There’s No Easy Path To Getting Louisville Audiences Back To Theater Seats As The Pandemic Continues

The struggle to fill seats and encourage patrons to return to the theaters, halls and other venues continues. 

Some stages have found ways for innovation, and others are just trying to keep their heads above water. The problem feels unique, because the pandemic is the first of its kind in more than 100 years, and modern performance and entertainment spaces had no preparation for the devastation that the last two years has brought to their audiences — and, ultimately, to their budgets. To add to the problem, there is no clear-cut answer to their dilemma, and no end in sight.

There is a confluence of factors surrounding the issue, but The Louisville Orchestra is seeing a strong age divide in who will come to the shows and when.  

“You’ve got the basic story, the younger people are coming back more quickly than older audiences,” said Michelle Winters, director of marketing for the Orchestra. “I think there’s, you know, higher levels of concern about the possible damage that COVID can do to them and their health. What we are doing at the Kentucky Performing Arts is we are following the Kentucky Center guidelines, and we’re doing this in all of our venues, even the remote venues where we play in neighborhoods a lot outside of the Kentucky Center… smaller locations.” 

For the orchestra, this divide is an important one because their budgets are heavily dependent upon their patrons feeling safe enough to come back to the venues for performances. While Orchestra concerts are popular across age groups, classical music is certainly more popular to a more mature crowd and that crowd has statistically more risk should they become infected with COVID. 

“We have both the vaccination check and ID check,” said Winters.  “And, also, if someone chooses not to vaccinate, we ask for a negative test. If someone forgets a card or forgets proof, we do have available testing at the door for antigen testing and that’s the rapid test. So, we do have that available in some quantities. It’s not gonna work for everybody who comes to the door because they’re pretty expensive, but we are finding ways to provide those at the Orchestra’s expense, basically and offering them, also for kids, especially.”

The demand for vaccinations by attendees, performers and venues is strong, but some are also wary of enacting protocols which are too stringent. The balance can be delicate.  

Billy Hardison, founder of local promotion agency Production Simple, said the balance often is the difference between whether they are able to book a show or not. Headliners Music Hall and Old Forester’s Paristown Hall — which Production Simple books music at — requires proof of vaccine or a negative test.

“I’m not saying any one idea is right, and the other one’s wrong,” said Hardison. “But our thinking is, at least for the majority of the acts that we book, we’re looking for ways to make the tours feel comfortable about staying on the road. And, this ecosystem right now is… It’s a connection to one set of venues versus a connection with another.”

That connection to venues can often fall along the lines of safety protocols which have been politicized in a way that has put the relevance and science often out of the discussion to embittered and narrow-scoped discussions about “freedom.”

“There are artists that are going to travel from one venue to another that don’t require protocols. Then there’s other artists that are going to travel from one venue to another that do,” said Hardison. “Then there’s artists that cross all demographics that are going to be a mix of those. Travis Tritt, as an example, some places in the country his shows are going on as planned and others he canceled.”

Tritt isn’t an anomaly. His audience falls on the conservative side of the spectrum and are less likely to support the safety protocols at venues. So, for Tritt, the decision is likely directly related to his bottom line perhaps more than his personal politics. 

Hardison understands the predicament that artists like Tritt fall into, even if he disagrees. 

“You know, in his defense, although I do not agree with his position, personally, this total lack of consistency means that certain on-the-spot compromises have to be made.” Hardison says. “He’s got mouths to feed. So do I, so I made decisions for the longer term about what’s safe for my employees or for the tours, and for my own family.”

Comedian, actor and educator Keith McGill has played on many local stages and is finding the thirst to reenter the live performance world vibrant: 

“For me, since the first time comedy clubs and bars opened, albeit to a limited capacity, people have been having a great time,” said McGill in an email. “I was finding that if someone was coming to a comedy show, it was on purpose. Because of that, they paid more attention, and gave more love. Then once it looked like the worst was over (pre-Delta) crowds picked up and have stayed pretty good, especially with more people getting vaccinated and more people demanding attendees be vaccinated.”

Somewhat different than the typical performance space, movie theaters seem to be seeing the return of audiences. 

Senior Manager of Apex Entertainment, LLC Matt Kohorst spoke with LEO about how the audiences have rebounded at the Highland’s Baxter Avenue Theatres. 

“She’s actually doing pretty well. You know, the struggles were pretty much last year,” said Kohorst. “Uh, of course there wasn’t any product being released and the COVID scare was pretty fresh. So people were really scared to go out. Once the vaccination came through and, you know, people started feeling more safe to go out, then, also, products are coming back.”

Matt Kohorst, senior manager of Apex Entertainment, LLC. | Photo by Kathryn Harrington

That studios are releasing films in theaters again, instead of only releasing direct-to-TV services like Amazon or Netflix, is a boon for local theaters. 

“Last week we opened ‘Halloween Kills,’ which did really well. I think last year, to this day, I don’t even remember what we were playing, you know, like getting ‘Tenet.’ It was like the only big release, and I think that came out in September. I don’t even know if October had a big release last year.”

During the height of the pandemic, Apex offered some unique options for locals who wanted to see movies. Their rental services were one of the ways they found income during the period of time when many theaters were struggling to get anyone in their seats. 

“Yeah. We did a very cheap rental,” said Kohorst. “Very early on we just tried to like, keep our name out there. So we would run curbside during the weekends where people could pick up theater popcorn. You know, we ended up donating like half our perishables to the Ronald McDonald house. During that time when we weren’t out there and then when we reopened what we did to kind of survive in that period of time was we would play pretty much whatever we could.”

“The rentals were a huge thing, he continued. “We had so many of those, we have like five, six rentals a week, cause they were at like $150 to $200 to rent the theater.”

This innovation gave those who wanted a theater experience the chance to do this as safely as possible. The story isn’t the same across Apex properties. At Village 8, the theater is struggling to find its place as a former second run theater. In a world with streaming services, audiences aren’t flocking to the theater, even with the cheap prices. So the theater recently started showing new films.

What The Research Says 

The reopening process is a tricky one and one that researchers are also interested in understanding. The WolfBrown Audience Outlook Monitor has been sending surveys to venues willing to question their audiences upon their reopening or after having been open for a bit. The questionnaire is sent at regular intervals to the participants and is offered to individual organizations as well. The survey gages the feelings of the audience about reopening and returning to live in-person events.

In total, 660 organizations are participating with 24 research partners. The groups have so far gathered over 625,000 responses. Some things are clear. People strongly support mitigation protocols such as masking and vaccine requirements. However, according to the Oct. 18 report by the WolfBrown group, masking is beginning to lose popularity. Many people are ready to participate, if not already participating, in live events. Despite the desire to return to live performance, the dip in attendance is expected to continue through the next year as COVID continues to experience surges. 

The League of Chicago Theaters found that 96% of those that responded to the survey are vaccinated and strongly support measures such as masking and required vaccinations. Support for in-person events was stronger for outdoor events than those held indoors but all indications are that people are ready to see live performances again. 

The Way Back

So how do venues get people in the doors and back to live performances? On top of that, how do venues navigate the political implications of safety recommendations provided by the top medical experts in the country?

There is no single answer. There are no easy solutions. Politically, COVID is poised to remain a hot button issue, with some places in the world having to cancel or postpone elections and in America, the issue of COVID continuing to drive a wedge between its citizens. 

Despite this, the shows must go on. Financially and for the social health of the performing arts ecosystem, live performance is essential. 

The Louisville Orchestra has taken some extreme measures including studying how the air that comes from a flute or horn travels within the performance space. 

“We did a smoke test at Kentucky Center, out in the audience chamber, and the air goes straight up,” said Winters, describing how the air filtration at Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts works. “So it just pulls it, but onstage, it kind of floats to the back of the hall across the stage itself, and then lifts up in toward the air filtration system. So, we’ve had to work with that in order to make it safer for the musicians on stage. The audience is really safe in terms of the air in Kentucky Center.”

To help this, they’ve added fans in strategically positioned ways to encourage and direct the airflow to help keep their musicians safe. 

Billy Hardison and Production Simple have also decided to take a strong stance, citing the need to protect themselves, their families and to run their private business in the way they see fit. 

“Whether you believe in this virus or not, if you have a job in this universe and you test positive at work, whether you believe in it or not, what’s going to happen? You’re going to get sent home,” said Hardison. “Well, we are so busy right now. And a lot of that workload is dealing with things that, up until 2020, had nothing to do with our previous job descriptions, and none of us could really afford to work from home. So whether you believe it or not, none of us can afford to be sent home because we tested positive and in a disease that we may or may not believe in. The fact is that I happen to 110% believe in it.” 

Wax Fang at Headliners Music Hall. | Photo by Nik Vechery.

Because venue operators and show promoters can’t afford to work from home or to continue to lose revenue to closures and shut downs, the compromise is that they work very hard to keep their venue, performers and concertgoers safe. He understands that the audience values the money they spend differently. So if a fan spends more money, that fan is more likely to show up to the venue to see a show despite protocols and the city’s COVID status. 

“One thing people that you would think are scared of the virus and aren’t showing up, because of that fear, even though they have a ticket. That’s also weighted by their desire to see this artist and how much money it is,” Hardison explained. “If you bought a $10 ticket and you’re an indie rock fan, and the hottest indie rock band’s playing at Zanzabar and you got a $10 ticket. “It’s like man, I spent $10, it’s not worth taking the risk. But, if you are the same fan and you bought a Phoebe Bridgers ticket for $69.50, that same fan will go into the same place because they spent more money.”

Big and small, the audience question remains a conundrum. Even with the studies being conducted into audience confidence and what it would take to bring them back to the theater, nothing is clear. No single answer has emerged, no quick fix or Band-Aid. The thing that is certain is the uncertainty and that venues need our support and we need to see live performance. 

“I just did my first theater show since the pandemic last week, and attendance was ok, but we were back to COVID protocols,” said McGill. “I will say that the performances I attended were at the capacity they could have safely. I feel like more folks would have been there had they been allowed to be. People miss live performance right now.”

McGill is correct in his assessment, there is the desire and the hunger amongst audiences, but the path to a resolution seems long.

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