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Actors And Directors Question Ohio's New Rules For Performing Arts

Actors wore masks in Karamu's "Freedom on Juneteenth" production, which streamed online. [Kayla Lupean]
Masked women dance in front of a Black Lives Matter backdrop.

Northeast Ohio theaters and concert halls got a new set of state rules this week, laying down the law for what COVID-19 safety measures must be in place in order to open their doors to audiences and put on shows.

Many of the terms are familiar: Facial coverings are required, social distancing must be maintained and hand sanitizer needs to be readily available. But, certain requirements are being questioned by local managers, directors and actors.

For instance, in order to hold down the number of people in an auditorium, the state is mandating that audiences are no bigger that 15% of a theater’s capacity with a cap of 300 people. Beck Center for the Arts Artistic Director Scott Spence says that’s not economically viable.

The Beck Center's Scott Spence [Wetzler Photography]

“We're just under 500 seats,” he said. “The 15% puts us at about 75 people. I mean, bottom line, we're really grateful to get some attention in terms of, you know, what the rules of the game are going to be. But the 15% is a little lower than I think a lot of a lot of us thought it might be.”

Howard Parr, executive director of the Akron Civic Theatre, normally has 2,500 seats to work with. Some of the Akron Civic's most popular shows are tribute band concerts or dance performances, he said.

“Eighty percent of our revenue comes from 20% of our events,” he said. “And those 20% are the ones that sell all or close to all of the seats."

It would be hard for the Akron Civic Theatre to break even on shows that only sell 300 seats [Val Renner] 

Parr said he typically fills between 1,000 and 1,200 seats in the auditorium those nights. According to the new state guidelines, he’d only be able to seat 300 people.

“There's really no sustainable long-term model that works at that level of capacity,” he said. “That doesn't exist.”

Karamu CEO Tony Sias agrees, and said he’s hoping the state adjusts its rules as the pandemic starts to come under control.

“It's not economically feasible,” he said. “So that means that we can't reopen until we have the next phase of guidelines that will allow a different kind of capacity in the spaces.”

Earlier this week, Governor Mike DeWine indicated he’d been getting pushback on the seating guidelines.

“Look, we know that the numbers that we have set for a commercial production is probably not going to work for them. They pretty much have said that,” he said at his Tuesday news briefing. “But, we also know that it could work maybe for a high school theater company or the senior play. We’ve seen so many kids get so much out of theater.”

As the former director of Cleveland’s All-City Musical, which featured the talents of 50 students from 20 schools, Sias agrees that theater can be a crucial part of a child’s education.

“School productions provide the social and emotional support, the young people have been missing for the past six months, since they left school,” he said. “Whether or not they produce full shows with audiences is secondary to them being able to have the rehearsal process, to be able to go in and learn in this theater space.”

But, acting and rehearsals – for both students and professionals - need to take place in a safe environment. Sias said he was surprised that the new guidelines for masks and social distance are more lenient during rehearsals and performances.

“That's not acceptable for us at Karamu at this point, to have a rehearsal process that does not include masks,” he said.

Cleveland actor Marc Moritz strongly agrees.

“So, when we're singing and we're rehearsing and we're performing, we don't legally need to be six feet away,” he said. “I can kiss the actress. I can have a love scene. It's absurd. I'm sorry if I'm raging, but it's putting lives in danger.”

Marc Moritz (center) with less than six feet of separation in pre-COVID days [Roger Mastroianni]

As a member of the Actors' Equity Association, Moritz added that his union has issued very strict rules against anything like that happening. But he worries about what might happen in a non-equity production with actors who have been starved for work these past few months.

“It leaves open the possibility for any community theater with non-union actors to begin opening their theaters,” he said. “And all of those very desperate young performers that have been chomping at the bit will gather, and we're going to see some real issues.”

Governor DeWine said Tuesday that the state will continue to evaluate the guidelines and make adjustments. The Akron Civic’s Parr said that whenever performing spaces do begin reopening their doors, it's unclear if the audiences will walk back in.

“Just getting open doesn't solve the problem, in the long run,” he said. “It's what is the market response going to be and how are we able to deal with that? So, right now, we're OK. But, you know, I'm concerned about the future.”

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.