The Journal Gazette
Friday, January 29, 2021 1:00 am

Awaiting full houses

Too early to predict end of social distanced seating

COREY MCMAKEN | The Journal Gazette

Many weekends before the pandemic the seats inside Arts United Center would be filled by audience members eager to take in a theater show, dance production or other arts event.

But since March, the seats have been largely unused as the pandemic forced restrictions on seating capacity and gathering in large groups. To ensure distanced seating, some rows in Arts United Center are completely blocked off when it does host an event. In rows that are being used, some spots are blocked off with fabric bands that wrap vertically around the chair so the seats can't be folded down.

It is among protocols likely to remain in place for a significant portion of this year, at least.

Susan Mendenhall, president of Arts United of Greater Fort Wayne, says it will be a long road to once again have audiences and arts classes without social distancing. Arriving at that destination will depend on recommendations from health officials, but even when the public is told it is safe, that doesn't mean they immediately will be ready to crowd into seats for a show. People will return to in-person programming when they each feel safe, not when government officials say it is OK, she says.

As a result, many groups that have restarted programming have turned to virtual options or in-person events with smaller group sizes.

For this year, Mendenhall says arts organizations will be working together to ensure the safety of audiences, performers and staff. Seating at Arts United Center and ArtsLab – which Arts United operates – will remain socially distanced for as long as health officials say that should be the case.

Gathering sizes

In addition to distanced seating, restrictions on social gathering sizes in Indiana can vary based on where counties fall in a color-coded map measuring weekly cases per 100,000 residents and the seven-day positivity rate for all tests completed.

Since Nov. 15, those restrictions had included specific numbers such as social gatherings being limited to 250 people for a county marked blue and 25 for counties marked red. That number included not only the audience but also performers, crew, ushers and other staff or volunteers.

An executive order announced Wednesday by Gov. Eric Holcomb changes overall attendance guidelines to percentages of a facility's capacity for social gatherings and events. Facilities in counties marked blue can have 100% capacity with appropriate social distancing (including spaced seating), face coverings and other safety precautions. Facilities in counties marked yellow can operate with attendance of no more than 50% capacity, and in counties marked orange and red the limit is no more than 25% of capacity.

Safety plans for gatherings must be submitted to a facility's local health department. The new order goes into effect Monday and is slated to last through at least Feb. 28.

Like the majority of northeast Indiana, Allen County is currently labeled orange. Whitley is red while Adams and Wells are now in yellow.

Even if Allen were to be listed in blue, available seating in a theater would remain far below a venue's full capacity because of social distance guidelines requiring at least 6 feet of space between each group of ticketholders.

For example, Embassy Theatre's seating capacity with social distance is 530. That allows it to fill only about 21% of its 2,477 seats. Arts United Center can fill about 24% and Clyde Theatre would be at 28% of its seated layout.

Awaiting data

Some local theater and dance groups have resumed in-person productions, but that hasn't been the case across the nation. The Broadway League has announced that shutdowns of New York City theaters will continue through at least May 30.

In a Jan. 9 virtual conference with the Association of Performing Arts Professionals that was reported by entertainment industry website Deadline, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, predicted people could start feeling safe performing onstage and sitting in the audience by early to mid-fall. But that depends on widespread vaccinations, with Fauci suggesting effective herd immunity could be seen when 70% to 85% of the population had been vaccinated.

Allen County Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Matthew Sutter says it is too early to tell when herd immunity could be reached or when audiences might be able to be seated at local events without social distancing or face coverings.

“It's premature to be confident in percentage of vaccinated people to achieve population or herd immunity,” he said in a Jan. 13 email to The Journal Gazette. “One of the biggest questions currently unanswered is whether the mRNA vaccines stop asymptomatic infection and spread. The vaccines are spectacular in stopping severe disease, but the studies for transmission are ongoing.”

Until data is available to determine if the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines stop asymptomatic infection and the spread of COVID-19, Sutter says the health department will continue to recommend that even people who have received the vaccine wear masks and practice social distancing.

Risk calculations could be different for outdoor venues, he says, because it is estimated the virus spreads about 20 times more effectively indoors than out.

As organizations plan for 2021 and beyond, Sutter says they should remain ready to respond to changing conditions.

“The pandemic has shown us the value of being flexible and able to adapt to changing information,” he says. “We will continue learning more about this virus in 2021 and hope to communicate it to organizations and the community so we can all make safe and effective decisions into the future.”

Shifting plans

Audience capacity limits have been among struggles for some local arts organizations during the pandemic.

Civic Theatre's traditional home theater at Arts United Center usually seats more than 650 audience members but capacity is closer to 160 with social distanced seating. In the second half of 2020, Civic produced “Legally Blonde: The Musical” and “1776” at Foellinger Theatre and “Annie” at Embassy Theatre. Foellinger and the Embassy both seat more than double Arts United Center under distancing protocols.

“Annie” in particular needed the bigger space because it had the largest number of sponsors of Civic's season. Sponsors are given a certain number of tickets and if performances had stayed at Arts United Center, there wouldn't have been enough tickets available to meet sponsorship agreements and season subscriptions, let alone individual tickets for the public.

Civic's February performances of “Sunset Boulevard,” which were also to have taken advantage of the larger Embassy space, were canceled in November because of safety concerns as local virus numbers increased, and the remainder of the 2020-21 season's productions are being delayed because of public health guidelines and limits on audience sizes. “The Mousetrap” is now scheduled for May 1 to 16 at Arts United Center, followed by “A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum” from July 24 to Aug. 8.

Civic is taking things day by day, says executive and artistic director Phillip H. Colglazier. Planning is underway for the 2021-22 season, and Colglazier says venues for those shows will depend on where the community is with positivity numbers, vaccinations and Civic's confidence that audiences will return. The season is expected to be announced in February at the earliest.

All For One Productions is also making changes to its current season because of capacity limitations. All For One uses ArtsLab as its home theater, taking advantage of the intimate black-box space in which seating can be arranged several ways.

Under normal circumstances, ArtsLab can accommodate up to about 180 audience members, depending on which of several seating configurations is used. With social distancing requirements, the largest audience would be less than half that. A specific count would vary from show to show based on how many tickets were purchased in a single group. Fewer empty seats would be needed for a family of four, for example, instead of two couples where space would also need to be created between each pair.

In November, All For One moved its production of “A Laura Ingalls Wilder Christmas” from ArtsLab to First Missionary Church for a larger space where performers could be unmasked.

But that isn't always an option. All For One has moved February's production of “Mary's Wedding” to next season because the organization feels the show needs to be in ArtsLab with full capacity, executive director Stacey Kuster says. Instead in February, All For One will offer a virtual stream of “Romeo and Juliet” that was recorded several years ago.

Its plans for the April production of “The Charitable Sisterhood of the Second Trinity Victory Church” are still up in the air, Kuster says. Like “Mary's Wedding,” it could be pushed to next season.

Some local stage groups, including First Presbyterian Theater and Arena Dinner Theatre, have not resumed productions with indoor audiences this season. Three Rivers Music Theatre is collaborating with the Embassy to offer its cabaret series there.

A spring season for Fort Wayne Ballet has yet to be announced, but smaller productions are expected for the time being as more expensive shows and programming will be put off until the organization can perform in front of a full capacity audience again, executive director Jim Sparrow says. That might mean pushing some things to later in the current season when works could be performed outdoors or even delaying performances until next season.

The Ballet's annual “Love Notes” presentation will be virtual this year with viewing available beginning Feb. 13.

Deal breakers

Not all arts organizations rely on revenue from ticket sales to operate but reduced audience sizes are a deal breaker for some events, no matter the size of the venue.

Seating capacity at Pulse Opera House in Warren is 196, but the space can only accommodate about 30 people with social distanced seating. Artistic director Cynthia Smyth-Wartzok says the theater really can't reopen until it is allowed to operate with at least half capacity.

And although Memorial Coliseum has more space than other area venues and has been hosting sports and other events, don't expect to see many major concerts return while social distanced seating is in effect.

Audience capacity in the Memorial Coliseum arena varies depending on the size of a concert's stage. But for comparison, the arena was able to fit 13,000 fans for Paul McCartney's June 2019 concert. If that show happened during an era of social distancing requirements, capacity would have been about 3,000, says Randy Brown, executive vice president and general manager of the Coliseum.

Big shows can't play at that capacity, he says. They just wouldn't be profitable.

Many smaller shows also need to fill most of the seats in a venue.

That doesn't mean there won't be concerts and other touring performers in the area this year. The Coliseum has several shows already on its calendar and other shows lined up for the third and fourth quarters that haven't been announced yet, Brown says.

Plans are subject to change, but other area venues such as Clyde Theatre, Embassy Theatre and Honeywell Arts and Entertainment's Ford and Eagles theatres also have touring shows on their calendars for 2021.

At a glance

Venues have reduced seating capacity under pandemic-related rules. Here are several area venues with numbers for comparison.

Numbers for social distanced seating, in which space is built around "pods" such as members of a single household, can vary in a venue based on the sizes of those groups. These figures are approximate and do not factor in restrictions on gathering sizes.

Venue Normal conditions With distancing
Arts United Center 659 160
ArtsLab* 128 to 178 40 to 57
Clyde Theatre (seated)** 1,000 280
Embassy Theatre 2,477 530
Foellinger Theatre 2,751 400
Honeywell's Eagles Theatre 538 134
Honeywell's Ford Theater 1,484 371

*ArtsLab offers several seating configurations

**For standing-only shows, Clyde's normal admission capacity is 2,300

About this series

This is one of several Weekender stories that will explore issues affecting the local arts and culture community as the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus outbreak being declared a pandemic approaches in March.

The stories are part of “COVID-19: Caught in the Grip,” a Journal Gazette series about changes prompted by the virus – at least temporarily – as individuals and communities rallied to respond and learned to cope.

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