Maine State Music Theatre is canceling its fall schedule at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center after next month’s run of the musical “Jersey Boys” because of poor ticket sales.

Curt Dale Clark, the theater’s artistic director, attributed the cancellation to controversy over the theater’s decision to require ticket holders to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test, as well as people’s general concerns about the virus. Since the theater announced Friday afternoon that it was adopting vaccine restrictions, it has refunded $36,000 in tickets to people who changed their minds about attending, he said.

“Not selling a ticket is bad. Having to refund a ticket that you have already sold, that’s a lot worse,” Clark said. “But that is where we are.”

Clark did not know specifically how many tickets had been refunded, but said it was “several hundred.”

With COVID-19 cases surging and rules and regulations regarding vaccinations and mask-wearing shifting, music and theater presenters are caught in the middle of a raging public policy and public health debate as they try to figure out how to present live performances while keeping audiences and performers safe. On Wednesday, representatives of Portland Stage and Good Theater both said they planned to implement policies requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test in the fall, with some exceptions.

They would join a growing number of arts and music presenters in Maine and across the nation adopting similar requirements. People attending outdoor concerts this week at Thompson’s Point in Portland have had to show proof of vaccination or a negative test for entry, as do ticket holders in New York who plan to attend the Metropolitan Opera or most Broadway shows. Portland Ovations, Portland House of Music and others also will require proof of vaccination or a negative test to attend events.

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Clark attributed the deluge of refund requests to a combination of the new vaccination policy and rising COVID numbers.

“You’ve seen the headlines. It’s fear. People are scared,” he said. “If our audience is fully vaccinated and people must wear masks, I have a safe auditorium and I should be able to put butts in seats. But that is not the way it reads in the news.”

The summer theater has historically presented its shows almost exclusively at Pickard Theater at the Bowdoin College campus. It presented several concerts and small shows at Pickard early in the summer but shifted plans for its big musicals to the fall in Westbrook, because the pandemic-delayed schedule didn’t allow enough time to mount the Broadway-style shows before students returned to campus. Typically, the theater sells 97 percent of its 600 seats at Pickard, Clark said.

The Westbrook Performing Arts Center, photographed in 2012, was going to host Maine State Music Theatre’s major productions this fall, but the theater company has canceled all of them except for “Jersey Boys” after receiving hundreds of ticket refund requests. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

This summer, despite selling out several popular concerts, attendance has been about 70 percent, Clark said. “Jersey Boys,” which will open Sept. 1 and run through Sept. 19 in Westbrook, will operate at a loss, Clark said. Maine State is canceling a full production of “Cinderella,” a concert version of “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and a family production of “Alice in Wonderland.”

Clark said the decision to cancel the rest of the fall calendar after “Jersey Boys” will help ensure the theater’s financial future.

“I don’t want to be at the helm if this company disappears – and we are not going to. This move will stop the bleeding. But it hurts because we are not doing what we are supposed to be doing,” he said.

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Clark informed the staff of the decision Wednesday morning.

Among those waiting to buy tickets to “Jersey Boys” is Lorine Ryder of Falmouth. A self-described fully vaccinated senior citizen, Ryder attended the “Christine and Patsy Together Again …” concert Monday night at Pickard, and felt safe.

“It was packed, a full house, and definitely all older people. I figured 90 percent were vaccinated, just because of their age,” she said.

She plans to buy tickets to “Jersey Boys” and will feel better doing so knowing everyone will be vaccinated. But she is still concerned, and said she would “wait and see” before committing to fall theater.

“You have to be apprehensive,” Ryder said. “Whoever thought we would still be in this mess? That is the hard part.”

Anita Stewart, executive and artistic director at Portland Stage, lamented that arts presenters are getting sucked into a political debate that is both unwinnable and seemingly endlessly circular.

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“We live in a world where whatever you choose, it is going to be wrong for somebody and somebody is going to want to not support you because of that, and it’s just hard,” she said. “We are not trying to be political. We are just trying to produce great work that engages our community and hopefully gives you something to think about other than COVID. But that’s hard to do.”

Without providing specifics, Stewart said Portland Stage has sold fewer tickets to its current production of “Ring of Fire,” which it is co-producing with Maine State, than it would have if not for growing concerns over the surge in COVID-19 cases in recent days and weeks.

“I would say what we have seen with ‘Ring of Fire’ is that new purchases have slowed. They are still continuing, but they were far more robust a few weeks ago. A certain number of people are saying, ‘Uh oh, I don’t know about it.’ … With how good this show is, my gut tells me, pre-COVID it would have sold out and would have kept selling out. But it’s not. It is selling OK,” she said.

The theater requires audiences to wear masks but not provide proof of vaccination for “Ring of Fire,” which closes this weekend. A new policy requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test will be implemented before the fall season begins in late September, she said. That is consistent with other indoor theaters around the country, in New York and elsewhere, she said. Nine venues and theaters in Rhode Island jointly announced Wednesday they would require proof of vaccination or a negative test at indoor performances. Portland Stage will make exceptions for student performances, but those details are still being worked out, Stewart said.

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, she thinks audiences will be more inclined to buy tickets knowing they are seated among other vaccinated people. “What we are hearing from the vast majority of people is they will only feel comfortable in a fully-vaccinated place,” she said.

That’s what Clark thought too. He was surprised by the tone of angry people when the theater announced the policy last week.

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“I have never seen emails as ugly in my life – it was ugly, ugly, ugly, but we did it because there were so many other emails coming from people who said they didn’t feel safe coming to see a show because so many people are unvaccinated,” he said. “It seems every step of the way, people have been vehemently against everything we have tried.”

Lauren Wayne, who books shows at Thompson’s Point, could not be reached for comment about reaction to its newly adopted vaccination requirement because she was busy dealing with a packed schedule of performances.

At the Ogunquit Playhouse, spokesperson Carol Chiavetta said there has been no backlash about its policy. The playhouse is presenting its shows through October in a new 25,000-square-foot outdoor pavilion, with seating in socially distanced pods. Ogunquit has a “bodies-in-motion” masking policy – audience members are required to wear masks while moving around the complex, but not while seated – and proof of vaccination is not required for the open-air venue.

“We haven’t had any backlash about our COVID protocols – most patrons appreciate the care we’ve taken,” Chiavetta wrote in an email. “When articles first came out, we did get phone calls, but once we reiterated that we are an outdoor venue, require masks in motion, and have distance between seats, they are fine. Our website is very clear and we’ve done several social videos about Bodies in Motion, so most of our patrons are aware of what to expect. Our business is doing great.”

After reading about the latest COVID-19 case numbers Wednesday morning, Brian Allen, founder and artistic director of Good Theater in Portland, said he began a discussion with his creative team about formally adopting a proof-of-vaccination policy for the season and other safety measures they might take, including removing the first row of seats to create more distance between the stage and the audience. They also talked about how to promote their new digital streaming option, which will give people the opportunity to watch from home.

“The numbers are huge again,” said Allen, whose season will launch in October at the St. Lawrence Arts Center. “If we are going to do this, we are going to be safe.”

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