How are North Texas arts venues managing omicron surge? Mostly ‘business as usual’
Though Dallas Theater Center canceled all remaining shows of ‘A Christmas Carol’ and Broadway has closed shows, many other Dallas-area venues say they are not changing their plans — for now.
The cancellation followed New York’s Broadway closing multiple shows indefinitely. Earlier, Fort Worth theater company Casa Mañana canceled the rest of the run of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
The coronavirus is once again sweeping the nation, with more than 70% of new cases being blamed on the omicron variant, which has claimed at least one life in the U.S. — a Texas man who had not been vaccinated.
Yet, North Texas venue leaders say they’re not planning on any more closures. At least not yet.
More than a dozen Dallas-area arts organizations and companies queried this week say that, unlike in 2020, they intend to stay open. They’re wary about the headlines and if shutting down would be the best course of action.
One museum executive even went so far as to say that, for the moment, it’s “business as usual” — a policy that could, of course, come undone at any moment.
From optimism to concern at Cara Mía
Until the latest COVID-19 surge, David Lozano, the creative artistic director of Dallas’ Cara Mía Theatre Co., marveled at the sense of optimism building in the arts community.
During the lost year of 2020, when most of the arts world was almost entirely shuttered, Cara Mía pivoted to filming their bilingual plays for schools and universities.
Now Lozano’s company will begin rehearsals on Jan. 4 for a play by Alvaro Saar Rios titled Luchadora!, scheduled to open Jan. 29 at Dallas’ Latino Cultural Center.
“Our community is getting behind it,” Lozano said. “Sponsors have been really excited about it. Our cast is super excited about it.”
But now, a new challenge — an “about-face,” which requires a day-to-day reexamination of the old adage, “The show must go on.”
Optimism was based largely on the spread and success of coronavirus vaccines. But, just months after weathering the delta variant surge, omicron has cast a nationwide pall over what figured to be a hopeful end to 2021.
The Latino Cultural Center has a seating capacity of 296, and while Lozano is concerned about anyone contracting COVID-19, he worries most about the city’s acting community, “because they’re the ones performing onstage. They’re the ones spending time rehearsing together and then performing together, day after day.”
As Dallas Theater Center revealed in its announcement on Monday: “A company member tested positive for COVID-19 despite following all recommended safety precautions and setting their own COVID-19 protocols.”
Already, Lozano is mulling the possibility of adjusting rehearsal schedules “and how we rehearse. We spent a year and a half coming up with contingency plans” — which he hopes he won’t have to employ.
Those plans, he said, include starting rehearsals over Zoom or rehearsing in small pods to ensure social distancing.
“We would also consider virtual distribution should we have to cancel any live performances” — which, of course, he hopes won’t happen.
“We would then focus on the filming of the play, especially for schools,” Lozano said. His company staged 350 virtual performances for schools during the pandemic, serving more than 30,000 students.
And then, of course, testing for the coronavirus will continue, with his company testing both employees and cast members every Tuesday, “after the Monday day off.”
No changes at Dallas Summer Musicals
Dallas Summer Musicals, whose 3,420-seat capacity at the Music Hall at Fair Park is among the region’s largest, still intends to stage its perennial favorite, Jersey Boys, which will open on Dec. 28 and run through Jan. 9. It has two shows scheduled for New Year’s Day.
DSM executive Mike Richman said Tuesday that, at the moment, the company anticipates no changes at all.
“We will continue to employ for Jersey Boys the audience and backstage safety protocols that we used successfully during our [recent] engagements of Wicked and Hamilton,” which Richman said have lured more than 210,000 people to the Music Hall since August. That’s more than double the capacity of AT&T Stadium, where the Dallas Cowboys continually and routinely sell out.
Before Wicked arrived to atone for the drought of 2020, DSM executives had spent months addressing “air flow” in the cavernous Music Hall building, which opened in 1925, seven years after the Spanish flu pandemic.
Through Broadway Across America — which scored a coup for DSM by landing Hamilton in 2019 and now presents all of its shows — the company hired consultant Joseph Allen, described by his employer, Harvard University, as “one of the world’s leading experts on healthy buildings.”
DSM President Kenneth T. Novice said recently that “he was definitely the guy to consult to find out, how do we create air flow? What kinds of filters do we use? Improving the air flow in the building turned out to be job one.” That led to the installation of MERV 13 air filters throughout the building, as well as air purifiers, hand sanitizers and contactless ticketing.
But as with almost all area companies, DSM was shuttered for most of 2020, and was among the ones that received federal pandemic aid.
The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant awarded a whopping $9.2 million to Dallas Summer Musicals, based on 45% of its gross revenue from 2019 — a stunningly successful year that for DSM came down to a single word: Hamilton.
Should the omicron surge get worse, and the phrase “no earned revenue” once again rear its head, arts organizations aren’t banking on getting a similar governmental boost.
Theater in the time of COVID
Raphael Parry, who is cast as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol at Dallas Theater Center, says having any performances canceled was especially tough.
But he applauded the company for being so diligent about testing, which he called an “extremely expensive” process. Parry did not test positive.
“I appreciate the fact that the theater center took care of us, in trying to make sure that we were all healthy. It was all at their cost,” he said. “I felt like they were trying to take care in a really tough time. Submitting to a weekly test was nothing for me.”
But to have to stop playing Scrooge?
“Oh, my God,” he said, “that was tough. It was a real shock.”
For patrons, the latest flurry of cancellations is equally dispiriting.
Johannah Luza, 70, attends theatrical performances quite often with her granddaughter, Mila Vincent. Together, the 6-year-old first-grader and her grandmother are regular theater reviewers for the Dallas-based senior magazine fyi50+.
Luza says she and Mila are both vaccinated, and she applauds the measures taken by local theater companies to ensure their patrons are safe.
Even so, she said, “I’m petrified of this new variant. Until now, I have been perfectly comfortable. We went to Wicked, and everyone wore masks. But my son flew to New York City last weekend and the concert he hoped to attend got canceled.”
Most of all, Luza said she’s sad that the Dallas Theater Center had to cancel all remaining shows of A Christmas Carol. Mila saw the show in 2019 and on opening night in 2021 and loved it.
“A Christmas Carol has become a tradition for so many people,” Luza said. “When Mila saw it two years ago, she said, ‘I want to see this show every year.’ It’s not like a normal show. It’s become a tradition for families like mine.”
But now, it’s a play interrupted, because of omicron, which Luza said with a sigh “is just one more thing we have to cope with.”