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Springer’s Road to Recovery: Q&A with Paul Pierce

Story by Carrie Beth Wallace

The global COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact our local arts organizations to their core. In this week's State of the Arts interview, Paul Pierce, Producing Artistic Director at Springer Opera House, discusses how the crisis has affected the Springer. Read on to discover Springer's plan for recovery, what they're doing to mitigate the crisis, and what to expect the next time you're in the theatre.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How has the Springer been impacted by the global pandemic we are enduring?

A: The first thing I want people to know is that we’re still alive down here. I’ve been trying to let people know this as much as possible. The Springer Opera House has been here for nearly 150 years and we are a creative institution. This is a creative engine down here. There is still so much creativity happening.

We are storytellers, and we love what we do. Now, the question is how do we tell our stories and when do we get to tell them?

Much of our Spring and Summer has been spent coming to terms with one major truth. That is, that uncertainty will be part of our lives for some time to come. And rather than gnash our teeth and cry and weep over it, we’ve spent this time coming up with plans and mitigation efforts.

Q: What will that look like?

A: When we are able to invite our audience back, we want everyone to know that this is as safe a place to be as it’s ever been. We understand that without that happening, you really aren’t going to be able to have an enjoyable evening at the theatre if you’re worried about your health and safety.

So much of what we’re doing is to examine everything we can to figure out what we can do to protect our audience, our staff, and our artists.

Q: Can you share your plans for these mitigation efforts?

A: Yes. We have been working very hard on these plans. We’ve created our own mitigation plan full of procedures for taking care of audiences. It covers everything from how they’ll enter the building, the kinds of disinfecting we’ll do before they show up and while they’re here. We’re doing some pretty cool things in that regard.

One thing we’re doing is we’re working with our heating and air conditioning contractor to install UV lights in all of our air handlers. These UV lights will kill any virus or bacteria that comes through the system. This eliminates the fear of air systems scooping up the virus and dumping them back into the room. It’s not going to happen.

The other thing we’re doing to add to that effort is installing MERV 11 filters. Their new advanced technology filters out anything and everything down to something smaller than a microbe. A microbe is one fifth the width of a human hair. These are things I didn’t know about until very recently.

We are also purchasing electrostatic foggers. These will let us go through every inch of our facility to disinfect our spaces. Rehearsal halls, backstage, all of the public areas, studios, everything. They’ll all be fogged with this electrostatic disinfectant that cleans all surfaces and the air.

Q: This is fascinating. How will that work on days when you have two shows? What kind of timeline are you looking at to accomplish it all?

A: On days when we have a matinee and an evening show, we will go in between those shows and fog the space. We’ll adjust start times as needed to allow for everything to be done between shows.

Q: Paul, this is a lot of mitigation you all are putting into place.

A: There are also a lot of little things we’ll be doing to cut down on contact and increase safety. For example, we will not be touching tickets at all. Everything will be contact-free from the box office to the front of house. Everyone will be wearing masks. The audience will enter in masks, they’ll have their temperature taken. We’re going to 50% capacity in every theatre.

Q: That’s a big loss of seats, Paul.

A: It is. But listen Carrie Beth, we’ve got the best board of directors in the world. They are just amazing. We have been working closely with them on the financial impact of all of this. One of the big things to have come out of these discussions was the general consensus that we’re not going to crawl into a bunker while all of this is happening. We want to be closer to our audience when this is all over, and we want to be a stronger theatre organization when this is all over.

The board knows that there is going to be a major financial impact. They also know that the uncertainty is something we’re all going to have to live with for a while. Our board has steeled themselves for extra fundraising efforts this year. And, our board itself, has redoubled their own financial commitment to the organization. They are raising money out of their own pockets, but also from their friends and associates in our community.

Q: How has COVID-19 necessitated changing your season schedule?

A: We have just announced this week that we decided to push our entire Mainstage series to begin in January 2021. This means that all five Mainstage shows will run from January through mid-June. We’ve extended our season to accommodate for appropriate scheduling. All of the titles are still the same for the most part, but rather than closing the season in the middle of May, we’ll just close in June.

Q: I saw that announced, and frankly, it’s brilliant. It means that your audience will get to enjoy some of the biggest shows well into the summer. And after this summer? I can’t imagine anyone wouldn’t be excited about the idea of that.

A: We’re excited too. Especially because this means The Wizard of Oz will run into June. It’s a wonderful family musical that we’re hoping we’ll see a lot of our audience join us for next year.

Q: Will you be doing any smaller shows before January?

A: Yes. We will be doing three smaller shows this Fall. On the corner of 10th Street and 2nd Avenue, we’re going to build a modest outdoor stage. We’ll open in October with a Halloween show called Evil Dead The Musical. It will be a kind of bring your own chair event.

The stage, the lighting, everything else will be installed. But our aim is for people to be able to spread around the parking lot with their own chairs and sit wherever they’re comfortable. Our Theatre for the Very Young show, Deep Blue Sea, will be performed outdoors in the garden next to the McClure Theatre.

Finally, Winter Wonderettes, the four person holiday musical review originally scheduled to open in McClure Theatre, will now open on our Mainstage instead. We’ve moved it to the Mainstage and will spread out our audience. It won’t be a big glossy musical like we usually have in December, but it allows us to still have a holiday show on the Mainstage at Springer Opera House in December. We know so many of our Springer family members hold this as a tradition every year, so we think it will be a wonderful way to welcome people back to the theatre.

It will be the first time we’ll use our new procedures indoors, and that is by design. Opening with a smaller show will help us focus the majority of our efforts in the front of house due to the fact that we’ll have a much smaller amount of things going on backstage. This allows us to let backstage do their thing while the majority of use focus on serving our patrons out front.

Q: What else have you learned during this time?

A: One of the things we’ve learned is that we need to open Foley Hall as an extended lobby on show nights. Rather than having everyone poured into the lobby or the Saloon, we’ll open up that extended area to help ensure social distancing can be made a top priority.

We also know that part of the fun of coming to the Springer under normal circumstances is being squeezed in. But, we have to open Foley Hall to ensure that social distancing measures can be in place to accommodate the number of people we’re hoping to have. It also opens up another pair of restrooms for us each evening.

I’ve also spoken to the Mayor, and one of the things we’re hoping to do is to set up an outdoor cafe. We’ll put tables and umbrellas out along First Avenue so that people can get their drinks and take them outside for a bit of a break during intermission. We’ll ask people to put in an order before the show so that their drinks and snacks can be waiting for them at a designated place. This will also help cut down on the already extended intermission times.

The Mayor has been very helpful and supportive on this matter. He is working with the city attorney to make sure that our alcohol license can still be covered if we’re operating that way. We’ve pretty much gotten it figured out, so I’m looking forward to being able to provide that option for our guests.

Q: Paul, what can people do? How can locals get involved to help the Springer during this time?

A: Well, Carrie Beth, the Springer Opera House is in financial trouble. First of all, the show that we closed in the Spring, Singin’ in the Rain, was shut down the week after we’d announced our new season.

Usually, our March musical is our prime season ticket sales period. This is because there are a lot of people in the building, and a lot of people are excited about the new season. It’s typically when the most subscriptions and donations come flying in the door. We had to shut that down during the first week.

Then, we went into this phase through the Spring where pretty much everybody just didn’t know what was happening. It seems almost quaint now to look back on that time when we all thought, “Hey, we’ll just all go home for a couple of weeks and then we’ll be back.” Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. When we all came creeping back into the building and started to talk about the next steps, we were very aware that we were all in a serious public health emergency across the globe.

We had to face the fact this Spring that people, as much as they love the Springer Opera House, didn’t have the bandwidth to think about the Springer. They needed to be thinking about their health and safety and that of their loved ones. We weren’t going to try to elbow our way into the narrative at that point. We knew we had to attend to our own business and start preparing.

Throughout the Spring, instead of calling to ask for donations, we got on the phone and just started calling to check on our Springer patrons. We wanted them to know that we were thinking about them. We wanted to hear how they were. All we did was say, “Hey, how are you doing? We care about you. What can we do to help you right now?”

One of the things that happened was that we found ourselves on the phone with people for 45 minutes or an hour. We found people needed to talk to someone. They told us about their families, their lives, their struggles, how much they missed the arts. We learned that our audience loved when a friendly voice from the Springer called to just ask how they were doing.

This phone campaign helped our relationship with them, but we found that it helped us, too. It helped to remind us that these are real people. Real families that right now have a hole in their lives. They want that hole filled, and that’s part of our job.

Q: What happened?

By waiting and not rushing into our season ticket campaign, we were able to get a plan in place and reboot the campaign at a time when people were ready. And, boom. Subscriptions and ticket sales came flying in the door. Donations were also coming in. That told our staff that people were ready to hear what Springer needs to go on. So we're leaning in and telling that story.

Now, we’re rounding the corner into August. Typically, we’d be getting ready to go into rehearsal for our first fall show. We’re obviously not going to do that. But that first fall show represents a lot of revenue that will not be coming in the door this year. The way the fall usually works, is we collect much needed revenue to operate. This year, we’re not going to have that big flux this year from ticket sales until January.

We’re asking our patrons now to consider coming alongside the Springer this year. If you were making a $100 donation to the Springer each year, we’re asking you to double that. If you were making a $500 donation, consider $1000 donation. Because there is a serious threat to this institution. We’ve had some layoffs. We’re planning to call those employees back as soon as we can, but the truth is that we’re down here hurting.

Q: People need something to get behind right now, Paul. I can’t imagine people not supporting the Springer this season - even if they can’t sit in the theatre in September. This town is an amazing place, and what makes it incredible are the people. Our community will stand by its State Historic Theatre.

A: You’re exactly right. And Carrie Beth, I have to confess to you that sometimes, I have to pause and think about the fact that the institution that I run is nearly 150 years old. The Springer Opera House has seen lots of social and economical challenges over time.

The Springer opened in 1871. The world was very different then. There was no Statue of Liberty. No Eiffel Tower. Basketball had not been invented. Fort Benning was not here. The river at the time was like an interstate highway - the way people came and went to our city.

The Springer Opera House has been at the epicenter of the cultural life of this city and it has survived many, many decades of all kinds of things. When we look at trouble, it’s important to remember we’re not just looking at trouble from this year. We're talking about all of the years Springer has been here. So when we celebrate the Springer’s 150th anniversary next year, we’ll be celebrating its past, present, and future. Including all of the challenges its overcome. And guess what? It’s fun working for an organization with a history like that.

Q: You certainly have a legacy to stand on. And Paul, can you imagine how much fun we’ll all have when we can just make art again?

A: Oh, yeah. I’m going to be directing more this year. I’m directing Spamalot, Cotton Patch Gospel, and Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

I’m really looking forward to it, and to the challenges it’ll bring. It’s going to be very important that our entire creative team maintains a good pulse on the public’s feeling about everything that’s happening. This will come into play as we stage scenes and choreograph our shows.

Q: That’s an interesting point. Would you mind elaborating on that a bit?

A: Well, for example, theatre involves a lot of close proximity. Some of our shows involve intimate conversations and intimate staging at times. How will we need to do this to get the message across, but also keep our artists safe? And how will we achieve this while also making sure our audience doesn’t see a scene and have a guttural reaction to it? We need to be aware of the audience’s perception of our artists’ safety.

I don’t know about you, but all summer any time I’ve seen a movie where lots of people are at gathered together at a party, or hugging or something, I catch myself having a new sort of reaction to any form of physical connection. I find myself shocked by the visual of it, and I tend to recoil. It’s unnatural, but it’s where we are. I almost have to intentionally remind myself that before the pandemic, it was normal to walk up and hug someone you knew. Now, it’s just not a part of our daily life.

What does that do to our audience’s perception of what’s happening on stage? We don’t know, but we are not only going to have to be mindful of the physical limitations of the necessary protocols for our employee’s safety, but also be aware of the emotional and social temperatures of our audiences. As daunting as that sounds, I’m actually really excited to tackle the challenge. It’ll be a new experience for all of us. We’re going to learn a lot, and we’re going to do it together. It’ll be fun.

Q: What else do you want our audience to know about the Springer right now, Paul?

A: Well, lately I’ve find myself drawn to one of my favorite stories about the Springer Opera House. When Mr. Springer built his theatre, he put in a door on the front of the building on the far right hand side. It’s an arched door toward the very end of the theatre.

Q: Yes. I’ve always wondered what that is. A: The next time you’re down this way, get out of your car and come take a look. There’s a big iron plate on the ground and if you look closely, there is a fire department emblem on it. Mr. Springer had the foresight to give the Columbus Fire Department a place to put a hook & ladder core inside this building. He gave the Columbus Fire Department a fire station inside the building.

There was a big brass bell outside, and whenever they got a call for a fire emergency, the alarm bell would ring and they’d hitch up their horses and equipment and go to the fire. This meant that Springer audiences that were sitting there watching the show, would sometimes hear a bell ring from someone asking for help.

What I’ve been telling our friends is that the Springer’s alarm bell is ringing again. But this time, it’s ringing for the theatre itself. We need the community to support the Springer more than ever.

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