COVID-19 Affects South Florida Theater Operations to this Day

COVID-19 has affected all aspects of our lives, particularly the theater industry. 

The industry shut down at the beginning of the pandemic and reopened in 2021. Data analyzed by the National Endowment for the Arts suggests that while arts and cultural industries improved during 2021, they have not risen back to 2019 levels. South Florida theaters are coping in their own ways with the pandemic, and one of these theaters is Boca Stage at the Sol theater in Boca Raton, which seats 70. 

“We still require vaccinations for the audience and all cast and crew are required to get the new booster,” Artistic Director Keith Garsson said. 

Garsson is an advocate for people getting out into the world and seeing theater, which is why he has these safety measures in place. 

“Everybody should go to as much theater as they can,” Garsson said. “See everything. Shows run for weeks. You gotta support theater. Because it’s live entertainment, there’s nothing like it and you gotta get out. You gotta be with your friends, your neighbors, your community. You gotta tell us what you like, what you don’t like, how can theater evolve if people don’t give us feedback? So get out there.”

Carol Kassie, a theatrical marketing and public relations professional, thinks theater rebounded against all odds. 

“One thing that I think is good is that all of my theaters that I work with, they all came back,” Kassie said. “Nobody tanked. Nobody’s gone. […] Theaters came back.”

The Delray Beach Playhouse is a lakeside theater in Delray Beach that is financially doing well in a “post” COVID world. 

“Sales are doing terrific,” Executive Director Kevin Barrett said. “We have lots of different shows, over 50 productions and almost everything is selling very well. […] There’s still a few people that wear masks, but not really a high percentage and I think things are getting back to normal.”

During the course of the pandemic at the Delray Beach Playhouse, Barrett believes there have been some life lessons to be found.

“I think we learned a lot about perseverance and grit, from our staff, to our actors, to our customers,” Barrett said. “Everyone seemed to bond much closer together through all of this and we all know how important the arts is to everyone we work with and who we host and we gotta keep it going. So everyone is doubling down on their efforts to keep the theater alive and strong.”

Palm Beach Dramaworks has been continuously affected by COVID in regards to their audience.

“I think it still is affecting us in terms of audience participation. It seems that we have not gotten back to serving as many people as we did before COVID,” Managing Director Sue Ellen Beryl said. “Some of that [is] trying to figure out why that is happening. […] Some people are still afraid to be in a crowded theater, and we no longer require masks or vaccine cards and perhaps they don’t feel safe. And some people may have simply gotten out of the habit of attending the theater and have become complacent and finding their entertainment on their couch easier.”

Like Barrett, she feels that they’ve learned things as well.

“I think it is, in the sense of, we know we can get through anything now,” Beryl said. “We were fortunate to receive some wonderful grants and other philanthropy. Our donors remain strong and with us. So even though we were unable to sell tickets for two years, they still supported us through their donations.”

The Actors’ Equity Association’s Memorandum of Understanding on COVID protocols expired on Nov. 6. 

“Today [Nov. 7]  is the new memo of understanding. So now theaters have to submit a safety plan,” FAU Theatre Lab Producing Artistic Director Matt Stabile said. “That’s basically: ‘how are you going to prevent infectious disease in your workplace?’ And there’s no longer a requirement for, at least as I’ve read it, there’s no longer a requirement for screening, testing or asymptomatic testing.”

Stabile is enthusiastic for the future.

“We have an entire main stage season of world premieres. We’re back doing the work that we were always loving. We just closed our first production of the year and it was amazing to be back in a room with people and having them laugh and gasp and enjoy the magic of live theater again, and so now we get to bring three plays to their very first light over the course of the season,” Stabile said. 

He continues. 

“Super excited about that. And I’m really excited about the stories that we’re telling this season because our stories, particularly this year, are focused on the hope that we can have in each other even when times are really rough or bad things are going on. That we can find a way through it by keeping our faith in each other, keeping our faith and our humanity in each other.”

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