‘I can’t wait for the lights to go up’: After a record-breaking year, Hale Centre Theatre faces coronavirus nightmare
Following a season where all 859 performances sold out and the theater saw its highest attendance with 577,743, Hale Centre Theatre — like so many arts organizations in Utah and throughout the world — has gone dark
SANDY — After celebrating a record-breaking year, Hale Centre Theatre is now battling the greatest challenge it has ever faced: the coronavirus outbreak that “has moved at warp speed,” said executive director Quinn Dietlein.
“I think all of us were … hearing about Italy having some issues just weeks ago, but all of a sudden, that Wednesday night when the Jazz shut down and the NBA shut down, immediately it became a reality,” Dietlein told the Deseret News.
Following a season where all 859 performances sold out and the theater saw its highest attendance, with 577,743 patrons from every county in Utah, Hale Centre Theatre — like so many arts organizations in Utah and throughout the world — has gone dark.
The theater closed its doors on Thursday, March 12 — the day Utah Gov. Gary Herbert announced that mass gatherings be limited to 100 people or less. The decision ended many actors’ contracts and laid off close to 200 regular part-time employees, Dietlein said.
Since Herbert’s initial declaration, gatherings of more than 10 people have been prohibited, Summit County and other counties in Utah have issued a stay-at-home order and Herbert has issued a “Stay Safe, Stay Home” public health directive for the state, according to the Deseret News.
“This thing is just built perfectly to destroy any industry that people gather for,” Dietlein said. “Comparatively, (the) 2008 (recession) was a breeze — we saw a little bit of a dip, and then we actually did very well, as people decided to do more staycation types of things.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has already cost Utah’s cultural sector more than $29 million, according to a recent report compiled by several arts organizations in Utah. About 88% of the individuals and organizations surveyed said they have canceled or postponed events, while the remainder have summer seasons that have not yet been affected.
Hale Centre Theatre had to abruptly end its productions of “Strictly Ballroom” — a U.S. premiere — and the Steve Martin/Edie Brickell bluegrass musical “Bright Star.” It wasn’t an easy decision, as a couple of hundred jobs were affected, and ticket sales form about 80% of the theater’s revenue (the rest comes from foundation-based donations).
“We had to move so quickly,” said the executive director, who added that the theater informed its staff of the cancellations and job terminations just hours following Herbert’s announcement. “But people have been very understanding.”
Claire Kenny’s final performance as an overbearing dance mom in “Strictly Ballroom” was Tuesday, March 10. But at the time, she didn’t know it would be her last show.
Part of the Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday cast, the actress and mother of seven kids was still planning on going in for the show Thursday night when she got the news that the theater would be suspending its productions for two weeks.
By Monday, March 16, the theater had decided to close the productions for good.
“It was some tough news to get,” said Kenny, whose late father, Richard Wilkins, played Ebenezer Scrooge in the theater’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol” for nearly 30 years. “They immediately paid us in full for all of our performances (up to that point), though.”
“Strictly Ballroom” had four weeks of production left, so Kenny and the other actors whose contracts were cut short are missing out on additional income. But for Kenny, who considers her full-time job to be a mom, acting at Hale Centre Theatre is more of a “passionate side gig.”
“I don’t do it for the income,” she said. “I know when it was canceled there were a few people who were disappointed that they wouldn’t have that income from the theater. But I think more so than the income, it was just that loss of time to do our passion, what brings us joy.”
Hale Centre Theatre is still paying 68 full-time employees. Some of these workers have already ripped out the “Strictly Ballroom” stage and are inserting new staging, while other employees are in the warehouse building the sets for “Mary Poppins” and “Million Dollar Quartet,” scheduled to begin April 29 and May 18, respectively.
But Hale Centre Theatre’s actual production schedule remains unclear. The theater doesn’t know when it will be able to reopen its doors. Kenny was originally planning to audition for the theater’s upcoming production of “Murder on the Orient Express,” but auditions and rehearsals are now up in the air.
And because the pandemic is straining the theater’s finances, Dietlein said the company is currently working to find a production to replace “Titanic” — a costly undertaking that was scheduled to run Aug. 5-Oct. 17 of this year.
“It was a very expensive set to build — it was going to be a big water stage,” Dietlein said. “We don’t have the money to commit to that massive of an expense right now.”
But as the pandemic and all of the uncertainty that accompanies it continues, a line from “Bright Star” — a production that should still be running at the theater — comes to Dietlein’s mind: “The sun is gonna shine again.”
“I can’t wait for the lights to go up,” he said.
In the meantime, behind closed doors, the theater is keeping a close watch on the timelines set forth in the “Utah Leads Together Plan” — a three-stage response to the pandemic that Gov. Herbert released March 24. The plan, produced with help from all sectors in Utah, maps out a monthslong recovery process.
“We aren’t alone in this, and we are hopeful that things get shifted up a little bit. But that is the best information that we have right now, and we’re just trying to work off of these other good people in the community that we trust,” Dietlein said.
Like many arts organizations during this time, Hale Centre Theatre is staying connected to the community through social media — in the recent report measuring the pandemic’s effect on Utah’s cultural sector, 35.21% of the respondents said they have increased their online presence since shutting down. On Facebook and Instagram, Hale Centre Theatre has created a movement called #HCTBrighterDays that features daily clips of cast members showcasing their talents.
“The theater — it’s a nonprofit. We have to still go out and raise millions of dollars just to break even every year. We’re planning on this being a several year recovery for the theater.” — Quinn Dietlein, executive director
“We are extremely fortunate to be in a community that is embracing the arts like they do,” Dietlein said, adding that the theater has around 29,000 season ticket subscribers. “But the theater — it’s a nonprofit. We have to still go out and raise millions of dollars just to break even every year. We’re planning on this being a several year recovery for the theater.”
‘We all need the arts’
The theater and arts industry nationwide has already lost more than $3 billion in the wake of the pandemic, according to a recent study from the nonprofit Americans for the Arts.
To help support the struggling industry, the $2 trillion emergency stimulus package recently signed by congress provides $75 million to the National Endowment for the Arts, according to ABC News. Forty percent of that funding is to be distributed to regional and state arts organizations, with the remaining 60% to be made available as direct grants, according to the online arts magazine Hyperallergic. But that funding still falls short of suggestions outlined in petitions from arts organizations, the magazine reported.
“We are grateful for potential help from the federal government with this stimulus bill to help keep employees’ paychecks going,” Dietlein said. “We have applied for help there.”
The strain Hale Centre Theatre and arts organizations worldwide are under is sad for Kenny — whose history with Hale Centre Theatre dates back to her childhood — to see. At this point, the actress is just grateful “Strictly Ballroom” got to run as long as it did.
‘I really, really hope that when things are able to open up that people just support the arts in every way, shape and form ... because my goodness, we all need the arts.’ — Claire Kenny
Many of her friends involved in Utah’s arts scene were also in productions that have been canceled. Some were able to perform a few times. Others never got the chance to go onstage.
“It’s been tough for the arts,” she said. “I really, really hope that when things are able to open up that people just support the arts in every way, shape and form ... because my goodness, we all need the arts — like so bad.”
“But it’s my passion that I really miss,” she continued. “I sit at home at night and I’m like, ‘Well, this is boring. I want to get on stage!’”