Seattle's performing arts companies consider closing amid Omicron outbreaks

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Photo by Alex Studio / Courtesy of Seattle Choruses
Photo by Alex Studio / Courtesy of Seattle Choruses

This winter's surge in Omicron cases left many performing arts organizations to face the tough decision of whether or not to close their doors to in-person audiences. Among the organizations that made the decision to postpone their mid-winter productions are the Seattle Women's Chorus and Book-It Repertory Theatre.

Book-It, dedicated to transforming literary works into theater productions, announced on Jan. 11 that its production of the ancient epic Beowulf, originally scheduled to run in January and February, would be postponed. Book-It is now planning an in-person run for July 22 to August 7 at the Cornish Playhouse's Alhadeff Studio. A filmed version will be available for screening from Feb. 10 through Feb. 27.

"We talk[ed] with our board, our patrons, health professionals, our artists, our front-of-house staff or box office. In taking all of these viewpoints into account, we... said, we just don't know enough about this to proceed. And that really sucked. That was really heartbreaking," Gus Menary, Book-It's artistic director and also the director of Beowulf, told the SGN.

In response to the pandemic, Book-It has moved to implement systems that assist with its COVID-19 response decision process, including onboarding a COVID compliance officer.

"One thing that made me incredibly proud was how quickly our staff moved, how considerate our staff was with each other and everyone involved, including our audience and patrons, in finding a way forward in the midst of this," Menary added. "We've really had nothing but great responses from our audience and folks, because they know that this is coming from a place of care."

Similarly, Seattle Choruses announced on Jan. 20 that We Are Family, a concert series dedicated to the girl groups and sister acts of the '60s and beyond — and the Seattle Women's Chorus' first in-person production since 2020 — has now been rescheduled. There will be one single performance at 4 p.m. on June 18 at Town Hall Seattle. It was originally slated to run on Feb. 5 and 6.

"It was disappointing to have to make this call, but I think there's just so much uncertainty and people that are still feeling uncomfortable or unsafe about attending live events and bigger gatherings," Samantha Berry, Seattle Choruses' marketing and sponsorship manager, told the SGN. "We're really hopeful that coming into the spring, this will dwindle again, and we'll be back at it."

Lack of COVID-19 guidelines leave organizations to make own decisions on closing
The rapid rise of Omicron variant cases this winter has left performing arts organizations in tricky situations. Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing the arts in the United States, found that a total $35,685,606 was lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic by the 310 Washington state arts and cultural organizations surveyed, with a median loss of $35,000 for each organization.

The decision to remain open or close is often one that comes with great financial pressure.

"It's a struggle to have to make that call. Nobody wants to disappoint their membership, their audience, but it's about keeping everybody safe and following our strict protocols that we've had in place about health throughout this pandemic," Berry said.

Seattle Choruses was recently announced as the recipient of a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts as part of the American Rescue Plan. Recipients can use their grants to help preserve jobs and fund operations and facilities, health and safety supplies, and marketing and promotional efforts.

The limit of local or federal guidance on COVID-19 protocol has led to what Menary finds is a "new normal" for performing arts organizations, where each company is left to weigh the options and decide for themselves what is best.

"I know what the pandemic did for us, and I think the larger theatre industry, was make us think about what it meant to be part of that larger human community and how we contributed to that ecosystem. For us, in the space of a new variant that we didn't know much about other than its incredibly accelerated infection rate, and in an absence of guidance or restrictions from our local or national government, it really fell to us to decide how we wanted to proceed," Menary said.

It was also important for Book-It to assess how the high transmissibility of the Omicron variant would impact not just its audience and staff but those who come into contact with them as well.

"You can't just think about the person who gets it; you also have to think about the five people they give it to, and the five people each one of those five people gives it to, and in knowing who is vulnerable in something in a situation like that," Menary added. "I mean, the staff of Book-It that have kids... have elderly parents, just like our audience and artists. We have a responsibility as members of a community organization to protect that community."

Late winter in-person performances
As for the remainder of their respective seasons, both Book-It and Seattle Choruses are anticipating their late winter productions to go as planned. Mrs. Caliban, Book-It's next planned production, based on the Rachel Ingalls novella, is expected to run at the Center Theatre from March 23 through April 15. Streaming access to Beowulf and tickets to Mrs. Caliban are available through Book-It's website, www.book-it.org.

It is also anticipated that the Seattle Men's Chorus will return in March with Motown and More, scheduled at Benaroya Hall on March 18 and 19, and another performance at the Federal Way Performing Arts Center on March 20. For more information on tickets to both We Are Family and Motown and More, as well as further performances, visit Seattle Choruses' website at www.seattlechoruses.org.