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Rescheduling shows is a tough task in unsteady Covid-19 environment
Alan Lichtenstein was on a flight to New York on March 12, when all hell broke loose in the entertainment world.
With a production of "Fiddler on the Roof" just opened at the Fisher Theater, Broadway in Detroit's executive director was headed on a weekend trip to check out a few new productions on Broadway. But as his plane began to taxi he received a text telling him that the Great White Way had closed because of concerns over the novel coronavirus pandemic which would also pull the curtain on the rest of "Fiddler's" run and several of Lichtensteins other productions headed to the Fisher, Detroit Opera House and Music Hall Center.
So instead of seeing a show he went to Sardi's, joining Broadway theater executives bemoaning their fate and their future. Several of them contracted COVID-19, but Lichtenstein returned to Detroit and wound up, like so many of his colleagues around the metro area, working at fever pitch to determine not only what the pandemic means in the near future but to re-schedule shows and figure out how to coordinate his calendar moving forward.
"It's incredibly complicated," Lichtenstein says. "We have shows that can't happen, and we don't know when they can. And then we have shows that are already booked and taking up space on the schedule, so finding places to put the other (shows) is a great challenge."
Anya Siglin of the Ark in Ann Arbor, meanwhile, notes that her venue has date requests "five deep, with people trying to reschedule," and more queueing up every day.
"I'm basically going week by week," she explains. "Do I think this (particular) week will happen? I don't know. So I go to the agent, I go to the artist, 'Should we look for new dates? Should we look into 2021?'
"I'm just trying to be as positive as I can. You have to move forward like it's going to be OK, and then when you get there, you figure it out. I'm busier now than I ever have been because of this."
The great unknown
Rescheduling and new bookings are compounded by the great unknown of when entertainment venues not just for concerts and theater but also comedy, movies and other performing arts will be cleared to operate again. As of now all are dark, many being kept alive by deep corporate coffers, cost-cutting and loans and grants from the government. Meanwhile, employees are taking pay cuts or being laid off, and contracted behind-the-scenes workers are out of work, though covered by new unemployment compensation terms.
Though the vast majority of the summer and fall concert schedules are still intact save for high-profile cancellations such as Bon Jovi and Dead & Company and postponements by the Rolling Stones, Roger Waters and others Live Nation CEO Joe Berchtold told CNBC that there will "certainly" not be concerts during the next few months. With 18,000 Live Nation shows affected, Berchtold revealed that the company's current projections start a year from now, though it's "highly confident that concerts ... in 2021-2022 will be bigger than ever."
The World Health Organization's Dr. Ezekial Emanuel, however, told the New York Times that concerts, sporting events and other mass gatherings are unlikely until the fall of 2021, or until a vaccine and extensive testing and screening procedures are in place.
"When people say they're going to reschedule this conference or graduation event for October 2020, I have no idea how they think that's a plausible possibility," Emanuel said. "I think those things will be the last to return."
The governors of California and New York have echoed Emanuel's timetable, with the former's Gavin Newsom calling "the prospect of mass gatherings ... negligible at best" for the near future. And all proposed models for restarting economies and daily life, from the federal government to the Michigan legislature, place mass gatherings in their final phases.
Among the variables of reopening are:
likely clustering and potential overcrowding of events in similar time frames;
an audience skittish of being shoulder to shoulder with other people at stadiums, arenas and theaters;
whether people will be able to afford tickets with skyrocketing unemployment among the economic impacts of the pandemic;
legal liability issues if people contract the virus from attending a show;
and the possibility that remaining physical-distancing restrictions will mean reduced capacities that may not prove cost-effective.
All of these issues are being dealt with by coalitions such as the National Independent Venue Association and, in the future, by a regional venues task force being organized by Detroit's Olympia Entertainment.
"We don't know when people are going to feel safe going out again and coming to a concert or a play or a dance performance again," says Detroit Symphony Orchestra Vice-President and General Manager Erik Ronmark. "There are many scenarios that could play out. We have to be ready to execute on whatever might come up when we're back."
With that uncertainty comes focus on the disposition of scheduled events Live Nation has postponed 18,000 in recent weeks plus ticket refunds or exchanges and understandable reluctance to put new shows on sale.
Lara Supan, a booking agent with Fleming Artists in Ann Arbor, notes that, "Our jobs are to live six to 12 months in the future."
"It's a very challenging position to be in, to have literally no clue on so many levels what the future is going to look like," Supan says. "Are people going to be able to tour? Where are they going to be able to tour, especially with states making their own decisions. Where is it going to be safe? Are the venues still going to make it open?
"There are a lot of questions we just don't have the answers to, and might not for a while."
Back to the drawing board
The situation is even trickier for fine-arts venues, which tend to book a year or more in advance. Broadway in Detroit, for instance, announced its 2020-21 subscription season in early February, though its first show the Temptations musical "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" will be moving from its July opening, likely into 2021, since the tour had to shut down preparations. Lichtenstein was able to move "Beautiful The Carole King Musical," one year to May 2021 and June's "Summer," about singer Donna Summer, to late December. But "The Color Purple" tour, planned for this month at Music Hall, called it a day, and a return docking is unlikely for Sting's "The Last Ship" at the Opera House.
"Some tours that were going to go out this fall are not gonna go out," Lichtenstein says, "so we have to replace those shows with other shows and figure out all the different backup shows out there so you can replace them. There's a lot of juggling going on."
The DSO, similarly, announced its 2020-21 season back in January, which means a great deal of calendar space is already filled. So at a time when Ronmark is already working on the orchestra's 2021-22 season, he's busy at home trying to figure out what he can shoehorn into the schedule, from classical shows to more flexible one-off performances, such as the Wu-Tang Clan and Diane Reeves.
"Unlike other scenarios where you say, 'We know we're going to be able to do this on X date,' we have so many different scenarios that are running simultaneously," Ronmark explains. "You have to be flexible and ready to make last-minute decisions and then be ready to change those all over again."
Mark Ridley can tell you about that. The owner of the Comedy Castle in Royal Oak has been in "cancel and refund" mode since March, but is largely booked until New Year's Eve.
"I've rescheduled Tom Green twice, and Nick Foley," Ridley says. I've got Drew Lynch in August, completely sold out. We just don't know yet if those dates can take place, which makes it hard to lock anything in."
The Ark's Siglin, who mixes computer spreadsheets with color-coded sticky notes in her planning regimen, is in a similar position. "We're basically canceling and rescheduling, probably only to cancel again," she says. Siglin, who anticipates smaller venues like the Ark (400 capacity) will be able to open before larger theaters and arenas, views a "best case scenario" for being up and running again in September, but says a large number of acts are simply abandoning 2020 and looking ahead toward 2021. That, she adds, is because "there's not enough dates left in 2020 to even reschedule the shows we had to cancel."
Siglin will be booking the Ark's annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival for January at U-M's Hill Auditorium, but even that is a tricky prospect.
"We announce that in October," she says, "but you don't know where we're going to be then, or in January. And will the university be open, and will its venues be open? We just don't know."
Ridley, Siglin and the others are also concerned about the potential for mandated audience limits. While at least one big comedy name, longtime friend Kathleen Madigan, has told Ridley she'll play for any size crowd, he doesn't think that will be a shared sentiment.
"I want to bring Jon Lovitz back in, Preacher Lawson, but if I can't guarantee them a 400-seat room ... I don't know," he says. "And if they do, what will the ticket price have to be?"
Economics are also an issue for the DSO, and Ronmark says he can envision a situation of "more concerts with the same program, but for smaller houses; we have to do some out-of-the-box thinking." Lichtenstein, however, says reduced capacities are of little interest to Broadway in Detroit. "We make our money on the last 30 percent of sales," he says. "If we're not going to be able to sell all the tickets, why open your doors?"
Siglin says the Ark "might not have the room to space people apart as far as they might want" if physical distancing continues to be required. And with reduced capacities, she adds, "you can't pay the artists at some point. I'd have to revisit all those offers."
Fleming Artists' Supan says those renegotiations are inevitable, however.
"The conversation, quite honestly is that we are all in this together," notes Supan, who's also developing virtual touring models for her artists. "It's an environment and an ecosystem that is being challenged, so we have to make sure we're flexible in working with the venues, and the artists have to be flexible in what they want. That's the only way we'll be able to survive and rebuild our industry."
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