Here's how Capital Region venues plan to reopen for live entertainment

Here's how Capital Region venues plan to reopen for live entertainment

Photo of Steve Barnes

The return of live entertainment in the Capital Region started small.

The crowd, if it could be called that, at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs was sold out for both of last weekend's reopening nights.

Total combined attendance for the area's first two ticketed indoor concerts since March 2020: 48 people.

Almost 13 months after the state ordered entertainment venues, and indeed much of life as it had been lived for decades, to shut down as part of initial efforts to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, in-person arts events are starting again in New York state. Beginning April 2, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's office allowed arts and entertainment venues with an indoor capacity of less than 1,500 and/or outdoor capacity of less than 2,500 to host audiences at 33 percent capacity, with a maximum of 100 people indoors, 200 outdoors.

Caffe Lena aside, most indoor shows will not be rebounding quickly on area stages. Leaders of other area performing-arts organizations admit to degrees of envy and/or admiration at how fast Caffe Lena was able to return to its core mission, and they said they passionately wish to be able to follow suit. But for organizations bigger than a coffeehouse currently limited to 34 people but actually seating fewer, matters are more complicated, for reasons from simple and local to complex and national.

The state's new rules do not require proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test or completed vaccination course for attendance, but other familiar measures remain mandatory, including social distancing between individual groups and face coverings for all except performers who cannot wear them when performing. Under the fresh regulations, if a venue requires that all attendees show proof of a completed vaccination or recent negative test prior to entry, capacity may increase to 150 people indoors, up to 500 outside. Outdoor performing arts venues that hold more than 2,500 can reopen at 20 percent capacity. For arenas and stadiums able to accommodate crowds larger than 10,000, the limit is 10 percent of original capacity.

But while all entertainment before live audiences stopped almost instantly with the proverbial stroke of a gubernatorial pen in the second week of March last year, it will take much longer to figure out how to rewrite the rules necessary to once again start cultural life in a state where the arts contributed an estimated $120 billion to the economy in 2019, according to cultural leaders.

The 61-year-old, 110-seat Caffe Lena is small enough to be able to operate with minimal staffing and is supported by avid donors, many of whom maintained pre-pandemic levels of financial contributions despite not being able to attend shows in person for the past year, management said. As a result, it quickly was able, to use the favorite word for adaptation during the pandemic, to pivot to something different. In this case, that was back to something familiar: live performances, mostly of folk music and held most nights of the week.

Lena's first pivot came right after the executive order banning live audiences last March. Sarah Craig, executive director of the venue for 26 years, and staff almost immediately found performers willing to play from the Caffe Lena stage, compensated only by donations submitted online during livestreams of their shows.

Except for two periods, each lasting three weeks to a month, when contact tracing suggested possible COVID-19 exposure at Caffe Lena, the venue continued its livestreams multiple nights a week starting in March 2020. (During the time without live performers, Lena streamed shows from its archives.) Craig said the donations to the virtual tip jar allowed Caffe Lena to pay at least $100,000 to approximately 600 musicians who performed more than 250 shows over the past year. Donations ranged from $1 to $1,200.

"For anything in the tip jar over $100, especially if there was an extra zero, we quickly got in touch with the donor before paying it out, to make sure they'd intended to give that much," Craig said. During a livestream by the popular Irish musician Kevin McKrell, for example, $10,000 popped into the tip jar from a single person, whose immediate, panicked attempts to reach Lena staff confirmed the tip had been the result of largesse expanded by alcohol, Craig said.

Caffe Lena has been livestreaming its shows for years, usually for online audiences of one to three dozen, according to Craig. During the pandemic, virtual attendance averaged more than 100. The very first livestream was seen by 140 households, Craig said.

"That told us this was going to be a place to maintain some kind of connection and normalcy, and we had to be bold to make sure it continued," Craig said. No staff member or performer ever tested positive for COVID-19 through an exposure linked to Caffe Lena, she said.

At venues that usually host national and international touring acts, whether bands or Broadway musicals or dance companies or classical ensembles, a large part of the problem is lack of product to put on the stage. (Caffe Lena's increasingly busy performance calendar in the coming months draws largely from New York and New England, Craig said, while artists hailing from Nashville, North Carolina and Texas aren't forecast to be back on the road until fall.)

The Agnes Macdonald Music Haven Stage in Schenectady's Central Park, normally home to an eclectic array of American and world music during the summer months, programmed by veteran concert presenter Mona Golub of Second Wind Productions, will have no such season again this year, Golub said. Music Haven likely will allow its stage and facilities to be used by local organizations for concerts and other events, and Golub said she is exploring the feasibility of a few pop-up concerts in late summer or early fall.

But, she said via email, "A series of national/international touring artists takes months to fundraise for, curate and market/advertise." Further difficulties arise, she said, from a volunteer crew being asked to monitor testing or vaccination status among audience, staff and performers, police distancing and masks, supervise restroom lines and other queues, and clean frequently.

The first ticketed public concert at The Egg in Albany in 17 months won't be until a Tanya Tucker show scheduled for Aug. 13 — "provided we can open safely," said Peter Lesser, executive director of The Egg. While The Egg has arranged for its audiences to be able to buy access to multiple livestream performances by national acts who are performing elsewhere in the coming months, the three in-person concerts listed for May and June on its website are rescheduled shows from last year that are again in the process of being booked for later dates, Lesser said.

For the fall, The Egg calendar has multiple more new dates confirmed, or about to be, from acts postponed from 2020, so it is not actively scouting for many more new engagements through 2021, Lesser said, adding, "For the most part, the artists we are in touch with are booking 2022."

The Troy Savings Bank Music Hall normally ends its season of presenting touring acts in May and doesn't offer shows in the summer. As such, "We are planning for an early October opening at full capacity at this point," Jon Elbaum, the music hall's executive director, said via email. He said, "If full capacity is not possible/permitted, the majority of those shows would be rescheduled."

Albany's Palace Theatre is busy adjusting shows rescheduled for late spring and early summer to dates in late summer and fall, according to Danny Taylor, the Palace's general manager. Tickets previously sold for those performances already exceed the capacity limits of the state rules effective April 2, meaning they would have to be postponed further if the state does not expand allowable capacity, Taylor said. The Palace  does plan to have a small, socially distanced in-person audience for the May recording of its Palace Sessions series of streamed concerts.

The Comedy Works in Saratoga could easily fill its performance slots with talent, said owner Tommy Nicchi.

"At this point, many local comics would probably be willing to pay me to be on my stage," he said. But the intimately spaced venue, normally with 100 seats, would have its current allowed capacity of 33 further diminished by the 6-foot rule between separate groups of patrons — and the required 12 feet from unmasked performer to the nearest audience member, unless there is a barrier. From the lip of its stage to the most distant seat at The Comedy Works is barely more than 20 feet, allowing for a maximum of capacity of less than two dozen, depending on party size, Nicchi said.

Since opening the doors would require staffing a ticket person, server, bartender and, given current state mandates for food to be served with alcohol, a cook, too, not to mention paying a headlining comic even a modest stipend, "I'm guaranteed to lose money even if I sell out every time," Nicchi said. However, he said he was determined to find a way to reopen for summer audiences, hopefully with an easing of capacity limits and social distancing mandates.

Matters grow even more complicated when actors are involved. Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass., the only major Berkshires theater to so far announce indoor productions this summer, this week said it will hold three shows in its main Boyd-Quinson Stage,  but alternating row of seats will be removed and parties separated to reduce audience capacity from 530 to 160. Because Barrington Stage must abide by rules set forth by the Actors' Equity union, which preclude actors from being with 6 feet of each other, casts for the company's mainstage shows have one to two people.

BSC is also planning three outdoor productions for the first time in the parking lot of its production facility in an industrial section of Pittsfield, where a 140-by-60-foot tent will seat between 180 and 200 people, according to the company's co-founder and producing artistic director, Julianne Boyd.

"Planning the season was incredibly tricky," Boyd said. "We had to build in contingencies in case we had to pivot," including being able to move a Boyd-Quinson Stage production to the outdoor venue if Massachusetts again prohibits indoor performances.

During the pandemic, Bridge Street Theatre in Catskill streamed performances from its stage, offered online showings of productions from its archives and created new videos for virtual audiences that documented the work done at Bridge Street by small dance companies that lived and rehearsed at the venue under quarantine for two-week residencies. The company hopes to offer two theater productions, originally planned for the 2020-21 season, in October and November of this year, according to BST co-founder Steven Patterson.

"Those depend, of course, on how smoothly the vaccinations go, whether the infection rates go down, when venues are permitted to reopen, and if Actors' Equity makes a decision to begin reissuing the type of contracts we use at BST. That's a lot of 'if's," Patterson said. "Regardless, there'll be no 'season' this year — simply individual productions, with the hope that we'll be able to return to  mounting a full season in 2022."

Though Schenectady-based Proctors Collaborative in March 2020 laid off 80 percent of the staff at its headquarters and its affiliates, Capital Repertory Theater in Albany and Universal Preservation Hall in Saratoga Springs, the buildings safely hosted hundreds of events over the past year, from its High School Technology Program to streaming concerts, Empire State Youth Orchestra rehearsals and the Schenectady Greenmarket, said CEO Philip Morris via email

"We have tons of planning done, and tons of experience and updates to our facilities to make audiences safe," Morris said.

Still, the core of Proctors' income is from touring Broadway shows, which are usually huge operations that cannot go out on the road safely or with economic viability under current health and capacity restrictions, for audience, casts and production crews. Livestream events with small audiences and minimal performers are being planned, and The Rep and UPH are likely to have small summer shows with "TINY audiences," Morris wrote. But there will be no Broadway musicals at Proctors for at least the rest of this year, he said.

Playhouse Stage Company will be the first Capital Region entity to present indoor theater when it opens the musical revue "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" at Cohoes Music Hall in Cohoes from April 30 to May 9. (The production does not use Equity actors.) Owen Smith, Playhouse Stage's producing artistic director, said ticket demand has been so strong since the show was announced last week that he expects to add one or possibly two more weekends to its run.

Playhouse Stage is finalizing titles and scheduling for four more original productions at the hall by the end of this year, Smith said, with a mix of student and professional casts, and most likely will announce a traditional fall-to-spring season of musicals at the hall, adjusting seating and capacity to reflect then-current requirements. (At full capacity, the hall seats 460.) After discussions with Albany government and health officials, Playhouse Stage's Park Playhouse wing will next week announce how it hopes to bring live musicals back to Washington Park this summer, according to Smith,

The Saratoga Performing Arts Center will be holding concerts for its chamber music residency in an open-sided greenhouse at a nearby farm. It is awaiting new guidance from the state on regulations for large outdoor entertainment venues, expected soon, said President and CEO Elizabeth Sobol.

"We have plans for our resident companies to return this summer," Sobol said via email, referring to the New York City Ballet and Philadelphia Orchestra, "as well as other SPAC-produced events like our Freihofer's Saratoga Jazz Festival. Once the new guidelines are released, we anticipate that we will be able to start announcing these programming details.”

It could not be immediately determined whether Live Nation, which books pop, rock and country shows at SPAC, would have any tours available for Saratoga this summer, given the economics of severely limited capacity.

Bob Belber, general manager of the Times Union Center in Albany, where Live Nation is among the concert promoters that rents the venue, said, "We are effectively closed (for live entertainment) until the capacity is expanded." A end-stage concert at the TU Center can hold about 12,000 people, which present regulations limit to 1,200 — too few to be economically viable. However, Belber said, the venue has been told it will be allowed 25 percent capacity for arena football when the Albany Empire's season returns May 22. Being able to offer a medium-size touring musical act a similar capacity for a two- or three-concert stay might make the arena attractive to whatever performers may be touring by midsummer.

Belber said, "Everything is still mostly up in the air now, but with with the possibility of 25 percent capacity for concerts, motorsports and family shows, we're finally looking at being able to bring people back."