Entertainment venues shared where they're at with trying to reopen their doors

The Milton Theatre will be one of the state’s first live-entertainment venues to reopen with a limited crowd next week.

Under state guidelines, museums and venues for performance art are only allowed to fill their venues to 30% occupancy, while outdoor gatherings of 250 people will be allowed, all starting June 1.

The theater will have a soft opening June 3 with two screenings of “The Wizard of Oz.” That’ll be followed by two screenings of “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” June 4. There will be a comedy show June 5, concluded with a drag show June 6.

Milton Theatre marketing director John Paul Lacap said the venue has lost around $200,000 in revenue since it closed its doors.

“We’ve also let go of 12 employees, around 20 contractors, plus the numerous artists that were scheduled to perform,” Lacap said. “The Milton Theatre is the biggest driver of foot traffic in downtown Milton and our continued closure has a domino effect to the surrounding businesses.”

Entertainment spots around the state have also lost money, and each is trying to figure out how to maneuver through the new guidelines in a way that makes sense for them.

1. Milton mounts a comeback

Some of the recent adjustments the Milton Theatre has made included taking the time “to clean, fix, refresh, and innovate some of our processes so that the next time you enter our doors, a brand new experience awaits you in a much safer environment,” Lacap said.

The venue has added new outdoor furniture at quayside that was raised from a furniture campaign. The furniture has garnered praise on the theater’s Facebook page. Donor plaques for the furniture will be added in a few weeks.

The theater is receiving donations for its COVID-19 relief fund to help keep its daily operations going, Lacap said.

2. Freeman Stage

The Freeman Stage in Selbyville was slated to announce its 13th season lineup in mid-March, with tickets going on sale soon after. Instead, they had to hit the pause button.

As of May 22, The Freeman Stage's board of directors hasn't "made a final decision on how we are going to proceed, but we are expecting a determination in the next few weeks," said Patti Grimes, executive director for The Freeman Stage. 

"Like many businesses, we have been working to create a path that embraces the CDC guidelines while still being able to present the arts — with physical distancing and performances that are 'right-sized' for a smaller audience that will be required at this time," Grimes added.

To continue its mission of providing arts access to everyone, the nonprofit has created a variety of virtual programs for patrons, including the “The Stage is Yours!” program, where local musical talent it showcased on its Facebook page.

Grimes said there's also “The Weekly Dose of the Arts,” which provides grade-appropriate arts activities and its newest collaboration with artist John Donato, who creates virtual art projects anyone can do from home called “Creating Whimsical Masterpieces at Home with John Donato.”

The executive director of The Freeman Stage said the response to their virtual programs "has been wonderful" and "we’ve seen our patrons sharing our content online and school districts providing the arts activities to their students." 

The nonprofit doesn't know exactly how things will play out this year. But they’re keeping their fingers crossed things will work out.

"Regardless of the direction we take this season, The Freeman Stage will continue to be a vital part of this community [and] bring inspired arts experiences to all," Grimes said.  

“The arts are an important part of life — being able to experience it, create it or share it can bring joy and healing to anyone." 

3. Biggs Museum

The coronavirus pandemic motivated the Biggs Museum of American Art in Dover to bolster its digital presence.

“We’ve had a lot of success with our virtual tours, monthly children’s activity books, and virtual interactive activities,” said Kerri Lacey, marketing director and spokeswoman for the Biggs.

Lacey said one particular activity people enjoyed was their March Madness Tournament. The public was encouraged to browse 64 works of art (not currently on display) and vote in single-elimination rounds to narrow down the field.

The “Elite 8” fan-favorite items are to be exhibited when the museum reopens.

Voting went all the way to the championship round.

“It was a lot of fun and it shined a light on a lot of pieces that don’t necessarily get that much attention,” Lacey said. “The exhibition is opening digitally on June 5, but we can’t wait for the day that everyone who participated can see their picks live in person and full scale.”

The Biggs is in the final stages of review for the adjustments it’ll need to make in order to reopen its doors, she said.

“While we would love to see our galleries flooded with people, we recognize that it’s just not the appropriate time for that,” Lacey said. “So we’re taking steps to create a safer more private visitor experience.”

4. Smyrna Opera House

Smyrna Opera House managing director Brian Hill said his venue won’t be open next week, because they can’t afford to.

“We’d need to have 75% capacity to break even. For us to come in here with say 30%, or even 50%, is just not realistic for us. That would just be throwing money away,” he said.

“Not that we’re here to make money, but we don’t want to bankrupt what we have here. I’d rather stay dark and not have shows until there’s a such a time that we can have normal shows again,” he added.

Hill had to reschedule everything since March to avoid losing those artists, and money from the hundreds of advance tickets they’ve generated, Hill said.

The silver lining for the theater is local singer-songwriter Sol Knopf. The beloved artist got to record his new project in the historic venue. Hill said it made sense to let Sol record because they weren’t using the room for anything else.

The managing director for the Smyrna Opera House said they’ve made improvements. They’ve cleaned the building from top to bottom and repainted rooms. They’ve also steamed the seats.

Hill said he’s hoping entertainment spots around the state will be able to bring in 100% of their patrons by late summer, which is when he’d like to reopen their doors.

“I’d be happy if we could be up and running by August 1,” Hill said. “I’ve got a full slate of shows for August, September and October.”

5. The Grand

It’s hard for The Grand and The Playhouse on Rodney Square (both under the same ownership) to reopen right now, under the state’s new guidelines.

“Until there is significant adjustment in safety protocols, it is unlikely that any of our [venues] can resume normal operation, because those guidelines restrict both the quality of the experience and the financial viability of most of our programming,” said Mark Fields, executive director for The Grand and The Playhouse in Wilmington.

Fields said patrons should hold onto any purchased tickets as they’ll be honored for the rescheduled date. 

If the specific performance doesn’t reschedule, or patrons can’t make the new date, there will be a number of options available to them at the time of announcement.

Due to circumstances beyond The Grand’s control, the venue won’t be able to provide refunds until the announcement of a rescheduled date, Fields said.

The Grand has lost income in three ways. Firstly, performance opportunities (Broadway, music and variety, and school matinees). 

Secondly, rental income was lost from resident companies, personal, and corporate events that were scheduled. Third, donations and contributions have fallen off because those streams of money are driven by programming. 

"Outside of dollars and cents though, The Grand and The Playhouse on Rodney Square are cornerstones of the local economy on Market Street,” Fields said.

“Our performances drive revenue to our dining establishments and parking lots. Our closure has had a significant impact on these businesses as well," he explained.

While stuck in limbo, The Grand has been focusing more on its digital presence, which included rebroadcasting 14 of its performances on Facebook.

Beefing up their digital initiative includes a plan to work together with DanceWorks and First State Ballet Theatre for a “dance along” project.

It’ll be spliced together to provide “a beautiful reminder of how art can impact our community’s youth,” Fields said. For more information, visit the Facebook page here.

It’s going on three months that The Grand and The Playhouse have been dark, yet that won’t last forever.

“Think of this as just a brief intermission,” Fields said.  “The arts are critical to the city of Wilmington and we will be here as a place to gather when it is safe to do so.”