Curt Dale Clark, artistic director at Maine State Music Theater in Brunswick, has been looking ahead to the 2022 summer season with an equal mix of exhilaration and fright.
When the production of “The Sound of Music” opens on June 8, it will be the first time its audiences have been inside Bowdoin College’s Pickard Theater since August 2019.
Clark repeated the timeline, both for emphasis and to make sure he didn’t misspeak.
“What I’ve learned in that time is that people need us,” he said. “They need the cathartic thing that happens when they come to see one of our shows. Communal enjoyment is part of who we are as people.”
Maine State Music Theater is just one of many arts organizations across the state anxiously awaiting summer events. After having programming either canceled or curtailed by the pandemic in the last two summers, most are preparing schedules that look like they did before the world was upended.
But major questions remain: Will the latest upswing in virus transmission be a bump in the road or something more disruptive? Are audiences finally ready to return fully, at least in numbers that will keep creators afloat without government support or extra help from donors?
Clark said he believes they will, although there’s only one way to find out.
“I think once people are here and they remember what this is and how much they enjoy it, they’ll keep coming back,” he said.
Representatives of arts organizations across Maine share Clark’s optimism, although they acknowledge the stakes are high. Pandemic relief funding that many groups received to pay employees and keep the lights on is unlikely to be made available again. They need a steady revenue stream.
Alice Kornheiser, executive director of the Portland Chamber Musical Festival, said after producing online-only programming in 2020 and offering a distilled season last year, this year’s festival in August will go forward unaltered. That means four main-stage performances by small groups of world-class classical musicians at Hannaford Hall on the University of Southern Maine campus, with other events in between.
“I think last year offered an exercise in flexibility and resilience,” she said. “But that’s the world we’re in now.”
Emily Manzo, director of development for the Bowdoin International Music Festival held each summer in Brunswick, said this year’s events will look like they did in 2019 – dozens of performances on campus and beyond, including many that are free. Last year, events were held without audiences and offered as digital livestreams.
“I think people are really ready for it,” said Manzo, speaking both of audiences and the diverse group of classical musicians and students who will descend on the Midcoast. “I think it’s been hard for some people to not have it.”
Because consumers of theater, classical music and other performing arts are often older as a whole, there’s increased uncertainty about their appetite to return to crowded spaces. More than two years into the pandemic, the biggest risk posed by the coronavirus remains among older individuals and those who have other health conditions.
“We found last year that the core audience is still there, but there were definitely some notable absences for those of us used to seeing familiar audiences,” Kornheiser said.
There is data that suggests audiences might be slow in coming back. Last month, the Mass Cultural Council released a COVID impact survey that found most arts organizations in Massachusetts have yet to see audiences return to pre-pandemic levels. Lost revenue statewide among more than 1,000 agencies is nearly $800 million, the survey said.
The council’s executive director, Michael Bobbitt, used the term “cultural depression.”
In Maine, a similar survey has not been conducted, but the losses have no doubt been great. Still, organizations say they can’t dwell on what has already happened.
And there are plenty of encouraging signs.
Brad Kenney, executive artistic director of the Ogunquit Playhouse, said ticket sales for the 2022 season are as strong as he’s seen, stronger than in 2019, when the theater offered the wildly popular musicals “Jersey Boys” and “Kinky Boots.”
“Are people going to come racing back? You just don’t know,” he said.
Clark said during recent auditions held in New York City, many actors cried. It was their first live audition in years. He said that answers the question about performers’ excitement for getting back to normal.
“The thing I know about the ticket-buying public… our form of theater is habit-forming,” he said. “And a lot of people are out of habit. The bottom line is: If we put on great shows, people won’t stay away.”
Jennifer Pye, director of the seasonal art museum on Monhegan Island, said there is a buzz around the historically artist-friendly island about welcoming visitors this summer. The Monhegan Museum of Art is preparing a retrospective of the work of James Fitzgerald, who lived and worked on the island in a house and studio originally built by Rockwell Kent. Pye said every house available for rent on the island is booked, which is welcome news for a place that relies heavily on tourists who want to experience the famed art colony 10 miles off the Maine coast.
“It feels a lot more normal than it has,” she said. “The world has changed, and I think there will be precautions that we’ll all take going forward. But I don’t think it’s going to impact us the same way. I think people are increasingly finding a way to experience those things that are important to them.”
‘A NEW START’
The pandemic has created some opportunities – borne out of necessity – that many organizations plan to keep, the biggest of which is making content available digitally. Art museums moved their collections online. Performing arts groups recorded shows and made them available to audiences who never had to leave home, often as a livestream.
“Online exhibits and virtual programs, we never did that before,” Pye said. “We just hadn’t thought of it before but we really, we should have done them years ago. Monhegan is not accessible to everyone.”
Other organizations will continue to offer digital streams of their events, too.
At its core, though, art needs in-person audiences who are paying for the experience. It’s a business, after all.
Anita Stewart, artistic and executive director of Portland Stage, said her organization’s mission is to be a theater. Anything less is not the same.
“Theater is a shared experience, between the performers and the audience,” she said. “People are out of practice, but it’s a muscle. They just need to get back into the habit.”
Still, Stewart acknowledged a linguistic frustration.
“I thought last fall we’d be heading out of this,” she said. “I thought we’d figure it out, but we haven’t.”
Much thought has been put into what types of events will be presented this summer.
Clark at Maine State Music Theater said he likes the idea of opening with “The Sound of Music,” which he called the perfect musical.
After that, Maine State will follow with other marquee shows, the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice classic “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “The Color Purple,” an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that Clark has wanted to produce for years.
At Ogunquit Playhouse, Kenney said planning the 2022 season, which marks the theater’s 90th anniversary, predated the pandemic. The playhouse will be staging two world premieres, both musical adaptations of films: “The Nutty Professor” and “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” Last year’s shows were staged in an outdoor pavilion. This year, performers and audiences are going back inside.
“We have to do it to see if they come,” Kenney said. “But there is a certain risk, especially for those of us who don’t tour. The advance cost alone is about $1 million per show. We still have a lot of support from the business community and donors, but we need audiences for sure.”
Many organizations are still wrestling with which protective measures should remain in place – vaccine or testing requirements and masks at the top of the list.
“I think you just have to figure out what people are comfortable with and be respectful,” Kenney said.
The anxiety is likely lessened for outdoor shows. Even people who have been most cautious during the pandemic are going to feel largely comfortable outside.
“It does feel like a new start,” said Manzo, with the Bowdoin International Music Festival. “I think the anticipation of being able to be in the world with folks, it feels great to be joining in on that energy.”
Here’s what’s coming to Maine theaters this summer