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Home / COVID cancellations take toll on Corridor arts venues’ reopenings
The pandemic hasn’t ended its run with area arts presenters.
After taking a leap of faith to reopen the doors to Hancher Auditorium and the Englert Theatre in Iowa City and the Paramount Theatre and the Alliant Energy PowerHouse in Cedar Rapids, these major entertainment presenters have taken recent steps backward.
All report getting off to a good start, with audiences eager to get back to attending both indoor and outdoor events. But in the past month, they’ve announced six postponements or cancellations between them, including a sold-out Boston Pops Orchestra concert slated for Oct. 27 at Hancher.
Most hinged on pandemic issues and concerns: Brett Young at the PowerHouse; the Boston Pops and actor Bill Irwin at Hancher; comedian David Cross at the Englert; and Black Jacket Symphony’s Led Zeppelin tribute at the Paramount.
No reason was shared for pianist Jim Brickman canceling his Cedar Rapids concert. It would have fallen in the middle of his holiday tour that began Friday in Cleveland and continues with 22 live performances and four livestream events through Dec. 31.
The artists and their representatives don’t always give a reason for canceling, said Michael Silva, executive director of VenuWorks Cedar Rapids, which manages the Paramount, the Alliant Energy PowerHouse, ImOn Ice and the outdoor McGrath Amphitheatre.
“They don’t tell us why they’re canceling — sometimes they just do,” he said. “(With) Black Jacket, I heard there was an illness on the tour. We’re seeing a lot of that now, where if one member of the company has symptoms or gets sick, they take the whole tour off the road for a certain number of weeks. We’re just powerless to do anything about it.
“To that end, tours are taking lot of extra precautions when coming into buildings to keep their machine going and on the road, to the point where for the big Broadway companies where you have 60, 70, 80 people backstage, we’re finding requirements to have vaccinated-only staff working backstage around the performers. At a minimum, all of our staff have to wear masks backstage around performers,” he noted.
Last Monday night, however, it wasn’t the touring company that caused “Fiddler on the Roof” to scale back from a full stage production to an intimate concert version on the Paramount stage.
“It was associated with not getting enough local labor to unload the trucks,” Silva said. “Labor shortages affect our industry, as well.”
In an email to patrons Monday afternoon, which made its way to Facebook, ticket holders were given the option to still attend the show that night, transfer their tickets to Tuesday’s performance in Davenport, or get a full refund.
All cancellations are painful for venues like Hancher and the Englert, which incur costs before an act even comes to town, and even more if the show doesn’t go on.
“It's expensive with a cancellation,” said Chuck Swanson, Hancher’s executive director. “No. 1 is that you have a lot of advance marketing — the season brochure and everything. And then the box office, the processing of the tickets and then the processing of the refunds — and nothing to show for it.”
At nonprofit venues like Hancher and the Englert, most of the acts receive a guaranteed artist fee. Broadway tours receive a guarantee, but some also receive an additional percentage, and if there’s a profit, they might get a percentage of that, as well.
Whereas Hancher’s season is set in place in advance, the Englert and most of the VenuWorks sites use a rolling season, booking acts as they become available.
Englert artists receive a guarantee fee, and if they have a “versus contract” they’ll get an additional percentage of the net profit. “So we generally don’t pay out before a show occurs, except for a deposit,” said John Schickedanz, interim executive director and marketing director.
And if a show is canceled because of the pandemic, they start the process all over, as if the engagement didn’t exist.
At VenuWorks spaces, the promoter generally reaps the ticket proceeds, held in escrow until the show happens, and VenuWorks relies on food and drink sales to pay bills, insurance and salaries.
When shows cancel, the ticket-seller, usually Ticketmaster, issues refunds to ticket holders “before they even know it,” Silva said.
The recent Boston Pops cancellation was especially disappointing — both financially and emotionally — for Hancher, Swanson said.
In a video message, Boston Pops Conductor Keith Lockhart told Hancher patrons that the cancellation was “due to lingering health and safety concerns surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.” He ended by saying, “ … we look forward to seeing you soon.”
Swanson, however, isn’t sure when or even if a return engagement will happen any time soon.
“This is the third time that we have canceled the Boston Pops,” he said. Hancher issued refunds, instead of the usual practice of letting patrons donate their tickets back to the auditorium.
“We thought long and hard about this,” he said, since every dollar counts especially now, coming out of so many cancellations in 2020 and 2021, and in the midst of the University of Iowa phasing out its financial support for the fine arts entertainment and education presenter on its campus.
“Even though it would have been great to have the money come back in terms of a donation … I just didn’t feel right doing that,” Swanson said.
He’s also leery about rescheduling the Pops any time soon, saying the cancellation left his staff “shell shocked.”
“It was a real disappointment,” he said. “One of our core values is the shared experience, and excellence, and (putting) people first — and just thinking about the business of what we do of bringing people together with artists and creating that chemistry and that magic.
“You're caught, because it's all out of our control,” he said, “and as there's so much buildup, too, there's so much excitement. People talked about this one, and people made plans — anniversaries, birthdays — a lot of celebrations were centered around that event. … I think we're going to wait a few years before the Boston Pops will be back.”
Rescheduling shows takes finesse.
“Before the pandemic, it was extremely rare that we would have a postponed or canceled event,” the Englert’s Schickedanz said. “Since the pandemic really began, we’ve become real experts in navigating this type of thing. The good thing about it is that both the artist and us as a venue really do want to make the show happen, so we work together really closely.
“Generally when a show is postponed, it’s not just our event that’s postponed, it’s all of the events on that tour, and we’re looking to reroute that entire tour through Iowa City. Just like we do with a brand-new event that we’re bringing to the theater, we would be looking at our calendar so see what’s available, and make sure that we can bring that artist back,” he said.
“Generally it does work out. As proof of that, most of our fall season that has occurred has been rebooked shows that were canceled from either 2020 or early 2021. There’s a couple that have fallen off that radar and we just weren’t able to bring them back, but by and large, we’re bringing those artists back when they are rebooking shows.”
Morale also suffers with cancellations and even postponements at any time, but especially coming off the pandemic pause.
Losing the sold-out Lucy Dacus show Oct. 8 was a blow for the Englert, Schickedanz said.
“That show was actually postponed on the day of show,” he said, after a member of the singer’s team tested positive for COVID-19.
“We were anticipating that that show was really going to be important for us in terms of morale and bringing community together,” Schickedanz said. “It was a completely sold-out show, and I think a lot of people were really excited. There was a palpable feeling of regret and sadness when it ultimately was postponed. So that one was a tough one, but she is coming back.”
“What I always think with a cancellation is that we lose not credibility, but a bit of our pride, because everybody knows Hancher delivers,” Swanson said. “It’s tough. … We’ve just been through a season of cancellations, and we wanted to come back in a robust way, which we did. But then all of a sudden, here were these cancellations. We really didn’t want our audience to think Hancher’s coming back to what it was last year.”
So where do the presenters go from here, trying to plan seasons and secure acts?
“We have never worked in a time with so much uncertainty,” Swanson said. “We're just doing the best we possibly can.”
The Jazz at Lincoln Center ensembles have eased the transition from live to virtual and back to live at Hancher. The full orchestra played a Hancher holiday concert Dec. 14, 2019, then Wynton Marsalis contacted Hancher first thing when he was moving his “Sound of Democracy” concert online in Oct. 2020. That was followed by a free lecture series titled “United We Swing: Jazz and American History,” presented online in March and April 2021.
And now back to live — the Jazz at Lincoln Center Quintet performed four “Let Freedom Swing” concerts in the smaller Strauss Hall on Nov. 18 and 19, returning April 23, 2022, with two “Let Freedom Swing” concerts for kids, also in Strauss Hall.
“There’s not another organization or artists more committed to education,” Swanson said.
The Englert has been building and strengthening relationships.
“We have an amazing team of experts who get shows done, and we were really good at bringing artists to the venue and making sure that shows went without a hitch before the pandemic,” Schickedanz said. “And this environment, where shows are canceled or postponed, has become a new element of that, and we’ve kind of become experts at that, too.
“We’ve built that into what to expect and how to navigate that in terms of budgeting and what do we do for patrons, what do we do with our production team, what do we do from a development standpoint. It’s just become part of what we do, and I like to think that we do that really well at this point,” Schickedanz said.
“It’s unfortunate that’s where we are today, but that’s the world we’re living in, and we’re just going to roll with that and make sure artists and patrons are taken care of.”
The Alliant Energy PowerHouse was one of the first arenas in the nation to reopen, bringing in country singer Josh Turner on Sept. 18, 2020, with a maximum capacity reduced to 1,800 to allow for physical distancing.
While ticket sales and the number of staff members running the shows haven’t fully rebounded, Silva said the number of shows has bounced back.
"The staff is working really hard,“ he said. ”I just wish more people were buying tickets.“
Country shows have been selling well, but he likes to space those out to keep other genres in the mix. He’s seeing some cautiousness in sales at the Paramount, but that’s to be expected, he said, since that venue tends to skew to an older demographic.
“The biggest shows are not yet back out on the road,” he said. “The super big ones are just starting to dip their toe, but they’re too big for our 6,000-seat arena. The midrange shows are not really back out on the road, so we are doing a lot of half-house shows.”
Comedians, singer/songwriters and smaller bands are doing well in Cedar Rapids and at the Englert. But things are looking up for the coming year at the PowerHouse.
"We are starting to get holds for bigger arena shows in the spring. The arena’s really going to start singing in the spring,” Silva said. “We’re looking forward to 2022 being even better than this year.”
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