written by Carrie Beth Wallace
I'd only just read the headline when the questions started rolling in. Feeling the loss of yet another round of postponed productions, Springer fans and arts patrons had once again begun to ask why.
Why is Springer cancelling when I see other local events continuing?
How can this still be necessary?
Why can't the Springer keep these shows when they're still more than a month out?
While my team and I team understood where these questions were coming from, we also have had the privilege of tracking the progress of more than 40 local arts organizations (members of the Columbus Cultural Arts Alliance) through the complicated course of the pandemic. Two members of our team (myself and our social media manager) attend monthly meetings to stay apprised of what's happening with our partners in the arts, their programming, and how we can continue to best offer our support.
So, when we began receiving these questions about Springer's show postponements, my team and I knew exactly what to do — send a message to Paul Pierce, the Springer's Artistic Director, and simply ask your questions.
I've worked with Pierce for years now, and if there's one thing I know, it's that he's an open book. Thankfully, as his norm, he responded within hours and provided a thoroughly-detailed message addressing each of our (your) questions. Typically, I'd just include excerpts, but it's a message our team believes is important for you to hear.
However, before you read Pierce's response, there are a few things I'd like to point out. Part of our mission at The Columbusite is to provide educational information about how and why the arts function they way they do. Because fo this, we'd be remiss in sharing Pierce's response without addressing the following three points first:
1) The Springer Opera House is a producing theater. This means that they make productions come to life by producing every aspect of every show. Producing theaters select shows, purchase the rights to produce them, hire directors and crew members, audition and select a cast, hold rehearsals, hire choreographers, employ people to build sets and create costumes, and then put on the show for a set amount of time in their venue.
This is different than a presenting theater, which books and presents existing productions in their venue. In presenting theaters, shows are rehearsed and ready to walk into any venue and be presented to a local audience.
2) Both types of theaters are valuable and essential to increasing a community's ability to access the performing arts. They are, however, very different. And therefore, the pandemic has impacted each tremendously, but in different ways. As arts patrons, we cannot assume every venue operates the same way just because we walk into them and have a similar experience. It's important to know the differences between them and what they offer each of us as arts patrons in turn.
3) Theaters housed within a university setting are also under different circumstances. In addition to being producing theaters, they're held to state-wide university policies regarding faculty, students, and staff.
Now that we've covered this important distinction between types of venues, let's dive into what Paul Pierce had to say about Springer's recent decisions to postpone several upcoming shows.
Here's what Pierce had to say:
"We have a very creative company culture here but the truth is, the Springer is very data-driven. We like to say that we are 'data-hungry.'
Once the pandemic hit, we were briefly thrown off-balance because nobody really knew what was happening or how a performing arts organization could survive under those conditions. After a couple of months, data began to emerge on the impact of the coronavirus and that data got more granular as time passed. This allowed us to do two things:
1.) Create operating protocols for staff, artists and audiences and
2.) Establish what we call "tripwires" for actions that might need to be taken along the way.
We settled on an online platform called Covid Act Now which consolidates data across the nation from research institutions, governmental sources and non-governmental sources. Covidactnow.com has become the go-to source for data for the theatre industry because Actors Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers, uses that dashboard to determine where and under what conditions actors can travel to another location and work.
We recognize that omicron is behaving differently than delta but it is still driving up daily case rates everywhere and increasing hospitalizations and deaths - though not at the levels it did last year. The highest daily case rates had ever gotten in Muscogee County during the first three surges was 74 cases per 100,000 population. Hospitalizations are increasing here and our ICU's are at 81% capacity. Not as severe as in previous surges but still quite dangerous.
Our tripwire for show cancellation is 100 cases per day per 100,000 population. Today, Muscogee County is at 188.3 cases per 100,000 population.
By comparison, in December, there were only 10 cases per 100k in Muscogee County.
If omicron behaves as it is projected, rates will plummet over the next few weeks and be very low in the spring and summer. Until we see that happen, we're committed to protecting our people. That's why we postponed THE COLOR PURPLE to June and moved WALKIN' THE LINE: The Johnny Cash Tribute from the McClure Theatre to the mainstage in March.
We have to remember that theatre is a very fragile enterprise, even under normal conditions.. It only happens because artists come together in very intimate rehearsal conditions for eight hours a day for three weeks before a show ever opens.. And many of those artists travel from cities large and small all around the country. And they all come to us and gather in one room in Columbus, Georgia. Yes, we are 100% vaccinated and everyone is masked in rehearsal but that only limits the risk. It doesn't eliminate it.
Theatre makes us feel more alive and vital. We don't take that for granted and we recognize that we have a duty to bring joy and hope to the community - especially during troubling times. Theatre has the power to heal and to bind our wounds. We are working hard every day to devise new ways to make our stories come alive once again on our stages and to do it safely. As we sail these uncharted seas, the decisions we make are not based on "gut" or instinct. Data is our guide star." ◾️
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