Local performing arts venues embrace challenges for 2020-21 season


DURHAM/RALEIGH — It has been over four months since Gov. Roy Cooper along with local officials declared states of emergency across North Carolina and put in place strict social distancing guidelines due to COVID-19. The performing arts industry, a sector based entirely on the idea of in-person gatherings, has certainly been one of the hardest hit due to severe capacity limitations imposed on most if not all indoor venues.

To be sure, much has changed since mid-March, when Durham Mayor Steve Schewel first announced rules prohibiting groups of 100 or more from congregating inside any room located in a city facility owned or co-owned with Durham County. Durham’s restrictions applied to many of the city’s popular sites including the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC), the Carolina Theatre, the Durham Arts Council and convention meeting rooms within the City-County Convention Center.

As North Carolina remains in phase two, and theatre owners say they are only allowed to host 10 or fewer patrons at any given time, making live performances a thing of the past. As a result, theatres both large and small catering to a variety of interests have completely canceled or at postponed their entire 2020-2021 seasons.

Josette Roten, Manager of Marketing & PR for DPAC, says the theatre is in consultation with health officials and industry experts and still working on crafting its reopening plans but isn’t ready to formally announce details quite yet. DPAC recently circulated an email to previous tickets holders announcing a variety of shows they offered virtually in July, via Zoom, including interactive magic show “Piff the Magic Dragon” and DPAC Trivia. They are also advertising an in person show in February 2021 with stand-up comedian Bert Kreischer as part of their “DPAC Looks Forward” spotlight.

Raleigh’s Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts has updated their schedule of events by either canceling or rescheduling all events until after April 30th, 2021. The center is closed to the public and their website reads in part: “We continue to work with our City of Raleigh officials and Wake County to outline and plan for the time which we can open our doors once again to patrons. Until that time, we will continue to work on creative solutions while we navigate these unprecedented times. Our community is our greatest asset and with the health and well-being of our residents in mind, performances and events at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts will be cancelled, postponed or rescheduled through July 31 unless otherwise noted by our City Officials. Our physical Box Office will remain closed to patrons through July 31 as well.”

Smaller scale theatres have also been forced to adjust their lineups. Heather Strickland, Executive Director of the Raleigh Little Theatre, says they mostly count on volunteers to staff their productions, but that they had to cut their paid staff from ten employees down to eight and will be operating at only 60% their normal operating budget for the upcoming 2021 season. RLT canceled many of its shows for the 2020 season, which runs July-June including popular shows like “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Urinetown: The Musical,” and “The Jungle Book.”

“Although it is heartbreaking to completely move our season, we are looking on the bright side and are excited to embrace the new opportunities this presents,” Strickland says. She says RLT will not stop offering programming, but rather has identified new and innovative ways to serve the arts community such as offering “She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms,” via Zoom or a similar web-based real time internet service. “We’re excited to announce our first show for 2020/21 will be this brand-new adaptation of the play ‘She Kills Monsters’ by Qui Nguyen…one that is specifically designed to be performed live in an online setting. Our teens are already hard at work, and we can’t wait to share this virtual play with you.” Strickland says the theatre will honor already purchased tickets for 2020-21, for the 2021-22 season adding, “we believe this is the best path forward for the theatre, given the information currently available.”

Brent Simpson, Managing Director for Raleigh’s Theatre in the Park, says he has been touched by how the whole arts community including patrons have banded together in support of one another even throughout a season of cancelations. “Our patrons were very gracious, a lot of them donated back their tickets to keep our theatre afloat and we raised about $10,000 through a fundraising campaign.”

Compared to DPAC, Theatre in the Park is a considerably smaller—scale indoor black box theater that showcases comedy, original musicals, Shakespeare & contemporary drama and is located within Pullen Park. Simpson says they cast their second show, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” ran it for about a week in March, then were forced to shut down completely and cancel their 3rd show “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe” as well. Simpson says that while they are still planning for a live production of their October 2020 show, they are also fully prepared to broadcast it online via a streaming service if necessary.

“The October show is called ‘The Wild Women of Winedale,’” Simpson says. “It’s a comedy…something we all need more of these days.”

RLT’s Artistic Director Patrick Torres shared a particularly upbeat message to the whole arts community in a June 25 YouTube video. The irony of the whole situation as Torres puts it is that “The art of theatre is about shrinking the distance between us …it’s about introducing us to characters that remind us of our family, our friends and our neighbors, but more importantly it’s about introducing us to characters and conflicts that we’ve never encountered before all in an effort to move us towards one another to create a more equitable and just world and so the good news is we’re going to still lean into that mission, we’re going to think of creative new ways to engage with you.”