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On a typical Sunday in July, the lawn at Tanglewood is a jumble of people — thousands of them — gathered with picnics or pinot noir to enjoy an afternoon of music courtesy of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
It’s an idyllic scene, reminiscent of an Impressionist painting, but in the age of COVID-19 it’s also perilous, a potential superspreader, which is why the annual Tanglewood festival was canceled last year for the first time since World War II.
Now, with another summer on the horizon, arts organizations are scrambling to sort out what they can safely stage for audiences and performers, or if the pandemic will again force the curtain to come down before the season even starts.
Institutions with outdoor performance spaces — the BSO, Jacob’s Pillow, and MASS MoCA, to name a few — are in the optimal position to host the public this summer, though the number, type, and capacity of events remains, in most cases, very much TBD. In part that’s because the state’s current maximum number of people allowed at an outdoor performance is 500.
“External circumstances will dictate what we can do,” says Mark Volpe, president and CEO of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. “But we think we have a case to make, with safety being paramount.”
It’s more complicated for indoor performances. Governor Charlie Baker has gradually loosened restrictions, giving theaters and other venues the green light to reopen at half of their normal capacity. But in Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh delayed reopening indoor performance spaces until March 22. Either way, audiences are likely to wait until mass vaccination efforts are further along before venturing indoors in large numbers.
Josh Bhatti, vice president of booking at Bowery Presents, which operates concert venues in Boston, New York, and other cities, expects it will be several months before the calendar starts filling up.
“Every time we’ve tried to predict, we’ve been wrong,” says Bhatti, whose company books shows at The Sinclair, the Wang Theatre, Agganis Arena, and Gillette Stadium. “I think we’re cautiously optimistic that before the end of the year we’ll see the return of some concerts, but, honestly, the crystal ball’s been wrong before, so it’s hard to speculate.”
In an ordinary, non-pandemic year, most arts groups would have announced their summer program and started selling tickets by now. But 2021, like 2020, is shaping up to be anything but ordinary. Indeed, even with the rate of COVID-19 infections trending down, and vaccinations going up, there’s enormous uncertainty about what will be possible, not just in July and August but for the balance of the year.
At the Huntington Theatre Company, for example, which traditionally kicks off its season after Labor Day, managing director Michael Maso says it’s his “goal and intention and belief” that actors will be in front of an audience at the Wimberly Theatre in September. He says the air filtration and circulation systems have been improved, and stringent safety protocols — mandatory mask-wearing and social distancing — will be enforced to protect the audience.
But Maso acknowledges that circumstances could change quickly, which would compel him to rethink, and perhaps postpone, reopening. He knows, too, that some people may still be unwilling to return in September.
“If someone is uncomfortable coming to the theater, for any reason, we’ll have a good quality digital version of our productions accessible online,” Maso says. “We’re doing everything we can to make this the safest possible experience for our audience and our staff.”
Summer L. Williams, cofounder and associate artistic director of Boston’s Company One Theatre, says the health and wellness of artists and audiences will remain the priority going forward.
“We have to make sure that audiences are ready and comfortable to be in space with each other, and be thoughtful about what their needs are,” she says. “For a year we’ve been told to stay away from each other.”
For now, entities that perform outdoors, or at least have that option, are the likeliest to be back in business this summer. In the Berkshires, whose economy relies heavily on the bountiful arts and culture scene, organizations like Jacob’s Pillow, the acclaimed dance center in Becket, are trying to capitalize on the area’s bucolic backdrop.
Pamela Tatge, executive and artistic director of Jacob’s Pillow, says the center’s signature 10-week dance festival is happening June 30-Aug. 29, but all performances will be outside and audiences will be limited. In addition to the Inside/Out amphitheatre, with its panoramic view of the Berkshire Hills, Tatge says Jacob’s Pillow will make use of previously undeveloped parcels on the 220-acre campus for performances. Artist and performance details will be announced next month.
“We’re viewing this summer as an opportunity to experiment with new ways of working,” she says. “What we know is that we’ll be leaning into the outdoors at Jacob’s Pillow. It’s about identifying new playing areas and preparing them for the public to engage with.”
Likewise, the Lenox-based Shakespeare & Company is hurrying to create its new open-air performance space. Under construction now, the New Spruce Theatre, as it’s being called, is scheduled to be finished in time for the opening of “King Lear,” starring Christopher Lloyd, in early July.
“This is critical,” Allyn Burrows, the company’s artistic director, says of the new 500-seat amphitheater. “And it’s a permanent installation, not a temporary thing.”
The BSO’s two-month Tanglewood residency is especially important to the Berkshires economy, employing several hundred people and attracting as many as 340,000 visitors annually. Volpe, the BSO president, is confident the orchestra can perform this summer, but it’s still scrutinizing program scenarios and safety protocols before announcing how, or when, the public will be invited back.
At this point, Volpe says he thinks people, masked and socially distanced, will be able to sit in the Koussevitzky Music Shed and on the lawn, though the shed’s 5,100-person capacity would be reduced to no more than 1,400, and the surrounding lawn, which can accommodate 13,000 people, would be restricted to perhaps 4,000 people. This assumes, of course, the state relaxes its limit on the size of outdoor gatherings.
To gauge interest in returning to Tanglewood this summer, Volpe said the BSO sent an e-mail to 40,000 of its patrons. Many responded enthusiastically — some sound desperate to come back, he says — while others are being cautious.
“They’re waiting to see what the environment is going to be,” Volpe says. “We understand that. Would you commit to something on July 14 right now?”
Volpe, who’s led the BSO for more than two decades, is retiring in June, and will be succeeded as the orchestra’s president and chief executive officer by Gail Samuel of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
In Pittsfield, Julianne Boyd, artistic director of the Barrington Stage Company, is planning a hybrid season. Three productions will be outside, under a tent, and three will be indoors at the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, which has been retrofitted to suit the new reality: Two-thirds of the 520 seats have been removed; the air filtration system has been upgraded; and bathrooms now have touchless sinks and toilets.
“We’re all ready. We’re ready to go to work,” Boyd says. “People are starved for entertainment, whether it’s theater or baseball.”
On the North Shore, the Gloucester Stage Company isn’t quite so ready. It’s hoping to put on the shows it canceled last summer — but not at the company’s cozy, 178-seat theater on Main Street. Instead, according to Chris Griffith, GSC’s managing director, the company is looking for a privately owned property on scenic Cape Ann where it could build a temporary stage.
“We have to try to adapt to welcome the audience back this summer,” says Griffith. “We’re trying to identify an outdoor space and build it out. I think something will be possible.”
If there’s been a silver lining for arts groups over the past year, it’s that many of them boosted their online profiles — recording and posting concerts, readings, and plays — and the added content has reached new and often far-flung audiences, and kept people working.
People like Pascale Florestal, a 29-year-old theater director who was set to make her SpeakEasy Stage Company debut last season directing a revival of “Once on This Island.” When everything went dark, Florestal was instead tapped to direct SpeakEasy’s virtual production of “TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever.”
“I miss the rehearsal room and being able to make live theater, but there are so many more people we can impact with the work [online],” she says. “Personally, my family all lives in Miami so they’ve never been able to see any of my work. Now I can send them a link to the show.”
Boston Ballet created its first-ever virtual season, which has been viewed by more than 5,000 paying subscribers in 18 countries and 48 states. But Meredith “Max” Hodges, Boston Ballet’s executive director, knows that online performances won’t pay the bills. The company, which in a normal year does 100 performances at the Boston Opera House, lost $8 million in ticket sales when it canceled its annual run of “The Nutcracker.”
“Pre-pandemic, we were balancing our budget by the skin of our teeth,” Hodges says. “This has been devastating. But I do believe we’ll be back on the stage at the Opera House. I do believe in the singularity of live performance.”
Hodges said she “very much hopes” Boston Ballet will be able to perform “The Nutcracker” at the Opera House this year.
“And we will continue to work in tandem with local, state health officials to realize that goal,” she said, adding that rehearsals typically begin in September for the holiday show.