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Maine Theaters Move Outside, Require Proof Of Vaccination To Salvage Seasons

ogunquit playhouse leary pavillion.jpeg
The Leary Pavilion at the Ogunquit Playhouse, where the theater has staged its summer productions.

COVID-19 vaccinations are becoming a mandate for employees in a number of business sectors in Maine, including live theater. After surveying patrons, indoor venue operators have decided to now also require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test for attendance.

The decision has cost some theaters a significant amount in lost ticket sales, but they are determined to find ways to keep the doors, and tent flaps, open.

For nearly a century the Ogunquit Playhouse has brought Broadway shows, such as "Spamalot," to Maine. Previously, productions were staged in Ogunquit's cozy vintage theater. But this summer's run of "Spamalot" was moved outside into a large tent.

As a video on the theater's homepage explains, there is no proof of vaccination or COVID test required to enter the 25,000-square-foot, open-air Leary Pavilion. You do need to wear a mask, but only until you sit down in your pod of seats.

Brad Kenney, executive artistic director of the Playhouse, says the pavilion cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to lease, but he was confident that it would pay off.

"It was a leap of faith," he says. "We went forward and the audience has responded, summer season sales are strong, the fall is looking very strong."

Kenney raised $1.8 million from donors in 2020 to stay afloat. And he, like other theater operators in Maine, also relied on federal COVID-19 relief grants to keep staff employed and bring talent from New York and Los Angeles to Ogunquit this season.

At Portland Stage, Executive Director Anita Stewart says masks are required to enter the theater and must remain on through the show. Seating is not spaced, but the theater requires proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test.

"We are planning on doing a check-in right when you come in the front door, so it may take a while to get into the building, but we want to make sure we check how people are feeling and check documentation before we let them into a public space," she says.

Stewart says ticket sales for the upcoming show, "Perseverance," are steady, and there haven't been a lot of complaints about the new COVID-prevention requirements.

The decision to require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test did have a chilling effect on ticket sales at the Maine State Music Theater venue in Westbrook, forcing it to cancel several planned productions this fall. But its operators vow to return with a full season next summer at the theater's home base, on the Bowdoin College campus in Brunswick.

Down the road in Lewiston, the Public Theater is preparing for the start of its new season. Executive Artistic Director Chris Schario says ticket holders from a show canceled last year can see the production this fall.

Schario says community support for his theater has been generous, but he's not sure how long it can be sustained.

"You can go back to your donors and corporate sponsors to support you for a year. If it goes beyond that it gets really hard. So, the next six months is going to tell a lot," he says.

Schario is hopeful that patrons will come back this fall, even if wearing a mask and showing proof of COVID-19 vaccination are included in the price of admission.