Southern Tier entertainment venues can open April 2: Here’s why most of them won’t

Despite being given green light to open April 2, most local theaters and entertainment venues can't profit with limited capacity.

Tom Passmore
Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin

Joan Sprague is a people person. 

She has been volunteering since the opening of Johnson City's Schorr Family Firehouse Stage in 2007, working behind the concession stand. Up until last March, when the theater was shut down, you could spot her donning her red Firehouse Stage apron for every show and routinely laughing with patrons before and after the performance.

She says she thinks of the people and the staff at the theater as family, one that she has been without for some time.

"That's the beauty of volunteering, you're feeling like you're helping, but you're getting so much more than just helping the theater," Sprague said. "I really just think people are ready for it to open back up."

Theaters and entertainment venues across New York can open at 33% capacity Friday, but many still won't be able to profit from opening their doors.

Firehouse Stage volunteers Rich Rea and Joan Sprague inside the Johnson City theater on Tuesday, March 23, 2021. The couple are longtime volunteers at the theater and can often be found serving concessions.

More:NY to relax gathering limits amid COVID. What to know about entertainment venues, residential

“When somebody says venues of 10,000 or less can open at 33 percent capacity but with a maximum number of seats, I don’t even understand that equation. Does it help us? No,” said Albert Nocciolino, President & CEO of NAC Entertainment, which brings touring Broadway shows to venues across New York, including the Clemens Center in Elmira and the Broome County Forum Theatre in Binghamton.

More:Meet the man who brings Broadway to town

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo limited numbers for initial reopening to 100 people indoors or 200 people outdoors. The limit rises to 150 people indoors and 500 people outdoors if attendees provide a negative COVID-19 test. 

For some theaters, they won’t even break even financially until a certain number of patrons are allowed back in the building, and 33% isn't enough.

“With our current seating and social distancing we can only reach 25% capacity, and 50% is our break even point,” said Craig Saeger, who's the managing director for Cider Mill Stage in Endicott.

More:Cider Mill Playhouse: Why the curtain fell on a Southern Tier institution

Area theaters have felt slighted by the decisions from Albany despite similar type of venues like movie theaters getting the OK to open, even at limited capacity, in October.

“It’s been frustrating,” said Karen Cromer, executive director of the Clemens Center. “We were the first ones out and we’ll be the last ones back in.”

Resiliency after theaters went dark

Cider Mill Stage in Endicott actors perform an adaptation of the holiday classic "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens in 2019.

When restrictions and shutdowns came down as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, some theaters found use for the downtime early on: they dove into business data and tended to housekeeping items there had been little time for during a bustling production season.

More:Stories of grief, love and hope show how COVID has forever changed the lives of New Yorkers

But as the closure stretched on, Goodwill Theatre CEO Naima Kradjian found herself in the same position of many regional theaters. With no shows to produce and no audience to buy tickets, she had to furlough her staff.

"That was a dark time," she said. "It was a very dark time. We didn't know if we were ever going to come back.”

Venues started brainstorming ideas for ways to keep theater alive while their doors were shut.

Sample of the "Save Your Seat" campaign put on by the State Theater in Ithaca.

The State Theatre of Ithaca has produced about 20 virtual shows since the shutdown and sold apparel online. The venue also launched a Save Your Seat campaign in November, inviting patrons to buy personalized engraved plaques to be installed on the theater's 1,600 seats. The plaques were sold out in eight weeks.

The Clemens Center held virtual theater organ concerts and streamed one-man show "Rhapsody in Black" online. The show, written by LeLand Gantt, was also streamed by the Goodwill Theatre.

Goodwill Theatre recently held a virtual magic show and played host to actors from the Prospect Theater in New York City for stage readings. In October, Prospect recorded four musicals, dubbed the VISION series, which were presented for free on YouTube, crediting the theater for its generosity.

Along with trying out some new things during the prolonged shutdown, theaters have begun to prepare for certain protocols that have become mandatory in other sectors similar to theirs.

The marquis at the Broome County Forum Theatre, pictured on March 19, 2020.

Air filtration has been at the center of that discussion for indoor venues, since stronger systems could limit the spread of COVID-19. Some theaters are in the midst of installing those systems, and others are evaluating the potential strain they could create in the older structures that currently house production equipment.

“We’re doing some testing right now with it,” Cromer said. “...We’ve been looking at what has been required in other industries.”

The show must go on ... in the fall

On Friday, Cromer says the Clemens Center won't be able to "just pop the doors open and go."

Some employees resigned during the shutdown. New staff members will need training on all new protocols involved with opening a theater while keeping social distancing at front of mind.

All that takes time, and most regional theaters have their sights set on the fall season.

Broadway productions have been postponed until May 30. When those shows resume, they may serve as guidance for other venues on how to conduct a show with social distancing and other health guidelines in place.

The Clemens Center in Elmira.

For the State Theatre, a potential fall start date fits into their seasonal schedule — the venue typically closes mid-June and reopens in September.

“The size of our venue and the way we operate, we’re basically looking at things like October 2021 for something that looks relatively normal,” said Doug Levine, executive director of the State Theater.

More:'It's brutal': With Broadway off, they wait, anxiously, off Broadway for uncertain future

With vaccine distributions ramping up, local theater leaders are optimistic the fall season will bring further reopening possibilities.

“We’re all hoping that now with the vaccine we can open in the fall,” Nocciolino said. “That’s what we’re all shooting for, but nothing has been decided yet. It seems realistic, that’s our goal and hope, but we need to be told when we can.”

Goodwill Theatre is currently working with Broome County officials on a more ambitious plan: building a 40-by-90-foot tent in the Willow Street parking lot of the Schorr Family Firehouse Stage. The project would allow them to host shows as early as May.

“We started that process in December, so that we could get approvals from the town and gather information,” said Kradjian. “We hope that being outdoors, we can have more than 33 percent capacity. We’re not sure our patrons will feel comfortable without a vaccine or be ready [to be inside].”

Support from communities keep theaters going

Theater leaders say local patrons attending shows and those who come from all over to attend them also have a trickle-down effect on the local economy.

“Whenever there is a show, all the restaurants in the Binghamton area are full and busy,” Nocciolino said. “Shows are staying in local hotel rooms and we hire local stagehands and wardrobes.”

Despite the pandemic, communities have shown strong support for their local arts venues through donations, a critical boost for theaters who aren't otherwise making any money.

Craig Saeger at Cider Mill Stage in Endicott.

“Members have doubled or tripled annual giving,” said Cromer. “We’ve been flabbergasted at the love. We see there is a love for what we do. We get messages from folks saying, 'We can’t wait to come back.'”

Broadway in Binghamton, which offers season tickets, has seen patrons continue and renew their membership to show support.

“They can’t wait to get restarted,” said Nocciolino. “They’re just waiting for us to let them know. They all miss what became part of their lives. The arts are a big part of quality of life.”

Volunteers that work in theaters also can't wait to get back after being without live shows for so long.

"I miss volunteering in the sense of being meaningfully able to contribute to the success of an organization and just miss live theater and live music," said Rich Rea, who volunteers at the Schorr Family Firehouse Stage. "Sometimes you don't think that much about it until it's taken away from you."

When the day comes and her theater is able to open, Cromer might have to hold back tears. She anticipates an emotional reaction when the curtain opens and she's able to wave to a live crowd and welcome them back to the Clemens Center for the first time in more than a year.

“When I stand out there and welcome everyone back," she said, "I think there will be a standing ovation for several minutes."

Follow Tom Passmore on Twitter @TheLeaderPass. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.