CAPITAL DISTRICT — If the Capital District continues to lower its COVID-19 cases, area venues might be able to turn the lights on this year.
It’s been over a year — 54 weeks exactly — since the last live shows in the 518. When the COVID-19 pandemic crashed into the area in March 2020, venues were forced to shutter suddenly and without any end in sight. What many thought was going to be a two-week inconvenience has turned into an endless hiatus, with many business owners pivoting to keep their business open and others succumbing to the financial strife and closing for good.
While restrictions against gatherings, masked or not, are still pretty tight, many area venues are finally seeing some light at the end of the tunnel.
The Palace Theatre is dark.
The ornate structure, which costs an arm and leg to maintain in itself, has had zero revenue during the shutdown, according to Sean Allen, the director of marketing for the historic venue.
“We had to shut down so quickly last year,” Allen recalled. “We had a packed show one night and within a matter of hours, we were told we had to shut everything down. It went from all to nothing in the blink of an eye.”
The Palace has been hosting a steady stream of digital shows. As hope begins to build, the Palace’s upcoming schedule is boasting a few shows. As of right now, Allen said he’s confident the shows scheduled in May, one hosting Cody Jinks on May 12 and another, A Midsummer Night’s Slay on May 22, will be postponed until vaccines poke a greater number of people. The next show on the schedule is a feature headlined by ballroom dancing professionals and “Dancing with the Stars” alums Maksim Chmerkovskiy, Val Chmerkovskiy, Peta Murgatroyd and Jenna Johnson on July 6.
“We’re hopeful we can keep the May shows, but our number one priority is the safety of our guests and we want to make sure when we are able to bring people back in, we are doing it correctly,” Allen said. “Everything right now is contingent on the numbers continuing to go down.”
As of April 1, indoor venues like the Palace are allowed to have 100 people inside. For the theatre that can hold 2,800 people, 100 isn’t close to financially viable. The Palace, like many venues, needs to see capacity upwards of 90 percent to be able to pay talent, staff, stagehands and provide the full experience the venue is known for.
“We are open to doing socially distanced shows if we can make it both safe and feasible for everyone involved,” Allen said. “If not at full capacity but we’re able to open, the questions posed are how can we do this, what are the legalities we need to follow, what needs to be met and how can we make sure we are able to pay both our people and the performers.”
Upstate Concert Hall’s anticipated move into downtown Albany has been halted by the pandemic. Its move from Clifton Park to the old Capital Repertory Theatre stage at 111 North Pearl St. was reported last October. The venue is expected to bring in fans of its edgy programming; fans of heavy metal, hardcore, underground and rap that many of the larger venues don’t often book.
The concert hall has also been hosting virtual streams, the most recent featuring alternative metal group Ra.
“What we thought would only be a few weeks has turned into a year,” UCH posted on its Facebook page on March 13. “It’s been a struggle to survive, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. We can’t wait to be in action again and welcome you back.”
TROY, COHOES, SCHENECTADY
A stone’s throw from Albany in either direction, Troy and Cohoes host two historic venues. Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, known for its elite acoustics and revered reputation, is actively planning its fall season, executive director Jon Elbaum said.
“We’re feeling good about the vaccine rollout and think we will be able to offer our fall schedule in some capacity,” Elbaum said, adding he’s hopeful things will be reverting to normal around that time. Right now, the music hall has only canceled one show and postponed many, with the first show offering tickets for April 18.
Elbaum said the music hall has downsized its staff and reduced the hours of the ones left, a common occurrence amongst venues once hosting an extensive workforce.
Troy Savings Bank Music Hall is still beating, though. The performance that earned Albany Symphony Orchestra its latest Grammy Award was recorded there, much like the one that earned the orchestra its first one. It’s also hosting virtual streams, with one of the most recent being Grateful Dead tribute The Wheel. Nonetheless, Elbaum said social distancing guidelines are what will ultimately delay the music hall’s reopening because it needs to see a packed house to be a viable night.
“All we can do right now is just keep up the increased cleaning and wait to see the rules for what’s allowed,” Elbaum said.
Cohoes Music Hall is facing similar circumstances. The music hall’s programming was turned over to Playhouse Stage Co. — the force behind Park Playhouse — last summer by the City of Cohoes. Playhouse Stage Co. producing artistic director Owen Smith said the hall is looking at probably having to postpone its May and June scheduled concerts. However, Smith is happy to say there will definitely be a Park Playhouse production, which is a separate entity from Cohoes Music Hall programming, in the historic venue in May.
“Like anyone else, we need to make sure everything we are doing is financially viable for everyone involved,” Smith said. “However, I am confident that we will be able to start offering pretty close to normal programming by the fall.”
The venue can squeeze 500 people into the hall once orchestra seating is removed. With the April 1 restrictions released by the state, Cohoes Music Hall is also subject to the only 100-people rule, about 20 percent of its full capacity.
“We’ve offered a few streams and online productions, which has been nice because it gives the artists and actors a chance to perform, but we all agree it’s just not the same as a live show,” Smith said. “The dynamism to live events is unmatched. It’s as much a cathartic experience as it is an entertaining one.”
Despite the ongoing restrictions looking to stretch into at least the spring, Smith said the staff is ready for a live show, however they need to accomplish it. If it means a smaller crowd, specific guidance from the CDC on how to mitigate spreading or whatever else, he’s ready.
“This pandemic has been financially, creatively and emotionally difficult for all of us,” he concluded. “I’m totally confident we will get to a place where masking isn’t needed in time.”
Proctors, which sits on the main drag of State Street in Schenectady, is also facing restrictions, but Proctors Collaborative director of marketing Jim Murphy said the venue isn’t ready to talk about its plans yet, as so much is riding on what the state says Proctors can do.
“It is not feasible to support our facilities, staff, artists and producing partners with the audience limits in the recent state guidance,” Murphy said in a statement. [We’re] cautiously optimistic that with the vaccine rollout schedule that capacity guidelines will grow and that we’ll be in a position to open the doors at some or all of our venues for controlled, safe events as early as this summer.”
Murphy added, “The economics of touring Broadway, however, require that Proctors can return to full capacity. There is good reason to feel positive that Broadway will return this year but clearly the situation is still evolving.”
Murphy indicated a number of educational programs will be hosted during the summer; the schedule will be announced in the coming days.
The beauty of outdoor venues, like Park Playhouse’s Washington Park location and Saratoga Performing Arts Center, is it’s significantly easier to spread people out.
Washington Park can host 1,500 people for a production, Smith said. While Playhouse Stage Co. hasn’t finalized this year’s agreement with the city for the park’s usage, he is confident the company will be performing in the park this year.
“For the park, we are around 25 percent capacity, which would allow us to bring in around 400 people,” he said. “We can make 400 people work.”
Smith acknowledged the outdoor experience of Park Playhouse’s productions is a whole culture for its guests. If you happen among a production, it’s not uncommon to find guests picnicking on the hills or spreading out with blankets.
Saratoga Performing Arts Center is much of the same experience. While the amphitheater offers a more mainstream concert experience, many guests find themselves on SPAC’s extensive lawn space, where mosh pits are plentiful and the thick smell of beer permeates the air.
“As we move into the 2021 season, our number one priority is creating a safe environment for everyone – audience members, staff and performers,” SPAC president and CEO Elizabeth Sobol wrote in a Facebook post on February 25. “We do not yet know when we will be allowed to open – nor, more importantly, at what capacity. Will we be allowed to use the amphitheater? If so, for 500 people, 1,500? Or some other number?
“What we can tell you is that all winter our operations team has been creating various scenarios so that whatever the number ends up being, we will be ready to execute a plan with strictly enforced guidelines to guarantee your safety – and to bring our beloved resident companies back to their Saratoga home.”
Being that some SPAC shows can host thousands proud, the future of how SPAC plans to turn the lights on remains in the hands of the state. Sobol added the venue formed a coalition with the state that includes The Public Theatre, Lincoln Center, City Parks Foundation, Classical Theatre of Harlem, The Chautauqua Institution and the Caramoor Center for the Arts that will create guidelines and timelines to allow outdoor venues to safely reopen this summer.
“We know how much you have missed gathering on our grounds for extraordinary encounters with beauty,” Sobol concluded. “And we have profoundly missed sharing those moments with you. Please know that all our waking hours are dedicated to that moment when, finally, we will be able to join together once again to celebrate our survival – and our future – together.”