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RiverCenter's Road to Recovery: Q&A with Executive Director, Norm Easterbrook

Article by Carrie Beth Wallace

Images courtesy of RiverCenter for the Performing Arts

The COVID-19 crisis has left much to be mitigated in the performing arts industry. Economic stress, health risks, and a new host of safety protocols have presented a harsh new reality for venues around the world.

Columbus, Georgia possesses more than seven theater spaces in a five block radius - one of few cities in the state to have this asset to its name. Before the COVID-19 crisis hit, Columbus was a city where it was common for multiple productions to be running simultaneously - often in the same venues. It wasn't a question of whether you could see a show each weekend, but rather which show you would choose to see.

That was then.

Now, our city's performing arts venues are fighting for their very existence. Though each organization has been impacted differently, they've all entered into a new fiscal year with more challenges than ever before.

I spoke with Norm Easterbrook, Executive Director of RiverCenter for the Performing Arts, to get a better understanding of the challenges our largest performing arts venue is facing. Read on to discover COVID-19's impact on RiverCenter, how they're mitigating the crisis, and what we can expect as patrons the next time we're able to see a show.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

RiverCenter for the Performing Arts.

Q: What's happening at RiverCenter in light of the COVID-19 crisis? Can you walk us through the past several months, please?

A: We stopped operations on March 13. That was the day that shows started to move or cancel. It was also the day that rentals started to cancel. On that day, a snowball of activity went away from our calendar. It happened in the last quarter of our fiscal year, and we had the majority of our shows scheduled for that quarter.

The majority of our shows have either been rescheduled or have been postponed. That is everything except for SpongeBob SquarePants. All of the other shows have been moved into February and March of 2021. Now, things are starting to move closer to May. It's difficult to know when exactly those shows will happen. We know they all will still happen, it's just hard to know when we'll be able to actually settle on a date that people will be comfortable attending.

Q: How did this impact your rental revenue?

A: We lost a lot of rentals, which is understandable. The theatre was essentially closed by order of the governor until July 1, which impacted many of the rentals we had booked.

Q: What has the financial impact of these show postponements and rental cancellations done to RiverCenter's budget?

A; We have adopted an extreme austerity budget. Part of that austerity necessitated laying off or furloughing about 15 of our 29 employees. We kept staff members that we needed to have immediately available so that if anything loosened up to the point that we could or needed to do an event, we could put the theatre in service within a matter of days.

Q: Does it typically take days for RiverCenter to be ready for a performance?

A: Not at all. In the past, RiverCenter could be ready in a matter of hours. But now, with our reduced staff, we go on-service in a matter of days.

Q: How else has the COVID-19 crisis impacted RiverCenter operations?

A: The challenge with theatre is the very business that we're in, the very thing we're designed to do, is to get a lot of people together in the same space to enjoy a common experience. COVID-19 has made the necessity for health codes and rules that do not allow us to function in the way we're meant to right now. It would just simply be irresponsible at this point.

Q: Has anything been happening in the theatre? Clearly, you cannot hold major events that pull mass audiences, but have you been able to open at all at this time?

We have had a few small events that were not open to the public. We've done two. We did the Miss Georgia Press Conference. We also did a dance school recital. They had it scheduled as a rental, and we know how important these recitals are to dance schools. It's the culmination of an entire year's work by these young people.

Unfortunately, we couldn't have the dance recital like they're known to be. We could not have lots of family members in attendance or have a crowd. Instead we adjusted it to be a video taping situation.

Q: Wow. What did that look like?

A: We were very careful to ensure that at the time we did this, there were no more than sixty people in the building. This was at any given time. We can only accommodate up to forty people backstage to allow for social distancing.

Q: Forty people total?

A: Yes. Which, as you know, when we do a Broadway show we normally have 120 people backstage. There can be 40 people in just the ensemble of a show, so we really are limited as to what we can do right now.

Q: How did this work with the dance recital, then?

A: We just worked it out. We had really close scheduling and abided by the guidelines very carefully. We had to have one pathway into the building, and a different pathway out of the building so that people didn't congest in any given spot.

When you have little ones in a program, you have to have a parent or guardian somehow nearby. You're one of those parents or guardians, so you know exactly what I mean.

Q: Absolutely. How did you manage this need?

A: We did not have a traditional audience space. We simply made a space available where the parent could monitor their child in the program. We are going to do another one like that on Saturday.

You know, no one is getting rich with this. (laughing) So we're just in the mode of making it so that people can see their way through this time. This is especially true with the dance recitals we've done. We're just making it work however we can while ensuring safety as the first priority, and then by doing what we can to meet our client's goals after that.

Q: Other than a few highly-adapted summer dance recitals, is there anything else on the calendar at RiverCenter right now?

A: We have a few things on the calendar for this Fall in November. One of them is the United States Army Band and Soldiers Chorus, which is always a great program. At this point, we're thinking that we might try to do that outdoors if the situation allows.

Q: What a fantastic idea. If that works, it would be such a morale booster for our community.

A: We think so, too. We're really looking for things that we can do to maintain a presence in the community throughout this time. We've had a strong commitment to educational programming in our local schools and are exploring ways to continue that this year. We should be able to maintain it with the school system, but it will certainly be very different types of activities than what we've done in the past. We first have to work to understand exactly what the schools need, and then we'll have to see what we can do.

With all of the decisions we've made, we have worked to maintain as much of our community service initiatives as possible. That goes for the educational programming as well as the free programming that we do.

Q: How will it work with booking or rescheduling the Broadway tours?

A: Well, just to give you an idea of what we're looking at now, if we apply the standards that are recommended by the health department and the CDC, our house capacity goes from 1990 seats to just over 500. Unfortunately, the money doesn't work on that.

Then, when you look on the other side of it from the Broadway tour company's perspective, they may normally tour with two buses - a bus for the cast and a bus for the crew. Well, if they observe social distancing procedures, they may need to have five buses for the cast and an additional three buses for the crew. So their expenses are going up much higher as well.

Again, nobody was getting rich on this before this crisis, and they're certainly not going to be doing that now. We're just all working together to try to make things happen for us.

A full house at RiverCenter for the Performing Arts is 1990 at capacity. After COVID-19, this number will be reduced to 500.

Q: Thank you for being willing to share this information with our readers, Norm. This is what I want to make sure everyone is aware of when we're talking about the "state of the arts" in our community. We all know the arts have taken an enormous blow, but hearing the actual impact on our local houses has the potential to change things. It brings it closer to home, and I think the awareness conversations like this bring will be a very important part our local recovery efforts.

A: Absolutely. Thank you for being willing to share about this with your readers.

Q: Of course. Now, let's go back to this discussion about capacity. You've spoken about the drop in number of available seats, but that's just the actual number of people in chairs, correct? This doesn't even touch the other protocols you'll have to put into place to get those patrons in and out of the theatre safely. Can you speak a little more about that, please?

A: Absolutely. We also have to take into consideration maintaining social distancing in the lobby. This could mean a necessity for timing entrances by section. So, for example, instead of your ticket saying, "Enter through Door C" it might say, "Arrive at the theatre at 7 o'clock to be seated."

We're following all of that and we're trying not to panic about it. I'm going to say that. But at the same time, we're trying to have an analytical and practical approach to all of this. So much so that we're talking about all of the different things we can do with the theatre that observe social distancing for the performers on stage and for our audience. Maybe we have four performers standing 15 feet apart? What can we do to bring an audience in - not so much to sell tickets - but to begin to familiarize our market with what they might expect the minute we open. Because we want to be open as soon as we can.

One of the things we're trying to work on is to do exactly what you're saying. We'll be rolling out informational emails and bits on Facebook, things like that. We want to give people a look at what it might be like when they come back.

Q: How has your audience reacted to the crisis?

A: People have been very generous. We have so many who have given their tickets over as a financial donation to the theatre. They called and said, "I'm not going to be able to come to the theatre, but please count the value toward my membership this season." That was so generous.

We have many, many people who have a high level of trust in RiverCenter. We appreciate and value that so much. These people said, "Hold my money on account, and we'll come when the show is able to happen." This was also very generous because they were not asking for refunds. They've shown their support by communicating, "We like what you do and we want to see the show when we can." The greater majority of our audience have done one of the two of those things with their tickets.

We have shows now that, were we to do them, we've pretty much sold out the house because of the capacity we can hold. What that means is that people will have to come and understand that even if they've had the same seat at RiverCenter for a number of years, that seat might have to change due to the regulations and precautions we have in place. We're trying to get people to understand that and work with us.

We want to find ways to encourage people to lean in with us. We want this to be a collective concept of "pull together, and let's go see a show" kind of attitude, instead of a "this is what they're demanding that I do" situation. We want this to be interesting and fun.

At the same time, and I will say this and you're welcome to quote me on it, as I go around the community and as I've seen people coming into RiverCenter on the few occasions where we have been able to open our doors to a limited number of people, there are still a lot of folks that are not following the recommendations.

Q: Absolutely. Thank you for saying that. It's important for everyone to hear the importance of all of us doing our part. We've got to protect each other.

A: Yes. The more that we do that, the more that we'll be able to get a handle on this thing and figure out what we need to do. We were one of the first entities to close down in the community, and we did that out of precaution. We'd much rather have overreacted and to find out that we were able to reopen earlier than we thought. The reason it would go away faster than we expected is because we would have overreacted in the first place. Unfortunately, that's not what's happening here.

Our biggest challenge is going to be human nature. Some people are understandably uncomfortable wearing a mask for an extended period of time. I get that. I'm not comfortable doing it, but the more I do it, the more used to it I get.

I encourage everyone now to begin to understand that wearing a mask is like not letting the door close on the person behind you. It's just a simple courtesy that makes other people feel comfortable. Maybe it helps, maybe it doesn't. Let's not dispute that. Let's just do it.

So, in this building mask wearing is absolutely required. If you step through the threshold of the RiverCenter, you must wear a mask. Our staff members are wearing them and adhering to social distancing requirements, so you will absolutely see us doing what we're asking our patrons to do. We are fortunate that we have private offices, so we can close our doors and take our masks off, but the minute someone opens the door, the masks are on. There's no exception.

Q: What other protocols have you put into place?

A: We're checking the temperatures of all of our employees, and we're asking our resident companies to abide by that as well. We need to be sure that we're doing everything we can to not be a part of the problem.

We have also put a frequent sanitization schedule as well for the theatre. Employees are required to sanitize their own spaces when they enter and when they leave. Hand sanitizer must be used upon entering the building. We've got these structures in place so that our remaining staff members can come back if they're comfortable doing that.

Q: Have you all been able to secure any emergency funding during this time?

A: Yes. We were very fortunate on three fronts. We received a Pay Roll Protection Loan. That allowed us to keep our entire staff for eight weeks at their full salaries so that we could kind of have some breathing room to figure everything out. This gave us the ability to prepare everyone for what our future might look like. Then we had to move into our austerity budget plan.

We also received a small business administration economic injury disaster loan, which is a loan on very favorable terms. In addition, we received a $10,000 grant through the SBA as part of the loan application process. We received that as well, so we were very fortunate to have all three of those come through for us at RiverCenter.

Our business model relies so critically on cash flow, and that cash flow is gone. So, with a reduced budget and this funding in place, it really has reduced some pressure for us.

The other really great thing that happened for us is that the Bradley Turner Foundation granted $150,000 Challenge Grant.

Q: Congratulations. I hadn't heard that. What wonderful news! A: Thank you. We're in the quiet phase of that campaign and probably early this week we'll be doing the public phase of the campaign to match those funds. So far, we've raised a little over $90,000 and we've got another $60,000 to go as of today to satisfy that match and receive those funds.

You know, this goes back to the Columbus Challenge. What I've been telling people is that on March 13th, for better or for worse, we went from the year 2020 to the year 2000. In 2000, Columbus was without a RiverCenter. Columbus was without 200,000 people coming downtown to spend money and go to shows at RiverCenter. Columbus was without the base that RiverCenter was for CSU's development downtown.

We've taken a big step back in time, and what we've done is look back to the roots of the Columbus Challenge and say, "What parts of the roots of our organization do we need to preserve?" Those things we've got to get back online first are economic development and service to our community. That's what we're focused on right now.

Q: What is your number one goal, if you have one, for RiverCenter?

A: We're searching to find ways we can get this building open sooner rather than later, but safely. I get a little bit concerned when I see other venues around the state opening a little bit earlier than I think they should. I don't think that reflects well on the industry.

Q: I agree.

A: RiverCenter was part of the Georgia Facilities Working Group, and we just released last week a Public Facilities Opening Guide. The effort that has come out of the industry is a beacon of hope in this time. A lot of people way smarter than me, and way more experienced, have just rolled up their sleeves to get things done. There are many people working together to do everything we can to figure this out. It's happening in some of the most unexpected ways, and it's been remarkable to witness.

Q: Thank you again for speaking out about what RiverCenter is doing to mitigate the challenges of this crisis. In closing, what is the one thing you want our audience to know?

A: I want people to know that we care deeply about our staff, and we care deeply about our audiences. That's why there is such effort going into the way we're approaching ensuring our facility is as safe as possible for people to enjoy.

The other thing I want people to know is that we're resilient. We can't forget that word and we can't forget that component of what we do. We're creative, resilient, and optimistic.

Why do we bother to make art? Why do we bother to do live performing arts? It's because we believe in humanity. We believe in our culture. We believe in the good things that fill our lives. That is why we do what we do, and that is why we will continue. ◼︎

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