For entertainment venues in central Maine, the show must go on … with care


A rainy view of Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center on Water Street in downtown Gardiner. Joe Phelan / Kennebec Journal dossier

KEEP – Anyone who had a ticket to Denny Breau’s performance on Saturday at the Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center had to make other plans.

The musician, booked to perform at the historic opera house as part of his fall season, had to cancel at the last minute after being exposed to COVID-19.

“This is the first time in this whole pandemic that this has happened,” said Michael Miclon, executive artistic director of Johnson Hall on Friday.

Last minute cancellations are just one of the hurdles entertainment venues face as residents of central Maine return to their normal lives more than a year and a half after the declaration of the global COVID-19 pandemic .

Even if concert halls and opera houses open their doors to the public, it is not certain that the public is ready and willing to return. And if they are, not all are willing to comply with public health restrictions requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.

At the same time, booking or changing reservations was difficult, as some performers struggled to book a tour itinerary that made sense.

“We all do our best with the information we have to make the best decisions and keep doing what we do,” said Michelle Sweet, Executive Director of Waterville Opera House.

The High Kings will perform on September 30 in front of a large audience at the Waterville Opera House. Michael G. Seamans / Morning Sentinel File

As the fall season approached, Miclon, Sweet, and other makers of a season of shows were watching reports from the state’s Center for Disease Control & Prevention to track the rate of infection in Maine. .

But they also had another piece of information to consider: At the end of August, the Maine State Music Theater canceled its fall program at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center due to poor ticket sales and backlash from its obligation for ticket holders to show either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.

Around the same time, the number of new COVID-19 cases reported statewide began to rise, peaking in late September. Since then, the numbers have declined, with the seven- and 14-day averages hovering around 500 cases over the past two weeks.

And while the number of people vaccinated against the disease in Maine has continued to increase, Miclon said that it is the people who are vaccinated who pay more attention to coming to shows.

“It’s so weird,” he said.

It is essential to try to determine what the public will do.

In the first half of 2020, the Maine Arts Commission conducted an Audience Outlook Survey, designed to measure audience comfort and provide insight into the opening of performance spaces in Maine.

The summary of the results showed that just over half of those surveyed would be “uncomfortable” attending a performance, regardless of the size of the venue. When asked how to safely attend a live performance, the main answer was after a vaccine or immunity.

This year, however, the Arts Commission chose not to conduct an investigation.

Ryan Leighton, the commission’s marketing director, said the commission chose instead to see what performing arts venues have planned for the summer season. The majority had adopted security protocols based on the data available at the time.

“As a state arts agency, we felt it was better to rely on data sets and metrics supported by national studies rather than releasing another Maine survey,” Leighton said by email.

He noted that many sites in Maine require members of the public to be vaccinated or show evidence of a negative COVID-19 test.

For now, the sites are advancing and the results have varied.

From a concert standpoint, the crowd response depends on the artist and their print run.

In Waterville, spectators had no hesitation in purchasing tickets for two recent shows, Blues Traveler and LeAnn Rimes, Sweet said, and both were sold-out shows for the 800-seat theater.

But Chris Thile, a Grammy winner and a member of MacArthur, did not pull the ticket sales the opera needed to cover the cost of staging the show.

“The crowd is kind of an older, more conservative MPBN crowd, a different audience than Blues Traveler for sure,” she said. “It’s a show that would have generally been a big boost for us in terms of revenue.”

But it was not.

Now, as the opera prepares for the next performance of “Clue,” Sweet said tickets are selling wonderfully. She said she wasn’t sure if this was the name recognition of the show or if people were just craving live entertainment.

Erik Thomas works on October 26 on the production set of “Clue” at the Waterville Opera. Tickets for “Clue”, scheduled to open on November 12, can be purchased online at Michael G. Seamans / Morning Sentinel File

At the Snow Pond Center for the Arts in Sidney, so far people are coming back.

“We had two successful concerts last month,” said Christa Johnson, Snow Pond’s director of development.

At On Monday, Livingston Taylor was the first artist to appear inside since the pandemic closed the place 18 months ago.

“When I did the introduction to greet the folks at Snow Pond, I got a little emotional,” Johnson said. “All I could do was say ‘thank you’ because we require everyone to be vaccinated or test negative. Everyone worked with us and we had a full house.

Normally, Snow Pond – home to the New England Music Camp and the Maine Arts Academy – hosts a summer concert series in its amphitheater and a winter series in its Alumni Hall. Alumni Hall can seat 300 people, but seats have been limited to 200 to give people the chance to spread out.

Daniel Keller conducts the Kennebec Valley Youth Orchestra on May 8 at the Snow Pond Center for the Arts in Sidney. Joe Phelan / Kennebec Journal dossier

Electric blues singer Shemekia Copeland is due to appear on December 9 and Johnson said ticket sales have been strong.

At the Augusta Civic Center, Sawyer Brown is scheduled to perform on December 3, postponed to spring 2020. The show has been rescheduled several times since then, and it will be the first large-scale event the center has hosted since the pandemic began.

“We’re down to about 1,200 tickets now,” said Margaret Noel, director of the Augusta Civic Center. “What I’m seeing is that most people wait until the last minute to buy stuff because they don’t know if it will be canceled. If we get between 1,500 and 2,000, it will be a good crowd. “

Due to the schedule change, Noel said, Confederate Railroad will appear with Sawyer Brown because BlackHawk was unable to connect.

At Johnson Hall some shows like Maine Event Comedy were sold out and for the most recent show the venue had to turn some people away. “It was pretty encouraging,” said Miclon.

During the pandemic, Johnson Hall aired a number of shows live for people to watch from their homes and this fall he worked with some artists to continue offering that option.

Paula Cole, who is due to appear on November 14, is one of the performers who agreed to the hybrid setup, but Miclon said ticket sales have been slow to the point that it’s not clear Johnson Hall would benefit. money. spectacle.

“I feel like people are waiting until the last minute to make these decisions,” he said.

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