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Arts

After A Year Of Performing Online, More Arts Organizations Resume In-Person Shows

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Theo R. Welling
/
Special to St. Louis Public Radio
Singer-songwriter Martin Sexton performs for a socially distanced audience at the Big Top in Grand Center last week. It was the first of many events scheduled this year for the venue, which Kranzberg Arts Center recently revamped with strict coronavirus safety protocols.

Metro Theatre Company’s leaders wanted to stage an adaptation of Eric Carle’s classic children’s book “The Hungry Hungry Caterpillar” inside the new performing arts center in Kirkwood this spring. That’s impossible, as the grand opening of that facility remains postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Yet when Artistic Director Julia Flood took a look at a grassy space adjacent to the building, she saw possibilities.

“We looked at that and said, this is a flat lawn. We could put a stage at one end. We could seat our audience in pods. And we could perform again, which was irresistible,” she said.

The coronavirus is still spreading widely throughout the region, at levels health experts say is alarming. It remains unsafe to gather indoors without face coverings.

But as spring weather makes outdoor performances more feasible, event producers make indoor spaces safer and more people receive the COVID-19 vaccine, more organizations are deciding that the show will once again go on.

Later this month, COCA will welcome audience members to its new building for the first time. For a performance by the Afrocentric dance troupe EVIDENCE, up to 100 people will be allowed inside a space designed to seat 450 people.

“It’s a small victory, but it’s giving us all hope for what we’ll be able to do moving into the fall,” said Kirven Douthit-Boyd, COCA's co-artistic director for dance. “It’s a really bright spot right now for all of us, so we’re really looking forward to it.”

The trickle of rescheduled performances announced recently does not match the flood of cancellations that marked March and April 2020. But live performances are on the rebound.

Opera Theatre St. Louis announced Tuesday it will construct a stage in its parking lot to present a full season outdoors beginning May 22. The Fabulous Fox Theatre will present comedians and local musicians this spring, with touring musicals returning in November. St. Louis Shakespeare Festival plans to produce “King Lear” in June at its usual spot in Forest Park. St. Louis Symphony Orchestra began a spring season at Powell Hall last weekend. St. Louis Ballet will soon present indoor performances in front of strictly limited audiences.

 Seats at the Big Top in Grand Center are taped off to allow for social distancing.  [3/31/21]
Theo R. Welling
The Kranzberg Arts Foundation resumed live events at its Grand Center venue the Big Top in March. Several venues operated by the Kranzberg, plus jazz St. Louis and the Music At The Intersection festival, will require attendees to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a recent negative test.

Singer-songwriter Martin Sexton kicked off a concert series last week at the newly reopened Big Top in Grand Center, a venue operated by Kranzberg Arts Foundation. The foundation has experience staging concerts safely during the pandemic; its Open Air series in the parking lot outside the Grandel Theatre has drawn audiences since July.

For Sexton’s concert and others to come, the foundation implemented a host of new safety protocols. It removed the walls from the venue to increase air flow — a key factor in reducing spread of the virus. There are also now three sets of entrances and exits: two for the audience and one for performers.

Kranzberg Arts Foundation also installed audio and lighting systems, so outside producers can easily stage events in what was formerly a relatively undeveloped space.

“We’ve become very expert at working inside a very challenging environment,” Executive Director Chris Hansen said. This is going to be a very active space. We’ve already confirmed many concerts, opera, special events, dance productions. A number of things that aren’t ready to go into indoor spaces with audiences but are ready to be received outdoors, through reduced capacities and COVID mitigation policies.”

At City Foundry in St. Louis, concert promoter Drew Jameson of Jamo Presents began presenting small concerts in March. He’s set a maximum audience size of 150 in a space that would accommodate 1,200 people without social distancing. Jameson said a newly installed air filtration system exceeds Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for the indoor space.

“A lot of us promoters and venues in this area have worked so hard to be professional party planners that we’re really good at crowd control,” he said. “That’s essentially part of our game, so I think we’re up for this challenge.”

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File photo/David Kovaluk
Ryan Marquez Trio performed at Kranzberg Arts Foundation's Open Air concert series in 2020.

Promoters who stage events in existing venues can find ways to make the economics of small audiences work. But organizations that maintain their own venues continue to find it challenging.

Pat Hagin, managing partner of the Pageant and Delmar Hall in the Delmar Loop, recently resumed a concert series at the Pageant. The shows maintain visibility for the venue and put his employees to work, he said, but he can’t turn a profit while observing the social distancing requirements set by city officials.

That’s the dilemma faced by leaders of the Muny. The organization announced it will stage a seven-show season beginning July 5 and has put all seats up for sale. But it remains unclear if it will be advisable, or legal, to produce shows with audiences of more than 10,000 people by July.

In the meantime, the Muny is preparing for many different scenarios, including limiting capacity to allow for social distancing. It’s more practical to gear up for full capacity and then scale down if necessary, Managing Director Kwofe Coleman said.

Coleman said he couldn’t pinpoint the exact audience size at which a typical Muny season becomes feasible, but his team will monitor pandemic trends closely as it weighs its options.

“The truth is, if it gets safe enough to gather some people and do something and not lose your shirt financially, there’s just an importance there,” he said. “Part of it is just taking the opportunity or having the opportunity to start getting back to some level of normalcy and gathering — if we can.”

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

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