At the end of June, the news became official. Broadway would remain closed for the rest of the year. The pandemic's potential spread through indoor venues was too daunting for a major New York industry to move forward.
Here in Montana, the summer tradition of light comedies and musicals in small-town theaters, from scenic spots on Flathead Lake to Fort Peck, was postponed, altered or called off.
Theater professionals normally focused on artistic concerns were forced to weigh entirely new sets of problems. Health risks in a developing pandemic and its attendant advice from local and state officials on ways to keep their audience and performers safe. Potential financial damage from cancellations.
The Port Polson Players and the Fort Peck Summer Theatre chose to call off their seasons entirely. Bigfork Summer Theatre opened with precautions such as a quarantined cast, and the Hamilton Players are considering whether they should perform in front of a live audience or go to a streaming-only option next month.
For the Hamilton Players, a nonprofit that runs a year-round season, flux has become the new normal.
"It's just layer after layer of difficulty," said denise rose, the executive director.
Since March, they've been making plans and changing them based on health rules while "constantly checking in with the actors to see what their comfort level is."
First, they closed in March, partway through rehearsals for an April show. Royalties had been paid, set construction was underway, and expenses paid. That show has now been tentatively moved to the fall.
Their summer youth programs weren't workable, since their theater is too small to accommodate 50 kids.
Like other businesses, new expenses pile on: rose ordered HEPA air purifiers and hand sanitizer. In the spring, she had to furlough herself and the box-office manager and a few other positions.
This week, the volunteer community cast was rehearsing for "Steel Magnolias," set to open on Aug. 7. The cast wear masks, which makes it difficult to emote — acting is reacting, as rose said. The play is set in a salon and deals with grief, so it's tricky to console someone at a distance. She's ordered clear ones, which may make it easier.
"It's trying to balance artistic (concerns) and safety and what we can afford," she said.
This week, rose was set to speak to the board about whether they should perform in front of a live audience or stream it online only.
She and the cast began to have reservations, given the rising number of cases in Missoula and Ravalli counties, and the controversy over mask requirements and enforcement in the Bitterroot. If they do proceed, she'll require masks for the audience.
They'll have to limit their capacity to 50 instead of 168, leaving an empty row and two empty seats between people. Normally, they can sell out a musical, and non-musicals draw fewer, but they also turn a profit.
"I'm not quite sure, running the numbers, how it's going to play out," she said.
They're trying to make it work, she said, but in the risk-benefit comparison, is it worth it?
The Fort Peck Theatre has offered summer fare in its handsome, restored 1934 building since the 1970s.
After the pandemic reached the United States earlier in spring, Artistic Director Andy Meyers, who works in Arizona and freelances around the country, kept tabs on what guidelines other theaters were following. Valley County didn't have any cases, so they felt safe to proceed.
Then, in mid-April, they postponed their opening until July, forcing layoffs of 15 people. During the week of technical rehearsals in late June, a representative from the area hospital, Francis Mahon Deaconess Hospital, and county health officials recommended that the troupe cancel, citing an increase in cases. Just before the Fourth of July weekend premiere, they announced that the season was off.
Meyers said it was a difficult choice, but they had their supporters' health in mind.
"The biggest thing that I hope audiences are taking away, is that there's no way that arts organizations wanted to cancel," he said. They get questions, especially online, about the decision.
"There's no way that I wanted to be unemployed. There's no way I wanted to fire or lay off 50 of my friends," he said. Groups like his want and still need support, he said, and "we did everything we could to keep it open, but we had to be smart and safe."
They had to consider that the theater draws tourists, including visitors from across the still-closed Canadian border.
"Fort Peck itself is about 200 residents, so, you know, any given show we can quadruple the population of the area," Meyers said.
In normal times, they produce five plays and a tour, and try to average 500 people per show at their house. With social distancing guidelines, the capacity of 950 would have to be lowered to 300.
Even if they had tried to open, sanitizing the old building end to end would've proven to be a challenge.
"We honestly didn't know if we always had the manpower to get everything done," Meyers said.
Meyers wonders whether the experience would be worthwhile for audiences if they had proceeded. Sitting with a group of family and friends, laughing at "Sister Act," is one thing. Sitting 6 feet apart with a mask on seems stifling.
There were questions about whether it was worth it from a business perspective. Ticket sales were far short of normal, even though they assumed there would be "a big push at the door."
The theater, overseen by the nonprofit Fort Peck Fine Arts Council, has been frugal during boom times.
"Luckily we are in a really good place financially," he said, with a strong eight-year run. "So aside from the disappointment of not opening, financially it doesn't hurt us to not open," he said.
They are still going to produce some children's theater productions on the road for outdoor performances.
Meyer said theater groups across the country are all making difficult calls and trying to reconfigure, with options like live-streamed shows, that may help them weather the winter ahead.
"There's no formula for anything. Everyone just needs to trust that they have the support and start finding their own ways, and hopefully it's all safe," he said.
Bigfork Summer Playhouse is an outlier, having kicked off its 61st season of four musical favorites with a set of protocols for the cast and the audience.
"We've done everything in our power to meet the requirements" of health officials, said Don Thomson, co-owner and producer. "We've done things the way that we're supposed to, and people are responding pretty well to that, and they are attending shows."
Before they opened at the start of July with one of its four plays, they paid their company, which hails from all across the country, to arrive early and quarantine for 14 days, checking their temperatures every day and quizzing them on potential symptoms.
"We weren't around anybody else but us," he said.
The theater, which can seat 435, is now limited to just over 200 to accommodate social distancing between individuals or groups. In normal times, they sell about 25,000 tickets with frequent full houses, and are now averaging somewhere around 170 per show. Tourists, normally a healthy portion of their audience, aren't as present. Like Fort Peck, the closure of the U.S.-Canadian border has hurt. Locally, Thomson has heard from some regulars that they're not comfortable attending.
Plans are in the works for the fall and winter for the children's programming. That nonprofit arm of the theater has helped supply ushers and concession workers, roles that actors normally take on.
They've invested in sanitization so they can spray down the theater after shows. They closed their bathroom, once accessible to the public, until just before show time. The lobby is set up for socially distanced interactions, and they require masks inside. The cast is sequestered backstage and doesn't interact with the audience.
The team that was hired to open Fort Peck's season with "Sunshine Boys" comprised Neal and Karen Lewing, the longtime force behind the Port Polson Players.
"We were up there and rehearsed for five days and then we got the word that the entire season was going to close down," Karen said. They returned to Polson and decided to consult with their supporting council, the Mission Valley Friends of the Arts, and its board, about whether they should follow Fort Peck's lead.
Cases were rising in Flathead, Lake and Missoula counties, and the council's board voted unanimously to postpone their season, Karen said.
"It's dangerous, it just is. For performers and patrons, alike," Karen said.
"There's so much unknown, and nothing to compare it to" in our lifetimes, Neal said.
For their 45th season, they had two shows prepared, with costumes and all, ready to perform, and invested in the necessary precautions: masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, disinfectants, packaged concessions and bottled beverages. They were going to set their capacity at 50 people max, down from its normal 140.
During the summer, the Players perform three summer classics with hired professionals, and in the fall, community theater productions and children's plays. They estimate that 70-75% of their summer audiences are tourists.
The Players are a for-profit enterprise, supported by the nonprofit council, and the city owns the historic 1938 building on the golf course. The Lewings, who have run the Players since the early 1980s, founded the council in an effort to save the log cabin, constructed by the Works Progress Administration.
For now, they might open a show in the fall if conditions allow. The Lewings said they've had positive feedback, and the local community is supportive of the theater, having invested some $300,000 in renovations.
"We're very proud of it, and the community is proud of it, or we wouldn't have been there this long," she said.
The council is still receiving donations that can help buoy them through their first season with no theater in Polson, a choice they've received support for.
"My feeling is, if you got sick with this thing, it's not because you came to our place," Neal said.
While juggling the present production for the Hamilton Players, rose has to re-examine their next season starting in January. The once-planned large-cast musical now seems unworkable.
"I don't think that's a feasible thing, to have singers and dancers, especially since cold and flu season is going to ramp back up in October. For all I know it's going to ramp up again this fall, which would be awful," she said.
Having recently completed a master's degree in public administration, she said the months ahead will be daunting for nonprofits, and especially arts nonprofits, since in triage times their needs are less immediate to donors than those of, say, housing nonprofits.
"We're going to lose a lot of arts organizations," rose said. "It's devastating to the industry, and it's going to be devastating to the communities because the arts are important, and people may not feel their loss in the immediate, short term, but I guarantee it's going to hurt everybody in the long run."
They haven't yet refunded their season tickets, hoping they can proceed in some capacity. Refunding them would be a financial "catastrophe" that might force a permanent closure.
And the season ahead is filled with questions about whether they can open and who will show up. Will audiences feel safe, or interested, even if there was a vaccine?
"Can you imagine sitting in a small enclosed theater. You're in the dark waiting for a show to start and someone a row behind you starts coughing?" she said.
She guesses that it could take years to rebuild, even after it's safe, a "terrifying" prospect for her organization.
"I would like to ask communities to keep in mind that we're there for them, and we want to be there for them, but it's going to be a struggle, and if it means something to them to have us in their community, then we do need their support moving forward," rose said.
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