Judy Lisi doesn’t have to think hard to recall when she made the decision to close the Straz Center. It was Friday, March 13. Three shows were scheduled to open that night. Chatter had started early that week about the possibility of the Straz having to close at some point, “but it still seemed far away,” Lisi says.
The dominoes began falling throughout the week, the biggest one being New York City’s shutdown of all Broadway shows on Thursday, March 12. Then, on Friday, Lisi and her team got word that someone associated with the Jersey Boys tour slated to open in the Straz’s Morsani Hall that night may have tested positively. “We looked at each other, and that was that moment of truth,” she says.
After consulting with her colleagues at the Broadway League and performing arts centers around the country, Lisi and the Straz announced the closure the morning of March 13. They’ve yet to reopen their doors.
David Jenkins, the co-founder and producing artistic director of the independent Jobsite Theater (housed at the Straz), was at the ABC Action News studio. He was waiting to be interviewed about the opening night of his company’s show Doubt when he got the text message informing him of the shutdown.
“We all believed we’d get at least a week or two of the run in before any sort of mandatory closures were going to come,” he says. “That was a little blindsiding, for sure.”
“I think, deep down, we were hopeful it might be really temporary,” says Suzanne Livesay, the Straz Center’s vice president of education and community engagement.
She also oversees the Patel Conservatory, the center’s performing arts school. The closure happened to overlap with the beginning of the conservatory’s spring break, so Livesay and her team had a week to get their bearings.
Everyone else at the Straz immediately began the work of moving forward.
“Bit by bit, layer by layer, we realized how critical this was and all of the decisions we were going to be forced to make,” Lisi says. “We’re prepared for anything in my business. This is something nobody was prepared for.”
First and perhaps foremost is determining how the performing arts — with its tightly packed theaters full of audience members, musicians, actors, singers and dancers —can be done safely, with no or minimal risk of virus transmission. Instituting a high degree of sanitation and hygiene in both the front and back of house will be a given, Lisi says. Straz Center COO Lorrin Shepard is also heading up a task force of North America’s 30 largest performing arts centers to study additional safety protocols. Some of the options they’ve discussed include temperature checks for employees, performers and patrons, mandatory masks, new air filtration systems, foggers with sanitizing mists, and the hiring of a health protocol officer.
While social distancing may be an option for some performances, it generally would not be financially viable to leave seats empty, Lisi notes — especially when the center has had no revenue (and instead has been issuing refunds) since mid-March.
They’re also looking at an estimated additional $1 million to $2 million a year for the new health protocols. However, social distancing is part of the answer for the Patel Conservatory’s planned reopening. Livesay and her team plan to begin holding hybrid on-site and virtual music, dance and theater camps for small groups of students in mid-July. Because the Straz is currently empty, they’ll use every bit of available space, including lobbies and stages, to practice up to12-foot social distancing and give kids their own area to sing and do choreography. The conservatory’s teachers have held private lessons and summer camps virtually since March, something Livesay says has worked surprisingly well.
“Necessity is the mother of invention, or I’ll even say exploration,” she adds. “Trying that on for size has really opened up some things for us as far as what we can do virtually.”
Innovation has also been on David Jenkins’ mind. Though he has a small full-time staff at Jobsite, about 60 freelance performers who otherwise would have had work with the group over the last few months have had no source of income. “Most of the things we’re doing right now are about visibility, not viability,” he says. Though he can’t employ those performers with a stage production right now, he has been posting clips from past Jobsite shows and having actors perform soliloquies or show off some of their favorite keepsakes from performances past. At the very least, it’s keeping the actors names and faces on the minds of the public.
“That helps create a deeper bond, a deeper connection [between the artists and the public],” he says. “And maybe for people who don’t know our work, it gets them interested.”
Jenkins, Lisi and their teams are working to come up with creative ways to slowly reopen and begin welcoming audiences back to the Straz. They had planned to announce an outdoor, socially distanced event on their Riverwalk stage at the end of June, but the local spike in COVID-19 cases curtailed those plans. “That’s what it’s been like. As soon as you think you have something, it disappears,” Lisi says.
There are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about the challenges that lie ahead for the theater community. But, there are just as many to be hopeful. As Jenkins points out, “people have been bemoaning and forecasting the death of theater for thousands of years,” and the fact that it has yet to happen speaks to the power of the art form.
Producers behind all the Broadway shows scheduled for the beginning of the Straz’s 2020-21 season (originally slated to begin this October) have worked to move their dates into 2021, ensuring all the tours will still make a stop in Tampa this season. The Jobsite’s Doubt, which is still staged and ready to go at the Shimberg Playhouse, will also be produced when the Straz reopens; Jenkins is evaluating his company’s season and plans to announce changes on a rolling basis.
The last few months have shown the value of the performing arts and arts education, perhaps more than ever, Livesay says.
“My team is a group of teachers who started as artists, whether they were actors, singers or dancers,” she says. “The problem-solving ability and the flexibility that this group of people has brought to the table is off the charts.”
“There’s a lot to be said for [the value of] an improv class when every day is an improv class,” she adds with a laugh.
For the people experiencing art, it’s a chance to see, hear and potentially understand ourselves and others in new ways, Jenkins says.
“We’re in a historic moment where I believe that we could do with sharpening our empathy skills a little bit. That’s what the theater does really well,” he adds.
“I think in times like this when you’re rocked out of your socks, you really want the arts more than ever to try to understand what we’re going through. That’s what theater is all about, that’s what opera is all about. It’s all about humans and how they excel, how they cope, how they prevail, how they overcome,” Lisi says. “I look at people come in, and they’re all races, they’re all ethnicities, they’re all religions. But when they come through that door and they go into that theater, they’re all these people of differences sitting together, united in the story that’s being told on stage.
“That’s pretty powerful.”