In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Magic Theatre was packed to the brim at the world premiere of Don’t Eat the Mangoes. Few seemed concerned about recommendations for “social distancing,” mingling with drinks in hand, excited for the show.
This era is inherently paradoxical: Local arts venues haven’t been doing well, with factors like gentrification threatening their very survival. But theaters, film festivals, and concert halls are all part of an economy that requires the exact opposite of what health officials are recommending during a global pandemic: full audiences, with patrons generally seated in close proximity.
Last week, Mayor London Breed ordered city-owned venues like the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, the Symphony, and the Opera, to cancel large gatherings until March 20, and, along with the San Francisco Department of Public Health, urged residents to reconsider holding or attending large gatherings. Many events, large and small, have added to the growing list of cancellations, but other local arts venues are still trying to figure out their next steps.
“We are all pulling together and responding and being nimble and reacting in the moment,” Jennifer Bielstein, the executive director at the American Conservatory Theater, says. “It’s certainly unprecedented for us to navigate.”
Bielstein says that the A.C.T. feels a financial strain already.
“There’s already increased expense and loss in revenue,” Bielstein says. Increased cleanings and sanitizations are just a few of the new expenses the A.C.T. has to account for, along with a slowdown in ticket purchases. “We’re figuring that out, but our primary concern has been to minimize the spread of germs.”
Ticket purchase slowdowns haven’t been the case for all arts venues. For example, it’s still business as usual for Magic Theatre — albeit with more hand sanitizer stations and frequent cleanings (twice a day).
“We haven’t seen much of an impact — not in terms of attendance,” Kevin Nelson, Magic Theatre’s interim managing director, says. “We’ve had a couple of people call us and cancel, but that’s totally understandable. But we’re still getting walk-ups and ticket sales are in line with what we expect.”
Like the A.C.T. and other venues, Magic Theatre is monitoring the situation to make its next move.
“We’re playing a little bit of a waiting game to see what happens,” Nelson says. But as people continue to come we certainly continue to have shows.”
Magic Theatre is just one of multiple arts spaces that — for the moment — are still continuing their scheduled programming. Reading through the coronavirus-related press releases from venues and festivals (like the Masonic, Feinstein’s at the Nikko, the San Francisco Film Festival, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, BottleRock, Alonzo King Lines Ballet, Magic Theatre, Bay Area Musicals, etc) is like reading a copy-and-paste job. Many have been emphasizing health and safety as an important priority.
Several have also emphasized how much of the responsibility also lies within audience members themselves. Stay at home if you’re feeling sick, they say, and wash your hands. If you’re part of a vulnerable population, consider staying at home too. Venues like Magic Theatre and the A.C.T. have been offering flexible ticket returns or exchanges.
“People know if they’re not feeling well, they know not to come to venues. That message is loud and clear,” Randy Taradash, general manager at Feinstein’s, says. “I don’t think anyone is not smart enough to recognize their own self worth and the worth of those around them.”
Feinstein’s, like the A.C.T. and Magic Theatre, has been measuring audience reactions too while figuring out whether or not to cancel shows. And at Feinstein’s, the general response has been, “The show must go on.”
“We’ve seen a call from patrons making sure we remain a place where they can come and have an escape from the outside world for a few moments of their day,” Taradash says, emphasizing a need for “a place to hear great music, a place where we can commune with one another, making sure we do it safely.”
UPDATE: The American Conservatory Theater, Feinstein’s at Nikko’s, and Magic Theatre have temporarily suspended their performances.
Grace Li covers arts, culture, and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.