“To be or not to be? That is the question” is a well-known quote from Shakespeare.
But for actors, musicians and other performers today, the real question is whether they will be able to act, sing or perform.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to shake the mechanics of arts and entertainment everywhere, and Pioneer Valley is no exception. After a dismal 2020, the western Massachusetts art scene looked to 2021 with cautiously optimistic views, but the year had mixed results. Now, artists and other entertainment entrepreneurs are once again looking to 2022 with hope, albeit with a pinch of pragmatism.
John Sanders, a partner and talent buyer at DSP Shows, a national company that books and promotes shows from Springfield North to Greenfield, said 2021 is “quite a roller coaster ride.”
“As June rolled around, we opened at full capacity for outdoor shows in July and August and prepared to open indoors with no restrictions in September. Then (the Delta variant) it came in July-August and we had to quickly move to requiring vaccination certificates and masks for all indoor shows and even some outdoor shows,” he said. “The good news was that we got a lot of shows for the second half of 2021.”
Still, the Virus DSP also sometimes handcuffed when band members tested positive and had to cancel or reschedule dates, making things difficult. Now the omicron variant makes things even more complicated.
“I’m in the process of rescheduling or canceling most of our shows in January and early February as we’re seeing a huge spike in cases,” Sanders said. “While it appears that most cases of Omicron are associated with mild illness, we still see a strain on our local healthcare infrastructure as hospitalizations are also increasing sharply. We don’t want to add to that burden and hope that by moving shows to later in the winter or spring we will be able to move shows to a time when cases and hospitalizations are much lower than in January.”
Despite those setbacks, Sanders remains hopeful — but realistic — for 2022.
“We’re having a big summer of outdoor shows in upstate New York and western Massachusetts, and I think by June the concert industry should be doing well,” he said. “Indoors might still be tough for the foreseeable future, but 2021 has proven that with the right precautions, we can safely run shows indoors.”
Danny Eaton, production manager at the Majestic Theater in West Springfield, said although 2021 was better than 2020 – when the theater was dark for most of the year – there were challenges. A COVID case nearly turned a show upside down, but thankfully an understudy saved the day. However, recent groundbreaking cases have derailed rehearsals for Betty & the Patch.
“The result is that the show has been pushed back to June and we’re going to be dark in January and part of February,” Eaton said.
As a theater that produces plays, the Majestic is subject to the Actors Equity Union COVID rules and the restrictions are stricter than most municipal rules. Equity protocols require all performers to be fully vaccinated and have a negative PCR test performed before beginning work. Then the weekly tests will continue along with a daily temperature check and a short survey to be completed.
Eaton added that his theater also requires viewers to be vaccinated and provide proof of vaccinations, and to be masked at all times except when eating or drinking in the cafe. As he looks to the future, safety is the top priority, Eaton said.
“How long all this will last remains to be seen,” he said. “We will continue to do whatever we need to do to protect viewers as well as our performers and staff and to keep the theater running.”
Of course, not all problems in the regional arts scene are entirely due to the pandemic. In addition to the cancellation of shows due to COVID, musicians from the Springfield Symphony Orchestra have been embroiled in a long battle with the orchestra’s board over a new contract. The musicians’ union has been without contact for 18 months.
The National Labor Relations Board recently ordered the SSO board to pay its musicians $276,406 in back wages to offset money they would have earned for canceled concerts this season. The SSO will perform two concerts on April 22 and May 13 on behalf of the NLRB.
But for the most part, the arts and entertainment scene depends on how much COVID continues to wreak havoc. Jim Neill, publicist for Iron Horse Entertainment Group in Northampton, said that while there have been challenges over the past year, most clients have had a good attitude towards minutes.
“It helped us appreciate them in new ways. There were struggles, but there were also bright moments, and we’ve come to appreciate a lot of what we previously took for granted,” said Neill.
Neill added that while omicron is letting its business downshift again for now, the experience of the past year has prepared them to face whatever comes in 2022.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to do our winter shows successfully, but we expect to really get going again in the spring,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s a changed world, so there are things ahead that we can only imagine at this point.”
Jim Olsen, whose company Signature Sounds spans the gamut between the massive Green River Festival and small shows at The Parlor Room in Northampton, said that while 2021 was better than 2020, the quicksand of COVID variants is making planning difficult.
“We book our shows months in advance and all of that uncertainty makes it very difficult to predict anything,” he said. “We’ve had shows where more than 30% of the ticket holders were absent. We had to reduce the number of shows we can present.”
To that end, Olsen said he’s lowered his expectations. However, he noted that omicron peaks at a time (January) that is usually fairly quiet for live music. But he added that it’s very difficult to plan anything for the rest of the winter, so his hope is for better conditions in the spring.
“I’m an optimist, but I think we’ll be in much better shape once the weather improves and we can bring outdoor music again,” he said. “This is going to be a great year for outdoor shows and festivals.”