are canceling all remaining performances and tours in our 2019-2020 season,” states a message on the Birmingham Children’s Theatre page. “The safety of our artists and patrons is of utmost importance to us … and so we have decided it is in everyone’s best interest to suspend public activities at this time.”
At the Red Mountain Theatre Company, where management has rescheduled the musical “Bright Star” for next February and canceled the June performances of the musical “Kinky Boots,” executive director Keith Cromwell delivers an upbeat message in a video.
“I just want to reassure you that after we all weather this storm, this unusual time, Red Mountain Theatre Company’s going to be right back with you, right back with this community, enriching, engaging and educating,” Cromwell says. “Let’s hang in there together. We’ve been an organization with you for 41 years. I’m praying we have 41 more years ahead of us … Look forward to seeing you soon, and when I do, I’m going to hug you so hard!”
At Birmingham Festival Theatre, which has been operating since 1972, the web page message was more somber, warning of “a severe decrease in revenue over the coming weeks.”
“Because we rely on ticket sales to pay our overhead, we ask that you consider donating the cost of your ticket(s) so we may continue to provide financial support for our theatre family as we move forward,” BFT said. “This difficult situation is creating hardships in all areas of our economy, but if you are able to give a donation right now, there is no better time for your added support.”
At the Virginia Samford Theatre, three adult musicals — “The Fantastiks,” “1776”, a
nd “Love, Linda” — and the children’s musical “Frozen Jr.” — have been postponed until later this year.
Virginia Samford also canceled the last three weeks of its after-school theater education and performance program, and it moved its annual summer camp from June to July. But these redrawn schedules are anything but ironclad. As theater education director Jennifer Spiegelman acknowledged in an email, “No one really knows what the next few months will look like.
“This is pretty scary for a small non-profit, but we are so fortunate to have an incredible group of patrons and donors that support us,” Spiegelman added. “For shows/classes that were canceled, we’ve offered to list (purchased tickets) as tax-deductible donations, give (purchasers) tickets to a different show, or give a refund.”
“The beauty of live theatre is the connection and relationship it creates between the audience, the actors and the crew,” Spiegelman added. “There’s something so powerful about watching actors craft a story in front of your eyes. Their energy directly feeds off the energy of the audience. The connection, the empathy, the laughs and tears unite everyone in the room. There’s nothing quite like it. We know when this pandemic ends people will need that kinship and magic more than ever, and we can’t wait to welcome them back.”