“To be or not to be? That is the question,” is a familiar Shakespearean quote.
But for actors, musicians and other performers, the real question these days is whether or not they’ll be able to act, sing or perform.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to throw monkey wrenches into the mechanisms of the arts and entertainment everywhere, and the Pioneer Valley is no exception. After a dismal 2020, the Western Massachusetts arts scene looked with a cautiously optimistic eye in 2021, but the year had mixed results. Now, once again, artists and other entertainment entrepreneurs are eyeing 2022 with hope, albeit tempered with a dose of pragmatism.
John Sanders, a partner and talent buyer with DSP Shows, a national company that books and promotes shows from Springfield north to Greenfield, said that 2021 was “quite a roller coaster.”
“By the time June rolled around, we were opening up outdoors at full capacity for shows in July and August and preparing to open up indoors with no restrictions come September. Then (the delta variant) hit in July-August, and we had to quickly pivot to requiring proof of vaccination and masks for all indoor shows and even some outdoor shows,” he said. “The good news was we did get a lot of shows in for the second half of 2021.”
Still, the virus also handcuffed DSP at times when band members tested positive and had to cancel or postpone dates, which made things difficult. Now, the omicron variant is complicating things further.
“I’m in the middle of postponing or canceling most of our shows in January and early February as we are seeing a huge surge in cases,” Sanders said. “While it seems that most cases of omicron come with mild sickness, we are still seeing a strain on our local healthcare infrastructure as hospitalizations are going way up as well. We don’t want to add to that strain and hopefully by postponing shows to later in winter or spring, we’ll be able to move shows to a time when cases and hospitalizations are much lower than they (were) in January.”
Despite these setbacks, Sanders remains hopeful – but realistic – about 2022.
“We have a big summer of outdoor shows across upstate New York and Western Massachusetts, and I think by June the concert industry should be rolling along nicely,” he said. “Indoors may still be tricky for the foreseeable future, but 2021 proved that we can do shows indoors safely with the right precautions.”
Danny Eaton, producing director for the Majestic Theatre in West Springfield, said that although 2021 was better than 2020 – when the theater was dark most of that year – there were challenges. A COVID case almost upended one show, but luckily an understudy saved the day. However, recent breakthrough cases scuttled rehearsals for “Betty & the Patch.”
“The upshot is that the show has been postponed until June, and we will be dark in January and part of February,” Eaton said.
Being a theatre that produces plays, the Majestic is subject to the Actors Equity union rules about COVID, and the restrictions are more stringent than most municipal rules. The Equity protocols require all performers to be fully vaccinated and have a negative PCR test done before any work begins. Then weekly testing continues along with a daily temperature check and short survey that must be completed.
Eaton added that his theatre also requires audience members to be vaccinated and show proof of vaccination as well as be masked at all times except when eating or drinking in the cafe. When looking to the future, safety is his top priority, Eaton said.
“How long any of this lasts remains to be seen,” he said. “We’ll continue to do whatever we need to do to keep both audience members and our performers and staff safe and the theater operating.”
Of course, not all troubles within the regional arts scene have been totally caused by the pandemic. Along with having shows canceled due to COVID, musicians in the Springfield Symphony Orchestra have been embroiled in a long battle with the orchestra’s board over a new contract. The musicians union has been without a contact for 18 months.
The National Labor Relations Board recently ordered the SSO board to pay its musicians $276,406 in back wages to offset the money they would have earned for playing canceled concerts this season. The SSO will perform two concert, April 22 and May 13, ordered by the NLRB.
But for the most part, the arts and entertainment scene hinges on how much COVID continues to wreak havoc. Jim Neill, publicist for Northampton’s Iron Horse Entertainment Group, said that while there were challenges last year, most of the customers had a good attitude about protocols.
“It helped us appreciate them in new ways. There were struggles but also bright moments and it made us appreciate much of what we had taken for granted before,” Neill said.
Neill added that while omicron has his company downshifting again for the moment, the past year’s experience has prepared them to manage whatever comes in 2022.
“Hopefully we’ll execute our winter shows successfully, but we predict we’ll truly be getting back in the groove in the spring,” he said. “Then again, it’s a changed world, so there are things ahead we can only imagine at this point.”
Jim Olsen, whose Signature Sounds company runs the gamut between the massive Green River Festival and small shows at The Parlor Room in Northampton, said that while 2021 was better than 2020, the shifting sands of COVID variants makes it difficult to plan.
“We book our shows months before they happen, and all of this uncertainty makes it very difficult to predict anything,” he said. “We’ve had shows where more than 30% of the ticket holders don’t attend. We’ve had to scale back on the number of shows that we can present.”
To this end, Olsen said he has scaled back his expectations. He noted, however, that omicron is peaking at a time (January) that is usually pretty quiet for live music. But he added that it’s very difficult to plan anything for the remainder of the winter, so his hope
s lie in improving conditions in springtime.
“I’m an optimist, but I think we’re going to be in much better shape once the weather improves and we’re able to bring back outdoor music again,” he said. “This is going to be a great year for outdoor shows and festivals.”