The Portland Museum of Art is preparing to install its next exhibition in June and hopes to reopen soon after it does. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

If the state will let him, Michael Tobin wants to begin staging plays in June at Footlights Theatre in Falmouth.

In Madison, director Jeffrey Quinn is eyeing Aug. 1 to reopen Lakewood Theater, while in Portland, Brian Allen, artistic director at Good Theater, is nowhere close to making a decision about when he will present live performances again at the St. Lawrence Arts Center.

It shows how wide the range of thinking is when it comes to reopening Maine’s arts sector coming out of the coronavirus pandemic – and that’s only live theater. With equal parts enthusiasm and trepidation, arts and entertainment presenters representing museums, galleries, concert halls and movie theaters are slowly bringing the arts back to Maine, juggling their desire to welcome audiences and generate income with ongoing concerns about public safety, uncertainty about what’s allowed under the state’s evolving guidelines and huge questions about the comfort level of ticket holders. As much as artists want to present art, no one knows if audiences will be comfortable consuming it as they did before.

There’s no easy answer, and no one is certain how best to proceed.

“I don’t know if people will dare come out,” Quinn said. “But one patron told me he would wear a hazmat suit, and he would be there come hell or high water.”

Arts and culture make up a $150.5 million industry in Maine, supporting 4,190 full-time equivalent jobs and generating $12.3 million in local and state tax revenue, according to 2017 data from Americans for the Arts, a national arts advocacy organization. Along with most segments of Maine’s economy, the arts have taken a massive economic hit. It’s hard to gauge the full toll, but summer theaters in Maine are counting more than $10 million in lost revenue in ticket sales. The Portland Museum of Art will lose between $300,000 to $450,000 in admissions because of the closure, and that assumes the museum can reopen in early summer.


Cove Street Arts in Portland plans to open “around June 1,” co-owner John Danos said, by eliminating receptions, limiting attendance and practicing physical distancing. The Ogunquit Museum of American Art and the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland hope to reopen July 1, and the Portland Museum of Art is preparing to install its next exhibition, the bicentennial-themed “Stories of Maine: An Incomplete History,” in June and reopen soon after.

“With the governor’s plan to reopen Maine as our guide, we are looking forward and determining the steps it will take to open the museum in early summer,” said Graeme Kennedy, the Portland museum’s communications director. “This will be done safely, deliberately, and with an abundance of care for our visitors, members and staff, who have shown so much during this difficult time.”

Ken Bell, owner of Portland House of Music in Portland, plans to start live streaming shows from the venue in June. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Ken Bell, who owns Portland House of Music, plans to live stream concerts beginning June 1 without an audience present. When gatherings of 50 or fewer people are allowed, he hopes to host concerts with small crowds. Lauren Wayne, who books concerts at the State Theatre and Port City Music Hall, said it will likely be the fall before there’s live music in those venues.

“Our fall (calendar) is still intact. It’s very uncertain, and it changes week to week, but it’s no longer day to day,” she said.

Safety measures will be in effect. That likely will mean masks for the audience and staff, limited attendance capacity, rigorous cleaning of the concert hall and backstage rules for the artists.

The fate of outdoor summer concerts at Thompson’s Point in Portland and Rock Row in Westbrook will be further clarified as the state announces additional details in its reopening plans. As of Thursday, all concerts through July 22, when Norah Jones was scheduled to play, were canceled at Thompson’s Point. Messages left with Waterfront Concerts, which presents music at Rock Row, were not returned.


Many outdoor events across Maine involving large crowds have been canceled through the summer, including fairs and festivals.

Wayne, Bell and other music promoters in Maine formed an industry coalition and will meet next week with Maine Economic and Community Development Commissioner Heather Johnson to review reopening plans. They’re also in conversation with the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, and this week they spoke with Sen. Susan Collins about flaws in the federal Payroll Protection Program.

“We got tired of waiting, so we formed a coalition of promoters and venues statewide to check in with officials and raise a flag and say, ‘Here we are, and we would like some input,'” Wayne said. “We’re operating under the impression we are in phase four, the last to open. We were the first to close. Financially, this has had huge negative impact and will for some time on our business.”

Bell said he was pleased with the responsiveness of local, state and federal officials, whom he said have been helpful in giving direction and answers. “There’s no reason to be angry,” he said. “There’s no playbook about how to play this.”

Julie Richard, executive director of the Maine Arts Commission, is part of a national task force, a subcommittee of the State Arts Action Network Council, that is gathering information about the reopening strategies and plans of major arts organizations around the country and will issue guidelines for others to follow. The first meeting of the task force is Friday. The panel will consider the safety of artists, patrons, staff and volunteers, as well as physical distancing guidelines, the cost of disinfecting and the need for personal protective equipment, and legal and financial concerns such as liability and long-term sustainability, Richard said.

Because other states have begun reopening, these questions are urgent, she said.


Theaters across the country are wiggling back to life in some of the places hardest hit by the virus. In Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Barrington Stage Company is planning shows with small casts and no intermissions. In New York, Broadway shows are officially off until June 7 and likely much later, but discussions have begun among producers and labor groups about what the reopening of Broadway might look like. Discussions include things like temperature checks, mandatory masks, and eliminating concessions and bar service.

Theater producers and arts presenters in Maine are having the same discussions. Quinn, the director at Lakewood Theater, is planning to open in August with the Norm Foster comedy “Opening Night” and follow that with “Two on the Aisle and Three in the Van” by Mary Lynn Dobson. Quinn is hoping to get four shows in this season and will make a final decision about that after June 1 when there is more direction from the state. As a community theater with local actors, he can get up to speed much more quickly than a professional theater, which hires actors from out of state and requires several weeks of rehearsals.

“The shows we’ve chosen do not have anybody kissing or hugging. If you are on stage, I am not going to make everybody stand 6 feet apart, but we can distance ourselves as much as we can and still have it look natural,” he said, adding that he would be open to actors wearing masks.

In addition to making hand sanitizer available and cleaning the theater between performances, Lakewood will limit seating, space out audience members and use separate doors for entering and exiting. If masks are required, Lakewood said “special edition” face coverings sewn by the community will be available at the door.

Brian Allen of the Good Theater has three plans for reopening, depending on when it can happen. “I feel I have a responsibility to keep people safe and healthy,” he said. “If we have to wait 18 months for a vaccine before we open, so be it.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Allen, with Good Theater, is less inclined to take risks. He has three sets of reopening plans depending on how things evolve – for the fall, for the winter and for spring 2021, and he’s prepared to wait longer if necessary. “I know the economy is important and we will all be feeling the results for years to come, but I believe public safety is No. 1 on the priority list,” he said. “As someone who runs an organization that relies on the general public to congregate, I feel I have a responsibility to keep people safe and healthy. If we have to wait 18 months for a vaccine before we open, so be it. We will find a way to get by. ”

Portland Stage plans to announce its next season soon, with hopes of resuming live theater in the fall. When it does, executive and artistic director Anita Stewart will do so with the input from subscribers, so she has a clear understanding of their comfort level.


“It all boils down to what the audience needs and wants. We need to present a plan that is safe and keeps people socially distanced, but we also need to pay attention to what people are telling us and be willing to adjust,” she said. “The good news for us is that Portland Stage is both small enough that we can make these types of adjustments quickly and large enough to have space to spread people out. ”

Stewart hopes to digitally record the plays so she can distribute content to people who want to experience live theater but are not comfortable attending in person. Portland Stage was able to record the play “Native Gardens,” which was running when the pandemic forced the theater’s closure in March, and offer it to ticket holders and others who were unable to attend because the closure. She is unsure if she will be able to do that for future plays, and is trying to negotiate – so far unsuccessfully – with the labor guild and rights holders representing actors and playwrights. It’s been frustrating, she said.

“Both the rights houses and the actors union want to approach this as a wait-and-see negotiation, but we want to be able to tell our patrons with certainty that we can provide them content in their homes if they don’t feel safe at the theater,” she said. “Theaters are not looking to develop a Netflix distribution, but we need to retain the audience base we have if at all possible. … If we can do the video version of a production, that will give us more options to connect with people in a variety of ways.”

At Eveningstar Cinema in Brunswick, owner Shaun Boyle assumes it will be a long time before he screens another movie indoors. “I personally don’t expect we will be open until next year. It’s a bummer to say that, but I am being realistic,” he said. The shutdown has already closed one Maine movie theater for good. Smitty’s Cinema this week announced it was closing its Biddeford theater because of the pandemic.

Boyle, who bought Eveningstar last July, is looking for creative ways to generate income. He may host pop-up screenings in the parking lot this summer and has begun offering a curbside concession service on Saturdays, which includes options to stream certain current movies. “It’s a way to support your local cinema while streaming at home,” he said.

This Saturday will mark the second week he’s tried it. So far, so good. “Yeah, it went well,” he said of week one. “I’m surprised that people actually want buttered popcorn, but they do.”

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