A Path for Theaters to Open Safely

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Courtesy Olney Theatre Center.

By Jason Loewith

Today I furloughed more than half my employees. They’re now joining the ranks of other live entertainment professionals across the country, wondering how soon they’ll need to make choices between paying for medical care or paying for rent.

It didn’t have to be this way.

The 83-year-old Olney Theatre Center is the State Summer Theater of Maryland, and we’re the second-largest employer in our part of Montgomery County. In the “before time,” we supported hundreds of professionals across four labor unions, with almost 100,000 admissions each year.

But this year, for the first time since World War II, all four of our venues on our 14-acre campus — including our outdoor theater — are closed by local government order. Today I announced that our previously scheduled shows have all been postponed, with our first planned live performance now in April 2021.

But at this point I’m even doubtful about April. If we’re going to start performances in the spring, our state and local governments need to make serious changes now to their messaging about live entertainment and the pandemic. And we need to get behind that messaging. Because if we don’t, no one’s going to show up when they say it’s safe to reopen our doors. 

Think about what current messaging has taught all of us — you and me included — in the past six months: With adequate precautions, you can sit on an airplane, elbow to elbow, with an infected traveler for six hours and stay healthy. You can get a massage or a tattoo. You can eat at a restaurant, in or out, while your food passes through the hands of multiple restaurant employees. You can go to your church, synagogue or mosque and sing along with your fellow worshippers. You can visit the tiniest shop or the largest mall, purchasing to your heart’s content. You can attend a rally or a protest.

But nothing can keep you safe in a theater, no matter the audience size, no matter the venue, no matter how favorable the local health metrics, no matter the length of the performance, no matter the ventilation upgrades, no matter the myriad other safety precautions we put in place.

You see what’s happened? Governmental failure to prioritize live entertainment in safe reopening plans has stigmatized live performance for the foreseeable future. Perhaps officials thought the pandemic would pass quickly and theaters would survive a few dark months.

Certainly, their failure to address our industry proves that our lobbying and advocacy efforts are severely lacking. And sadly, official inaction demonstrates an utter disregard for our industry and its importance in American cultural life. It all amounts to a public perception that has ossified around the message that live entertainment is the only industry that can’t safely reopen. If we don’t identify a path forward, all those emergency funds we’ve scooped up will only have postponed the inevitable: a long, slow climb back to pre-pandemic attendance levels, a climb that many of us won’t survive.

A quick disclaimer before laying it all at the feet of state and local officials: The president’s reckless disregard for anything other than himself has brought us to this point. His relentless charade, lying about the crisis to help his reelection chances, has led not only to countless deaths, but to the patchwork of inconsistent local regulations that have promulgated hysteria on both the right and the left.

Imagine what a different president might have done! She might have created nationwide policies, guided by science and understanding diverse local conditions, to provide safe reopening guidelines for every industry and every employer in every region of the country. She might have spoken honestly with the public from day one, so Americans didn’t feel they had to rely on Facebook rumors or hysterical pundits to keep themselves and their families safe. She might have sown seeds of hope, not dissension and despair.

But it is what it is.

Given all the safety planning we’ve done at OTC, and the extraordinary efforts our colleagues across the country have made to ensure safety for patrons and artists, I know live entertainment can be as safe as any other business or industry if we’re smart, careful and rigorous. As our county executive wrote to the governor in August: “Montgomery County is home to a vibrant arts community, with numerous creative minds proposing ways to host live performances of theater, music and other activities in a safe and physically distanced manner.”

Let’s prove it. Let’s get on the path forward right now. Let’s get permission for an audience of five people in a 500-seat theater today, so we can hope to get to 100 people by next spring, when many of us plan to reopen. And then, let’s trumpet the message that we can make theatergoing safe for the public.

One last disclaimer: The danger is real, and can’t be disregarded for the sake of a paycheck. Friends, colleagues and patrons have gotten sick, and some have not survived. I would never advocate reopening our theaters in an unsafe manner, or sooner than we should or in parts of the country where the virus is on the rise.

But I also know we can’t just wait for a miracle. Not only because the virus won’t go away, but because we can’t afford to promulgate the message that what we do is an optional leisure-time activity for the rich that is somehow less important to our country than anything else.

If you believe, like I do, that communal storytelling is just as essential as every other kind of infrastructure in our society, you need to join me in demanding a path forward. Is it any surprise that the ban on communal cultural activity has coincided with our society’s race to the edge of civic collapse? What’s the point of a bridge if it connects communities that can’t speak to one another?

I furloughed more than half my staff today. It didn’t have to be this way.

Jason Loewith is artistic director of Olney Theatre Center in Olney, Maryland. This column is republished with the permission of the author and the national monthly magazine American Theatre, where it originally appeared.

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