The Bonham Exchange nightclub announced its recent reopening with a tart Facebook post: “She’s waxxed, vaxxed & ready to party. See y’all Friday!”
The venerable downtown nightclub, which got a spruced-up interior while closed, is one of many local entertainment venues now cautiously reemerging from pandemic dormancy.
While several major nonprofit arts organizations such as the San Antonio Symphony, Opera San Antonio, and the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts have already restarted their performance seasons, smaller nonprofit organizations and private venues are just beginning to schedule live, in-person performances.
With the benefit of outdoor stage areas, The Lonesome Rose honky tonk and Cool Crest Miniature Golf have produced live music and theater shows since late 2020. Music clubs on the St. Mary’s Strip including The Mix, Paper Tiger, The Squeezebox, and Hi-Tones reopened first as bars, with DJs, karaoke, day parties, and outdoor shows before returning to live music indoors.
Meanwhile, nonprofits continue to gauge when and how they can reopen safely, keeping one eye on safety protocols, another on the progress of the delta variant, and a third eye on what the future holds.
A cautious step onstage
“We’re slowly reemerging from the death knell of COVID,” said Ronnie Sanders, artistic director of the South Texas Symphonic Orchestra, which has announced its 2021 season that includes live performances in October and December.
However, Sanders warned that “everything is dynamic.” If information on infection rates changes dramatically, “even though [the season schedule] is set in stone, so to speak, we have to be dynamic and very fluid with our decisions,” he said.
If the schedule holds, the orchestra will perform a free concert Oct. 24 with a brass ensemble playing marches and fanfares, joined by the San Antonio Choral Society for a rendition of Gloria! by U.K. composer John Rutter. Dec. 17-19 performances of The Nutcracker will be held at the Scottish Rite Theatre and Grand Ballroom, with the orchestra backing up the San Antonio Youth Ballet.
Woodlawn Theatre just completed its first post-pandemic run of On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan, with sold-out houses at 75% capacity for each of four final weekend performances. Executive and Artistic Director Christopher Rodriguez said he expects a similar response for the production of Cinderella opening Aug. 27.
Such enthusiasm communicated clearly to Rodriguez that audiences have been clamoring for live entertainment.
“I think we just learned how much people really miss this,” he said. “All around, from our performers to our production team to our patrons. It’s been great seeing everyone again.”
Woodlawn will continue its partnerships with local businesses, with a ticketed event at the Cherrity Bar on July 27. Audiences can expect a full evening of outdoor entertainment with drinks, food items, and musical selections based on the summertime theme “Some Like It Hot.”
“Our goal is to continue to create an option for patrons who maybe aren’t comfortable being inside,” Rodriguez said. “And then also to help out other small businesses, especially restaurants who are still struggling today.”
Teatro Esperanza, housed in the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, was just gearing up with its first workshops and a public reading held in late 2019. The pandemic forced the small group of seniors, led by theater artist Marisela Barrera, to first shut down, then resume workshops via videoconference.
“It became a support group,” essentially, Barrera said, with members sharing their pandemic stories with each other.
Keeping the safety of its elderly workshop participants in mind, the Teatro has resumed in-person rehearsals for a series of video performances, tentatively scheduled for public release in as early as September. Whether the video release is concurrent with a live public performance at the Esperanza Center depends on the severity of the pandemic at that time, Barrera said.
“That’s the thing about it,” she said. “There’s some fluidity for me.” She’s learned to be flexible during the pandemic. “In terms of the specific date, I don’t have that yet because there’s a lot of different factors in play. And I’m OK with that.”
Akiko Fujimoto started as music director of the Mid-Texas Symphony in the summer of 2019. Three-quarters of the way into her first season, the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Leading a small arts organization always has its challenges, she suggested, but she was suddenly faced with a total shutdown of the live performances at the core of the orchestra’s mission. At the time, the CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic — with a $150 million annual budget, the largest such organization in the nation – told colleagues that smaller organizations would have an easier time with the pandemic due in part to their flexibility.
While Fujimoto agrees that her organization responded nimbly with a quick pivot to all-digital, online programming, the scramble for resources such as recording equipment was a challenge.
Fujimoto said she prefers to focus on the silver linings that the pandemic cloud provided.
“I was amazed by our musicians, their adaptability and virtuosity in delivering performances at a really high level, despite all the COVID protocols. They were very brave and flexible,” she said, noting the three chamber music concerts the organization put on in early 2021.
She also learned the importance of staying in touch with the symphony’s fans. “My other discovery is how loyal and tough our core patrons are” who “reawakened their commitment to this orchestra,” she said.
Lessons learned from the past year will be visible in the new season, which incorporates a chamber music concert. The 2021-2022 season is scheduled to open Sept. 12 with a full production of Scheherazade, and run through the Pines of Rome program Apr. 24, both at the symphony’s home venue, the Jackson Auditorium at Texas Lutheran University in Seguin.
Chamber performance will make its reappearance Feb. 20 at the Brauntex Performing Arts Theatre in New Braunfels, with Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale. Fujimoto is excited to perform in the Brauntex theater, which will provide an ideal backdrop for the theatrical piece, which includes narration and dancing by Danielle Campbell Steans, who also directs the San Antonio Youth Ballet.
Hold on a sec…
As with everything during the pandemic, all the information above is conditional. Each organization’s director frequently expressed caution, doubt, anxiety, and frustration, in addition to their positivity and commitment to move forward.
Given developments with the new COVID-19 delta variant, Fujimoto said, “just now this past week, it seems things are getting scary again in some parts of the country. So we are monitoring the situation closely, but we’re hoping that things are going to be fine.”
Closer to their season opener in September, they will evaluate the situation, she said.
Aside from continuing vaccination efforts, Rodriguez highlighted one simple way arts patrons can help prevent the spread of the delta variant.
“We’re gonna just strongly encourage people to continue to wear their masks,” he said.