SALT LAKE CITY — Last Friday, after 106 days of being closed, the Hale Centre Theatre saw the light of day again.
The theater went dark on March 12, when the coronavirus pandemic brought a halt to venues across Utah and the nation.
At that time, the theater — which had a record-breaking year the previous season — had to abruptly end its productions of “Strictly Ballroom,” a U.S. premiere, and the Steve Martin/Edie Brickell bluegrass musical “Bright Star.” A couple of hundred jobs were affected, and it was a financial blow, as ticket sales form about 80% of the theater’s revenue, the Deseret News previously reported.
But even in that time of uncertainty, a line from “Bright Star” kept popping into the mind of Quinn Dietlein, the executive director of the theater: “The sun is gonna shine again.”
That line literally and figuratively came to life on June 26, when the theater resumed its production of “Bright Star.” It was a fairly quiet re-opening, not posted on the theater’s social media pages or reported by local publications. Since that first performance Friday night, the theater has put on four more productions of “Bright Star” in the smaller Jewel Box Stage, which seats around 450.
On July 1, the theater will open up the larger Centre Stage with “Mary Poppins.” That stage seats around 900. So far, since Friday, 1,700 to 1,800 patrons have attended “Bright Star” — filling the smaller stage to about 70% capacity.
And, according to Mark Dietlein, the theater’s president and CEO, the reopening has been “smooth as silk.”
“There’s such joy with the patrons being able to be back to the theater,” Dietlein told the Deseret News. “After what everybody has been through, just kind of a real hunkered-down situation, I think people are just feeling so relieved that they can get back to doing the things they love.”
Dietlein said rehearsals for the productions began about a month ago, when the state lessened COVID-19 restrictions for the number of people permitted to gather in one spot. While the performers will not be wearing masks, adjustments have been made to ensure proper distancing between the actors and audience.
Patrons, however, will be required to wear masks from the time they enter the theater through the time that they leave, Dietlein said.
That stipulation allows the theater to currently seat at full capacity. At the moment, Dietlein said the theater aims to keep its venues 70% filled. He said the state’s latest “Utah Leads Together Plan” allows indoor venues of 3,000 seats or less to sit shoulder-to-shoulder if people are wearing masks the entire time, and if reserved seating is in place.
Reserved seating allows for contact tracing, so that if a theatergoer were to contract COVID-19, patrons who sat in close proximity to that person could be notified. To further enforce the mask requirement, the theater is not selling concessions, although ice water will be available for patrons during intermission.
The Hale Centre Theatre’s return comes as Utah has seen a rising number of COVID-19 cases. Salt Lake’s Grand Theatre announced Tuesday that due to the spikes in COVID-19 cases, it would be cancelling its productions of “Harriet,” “The Producers” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” — a play the theater has been trying to bring to the stage for the past four years.
While Dietlein said the Hale Centre Theatre is following all health guidelines and requirements, he knows “we’re certainly not out of the woods yet.”
“We take this very seriously,” he said. “We’ve given this as much thought and processing as we possibly could. It’s been a monumental effort on the part of the theater to get to this point. ... If the state felt like there had to be additional restrictions, then we would comply and make whatever adjustments were needed.”
Moving forward, Dietlein said he anticipates it’ll take the theater “a full three years to recover” from the three-and-a-half-month closure.
“The majority of our expenses have continued forward with no additional income other than the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program),” he said. “It’s taken its toll on us, but as long as we can sell those seats ... we’ll be just fine.
“Not only are the patrons super excited to be back, but it is a huge relief to our full-time employees and then the part-time employees who are associated with these various productions, and the actors, to be able to have employment and be doing what they love,” he continued. “It’s a huge relief to be back.”
Dietlein reiterated that patrons who are part of a high-risk population, or feeling compromised or sick, should not come to the theater.
“We just have to stress the fact that there is individual responsibility on the part of everybody who’s hoping and does attend, that they do so with full knowledge of their health and their willingness to comply with all of the health regulations — especially the wearing of the mask,” he said. “That’s extremely important to us. And if they’re not willing to adhere to that, then they need to wait.”
The Hale Centre Theatre has a number of other precautions in place, according to its website:
- Hand sanitizing stations throughout lobby entrances
- Patrons are “encouraged” to make purchases with a credit card
- Social distancing markers will be in place at will call and ticket purchasing lines; in front of restrooms, concessions and other locations where there are typically lines
- Plexiglass is installed at each box office window
- Box office surfaces and other “high-touch surfaces” throughout the theater are frequently cleaned
- Cashiers wear gloves
- Patrons are allowed to exchange tickets for a different performance free of charge if they are feeling sick or have been in contact with someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19
- Show programs are now being accessed digitally
Last year marked a record-breaking year for the theater, the Deseret News previously reported. All 859 performances sold out and the theater saw its highest attendance, with 577,743 patrons from every county in Utah.
Getting back on stage Friday night was “thrilling,” Dietlein said.
“It was all I could do to contain my emotions,” he said. “The sun is shining on Hale Centre Theatre, and we beyond hope that all of the other arts organizations can re-open just as soon as possible. Collectively, they bring an incredible value to the community. ... We need a lot of sunshine.”
Here’s the full production schedule for 2020, according to the theater’s website:
- “Bright Star” — through Aug. 15
- “Mary Poppins” — July 1-Sept. 5
- “Million Dollar Quartet” — listed as “coming soon”
- “Murder on the Orient Express” — Aug. 24-Nov. 14
- “Tarzan” — Nov. 2-Jan. 16, 2021
- “A Christmas Carol” — Nov. 27-Dec. 26