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Next Act For OC Arts

On the last weekend in April, the Segerstrom Center for the Arts tried something it hadn’t done in 14 months—a live performance in an indoor setting.
 
Dancers from the American Ballet Theater performed three shows, each with 300 in the audience, or only 10% of capacity to follow coronavirus protocols.


“Ninety seconds after the curtain rose and the performance started, it felt normal,” Segerstrom Center President Casey Reitz told the Business Journal.


“We were giddy and relieved. It gave us a taste of what to expect moving forward.”
The Orange County arts world, among the hardest hit industries by the pandemic, is gearing up to slowly put their toes into the performing waters.


A year ago, the arts scene faced a shutdown that some hoped would last only weeks, with a reopening in the summer or the fall. As the pandemic dragged on, those hopes fell by the wayside, and their business models of gathering thousands of people to watch shows together fell apart.

 
The area’s performing arts community lost an estimated $121.1 million and 2,727 jobs during the pandemic, according to Arts Orange County, which recently surveyed 38 organizations. The organizations are estimating that it will take them until 2022 to see their operations and revenue return to pre-pandemic levels.


What follows are comments from six of the area’s better-known entities:

Pacific Symphony: Summer Season Plans

A year ago, Pacific Symphony President John Forsyte told the Business Journal that its  “entire business model has been turned upside down.”

“This is undoubtedly one of the most challenging moments in the life of the Pacific Symphony. Unlike the Great Recession, here we have a situation where we cannot put on live performances,” he said at that time.


A year later, the damage is better understood. The Pacific Symphony, which had enjoyed 28 straight years of balanced budgets, had to slash its annual $21 million budget to $12 million. Forsyte and Music Director Carl St. Clair each took a 25% pay cut. About eight of its 138 employees were let go. Hours were reduced for about a third of the remaining staff.


A symphony that annually presents more than 100 concerts to 275,000 was halted in its tracks.


The musicians also did their part by reducing overall compensation and delaying the full compensation due to them in 20/21 until 23/24 season.


“For all of the performing arts, this has been a time that’s been disappointing to us,” Forsyte said during a recent interview.

 
Contributions from the board of directors and donors have helped, he said.


“Where we’ve seen a lot of pullback is corporate support. We’re hopeful that traditional businesses will reinstate their support.”

 
The donations made it possible for the symphony to remain vibrant in ways such as recording performances and teaching children over Zoom.


During the past year, the symphony created content that airs for free on Thursday evenings as part of its PacificSymphony+ series on YouTube and Facebook. The programs are being viewed in Europe, Canada and Asia, including the symphony’s celebration of the Iranian New Year.

 
“It’s very gratifying to know we have an international viewership,” he said. “It’s been an extraordinary time of resilience and adaptation. It’s been a great learning experience for us.”


On June 5, it will stream Verdi’s opera “La Traviata” and charge $25 as it tries to start generating revenue again. A week later, the Pacific Symphony will host a “Fandango” gala outdoors at Oso Viejo Park in Mission Viejo.

 
Last week, the Pacific Symphony announced its 2021-22 season will begin Sept. 30, with St. Clair saying “nothing compares with performing for you live in our concert hall.”


In the coming months, it will have a better sense of state guidelines for live concerts.


“We didn’t know what the roadmap was until a month ago,” Forsyte said. “Now it’s a scramble to get everything together. We’re extremely excited about that opportunity.”

 
The Pacific Symphony’s plan is to work in stages, beginning first with small outdoor performances.  It’s aiming for a summer season, with a first performance on July 4th and with free concerts in Orange County cities.

 
“Our feeling is the safest venues start outdoors,” Forsyte said. “As COVID continues to abate, we can safely return. Gradually we’ll move indoors by mid-to-late September.


“The key word is gradual. We have to understand that people will have to acclimate to large gatherings,” he said.

 
“The most important thing is we hope people will return to live performances.  That is what art is—the interaction between the audience and the performers.” 

South Coast Repertory: Streamed Shows, Flexible Plans

Last year, South Coast Repertory encountered its most difficult situation in its 57-year history. It canceled five productions, its national showcase of new works at the Pacific Playwrights Festival, and two student productions. It cut its staff in half, letting go about 33 employees. It estimated a 25% drop in revenue; instead, the decline was 45% to around $6.3 million.  

The theater planned a variety of scenarios last year.

 
“It took us awhile to figure out in 2020 that we weren’t going to be able to do anything,” Managing Director Paula Tomei said.  

 
“We cannot have indoor audiences. That’s the biggest impact. Our industry was the first to close and likely the last to open indoors. As we moved into 2021, we learned a lot. We remain flexible.”

 
Nowadays, it’s offering access to a professionally filmed, all new production of “Red Riding Hood,” free of charge to schools/students who are usually bused to the theatre to watch it live as part of Its Theatre for Young Audiences program. Its Pacific Playwrights Festival is showcasing five, professionally filmed staged readings of new plays that are being released for a one-week viewing period between April and June in lieu of the in-person festival that is usually held over a weekend in late April and attended by theatre professionals from across the country.


This summer, it has an entirely new initiative to perform outdoors at the Mission San Juan Capistrano with two plays: “American Mariachi” and “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown.”


“Protocols in place from the union require multiple testings over many days. Those are things that we don’t normally experience,” Tomei said.

 
The fall season is looking more optimistic because of the vaccines, she said.  


“Our hope is to reopen inside this fall,” Tomei said. “The real unknown is what our audiences are going to feel. We’ll have to meet the audiences at their comfort levels. We need to understand what their appetite is for in-person theatre and that we’ll be studying this question for some time. We hope we won’t have to socially distance once we can perform inside but will plan accordingly as more information becomes available.” 

Segerstrom Center for the Arts: Indoor Upgrades, Outdoor Pods

The Segerstrom Center for the Arts has felt like “a ghost town” in the past year, Casey Reitz said.

“We’ve been by and large shut down for live performances,” he said.

The center’s annual budget dropped to $16 million from its typical $50 million to $60 million, which Reitz is expecting it to eventually return to.

SCFTA began last fall showcasing outdoor events, but had to shut down because of the resurgence in COVID cases. It has produced online content, which expanded its reach to students as far away as North Carolina.

In recent months, it’s hosted outdoor events at Argyros Plaza such as Salsa or Indian dancing and comedian Louie Anderson. The audience is separated by “pods” that permit up to six guests so that masks can be taken off and social distancing is maintained.

“It’s been working out really well—it’s similar to outdoor dining. Everybody feels very comfortable,” he said. “We’re going to lean into outdoor performances in the summer.”

SCFTA’s website lists a busy slate of indoor events beginning in the fall, including “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “My Fair Lady.” It has upgraded its air conditioning system and added personal protection equipment. The center is also implementing protocols with the assistance of experts from the University of California, Irvine for helping people get in and out of the theaters.

“At the moment, it appears that Broadway will permit 100% capacity by November,” Reitz said. “Performers are very anxious to get back on stage. That’s been a relief. They’re chomping at the bit.

“Come fall, you won’t know this even happened. We took a pause, got a little bruised, but everything is going in the right direction. It will be a full slate.”

Orange County Museum of the Arts: $75M Project on Schedule

The Costa Mesa-based Orange County Museum of the Arts probably had the biggest changes of the large art entities over the past year.

Last August, CEO Todd Smith departed for a similar position in North Carolina. In February, it hired Heidi Zuckerman, who managed the Aspen Art Museum from 2005-2019.

OCMA is still planning to complete its $75 million new museum by next spring. It got a big boost when it brought on a new member of the board, Bob Olson, one of the most prolific developers of hotels on the West Coast as the founder and CEO of Newport Beach’s R.D. Olson Development. Olson is now chair of the New Building Committee.

“We are in the middle of construction and it’s going really well,” Zuckerman said. “We’re planning our opening activities. When we open to the public, we’ll do a 24-hour opening. We will be collaborating with as many organizations as possible.”

Zuckerman, who has curated more than 200 exhibitions, is planning a gala full of events to attract the public to its first day, including yoga and movies in the middle of the night for insomniacs.

OCMA’s temporary 32,000-square-foot facility was able to reopen for a few months last fall until it had to close again as the county’s number of COVID cases spiked. Zuckerman said it’s still undetermined if the interim museum will reopen before the permanent building is completed.

The museum is working with Farmers & Merchants Bank to finance the $75 million project. Thus far, OCMA has raised more than $55 million, including a recent $3 million anonymous gift, she said.

“I love raising money,” Zuckerman said.

“We are a great investment for philanthropic dollars. As we approach the doubling of capital gains taxes, we are available to talk with anyone about their appreciated stocks.”

Pageant of the Masters: July Return

The cancellation of last year’s show meant not hiring 400 seasonal employees, the 30-piece Pageant orchestra and more than 100 contractors, including musicians who would have performed at the Festival grounds in Laguna Beach.

The pandemic cost about $9.3 million in revenue last year for the Pageant of the Masters, which dates to 1933.

In the past year, the group pivoted to social media to highlight festival exhibitors and their art careers in a program called #MeetThe Artist.  In #TourDePageant, it featured past pageant recreations of famous works of art and the museums that house them in their art collections.  

Last June, the Festival debuted “foaTV,” a free online collection of videos, TV clips and digital records. In July, it unveiled foaVirtual, a 3D immersive online gallery experience that enabled users from the comforts of their own homes to explore and purchase artwork from over 120 Festival of Arts exhibitors.

It also hosted virtual Concerts on the Screen that featured past musical performances on the festival grounds. In December, it produced the nonprofit’s first-ever virtual gala event in December called “Simply ARTrageous: Live the Legacy. The virtual event, which raised more than $300,000, included musical acts like Melissa Manchester and celebrity guests including Bryan Cranston and Jane Lynch.

The pageant is scheduled to return for a  July 7 to Sept. 3 run, along with the Festival of Arts during the same period. Last month, the festival issued “recall notices” to all its laid-off employees. Organizers are not expecting as robust a year as prior campaigns.

“We are beyond humbled to start to welcome back staff to our grounds as we begin preparations for this summer,” David Perry, president of the Festival of Arts, said in an email.

Details such as seating requirements at the 2,500 Irvine Bowl were still being finalized at press time. The organizers are working on the assumption that social distancing requirements will no longer be in effect by the time the shows begin. Ticket prices this coming summer will be similar to prior years. Both shows typically attract more than 225,000 visitors into Laguna Beach annually.

“At this point, it’s hard to say how our grounds might look a little different. But one thing is for sure, our hope is to create an enjoyable experience for our guests to reconnect with the art and each other,” Perry said.

Laguna Playhouse: Plans on Hold

The 400-seat Laguna Playhouse hasn’t yet announced when it will get back to business.

“We’re tentatively coming back in the fall,” Executive Director Ellen Richards told the Business Journal. “It’s kind of wait and see if these restrictions are really lifted and see what happens with COVID. Who thought it’d last this long?”

The Playhouse, which normally employs 40, had to cut its workforce to 13. Its budget fell to $2 million from its typical $7 million.

The Playhouse is in “good financial shape” as it was able to obtain a federal payroll protection program loan and its donors “really stepped up and helped us,” according to Richards. During the forced closure, the theater underwent renovations.

Its conservatory classes and shows moved to virtual performances, including a government contract to inform 16 to 25-year-olds about health services.

“Everything shifted to virtual,” Richards said. “There was a whole learning curve of how you make all this work.”

Still, a family that pays $20 for a virtual streaming show doesn’t compare with one that spends $200 on tickets for live performances at the theater, Richards said.

She’s not sure what the seating arrangements will be and whether attendees will be comfortable sitting next to strangers.

“We cannot wait to see people coming up to the Playhouse.”

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Peter J. Brennan
Peter J. Brennan
Peter J. Brennan has been a journalist for 40 years. He spent a decade in Latin America covering wars, narcotic traffickers, earthquakes, and business. His resume includes 15 years at Bloomberg News where his headlines and articles sometimes moved the market caps of companies he covered by hundreds of millions of dollars. His articles have been published worldwide, including the New York Times and the Washington Post; he's appeared on CNN, CBC, BBC, and Bloomberg TV. He was awarded a Kiplinger Fellowship at The Ohio State University.
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