Omigod, now Omicron?

As if life hasn’t been difficult enough with the 20-month lockdown we endured due to the COVID-19 pandemic and additional stresses from the Delta strain that followed, now area theaters and their audiences are bracing for what challenges the new Omicron variant of this insidious virus will bring.

Although at first blush Omicron appears less lethal than its predecessors — especially if one is vaccinated and boosted — this strain promises to be far more transmissible than the others. With that in mind, South Florida Theater Magazine contacted large and small area theaters alike, to find out how they’ve weathered the storm and what their game plans are moving forward.

Andrew Kato, producing artistic director and chief executive of the Maltz Jupiter Theater.

The Maltz’s double-edged sword

Andrew Kato, producing artistic director and chief executive of the Maltz Jupiter Theater, is pulling double duty. In addition to bearing the brunt of lost business due to the pandemic, he’s also in the midst of a massive, $42 million renovation to the entire facility.

“The process of bringing theatre back has been bumpy, for sure,” Mr. Kato said. “Having to furlough the majority of your staff and then hiring back new staff — I would say about 75 percent of our staff is brand new — leaves gaps in institutional history. And the learning curve is steep for the new people coming in. But what is clear is that people love our theater. And they are looking forward to a return. What that looks like, exactly, is not clear, as we’re going through this journey of constant change. So we navigate that. The word of these last two years has been ‘pivot.’ We’ve been pivoting nonstop through the whole process. And for a company that is typically very strategic and well planned, it’s just difficult to do your job when the ground is shifting constantly.”

The buildout was arranged in three phases. The first gave the theater a redesigned parking lot, new marquees and electrical infrastructure to support the new 30,000-square-foot addition to the building. The next phases include numerous upgrades to the current facilities — a Broadway-scale stage, an expanded orchestra pit, a state-of-the-art production center, a second 199-seat theatre, a new dining experience and an enlarged version of the Goldner Conservatory of Performing Arts.

“We’ll reopen before all of the upgrades are complete,” Mr. Kato said. “The entire project should take several more years to finish. It’s been a double-edged sword, because on the one hand we used this down time to take advantage of getting the building done. But theaters are very complex buildings. It’s not a standard brick and mortar design. And what makes the building so beautiful is there is so much glass with a wonderful, asymmetrical look to it. And the scope. We’re doubling our square footage to 61,000 square feet.”

That said, he added walking through the building gives him the thrill of his life.

“Watching them put ceiling tile in some places and carpeting in others, I’m seeing from the inside this major improvement,” he said. “It’s awesome.”

The inaugural production in the fully renovated theater is slated to be the musical “Sweet Charity,” scheduled to run from Feb. 19-March 9, 2022. As for subscribers, at the theater’s height it had 8,200 of them. Currently that number stands at about 6,100. Advance single-ticket sales are occurring at a steady rate. Mr. Kato sees that as a success. 

“It shows that people want to be here for us,” he said. “The gap really is about people managing their own unknowns. Often when a subscriber tells us he’s not resubscribing, it’s followed with the word ‘yet.’ We also produced a beautiful TV commercial to show our vision for the future. And we’ve got a lot of print and magazine communication talking about what we’re excited about is underway.”

In the meantime, a snag occurred. Plans for the Maltz’s January production of “Jersey Boys,” planned for a run at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium, got scuttled due to what Mr. Kato described as “pre-production challenges such as supply chain delays, material cost escalation, engineering issues and skilled labor shortages unique to this production.” However, “I Hate Hamlet” is still on track to proceed from Feb. 8-20, 2022 at the nearby Benjamin School’s state-of-the-art, 850 seat performing arts center at 4875 Grandiflora Road in Palm Beach Gardens.

“That will be challenging, but different for our patrons,” Mr. Kato said. “And I don’t think people know what a beautiful facility they have there at The Benjamin School. It’s a really nice facility.”

Still, he knows his audience is greatly anticipating the Maltz’s grand reopening.

“I think for us, what we have to do is look forward to when people understand we’re open,” Mr. Kato said. “People will want to buy a ticket just so they can go inside the building. That’ll be a huge draw.”

As for dealing with the Omicron strain, Mr. Kato said he’s closely monitoring information the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health and the federal government are handing out.

“We’re mandating masks inside the theater and either a COVID negative test or showing vaccination cards,” he said. “We’re also mirroring what other venues are doing to keep the theater clean — UV wand lights, upgraded air conditioning, hands-free toilets and sinks.”

Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Producing Artistic Director William Hayes.

Fitzwater.jpg — Patrick Fitzwater, artistic director and co-founder (with Matthew Korinko) of Slow Burn Theatre Company.

Dramaworks and the road back to normalcy

Unlike Mr. Kato, Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Producing Artistic Director William Hayes has actually mounted a show, “The People Downstairs,” which ran from Dec. 3-19. It has given him some experience in opening a production under the challenges of COVID.

“First of all, most of our patrons are complying with our COVID protocols,” Mr. Hayes said. “I am requiring a mask mandate, which is required by the union. But even if it wasn’t, it would be, based on my judgment as leader of the organization — especially with the new variants that are out there. Wearing a mask is simply being considerate of other people. In a grocery store I feel safe, because I’m vaccinated. But if I walk down an aisle where people are wearing masks, I put on my mask out of consideration for them. So I think it’s the right thing to do, just by being a considerate human being. For me this is not a political stance. It’s what I think is the best safety mode right now.”

In addition, Dramaworks has spent approximately $1 million on a state-of-the-art air conditioning system to purify the air in the theater.

“We’ve also converted our bathrooms to a touch-free experience,” Mr. Hayes said. “And we’re not only wiping down chairs in the theater between performances, but we’re sanitizing the whole chamber with a special device. I don’t think there’s a safer theater you can be in.”

He added his greatest challenges in reopening have boiled down to finding volunteers and hiring back staff.

“I had about 450 volunteer ushers before and it’s dwindled down to 90,” he said. “That’s forced me and my staff to do double duty, just to cover that need. Another challenge in the industry has been rehiring people, because a lot of people left the business due to a lack of job security. So we raised our salaries to try to attract people, but currently we’re only about 80 percent staffed.”

Despite these drawbacks, Mr. Hayes maintained people are still excited to return to his theater. He’s lured back about 70 percent of his subscribers so far.

“I think the reason so many have come back is due to the fact that right when the pandemic started, we were very careful not to immediately start asking for money,” he said. “We had free online programming instead. We thought it was important to show our organizational strength and we believed if we immediately started asking for money during a pandemic, it would make the organization look weak, as was the case with a lot of nonprofits. The free online programming assured our patrons we were alive and well and as a result a lot of people started giving as much money as they had in previous years.”

Mr. Hayes added advance ticket sale numbers are only about 10 percent off from previous years — good news, what with his next production, “Almost, Maine,” scheduled to run Jan. 14-30.

“Advance sales are steady,” he said. “I think people are eager to get back to the theater. It’s very encouraging, even as far out as ‘The Belle of Amherst,’ which is the last show of the season, pushing into May. That one’s already 50 percent sold.”

Now that Omicron is coming, Mr. Hayes feels confident there won’t be another shutdown and that Dramaworks is doing all it can to protect its patrons.

“At this point it’s all about enforcing our protocols and not easing up,” he said. “We’ll require proof of vaccination or proof of a negative COVID test within the last 24 hours. And of course, the masks. Without preaching to our audience, I just want to stress how important it is to wear a mask so this new variant doesn’t have an enormous impact on us all.”

Patrick Fitzwater, artistic director and co-founder (with Matthew Korinko) of Slow Burn Theatre Company.

Slow Burn’s steady recovery

Patrick Fitzwater, artistic director and co-founder (with Matthew Korinko) of Slow Burn Theatre Company, has opened two productions amidst the COVID crisis — “Songs For a New World,” and “Kinky Boots,” which opened Dec. 17 and plays through Jan. 2. He said the first show went well, with just four cast members.

“The COVID protocols for the cast, strict as they were, worked out nicely and we kept everyone safe,” he said. “The audience, however, was not so well attended for that show, so that was hard. I think people were still scared. But we just opened ‘Kinky Boots’ and we’re sitting full houses — but we’ve had COVID-adjacent scares inside the cast. That means someone in our cast came in contact with someone who is COVID-positive.”

Mr. Fitzwater added the protocol there is to immediately isolate that person and give them — and everyone else — a COVID test. So far, so good.

“And we do have understudies and swings at the ready,” he said. “It helps that we’ve deepened our bench of players. If one person comes down with it, fine. But if that number gets up to around five, we’d be forced to stop performances.”

Slow Burn’s subscriber base has returned at a rate of about 80 percent, he added, and sales for “Kinky Boots” have gone off the charts for weekend performances.

“Our only strategy for that has been keeping steady and sticking firm to COVID protocols,” Mr. Fitzwater said. “We’ve let everybody know it hasn’t been a kneejerk decision to require masks and proof of vaccination. We’ve told our audience we believe this is putting our best foot forward and this is the way we’ll continue to bring our bruised industry back.”

As for changing protocols in light of the Omicron strain, he maintained Slow Burn’s approach is much the same as it was for the Delta variant. Anyone coming to the Broward Center must wear a mask and show proof of either a recent negative test for COVID or proof of vaccination.

“Every strain of COVID to us is the same protocol,” he said. “I don’t think our audience is any more concerned about Omicron than it was about Delta. I think they have COVID fatigue and I really do believe that people understand that putting on a mask enables them to return to the things they like to do. This goes for our actors as well, who are all freshly boosted. We’re all returning to a new way of normal — for the time being.”

Stuart Meltzer, Zoetic Stage co-founder and artistic director.

Zoetic’s synergenic aesthetic

Stuart Meltzer, Zoetic Stage co-founder and artistic director, staged “Frankenstein” in October and is currently mounting “GringoLandia, A Cuban Journey,” which is scheduled to run from Jan. 13-30 at the 200+ seat Carnival Studio Theater inside the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami. The challenges he’s creatively addressed so far have been with the Delta variant, new protocols and understanding the incredible contagiousness of Omicron.

“For us it’s been like being able to bend in the wind a little bit,” Mr. Meltzer said. “For example, if we have someone who comes to rehearsal and is COVID positive, we have understudies in place. We already have a system where everyone is getting tested all the time — three and sometimes four times a week. That system’s in place to protect the health of everybody involved and to protect the production.”

He added Zoetic Stage has recovered about 80-85 percent of its subscriber base.

“Miami-Dade is a little bit different than the rest of South Florida in terms of how motivated people are at getting into theaters and concert halls during COVID as well as those venues setting up stringent admission protocols,” he said. “I do believe with the Arsht Center’s help and their criteria for people to only enter with their vaccination cards or with a test that says they are negative within the previous 72 hours has been really incredibly helpful. We were almost 100 percent sold out for our three-week run of ‘Frankenstein.’ And advance sales are very brisk for ‘GringoLandia.’ It’s a Miami story and a Cuban-American story, so it really hits with the heart of our community here. And I think a lot of people are very excited at seeing something they can personally connect with. Our hopes are we can continue along those lines. We’ll see what the winter brings. We can really only live week to week with this.”

Marcie Gorman, executive producer and artistic director for MNM Theatre Company.

MNM tries to stem the mayhem

Omicron has already thwarted Marcie Gorman’s first attempt to mount a live show since the onset of COVID.

“We cancelled a show called ‘Streakin’! thru the 70s,’ which was set to come to the Mizner Park Cultural Center,” said Ms. Gorman, who is executive producer and artistic director for MNM Theatre Company. “The problem is that show has a lot of audience participation and that particular theater is a small one. We were very concerned about having the audience interacting with the cast. Even with everyone in the audience wearing a mask, the cast was not. We don’t know if someone in the audience might have COVID, so we just couldn’t risk doing it. ‘Streakin’ has six people in the cast with five musicians, who are also on stage. So if you do the math, we would have eleven people in that small space, pressed up against the audience.”

The rest of MNM’s season is set to take place at the Lauderhill Performing Arts Center, leading off with “Grease” from Jan. 14-30. Following that will be “Sister Act” (Feb. 18-March 6) and “Guys and Dolls” (April 1-17). Ms. Gorman said subscription and advance sales are going well, according to LPAC.

“So we are going ahead with ‘Grease,’” Ms. Gorman said. “We set Dec. 28 as the start of rehearsals and at this time we’re still on track to open on time. It’s a big show with no audience participation and at Lauderhill our musicians will be on stage, so we feel we’ll be far enough away from the audience with that one.”

Ms. Gorman added she requires at least two vaccinations for her staff and actors and is considering pushing for a third.

“Even as we’re speaking, I’ve had two people in my office test positive for COVID — and they’re vaccinated,” she said. “So there’s nothing we can do but pray a lot. We have understudies for the main characters, but you can’t have an understudy for every single role. I can’t afford that. When the actors are offstage, they’ll have to be fully masked. We’re also asking them to create their own little bubbles offstage and stay in them. We’re asking them to not go out to bars and not to eat indoors if possible, unless of course they’re in their in their own homes. We don’t want them to get sick.”

Matt Stabile, producing artistic director for Theatre Lab.

Theatre Lab’s Matt Stabile looking to bring stability

Matt Stabile, producing artistic director for Theatre Lab, which is nestled on the campus of Florida Atlantic University, said he decided to meet COVID head on.

“We did the biggest production we’ve ever done back in September,” he said. “We got the go-ahead from FAU to return to in-person, indoor events back in May. So we had a month and a half to mount a show we normally take about a year to plan.”

That show was the world premiere of “The Impracticality of Modern Day Mastodons,” which included building a massive, 10-foot by 12-foot puppet and moving to a larger venue on campus than the small one they normally occupy.

“Things were going well throughout June and July,” Mr. Stabile said. “It was looking like we were going to be able to open it up and fill those seats. We started rehearsals in August, which was right when the Delta variant reared its ugly head. We were being very COVID safe, staying in our protective bubble and not feeling any fears in terms of the show, but our audience dwindled. Our average audience in that 500-seat venue — for which we reduced capacity to 330, then to 200, based on sightline and social distancing concerns — fell on average to around half of that. People just weren’t ready to come back yet.”

Next up was “To Fall In Love,” a two-hander Mr. Stabile played with his wife, Niki Fridh. Previously planned for last year, the set was already constructed and in place, since March of 2020, in Theatre Lab’s intimate, 95-seat venue.

“We kept our fingers crossed that people would come see our show in November and December and we did see that,” he said. “We got a better return on tickets for that show.”

Going forward reveals little more than a series of question marks, he added. A new play festival featuring five readings of new plays in three days will be followed by the 2022 mainstage season, featuring “Last Night in Inwood,” running Feb. 3-27 and “Overactive Letdown,” playing March 24-April 10. 

“Any production comes with its own challenges and stresses,” Mr. Stabile said. “COVID adds a whole other layer of things we need to be concerned about and plan for.”

He added Theatre Lab is primarily funded by “generous supporters,” followed by subscribers — about 60-70 percent of whom have returned — and general ticket buyers. Advance ticket sales for the company’s 2022 season currently are at about 70 percent of where they were pre-pandemic.

“I would say ticket sales contribute to about 30 percent of our budget,” Mr. Stabile said. “But our supporters have been unbelievable and amazing since back in March of 2020. When we had to close our doors, these people stepped up and said, ‘We want you to be here when this is over, so we’re going to keep funding you.’ That made it a special year for us. We’re also seeing ticket buyers returning and bringing people who haven’t been here before. We hope we can turn them into subscribers.”

Mr. Stabile said Theatre Lab requires patrons to wear masks, but ultimately audiences will fully return when they’re comfortable in their own risk assessments with COVID variants.

“Frankly, there’s nothing more we can do,” he said. “Delta was terrifying and all the precautions we took for that, we’re doing for Omicron. We are on a state campus and are directly impacted by decisions that are made on the state level. We are doing what we can do and are modeling safe behavior. We’re taking care of our staff, employees and everybody here. And we’re asking audiences to do the safe thing.”

Genie Croft, director with Boca Stage.

Boca Stage comes out of hibernation

Genie Croft who, with partner Keith Garsson operates Boca Stage in the intimate Sol Theater in Boca Raton, said their world came to an abrupt end on March 13, 2020.

“That happened to be the night we opened “Warrior Class,” she said. “Like every other theater, we wondered when we would reopen and would we get our subscribers back again. We were close to 700 subscribers for a small space like that. In two and a half years there, we had built up a wonderful reputation. And we were really concerned with how we’d stay in touch with our subscribers.”

During the shutdown, she added, Mr. Garsson saw to keeping the space intact and installed an up-to-date air conditioning system to cleanse the air and preserve the set for “Warrior Class.” He also replaced the theater’s seats with more comfortable ones from a church in New Jersey. 

“We struggled with Actors Equity as they themselves struggled with putting together protocols in New York that would protect their membership,” Ms. Croft said. “We found ourselves tangled in their net. We didn’t know if we’d be able to reopen under the stipulations they were making for theaters that didn’t resemble ours. There were space requirements for the actors, space requirements for the audience. We have a very intimate theater and we were concerned we wouldn’t be able to abide by their restrictions that only work for theaters larger than ours. But we were able to work things out and we’re very grateful for that.”

She added they’ve gotten well over half of their season subscribers back, but not all.

“They still are hesitant about coming back,” she said. “But it has nothing to do with our work. It’s all related to COVID. And we have a COVID nurse, by the way, who comes every two days and tests the cast, the tech people, the crew, the box office, everyone affiliated with the show. This is not only due to our desire to follow Equity rules, it’s because it makes us safer.”

Unlike many other area theaters, Boca Stage does not request vaccination cards or proof of a negative COVID test to enter the theater.

“A lot of people ask us why we don’t do this,” Ms. Croft said. “Technically, we’re not allowed to. We have to assume they’re genuine when they tell us they’re safe to come. Look, when people come to an intimate theater space like ours, they’re vaccinated. It’s not like they’re walking into a bar. People who come to the theater by and large are artists and people who care about theatre. They’re vaccinated and boosted. We do ask everyone to wear a mask and most comply.”

Boca Stage recently reopened “Warrior Class” and during its run many audience members became new subscribers, she added.  The same happened with “The Unremarkable Death of Marilyn Monroe,” which followed, and she anticipates the ball to keep rolling with “Rx,” a comedy about the pharmaceutical industry, which plays from Jan. 20-Feb. 6.

“Some of our old subscribers brought new people in for the first time,” Ms. Croft said. “We thought that was great, considering we’re all still dealing with COVID. As for the Omicron strain, we’re not really doing anything different from what we’re doing already. We’ve sent out emails encouraging everyone to get vaccinated, get COVID tested and wear a mask to our theater. We’re also working to clean the theater between performances. We’re doing everything we can possibly do.”

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1 comment

  1. Great job covering Covid/Omicron. Everything changed from that interview to today—we just moved Grease back a week on opening because so many have Covid/Omicron. I am hiring a company to test our entire group at least twice a week! The lines are too long for the cast to get tested and still be at rehearsals…and we HAVE to know everyone is healthy!!!! Masks are on for everyone- even if you are singing- in rehearsal! No exceptions! It is a tough time to be a Producer–or anyone in the theatre community! Audiences are getting sparse these days- with good reason–it is just scary in our universe!!

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