Bristol Valley Theater and Fort Hill Performing Arts Center are two of many organizations forced to reschedule or cancel shows, and face the resulting revenue loss
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Karin Bowersock knows she and her colleagues at Bristol Valley Theater are fortunate in ways, compared to some of her counterparts at area theaters that have had to cancel or postpone shows mid-season amid the novel coronavirus outbreak. While at least one spring show at the Naples theater has been postponed, the summer season is Bristol Valley's bread and butter, and that schedule remains untouched — so far, anyway.
“We’re very fortunate that it’s not hitting us in the summer, when the biggest part of our year is and when the most ticket sales take place,” said Bowersock, BVT’s executive artistic director. “We have 100 percent commitment to going ahead with the (summer) season — we’re still holding auditions, still hiring technicians.”
Still, COVID-19 has brought its share of disruption, uncertainty and angst to Bristol Valley, along with arts groups in general — any business, or nonprofit, really, as the region, country and world deal with not only the current crisis created by the outbreak, but also its likely economic aftermath.
Consider the situation faced by the Fort Hill Performing Arts Center. Canandaigua’s newest performance venue, at the old Canandaigua Academy building at 20 Fort Hill Ave., held its grand opening gala in January and then, after a February spent fine-tuning the venue, had a sell-out show earlier this month when “The Undercover Project as Chicago” presented a tribute concert to that jazz-rock band. And then came COVID-19.
“We felt like we hit the ground running, and came charging out of the gate — only to be tripped by COVID-19 immediately after,” said Sueann Townsend, Fort Hill’s executive director.
Having paid close attention to public-health input and federal, state and county guidelines and directives, Townsend said, in the interest of the health and safety of patrons, staff and volunteers, “for eight weeks we’re assuming that we will need to be dark until May 10.” That, of course, is a date subject to change, she noted.
This move is requiring Fort Hill to work with the groups that were scheduled to perform in the space over that period — including the Rochester City Ballet, Youth Chorus of the Finger Lakes and the Rochester Oratorio Society — about possibilities including rescheduling. The March 22 performance by the Finger Lakes Concert Band has been tentatively rescheduled to May 31, for instance. It’s a double hit for Rochester City Ballet, which had two performances scheduled: “Moulin d’Paris” in April and “The Ugly Duckling” in May.
“We are currently working with them (RCB and other groups) to figure out what is possible given their other performance obligations, and to make space for everybody who is able to, to reschedule,” Townsend said.
Over at Bristol Valley in Naples, the short term hasn’t been without wrinkles. The first of three “Swing Into Spring” shows — an April 17 performance of “Now We Stand Together Always,” a dramatized conversation between Union General Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate Major General William T. Sherman — has been postponed, and BVT staff are keeping an eye on the situation and an ear to state and county directions for the other two. And a trip to New York City that was planned for Wednesday, to audition NYC-based actors for Bristol Valley shows, has been called off.
“We’re going to be experimenting with doing our auditions via videotape for the first time,” Bowersock said. “This is going to be the first time we do the major part of our auditions that way — maybe it’s the wave of the future.”
Bristol Valley has suspended ticket sales for the second and third in the Swing into Spring performances — Aaron Lipp and Sam Sherwood presenting the music of the Beatles on April 25 and a staged reading May 2 of "The Hero," Naples native Gilbert Emery's play about the toll World War I takes on a family. BVT is taking calls and names from people interested in the show, though, and they will be given priority once tickets are sold again when and if it’s clear for the show to go on.
Beyond the immediate work of rescheduling shows and rethinking auditions, Bristol Valley, like other arts organizations, is bracing for the economic impact — not only from a loss of ticket revenue, but from a potential loss of donor income in what could be an uncertain economy. BVT depends “a lot” on individual and corporate donations, Bowersock noted — and at the time they need it the most, donors may be understandably reluctant to give what they might otherwise.
“Small theaters and community theaters are never operating at a surplus,” Bowersock said, noting that they exist on the theatrical counterpart of “paycheck to paycheck.” “There’s very little fat in our budget,” she said.
“We would love to have an emergency fund for situations like that — but that’s not part of the reality for any of the theaters that I’m talking to anywhere,” she added.
Townsend recommended that patrons who have already purchased tickets for canceled or postponed shows might consider converting that ticket purchase into a donation. A brand-new venue like Fort Hill can use every dollar it can get: There may be no ticket revenue coming in, but they still have expenses: utilities, insurance and the like.
“You may think the 15 or 20 dollars you paid for a ticket doesn’t help any — but every little bit helps,” Townsend said.
Bowersock noted that everyone’s in the same boat: Small restaurants and other businesses can ill afford losing an extended period of revenues, either. And she again noted that Bristol Valley is fortunate in its positioning as a summer stock theater. Most if not all theater groups in the area — Blackfriars, Geva, JCC CenterStage, the smaller groups that use community venues like Rochester’s Multi-use Community Cultural Center (MuCCC) — have had to cancel or postpone shows.
Blackfriars’ “Silver Sky,” Gatesinger’s “Into the Woods” and Geva’s “Once” and “Cry It Out” have all been cancelled, according to a roundup on the TheatreROCS Facebook page. It also notes JCC Centerstage has moved “Sweat” to June (with “Mamma Mia” on hold); the Open Road Theatre’s production of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and Screen Plays’ production of “Dick Tracy” have been postponed.
Many Rochester-area cultural venues and other attractions have temporarily closed: the Eastman Theatre, the Strong Museum, the Memorial Art Gallery, the Rochester Museum & Science Center and adjoining Strasenbergh Planetarium (though RMSC’s Cumming Nature Center in Naples remains open), and the Seneca Park Zoo, among many others. Finger Lakes Gaming & Racetrack in Farmington announced Monday it is temporarily closing and cancelling all activities, as did del Lago Resort & Casino in Tyre, Seneca County. Smith Opera House in Geneva has closed through at least April 12; this Friday's concert by Celtic rock band The Town Pants is being postponed.
Organizers of the Tunes by the Tracks concert series at the Clifton Springs Library canceled the next two concerts — Dave North on March 18 and Carla Ulbrich on April 1 — after the library suspended all programs. The April 15 show featuring Gerry Timlin remains scheduled, subject to change. TBTT organizers said they’ve worked with singer-songwriter Ulbrich to reschedule her concert for Nov. 4.
In a release announcing the cancellations of its acoustic-music events until further notice, the Rochester Folkus organizers noted that some Folkus favorites will be offering virtual concerts in the near future, including Joe Jencks performing on a live stream at 8 p.m. Friday, March 20 from Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs. (Details will be at www.joejencks.com and www.caffelena.org.)
Live streaming may be a growing option for arts groups. The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, which canceled or rescheduled all concerts through mid-April and is developing contingency plans for the rest of the season, last Friday performed a live-stream version of the Intermediate Concerts “Get Out the Vote!” performance geared for schools. According to the RPO, more than 250 classrooms viewed the live-stream in over 50 participating schools.
For the duration, arts groups are dealing with the present and planning for the future.
"We were very, very encouraged about our sellout performance," said Fort Hill's Townsend. "We're just really hoping, as soon as we get through the 'plague' and the (restriction) is lifted, that we can sell out again!"
And at Bristol Valley? "We're remaining positive and cautiously optimistic about what lies ahead for us," Bowersock said, "and hopefully we'll still be at it when June rolls around."