When problems arise in the world of theater, the rallying cry has long been "the show must go on," but that's just not the case for many theater companies in Maine that have cancelled their spring and summer seasons because of the spread of COVID-19. And now, sights are now set on future seasons.
Every summer, Maine State Music Theatre in Brunswick stages several shows at Bowdoin College’s Pickard Theater, bringing in up to 70,000 audience members over the course of the season. But this year, the 600 seats will be empty.
“If I'm honest it might have been the toughest decision I've made in my life,” says Maine State Music Theatre Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark.
Clark says that after listening to concerns expressed by the college, the town of Brunswick and state and federal officials, it became clear that the 2020 season would have to be cancelled. He says there's no way that the cast and crew could socially distance.
“While building the show, while building the costumes, while rehearsing the show, there's just no possible way to socially distance and, of course, once the show would be up and running, the actors on stage couldn't socially distance and especially the audience.”
Clark says if not for help from subscription holders, single ticket holders and others MSMT would lose more than $4 million by cancelling its season. He says the union actors still have to be paid.
“People also don't realize that the planning for all the shows starts during the year previous, so we've been working on this summer's shows since June of last year, so a large part of the yearly budget has already been spent with absolutely no way of making up that money other than the kindness of out public.”
Clark says, nationally, when theaters have to cancel shows, an average of about 30 percent of ticket holders donate their tickets back to the theaters. He says that because Maine State Music Theater has a large, loyal group of subscribers, the company will do better than that. But even if 50 percent allow MSMT to keep its subscription money, the company will still be a couple of million dollars in the hole.
Clark says Maine State Music Theater, which is also introducing cost cutting measures, will announce it's 2021 season in late June or early July.
At the public theatre in Lewiston, the pandemic swept into Maine just as a production of the play "I And You" was about to open.
“We were all set to open our play on March 13 when the virus hit the state, so we had to make a very difficult decision to actually close our production the day were were set to open it.”
Co-artistic Director Janet Mitchko says the theatre, which operates year-round, has cancelled three productions scheduled for this spring and summer and moved one into next season.
Mitchko says about 90 percent of the Public Theatres subscribers have donated the cost of their tickets back to the theater, and others took vouchers for a future production. And she says more than 50 percent of single ticket buyers asked for a voucher or made a donation.
“We're incredibly grateful that they see us as an important part of their lives, and they want us to succeed.”
Mitchko says the Public Theater hopes to announce its new season by the end of June.
At theater at Monmouth, known for its productions of Shakespeare, it was Gov. Janet Mills' new plan to gradually reopen the state economy that solidified a decision to postpone six summer productions until 2021.
“Among the four stages of the reopening of Maine there really isn't a time where the governor has considered when arts organizations and theaters, in particular, might be able to open their doors,” says Producing Artistic Director Dawn McAndrews.
McAndrews says the primary consideration was the health and safety of the artists and staff, the audience and community members.
The Public Theatre's Janet Mitchko says that despite the losses, she continues to be hopeful that theater will return to appreciative audiences.
“I think in some ways what's happening in the world today has reminded us how important the arts are to us, and when we're able to come back and not social distance with each other, the arts will still be important and maybe even more important.”