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To play or not to play? This is the uncertain question faced by the owners and operators of live performing arts venues throughout San Antonio, eager to get back to business but unsure whether audiences are ready to put the pandemic behind them.

Some venues already have reopening dates scheduled, while others are looking towards the fall season. Many continue online events, or hybrid mixtures of online and in-person events, either to offset audience capacity limited by safety protocols, or to make livestreams or video recordings available to those as yet unwilling to gather with groups of people.

Others, such as the Classic Theatre and Magik Theatre, have found new outdoor locations for their productions, to keep audiences and performers safe while providing live arts to their audiences.

Compounding the difficulties faced by live event venue owners throughout the U.S., the Small Business Administration’s Shuttered Venue Operators (SVO) grants system collapsed as it was rolled out April 8. Meant as a rescue relief package, venue owners have been counting on the $16 billion in funds to prevent widespread closures throughout the industry. The SBA says it is “still working” on the problem and has yet to determine an exact opening date for applications.

While they wait for government help, venue owners and operators are in the process of deciding when to reopen, what kinds of shows will be possible, and what procedures – if any – will remain in place as pandemic conditions recede. To guide them, some are using audience surveys.

Paper Tiger

One day in mid-March last year, Mayor Ron Nirenberg called Chad Carey, owner of several restaurants and bars, asking Carey to shut down his live music venue Paper Tiger. Nirenberg was on the eve of declaring a ban on gatherings of 500 or more people, and with a club capacity of nearly 1,500, the venue could have become a hot spot for coronavirus transmission.

Carey and co-owner Sophie Covo went along with the mayor’s advice and shut down the upcoming sold-out Orville Peck show. More cancellations soon followed, and the venue went dormant.

“We had a very jam-packed spring calendar. We had lots of sold out shows coming down the pike,” Carey lamented.

More than one year later, Carey and Covo have decided to reopen May 5 for a Cinco de Mayo-themed show by El Dusty. They are still working out what that show will look and feel like, considering both potential safety precautions and patrons who might object to those precautions. Peck was scheduled to make his return May 7, but canceled.

Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center

Cristina Ballí, executive director of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center (GCAC), is looking to reopen in September, in time for the 30th anniversary of Celebracion Tradiciones, featuring Ballet Folkorico and mariachi bands. But for Ballí, the health and safety of her community continues to be of primary importance.

For example, the annual Tejano Conjunto Festival, the GCAC’s flagship event, will be cut from three days to one, and from the usual 30 bands to six or seven, Ballí said. The May 22 festival will be available by livestream only for audiences, who will have to wait another year to enjoy the festival in person at the Guadalupe Theater.

The center has restarted its education program for youth, but in a hybrid form with in-person and online options available, and in the art gallery a show called Resurgence opened March 27, but with an open house without food or beverages in place of what would normally be a festive opening reception.

The annual Latino film festival Cinefestival will run July 8-11, with the determination yet to be made on whether it will be all virtual or a mix of virtual and in-person events.

“Everything is tentative, but slowly we are reopening,” Ballí said. The only sure thing – as far as can be predicted, Ballí warned – is that the September event will have an in-person component, probably held outdoors in the Guadalupe Plaza rather than inside the theater.

“Everything we’re planning now in for the future is a modified version” of regular programming, she said. “And I’m not even making [definitive] plans anymore.”

Broadway in San Antonio

The first loss for Broadway in San Antonio at the Majestic Theatre was Disney’s Aladdin, canceled Mar. 13, 2020, along with many other city activities. A note on the performance series’ website states that the show was unable to be rescheduled, but Disney fans might be content with the return of The Lion King Oct. 21-27.

The website is filled with updates detailing the rescheduling of its popular shows. Its ticketholders have seen multiple changes in scheduling as the number of COVID-19 cases spiked, then decreased.

The season tentatively begins Sept. 21-26 with My Fair Lady, one among 10 shows scheduled through August 2022.

The marquee at the downtown Majestic Theater displays a message for San Antonians as the Texas economy gears up for a reopening of businesses in May.
The marquee at the downtown Majestic Theater in April 2020. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Tobin Center for the Performing Arts

The Tobin Center for the Performing Arts reopened June 12 by making use of its innovative flexible seating system to guide patrons in socially distanced seating, and by innovating the types of shows it would put on.

A series of outdoor mystery theater events have been held, with local actors stationed on the Tobin Center grounds giving clues and misdirections to roving audience groups.

Locals have also been invited to play the main stage inside, including Doc Watkins, the popular owner of the Jazz TX music club. Watkins will be in concert Tobin Center April 23 with the string players of the Classical Music Institute, which restarted their season at the Carlos Alvarez Theater with a live concert on April 3. Opera San Antonio will return to the Tobin stage with its production of Lucia de Lammermoor May 6-8.

The Tobin is also making use of Audience Outlook Monitor, an ongoing international survey among cultural organizations. Results have not yet been reported publicly, but CEO Mike Fresher has said the survey is helping guide decisions on reopening, with several questions around audience readiness to return to indoor performances and large public gatherings.

One group, the New York-based nonprofit Theatre Development Fund, has released preliminary results showing that 55% of respondents said they “will not resume attendance until they receive vaccination or immunity.” Currently, the number of vaccinated San Antonians stands at roughly one-quarter of the population.

Luminaria

Under the leadership of new Executive Director Yadhira Lozano, Luminaria San Antonio sent out its own survey to learn more about its audience, including one question on when they might feel ready to return to a large public gathering like its annual Luminaria Contemporary Arts Festival held in November.

A statement on the website says the festival is currently scheduled for Nov. 13, and that the organization is “checking with the City and the CDC to ensure we can produce the festival with each other’s safety in mind.”

Lozano said Luminaria has also recently conducted focus groups with artists and stakeholders that along with the survey asked about readiness to return, and whether people might accept a hybrid half-virtual, half-in-person event.

Results of the survey haven’t come in yet, but Lozano characterized the feeling among the focus group participants as “they were really eager to get back into a physical space. I think the desire is there … that nothing beats in-person, live performance. I think everybody’s Zoomed out,” she said.

Where’s the money?

Due to his ongoing advocacy work for music venues in San Antonio and throughout Texas, the name of The Mix music club owner Blayne Tucker appeared in the recent New York Times article about the glitch in the Shuttered Venue Operators grant application system.

Tucker is precinct captain for the state of Texas for the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) and head of governmental affairs for the Music Venue Alliance Texas. NIVA’s efforts produced the Save Our Stages (SOS) Act included in the second round of COVID-19 relief legislation, which eventually became the grant program.

Back in January, Tucker called the situation “dire” for venue operators, and said the recent delay is beyond frustrating. “The desperation is in a fever pitch. I’ve been on death watch for a year now for a lot of these venues. So yeah, it’s been difficult.”

But Tucker struck a conciliatory tone describing the challenge faced by the federal government.

“They’ve never administered a program of this magnitude or size,” he said, with staff already burdened with administering various coronavirus relief programs. “So it’s not completely surprising that there’s been big hiccups like this, creating new programs from scratch, but it doesn’t really take the burden off of venues and folks that are desperately waiting for the money.”

Carey declined to say how much money he’s lost from the closure of Paper Tiger for more than a year, but described it as “enough to open two more Paper Tigers.”

Tucker said he personally knows of at least 10 venue owners who have taken out loans to float their businesses through the pandemic shutdown, and are now behind on loan payments. He called the federal grant program delay “potentially catastrophic,” and that businesses already in jeopardy have added further debt, “taking on short term loans at a high risk, betting on the fact that they would be seeing this disaster relief [money] coming down the pipeline.”

If those venues can hang on until the money finally comes, Tucker said he’s hopeful they can recover.

“Those that complete the process, and actually come out the other side, are gonna stand a great chance of rebounding and being able to hit the reset button,” he said.

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...