Marilyn Keith Daly books the summer concert series at the Hamilton House in South Berwick. She’s planning a full schedule this year, but COVID-related restrictions will determine the size of the audiences. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

It’s only January, but the window may be closing on the summer concert season unless there’s a big improvement in the rate of vaccinations, said one Maine music promoter.

Alex Gray, who owns Waterfront Concerts and books shows at the Maine Savings Bank Pavilion in Westbrook and Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion in Bangor, said the forecast for the summer concerts is “very murky,” and he is growing concerned there won’t be much of a concert season at all. Gray has booked several shows for Westbrook and Bangor in July and August, but those dates seem at risk given the uneven distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and considering it takes many months for the music industry to gear up for national tours, he said.

“I think all of us are patiently waiting on the vaccine rollout to see if any of these dates will be able to happen, but that window is closing quickly,” he said. He noted his company’s last concert was a sold-out show March 5 with Kane Brown at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland. “That might be our last concert until spring 2022 if they don’t get it together soon,” he said.

Lauren Wayne, who books concerts at Thompson’s Point in Portland, said it was premature to talk about summer because “the pandemic is raging the worst it’s ever raged.” She is hoping for clarity soon.

This is the time of year when concert promoters, arts presenters and theater directors typically work out the details of their summer seasons, negotiating with artists and venues and planning promotional campaigns. But the uncertain course of the pandemic and a cumbersome vaccination process have made planning difficult at best, because promoters and presenters don’t know now – and likely won’t know for some time – if safely regulations will allow for large or limited crowds.

That means, for the second summer in a row, arts and music presenters face the season in limbo, uncertain how to proceed and further clouding their already challenging financial outlooks. Many will move their performances outdoors, some are proceeding cautiously with plans for indoor performances, and others are simply holding out as long as possible before committing to anything. They are juggling myriad questions about safety regulations, the comfort level of audiences and performers, and the complexities of planning a season on short notice.

Generally, smaller organizations that have more flexibility are more optimistic about the summer, while larger organizations, including Waterfront Concerts and Maine’s nationally famous summer theaters, are concerned about the year ahead.

“I am currently in a position of treading water,” Curt Dale Clark, artistic director of Maine State Music Theatre in Brunswick, wrote in an email. Maine State Music Theatre presents its lavish musicals at Pickard Theater on the Bowdoin College campus, and its season is limited by the college’s academic calendar to June, July and August.

“We are researching all options and have looked at many alternate locations just to make sure we have all the information needed to make the best decision for the public and our employees. We do not want to be responsible for making the problem worse and spreading the virus,” Clark wrote. “We have even looked at the possibility of backing the season up to later dates in the hopes of being able to have a better chance at delivering our shows to the public, but that would be very difficult for the college.”

He said he was “hoping for the best from our government in the distribution of vaccines and that the vaccinations will begin to accelerate. If that were to happen we might be able – or at least have a chance – to operate as planned.”

Hamilton House in South Berwick expects to proceed has it has for 30 years. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

In South Berwick, an outdoor summer concert series at the Hamilton House will proceed as it has for 30 years, said Marilyn Keith Daly, site manager for Historic New England, which owns and manages the Georgian mansion near the Salmon Falls River. Daly has booked one concert so far – folk singer Harvey Reid on July 11 – and plans several more through mid-August. As she did last summer when she hosted concerts, Daly will keep audiences small and socially distanced by painting circles in the field where each group of attendees can sit in their own space.

Last year, crowds were limited to 50 people, and Daly had waiting lists. In a non-pandemic year, about 150 people attend each concert in the series. Whatever crowd size is allowed this coming summer, she expects to sell out because people are craving live music, she said.

“Last year, we had people thanking us for having the concert series. It meant something more than a diversion. It was a chance for people to feel some kind of normalcy, even with a mask on and sitting inside a painted circle. I did have people who were calling me and really hoping to get in, and I am hoping that enthusiasm for the series carries through – and I am really hoping that restrictions for audience size will loosen up a bit and more people can attend,” she said.

Clark agrees. For the mental health of the country, we have to figure out a way to bring back the arts, he said. “It is not accidental that the unrest in the world today has coincided with the almost 100 percent shutdown of the arts. Maine State Music Theatre will be calming blood pressures, turning despair into hope and changing frowns into smiles as soon as the world lets us,” he wrote.

Caroline Koelker, the executive director at Opera Maine, said the Portland-based opera company will almost certainly present live opera this summer, but she doesn’t know where, when or what the show will be. Previously, Opera Maine hoped to move last year’s postponed production of “The Flying Dutchman” into this year’s slot, but recently canceled its agreements with last year’s contracted performers, effectively informing them the production won’t be happening.

Opera Maine has always performed indoors at Merrill Auditorium the last week of July. Koelker is seeking an outdoor venue for this summer and is flexible on dates, though she would very much like to keep the production the last week of July. She is hoping to find an outdoor venue with enough space to seat several hundred people safely. That would require much looser restrictions regarding crowd size than are in place now, and Koelker has no way of predicting if and when those restrictions will be loosened.

But she is hopeful.

“We don’t feel people will be ready in large numbers to gather together indoors (this summer). We want to make everybody have as positive an experience as we can, so we are just looking at outdoor venues,” Koelker said. “We are really searching for a way to safely present opera this summer, and of course that’s made much more difficult not knowing what the audience allowance will be. A large-scale production is still our hope, even with a small cast and small orchestra. To do what people love us for, we need to generate some revenue, even if it’s not anywhere near what we are used to,” she said.

Right now, regulations would allow her to accommodate 100 to 150 people depending on the size and configuration of an outdoor venue. Crowds of that size would not provide enough ticket revenue to pull off a large-scale production, she said. “We hope that will go up by summertime. If we can book 25 percent capacity in some large outdoor space, we have a chance to feel we are fulfilling our mission and serving our community,” she said.

Like the others, Koelker is waiting to see what happens with the efficiency and effectiveness of the distribution of the vaccine, and she can’t wait too long. She does not have a hard-and-fast deadline, but hopes for clarity within a few weeks so she and the Opera Maine board can make a decision and begin moving forward with a plan and offering contracts to performers.

Impacts Experience, a national cultural organization that uses data to predict trends, published a report this month predicting attendance at cultural events, such as theater and symphony concerts, would be 58 percent of 2019 attendance totals and likely much lower if organizations have reduced programming during the pandemic. Last August during the first summer of the pandemic, the organization predicted 2021 attendance at 65 percent of 2019 totals, but the predicted-attendance percentage has been lowered because of news surrounding the vaccination and the increasingly likeliness it will be summer before most U.S. residents are vaccinated.

“News articles are currently reporting that Americans may expect a more complete vaccination rollout by the summer,” said the report. “Research shows that people may be adjusting their visit planning and expectations accordingly, with Q3 2021 (July-September) currently indicating the most significant resumption of more ‘normal’ visitor behaviors.”

The Ogunquit Playhouse is moving forward with plans to produce four main stage shows – a lineup will be confirmed soon and announced in early March, said Executive and Artistic Director Bradford Kenney. Ogunquit owns its buildings and grounds, and has flexibility about how to presents its musicals. “We’re still deciding whether it will be indoors, outdoors or a combination of both. We have modeled an outdoor-stage component that will be able to produce socially distanced, adjusted versions of a number of titles, including some world premieres,” he said. “We are fortunate at the playhouse, because we have these pastoral grounds around us and fields. We are lucky. People can still get to enjoy the playhouse, and while maybe not sitting in an interior auditorium seat, they are still on the property, they will get to see a first-class show adjusted for their safety and that of the actors, and they will be able to gather in a safe way.”

In addition to its main stage shows, Ogunquit plans to resume its Cabaret Series of outdoor concerts.

Kenney participated in a conference call in early January with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease expert, and members of the Association of Performing Arts Professionals. During the virtual gathering, Fauci said he believed theaters and other venues could reopen in the fall, a timeline contingent on the successful vaccination of 70 percent to 85 percent of the country’s population.

“If everything goes right, this will occur sometime in the fall of 2021,” Fauci told conferees, according to The New York Times, “so that by the time we get to the early to mid-fall, you can have people feeling safe performing onstage as well as people in the audience.”

That timeline is consistent with the expectations of Anita Stewart, executive and artistic director at Portland Stage, who has said she hopes to announce a full season to begin in the fall, though she doesn’t expect attendance to return to pre-pandemic levels until early 2022. The professional theater in Portland is among a small handful of theaters nationally that has resumed live theater with limited audiences. It opens its next play, “Or,” later this week.

In Stonington, Opera House Arts has planned its entire season around outdoor performances at a stage it constructed last summer in collaboration with the town, for live performance and drive-in movies. The season will include its annual Deer Isle Jazz Festival and Shakespeare in Stonington on the outdoor stage, with productions of Paula Vogel’s “Desdemona” and a community play-reading of “Othello,” keeping the rural community in conversation with racial equity and social justice. It normally presents its programs indoors at the historic Stonington Opera House and Burnt Cove Church.

Meanwhile, the Bach Virtuosi Festival is moving its concerts from June to August in hopes the extra time will allow for more vaccinations and the growing comfort of people to gather indoors. The festival presents its concerts at St. Luke’s Cathedral and Etz Chaim Synagogue in Portland. Brian Kaplan, the festival’s marketing and communications director, said the concerts would be small and intimate, and promoters will abide by all safety regulations.

“We do think there will be more people interested coming out in August instead of June,” Kaplan said. “We are hoping and keeping our fingers crossed.”


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