Over the last 16 months, the pandemic has robbed us of our ability to experience things communally. That’s the essence of the performing arts: the magic that happens when strangers gather together to be entertained and moved by music, dance, theater or some other expression of human creativity, presented live.

Paul Hodgins

A highly respected and award-winning arts journalist. In partnership with Heide Janssen, Hodgins has in just over a year established a community-focused, award-winning and widely respected Arts & Culture section at Voice of OC. In addition to his work here as an arts writer, columnist and editor, Hodgins teaches at USC. Previously, he was an arts writer and critic at the Orange County Register and the San Diego Union-Tribune and a professor at UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton. Hodgins holds degrees from USC, the University of Michigan and the Royal Conservatory of Music.

Finally, the end of that dark period is in sight. As of June 15 in California, there are no longer any restrictions at indoor events of less than 5,000 people, and there aren’t any required capacity limits or mandatory physical distancing.

Performing arts groups in Orange County are preparing — cautiously and tentatively, with a mix of hope and apprehension — for their first post-pandemic live events. It will be comforting for fans and performers alike to return to the time-honored rituals of the stage.

But the world has changed in ways that we don’t yet comprehend. Arts leaders are making educated guesses, based on the experiences of the past year, about what audiences will want to see, what they will expect from a post-pandemic performance and venue, and how comfortable they will be returning to a world that is at once familiar and strange.

I asked several prominent local performing arts leaders how they’re approaching this new and unprecedented chapter in the cultural life of Orange County. I also asked them about the lasting changes wrought by COVID-19.

In some cases, the permanent changes will be dramatic — and expensive.

Cautious Optimism

At the Irvine Barclay Theatre on the campus of UC Irvine, a $2 million outdoor venue is being planned. Tentatively scheduled to open in June 2022, the 400-seat performance space will be part of a new outdoor plaza adjacent to the present building. It will feature its own performance series, according to Irvine Barclay Theatre president Jerry Mandel. Plans have recently been completed.

“We’ll have a summer season with a diverse choice of shows and dinner on the lawn,” Mandel said. “The university loves the idea. I see a very active season.”

Mandel said it took the pandemic to make everyone aware of the potential of outdoor entertainment on campus, although he acknowledged that the New Swan, a temporary theater that is typically set up every summer near the library, has shown that people will come to campus when there’s a reason. “After all, we live in the best climate in the world. UCI is largely quiet in the summer, and it should be an active, exciting campus. It will be a great addition to this area.”

Orange County’s premier performing arts institution, the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, has invested heavily in infrastructure to make its multiple venues permanently safer.

“We exceed the CDC filtration recommendations with the installation of our MERV-14 filters,” Segerstrom Center president Casey Reitz said. “Our state-of-the-art air handling systems are operating to full design capabilities in order to maximize the number of air exchanges per hour.”

Even the restrooms and ticketing systems have been improved for public safety, Reitz said. “All restrooms now have touchless fixtures installed, including touchless flush valves and faucets. All tickets are digital and scanned for safe and efficient entry.”

Most arts groups are easing carefully back to normalcy one step at a time, wary of public attitudes and unexpected changes in the course of the pandemic.

“Right now, it’s a bit of a phased approach as we learn more about what’s possible,” said David Ivers, artistic director of South Coast Repertory. “This July, we’ll begin outdoor, live, in-person performances at Mission San Juan Capistrano for two shows in our new Outside SCR series.” (It will feature “American Mariachi” and “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”)  “We’re still working on what a 2021-22 season may look like, but it definitely will have fewer productions than we were doing pre-pandemic.”

Tommy Phillips, president and artistic director of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, said events have overtaken his group’s cautious outlook. “We had initially planned a multi-phased approach to announcing our season in sections, with a smaller fall season … and a tiered approach to the spring, which would lead us to a full-capacity audience by the end of our 2021-22 season. However, with the lightning-fast changes in the state’s reopening plan and elimination of capacity restrictions, we are now planning on a ‘normal’ season with both large and small ensembles in the fall and spring.”  

In Anaheim Hills, Chance Theater is preparing to reopen for live performances with the Orange County premiere of “Edges” on July 9. Chance Theater cofounder Casey Long acknowledged that gaining the public’s trust will be an important part of the reopening process.

“We have already had some audience members express concern about returning to live performances,” Long said. “In addition to following all health and safety guidelines, we are also having a select number of ‘fully vaccinated performances’ during the run of ‘Edges,’ where all audience members will need to provide proof of vaccination along with photo ID, wear masks, and (agree to) some minimal social distancing.”

The Laguna Dance Festival is making similar efforts to assure people that it is approaching reopening sensibly and carefully.

“Programming, collaborations, and partnerships will be a bit different moving forward,” said festival founder and artistic director Jodie Gates. “For example, our in-person summer intensive this month consists of three separate cohorts running concurrently to keep class sizes smaller for social distancing.” 

The festival is working in partnership with OC Music and Dance in Irvine, which makes implementing the new guidelines easier, Gates said. “This is a benefit for both the faculty and students — lovely facilities and one-on-one coaching will be perks.”

Gates has also found a new place for the festival’s annual event in September. “(It) will be outdoors at the distinctive venue, Seven-Degrees. This will allow comfort for our patrons with an intimate, fun yet sophisticated event.”

Changes Worth Keeping

Many arts leaders agreed that some practices adopted out of necessity during the pandemic are worth keeping.

“Our virtual reach certainly expanded during the shutdown,” Long said. “We started three online series (‘Chance Encounters,’ ‘Some Good News, O.C.’ and ‘Stage FAQs’), a virtual talkback series (Chance Cyber Chats), and presented three full virtual productions as well as multiple streamed new play readings.” Long thinks those programs have proven their worthiness as outreach tools, attracting unprecedented attention and participation from outside Orange County.

Ivers said the pandemic inspired new marketing methods that are useful in a post-pandemic world. He added that it led to a deeper understanding of the theater company’s audience. “The pandemic gave birth to SCR commUNITY, #Commissioned and Outside SCR, focused on engaging our communities, our artists and our art form. These have the potential to help us engage new audiences and give access to new and existing audiences to dig deeper into theater.”

Gates agreed. Her big takeaway from the last year: “Digital content! Creativity abounds with so many options, while also expanding our audiences. Laguna Dance can reach more audience members and students globally. This change will allow for new and exciting programming. We can, for example, program synchronous classes with a dance artist who is in Asia, Australia (or) Europe. Or have a ‘Meet the Artist’ conversation with a choreographer on the East Coast. Digital content can reach the mainstream and broaden our reach while strengthening our brand.”

Mandel is curious about how his theater’s first major post-pandemic live event, a June 24 concert by renowned operatic soprano Renée Fleming, will unfold. The Barclay is instituting an array of new policies and technologies for the event. 

“We are going to require masks. We have a touchless ticket system. You can’t buy tickets at the window anymore. We won’t sell any food. We’ll do drinks, pre-made (before intermission). We’re not pouring anything. We’re only going to sell 60 percent of our house so we can have social distancing. We’ll sell between 400-500 tickets (with) a lot of spacing in the balcony. I’m comfortable with it, and I hope audiences will be too.”

Phillips expects some hesitancy among returning audiences.

“We are waiting until the spring of 2022 for our largest international orchestra presentations.  We still anticipate a slightly reduced audience in the fall (primarily due to initial patron hesitations) but anticipate a full return by January. We hope we are being conservative in our outlook.” 

What If It Happens Again?

Underlying the hope and apprehension, many arts leaders expressed another emotion as the pandemic finally winds down: surprise. Audiences, by and large, were willing to hang in there and support their performing arts institutions even when a return to normalcy seemed a distant and uncertain prospect.

“Even without live theater, we learned that our audiences still want to be engaged, and they have kept with us through the pandemic,” Ivers said. “They’ve shown us their resilience, their determination to triumph, and they’ve shown us that coming together as a community is important and irreplaceable.”

“I was delighted to see our audience participate in our online programming,” Gates said. “It certainly was our lifeline, a way for us all to connect.”

“Music is an essential part of (our audience’s) lives,” Phillips said. “They (and we) have all missed it, and/or didn’t know how much it meant to us until it wasn’t a part of our ‘normal’ lives over the past 18 months. Our patrons are loyal and generous, and our older patrons are much more adaptable to technology than even they might have realized. Some of the biggest fans of our virtual programming over the last year are people who were unable to leave their homes. The art form needs both the performers and an audience. We’ve learned this year that they are collectively and equally important for each other.” 

If, God forbid, the world has to deal with another pandemic, Orange County’s arts leaders say they now have ways to better weather the storm.

“If something like this were to happen again, we would have the benefit of now possessing the tools and experience to start producing virtual productions more quickly,” Long said. “Also, we would be more adept at transitioning our outreach programs to a virtual platform. Plus, the community at large would have less of an adjustment period of learning how to use the tools.”

“We will not be shy to go entirely virtual if we have to,” Gates said. “We know it works. (Watching a) past performance from Laguna Dance Festival will make for great entertainment and serve as an escape into a world filled with joy, drama, intrigue and love.”

Ivers summed up a feeling that arts leaders and patrons alike undoubtedly agree on: “Let’s hope we never go through this again!” 

Paul Hodgins is the founding editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.

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