New Jersey boasts a rich landscape of live theater venues – from prominent regional houses to small community theaters. All were shut down during the worst of the pandemic, with sometimes devastating effects. But the Garden State theater community is coming back to life as more residents get vaccinated and COVID-19 outbreaks seem to be waning. Are audiences willing to return to the seats?
NJBIZ recently spoke with John McEwen, the executive director of the New Jersey Theatre Alliance, and Dr. Stuart Weiss, the founder of Intelligent Crowd Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in business continuity and crisis management for event production companies. Both have been working to help theaters reopen safely and persuade the public that they can begin enjoying comedies, dramas and musicals once again. Their efforts may be paying off, albeit slowly.
“Subscribers are definitely coming back,” McEwen said. “Single ticket sales are moving. It’s definitely at a slower pace than it was at this time, pre-pandemic. Our theaters are optimistic, but they’re certainly prepared that it will be slow.”
Weiss said that given the current trajectory of the pandemic, theater operators can be optimistic. “I think now is the time to move forward cautiously, following the science and allow us to get back to a more normal way of life,” he said. “And I’m seeing that across not only theaters, but a lot of movie and TV productions and TV networks.”
What follows is an abridged version of the discussion, edited for length and clarity. The full interview is available here.
NJBIZ: Both of you have been working with New Jersey theaters on reopening after the pandemic and I’d like to hear about that, but first I’d like to set the stage, as it were, about what was going on during the pandemic. I think most of our [NJBIZ readers] realize that, particularly arts organizations, especially those that rely on live events really had a tough time. John, there was some financial assistance available. Was that enough and how did how bad did it get for the for the members of the alliance and for the people you’ve been working with?
John McEwen: Well it’s been a really challenging 18 months for our theaters because they haven’t had any live performances, so therefore there’s no ticket income. Unfortunately, some staff needed to be furloughed. But they did they were very creative things in doing some virtual programming that, as we know, is not the same.
As the you know theater is exciting and magical because of the relationship between the audience and the artist, and of course the virtual programming is expensive to actually produce. There was a limited income coming in from their virtual events, even though they were very innovative. They were able to reach new audiences through the virtual space that they weren’t able to before, but by no means was that assisting them financially.
They were able to get PPP money. The state also provided some additional resources. Our state arts council and Gov. Murphy have been incredible in providing additional support for our field. But this recovery is going to be slow for sure.
Q: And Dr. Weiss, with some of the organizations you work with you, so you saw the same sorts of things? I’ve talked to people about the virtual events, some theaters going outside. Did you see the same sorts of things?
Stuart Weiss: Yes, I’ve seen theaters and live productions go through this transition phase where they attempted it. Everyone was in the beginning trying to figure out how do we do this safely. How do we take the safety of the audience and the crew and the cast and the actors? How do we take that together and make a safe environment?
I’ve seen lots of theaters and producers, looking at that and at first they started with outdoor venues. So last summer there were events that were outdoors. Science said outdoors was OK and safe. Now we’ve been working diligently through the New Jersey Theater Alliance and with some of our other clients to come up with safe indoor venues. The rules and the guidelines have become fairly consistent on what needs to be done to create a safe environment.
Q: So how are you doing that? Starting with the Opening Night, Opening Right pledge. This is something that that the members of the alliance, I’m guessing all members of the alliance have signed on to. John what was the what was the genesis of that and what what’s the purpose?
McEwen: Well, when the pandemic hit, the first thing that we wanted to do was bring all of our theaters together. We also brought together our presenting venues. The New Jersey Theatre Alliance is a service organization for 40 producing theaters. But we also have many presenting houses throughout our state, and we know that many audiences attend, more than one theater, so we wanted to make sure that whatever policies we were making that there was going to be some consistency.
So we brought a reopening committee together, made up of education people, front of house, management, artistic, so that we could share resources with each other and ideas and come up with these consistent policies. All 40 members of the theater alliance, as well as our 12 presenting partners, they all have taken the safety pledge. We believe that it was really important to let the public know that we’re excited about welcoming them back to our theaters. But we’re putting safety center stage we’re making that the priority. So we thought an Opening Night, Opening Right public relations campaign was going to be able to get that message out there, but also ensure and provide security to the public that we’re working together and that we’re putting safety first for our audiences our staff and our artists.
Weiss: Let me just jump in here because the opening right committee has been meeting regularly throughout the whole pandemic. It’s been a really interesting project to be part of because there’s been lots of different types of theaters and production houses that have all come together regularly, It’s a big committee and … we’ve really tried to base this on both science and also some of the marketing research through the New Jersey Theatre Alliance. They were part of an international marketing effort also, which John can talk to a little bit more.
They also did some local marketing surveys of patrons to find out not only he science-based perspective, but also the patrons’ perspective on how can we create a safe environment to reopen theaters and bring people back. It’s one thing to open theaters but if people don’t come back it doesn’t serve any useful purpose. You want to make sure that you create a safe environment and then communicate that in a way that it makes people feel comfortable enough to come back right.
Q: Yes, I mean I’ve spoken to restaurant owners, for example, who do everything they can, but people have to be confident that they’re going to be safe when they when they go into these places. Butt the signatories of the pledge, what are they promising to do? Generally it’s follow the science, follow the medically safe practices? What specifically are they are they promising to do?
McEwen: Well they’re promising to follow or exceed in most cases state and federal guidelines — mask mandates, in terms of their ventilation systems, hand sanitizer stations throughout their facilities, ongoing cleaning, some distancing in terms of their seating. So there’s consistency in the guidelines they’re all putting safety first. There are some of course some slight variations between venues, so on our OpeningRight.com site you’ll be able to see all of the overall safety guidelines that all of the theaters are following. But there’s also links to each theater, so you can actually go right to their COVID page and read the specific guidelines of that particular theater. That’s all housed under the OpeningRight.com site.
We also have on site, as Dr. Weiss mentioned, that we’ve made these decisions with Dr. Weiss’s guidance, as well as being a part of this international audience study. That was put together by market research firm WolfBrown. We’ve been working with them since the pandemic began to really get a sense of attitudes and perceptions of our audiences when they’re thinking about returning. And one of the things that I think is so interesting from these studies, we’ve learned that more than 90% of people who are attending theater are pro-vaccine and 75% of that 90% are pro-safety guidelines that our theaters are putting in place. So folks attending our venues are very much pro-safety, pro-vaccine, so the chances of you being in a theater sitting next to somebody — the chances are very high that they’ve been vaccinated and that they are supportive of the guidelines that the theater is putting out there.
Weiss: Following up on that, remember that the safety pledge is two-sided. We when we were developing it we wanted to make sure that one side was for the production houses in the theaters but the other side was for theatergoers. There’s a pledge that theatergoers sign on to and they’re saying that they will follow the guidelines of the theaters that they will act responsibly. So it’s a double. We wanted to make sure that there was responsibility on the theater side and the producer side and also responsibility on their theatergoer side, so that combination of both halves I think makes the pledge something that’s significant.
Q: So you have this pledge, but there’s no vaccine requirement. Are any venues going that far?
McEwen: We do have several venues — about 30 venues — right now that are requesting proof of vaccination before entering. Not every organization has that specific requirement, which is why it’s important that we included the links to all of our theaters with the specific guidelines that each theater has and we recommend that the public checks out a theater’s guidelines before ordering a ticket or attending an event at the venue, but a good number of them do require the proof.
Q: OK, that’s interesting. I asked, Dr. Weiss, because I was talking to the CEO of a large hospital here in New Jersey office who also happens to be a physician, and he said flat-out that he would not go to any event unless there was a vaccine requirement, unless you have to show proof to get in. But, in your view, people can be a little bit a little bit looser than that?
Weiss: Well, you know, the theaters have the choice to go which way they want to go. We are working toward consistency and different people are coming to slightly different decisions on where they’re going to land. We are continuing to follow the science.
My personal opinion is that a vaccinated event has a has a better risk mitigation profile to it, so that’s a fancy way of saying it’s a little bit safer. And because we’re learning that once people are vaccinated, one their risk goes down of getting seriously and infected and winding up in the hospital. But there’s some early data that perhaps their ability to spread the virus may be slightly less as well. That’s very preliminary and we’ll see if it pans out. But remember that COVID mitigation is a layered strategy, you have to have several layers of protection to keep people safe. One of them is mask-wearing, one of them is vaccinations, social distancing, all these things that we do add layers of protection to make the environment safer.
WATCH: NJBIZ Conversations with John McEwen and Stuart Weiss
Q: And Dr. Weiss, a little while ago, you mentioned the marketing component. John, I’m assuming the Opening Right Stories — this video series — that’s part of it? I’m interested in hearing, again, what the genesis of those were and what you hope to accomplish with them.
McEwen: Right, well, we wanted to put a human face behind the campaign — or faces I should say. Theater touches many lives — touches certainly our audiences. But it also has impacted our artists. So it was really important to share the stories of how this has been devastating to our industry. We wanted to share what was missing. How did not having theater impact one’s life as an audience member, as a working artist? And then the excitement as we’re all beginning to slowly come back and what does that mean? How is that going to impact their lives, what are they looking forward to the most when they return to the theater? We took different elements, so there are some artists, there’s a story about a family. We have a couple of longtime subscribers to many of our theaters — who go to several of the venues. They all shared certain elements of their of their stories.
And then we’ve had some individuals just write out almost a blog if, you will, explaining their experience over these past 18 months and what they’re looking forward to most as they return to the theater.
Weiss: If folks are theater lovers reading those stories really touches you, because it really talks about peoples’ feeling of loss once they weren’t able to go to live theater and the expectations and the excitement of being able to go back safely. I’ve watched them read some of them already, actually most of them already and they’re really great.
Q: You mentioned that you have been taking surveys — the one you mentioned was about the fact that most of the theatergoers, the overwhelming majority, of theater goers were vaccinated. Have you been able to assess whether or how willing audiences are to go back into theaters? Do you have any sense for how that’s going so far?
McEwen: It still is a bit slow. Our theaters are just starting to bring audiences back. Many of them would have started already — they would have started their fall season right after Labor Day, many of them have delayed their openings, again, to ensure that they are safe, that they’re following all of the guidelines. Also keep in mind that our theaters are also members of various unions, like the actors union the stagehands union, so they need to also follow the guidelines that are being put forth by those unions.
They wanted to make sure that they were fully prepared and ready when they reopened, so that is why many of them delayed their traditional opening date. Their subscription renewals, from what I’m hearing from the theaters, are meeting their expectations and their expectations were certainly not at the level as they were pre-pandemic. They believe it’s going to be slow. We will make a recovery, but it will be a slow one.