Stage curtains rise again for the return of live performances
By Anne Tate | Photography by John Michael Simpson
After a 15-month shutdown, The Fruit reopened at its full 1,100-person capacity in June – nine weeks earlier than planned – to host a Juneteenth commemoration with music and an art show. Everything, including admission, was free. “It was intended to be this celebration of, ‘Welcome back, let’s do this,’” said Tim Walter, founder of the South Dillard Street event venue. “It wasn’t about making money. It was about showing the art and being back together.”
In March, nearly a year after the Hayti Heritage Center closed to the public, its slam poetry team performed in the gallery for a socially distanced, in-person audience of 20. Hayti gradually resumed limited-capacity, in-person programming in the months following, beginning with dance classes, slam poetry, artist exhibitions and its music series, Executive Director Angela Lee said. Hayti will open for outside facility rentals after Labor Day. In-person events will be limited to the main level, including the first floor of the performance hall. At full capacity, Hayti can hold up to 500 people, but in September, only around 150 seats will be available.
Spaces in the Durham Arts Council building are also opening slowly, Executive Director Sherry DeVries said. It began hosting limited in-person events in October 2020 and offered 24 performing arts camps and 11 on-site classes this summer. The DAC hosted its first in-person Third Friday event in June for 104 visitors total, with only 25 people allowed in the building at a time. The PSI Theatre opened in July for a private, in-person dance performance for the first time since COVID-19 closures began. The arts nonprofit hopes to bring the theater back to its 175- to 200-seat capacity, but it’s still undetermined when that will happen.
It’s a similar story across the event venue board: The cinemas at The Carolina Theatre reopened on July 23, and its 1,000-seat auditorium will reopen at full capacity with a wave of concerts and live events immediately after Labor Day; the Durham Performing Arts Center reopened at full capacity on Aug. 2, kicking off the venue’s “August of Rock”; Motorco Music Hall reopens at its full 450-person capacity on Aug. 23; and The Pinhook will open to full capacity performances on Sept. 1, starting with weekend-only shows. Duke Performances will welcome visitors back to Duke University’s campus with a celebratory performance on the Baldwin Quad the last weekend of August, Vice Provost for the Arts John Brown said. Its multiple indoor stages across campus officially reopen for a booked fall season on Sept. 12.
Updated Look, Safety and Sounds
Many adjustments were made behind the scenes to enhance safety at these venues, taking guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as state and local health departments. Of course, protocols could change before and after reopenings based on the status of the pandemic and readjusted health guidelines.
Nearly $100,000 worth of new sound equipment was installed the week The Fruit shut down at the start of the pandemic. During closures, the basement bar and bathrooms were completely renovated. And now, there’s neon everywhere. “We gave studio space to a neon artist, and he pays us in neon,” Walter said. Hayti staff held bi-weekly meetings to ensure constant communication. They contacted vendors and performers and discussed multiple backup plans for each event, keeping busy despite Hayti’s closure. “In many ways, we have not skipped a beat,” Lee said. Hayti underwent facility repairs and renovations, some of which are still in progress due to logistical problems and supply shortages caused by the pandemic. As of press time, guests are required to wear masks and to practice social distancing inside the facilities.
DPAC put together a “Safety First Task Force” of four senior staffers soon after it closed. They research how other performing arts centers across the nation reopened and plan safety improvements at DPAC at each weekly meeting. “We’ve logged over 1,500 hours collectively,” said Josette Roten, DPAC’s marketing and public relations manager. Updates include a new air purification system and increased disinfection of high-touch surfaces. The Global Biorisk Advisory Council accredited DPAC as a GBAC STAR facility for its comprehensive system of cleaning, disinfection and infectious disease prevention. DPAC also transitioned to 100% mobile tickets – a switch they planned prior to the pandemic. Actions like entering with your ticket, entering the bathrooms and paying for concessions all now have the option of being contactless. Staff and vendors are required to be vaccinated; guests are required to wear a mask – a last-minute policy change made hours before its first show on Aug. 2.
The Carolina Theatre staff also underwent safety training, and bipolar ionization was installed in its air filtration systems to the tune of about $40,000. “It’s certified to remove 97% of pathogens from the air with every pass through the theater’s air conditioning and heating system,” President and CEO Randy McKay said. The Carolina Theatre joins DPAC as an accredited GBAC STAR facility. Patrons are asked to “vax up or mask up,” McKay added, though now The Carolina Theatre highly encourages all guests to wear a mask or facial covering unless actively eating or drinking, regardless of their vaccination status. Staff are required to wear masks but not to be vaccinated, although many have been, he said.
Some venues, including The Pinhook and Motorco, will request guests be vaccinated. Motorco will require masks, temperature checks and proof of vaccination at its first indoor concert since closing. “We are going to go back to the artist and find out if they would be OK opening it up to general admission, but currently, it’s being sold as a proof-of-vaccine show,” Motorco Partner Josh Wittman said.
Everyone entering the DAC is required to undergo a temperature check and wear a mask. Social distancing is encouraged through extensive signage and markings throughout the building. The DAC reevaluates its protocols every month based on state-wide COVID case numbers and vaccination rates.
The doors of many Durham venues closed, but planning never stopped. Booking acts is an ongoing process – shows were canceled, postponed and even added throughout the pandemic.
The staff at DPAC planned its reopening for more than a year, rescheduling events multiple times. The number of shows booked “seem to be on track to be at levels like we were before, if not even higher,” Roten said.
In June, 40 concerts and comedy shows were already on The Carolina Theatre’s books for September through February. That’s higher than what the theater usually sees during this time, McKay said. “I think it’s reflective of all the artists being excited to get back on the road and us, of course, excited to bring the community back in through our doors to be able to celebrate and have fun together,” he said.
The PSI Theatre has been booked, mostly for dance performances, every weekend since July. The DAC continuously took reservations for July or later, contingent upon COVID-19 conditions at the time of the event. Duke Performances continued to book artists 12-18 months ahead of time. “We have an eye toward the ideal,” Brown said. “But we also have an asterisk that says, ‘Subject to University COVID policy.’”
Ticket prices at The Carolina Theatre, DPAC and Duke Performances have not significantly changed since pre-pandemic times, McKay, Roten and Brown said. But Wittman has noticed some higher ticket prices set by the agents and artists at Motorco. “It seems like ticket prices have definitely creeped up about 15 to 20%,” he said. “And I don’t really know why that is. Maybe they feel like there’s going to be more want, or because gas prices are currently expensive, or the agent needs a higher commission. But tickets are selling as strong as they ever have.”
The plan at Hayti is to maintain the same ticket prices as before the shutdown, Lee said. “We haven’t really thought about increasing prices,” Lee said. “We know that it’s going to take some time for us to catch back up to where we were in terms of lost revenue, and we’re not going to try to pass that off on ticket buyers.”
McKay notes, like Wittman, that selling tickets to upcoming shows hasn’t been an issue. “Looking at the ticket sales for shows that have just gone on sale, it’s looking like the community is as anxious as I am about getting back to life as normal and being able to get back to live music and comedy,” he said.
But he’s also worried about “how many [people] are going to be reticent? And what will that mean for the long-term ticket sales and therefore the financial stability of presenting events?”
Many venues are rebuilding their staff. Before the pandemic, Motorco had about 60 people on its payroll. Now it has 10 to 15. Some staff are returning, and Motorco is hiring. The process was slow at first but feels like it’s turning around, Wittman said. “You can only go as fast as we have the ability to re-train people and get them on the schedule.”
DPAC retained all 25 of its full-time staff during the pandemic and expects that around 300 to 350 of its 400 part-timers will return. DPAC is currently hiring ushers and ticket takers as well as concessions, security and housekeeping staff. The Fruit is hiring managerial and service staff.
The Carolina Theatre may experience staffing shortages, especially because it’s challenging to find employees while so many other venues are hiring right now, McKay said. Pre-pandemic, the theater had around 30 full-time staff and 60 part-time staffers. In June, it had five full-time staff, most of whom were recently hired, and two part-time staff. “A number of our former staff, including a lot of familiar faces that our guests will know, will be returning to their roles,” McKay said. “And then we are hiring for roles for a few folks who couldn’t come back. As we near the fall live event reopening, we’ll be hiring a large number of crew and concessions and box office positions. Until then, we’re just hiring a few technical positions that require significant experience, like a technical director or box office manager.”
Growth and Financial Recovery
Prior to its shutdown in 2020, Hayti was on track to exceed the number of guests it welcomed the previous year – more than 59,000 people, Lee said. For the past several years, Hayti saw an approximately 20% increase in people coming to the center each year. The pandemic put that growth on pause. “We’re aiming to get back to that, at least,” Lee said.
“In a normal year, we would serve more than 350,000 people in the building,” DeVries said of the arts council’s galleries and event spaces. “This past year, we’ve only served about 3,500. My guesstimate is that we will have come back hopefully at about the 75% level [in the next fiscal year]. And hopefully the following year, we’ll get back to 100%.”
The excitement of welcoming guests back is palpable, but the ghosts of lost revenue linger. “It has been so expensive,” Walter said, noting that The Fruit now is in debt by $250,000 more than it was before the pandemic. “All of our reopening expenses are on credit cards. We had zero working capital left, it all just vaporized. It’s financially punishing to launch The Fruit and get shut down just as we were taking off. And then do it again – [to] restart.”
The Fruit isn’t alone. “[Motorco] lost money the last year and a half, every month,” Wittman said. “Hopefully we can break even again, that would be the next best step.”
Still, the signs are promising. The Fruit’s calendar is rapidly filling with local, national and international touring acts. “It feels like our reputation just matured over the year,” Walter said. “We should come screaming out of the doldrums.” Revenue from the slated shows and bar sales will be used to pay off debt. “We are very optimistic that people will get back into the habit of throwing down to some really great sounds,” he said.