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Light at the end of the tunnel: Bozeman's performing arts scene hopeful for return to normal

Light at the end of the tunnel: Bozeman's performing arts scene hopeful for return to normal

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The Ellen Theatre hasn’t had an audience in the seats since March.

Prior to the pandemic, the theater was rarely quiet. It held around 200 shows a year. John Ludin, the Ellen’s executive director, said around 55,000 people saw a show there in 2019.

“I didn’t even realize, because I didn’t think about it on a daily basis, how busy we really were,” Ludin said.

Ellen Theatre, Empty

The Ellen Theatre in Bozeman, empty.

Because of COVID-19 shutdowns, an overwhelming majority of theaters and live music venues have stopped shows and closed their doors. It’s been like that for nearly 10 months, a long time for both big and small organizations to have no shows and no regular stream of income.

But vaccines are on schedule to be distributed to many Montanans by the end of the summer, and federal legislation could make grants available to venues like the Ellen. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, even if it’s still a long tunnel.

Vaccines and live performances

Montana’s vaccine schedule is broken up into several phases. Now, the state is in Phase 1a, which aims to vaccinate front line health care workers and the staff and residents of long-term care facilities.

The next phase, 1b, will include Montanans over 75, front line essential workers like grocery cashiers, people who reside in congregate care, jails or prisons, and Indigenous people and people of color who have historically been at a higher risk of contracting the virus.

Phase 1c will include Montanans over 65, essential workers, and anyone between 16 and 64 years old who has a health condition that could put them at higher risk.

The final phase, according to a Wednesday news release from Gov. Steve Bullock’s office, is expected to begin in late spring or early summer.

That phase is when the vaccine would be available to the general public.

When people are safe to be around each other is when audiences could potentially return to seats, the balconies, and the dance floors around the state. The vaccine schedule, however, is contingent on available doses and could change.

Because it wasn’t safe to gather, Montana Shakespeare in the Parks moved much of its content online. Most recently, the company did a live radio play version of ”Hamlet.”

Hamlet Radio Play, Montana Shakespeare in the Parks

Kevin Asselin, executive artistic director of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks, reads his lines for, "Hamlet," from inside a giant Plexiglas box on Dec. 18, 2020, at the Black Box Theatre. Montana Shakespeare in the Parks will be performing "Hamlet" as a radio play in light of the on-going COVID-19 pandemic. Asselin says he thinks the play lends itself well to the ear, "letting the languate pop."

But executive artistic director Kevin Asselin said that nothing quite replaces live performances. It brings people together in a way that’s tough to replicate virtually.

“The theater and music, live performing arts, I do believe is the one arena where the entire population can come together without any kind of divisiveness,” said Kevin Asselin, the executive artistic director of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks. “Shakespeare is nonpartisan.”

In normal years, the theater company puts on Shakespeare plays in public parks for free in rural communities around Montana and in four other states. One of the last shows scheduled to take place at the Ellen prior to the shutdown was a performance of ”Cyrano de Bergerac,” put on by Shakespeare in the Parks. It was going to be the company’s biggest production yet, with more cast members than ever before.

The vaccine schedule paired with the company’s outdoor programming has Asselin looking forward to doing a modified version of its normal summer programming. It likely won’t be in as many communities or span five states as it normally would, he said, but he wants to get back to bringing professional theater to rural communities as soon as it’s safe to do so.

“We certainly are optimistic about what the potential may be for us to not only get back out on the road with the parks program, but also working towards trying to engage with our elementary school program,” Asselin said.

Save Our Stages

The bipartisan Save Our Stages Act was included in the most recent COVID-19 relief package. It sets aside $15 billion for the live entertainment industry. The Washington Post called the bill “the largest public rescue of the arts in U.S. history.”

That’s not to say that money will be doled out to every company or theater that applies. Among other requirements, businesses had to have been operational, with at least two but fewer than 500 full-time employees, as of Feb. 29, 2020. Companies that operate offices in more than one country or venues in more than 10 states won’t be approved for the grants, nor will companies that receive more than 10% of gross income from federal funding.

To be eligible for Save Our Stages grants, companies also had to have paid artists “fairly.” What that means is somewhat vague, but the bill does stipulate that only paying artists in tips or not at all does not constitute fair payment, with exceptions for fundraisers or charity events.

And those funds can’t be spent on just anything at any time, either. While there are a few exceptions, a majority of the money must be spent on costs that venues and theaters incurred between March 1, 2020 and December 30, 2021 — things like rent, utilities, payroll and existing mortgages and debts. For the most part, the funds will need to be used completely within a year or returned to the Small Business Administration, which will be tasked with doling out the money.

That funding could be a big deal for theaters like Verge, which made the tough decision to give up its black box theater space during the pandemic to save money.

Verge Theatre Stage in Boxes

As part of a cost-saving effort, in August, the Verge Theatre was forced to give up it's theatre of 22 years. Since then, Executive Director Hilary Parker has been carrying pieces of the old stage in the back of her car, waiting to distribute them when people are allowed to safely gather again. "There's so much energy in those little blocks," she said. "These are, as far as I'm concerned, pieces of history."

“I feel like we made really smart and brave decisions, and one of those smart and brave decisions was letting go of our theater space,” said Hilary Parker, the executive director of Verge. “I can not tell you how heartbreaking that was.”

A big piece of Verge’s mission statement is “radical inclusion” and “radical acceptance,” Parker said. That creates an environment where all feel welcome, but it also means accepting what can’t be changed.

Verge Theatre Stage in Boxes

As part of a cost-saving effort, in August, the Verge Theatre was forced to give up it's theatre of 22 years. Since then, Executive Director Hilary Parker has been carrying pieces of the old stage in the back of her car, waiting to distribute them when people are allowed to safely gather again. "There's so much energy in those little blocks," she said. "These are, as far as I'm concerned, pieces of history."

When the pandemic began in March, Parker looked back on previous pandemics. Those weren’t over in a matter of weeks or months.

So the theater got ready for the long haul.

While some arts organizations postponed shows for a few weeks or months, Verge was ready for an 18-month shutdown. Staff, Parker included, took pay cuts and began writing grants to build a “nest egg” for the theater to keep it going.

“Theater people have things go wrong all the time, so theater is special that way. You roll with things,” Parker said. “We have a lot of practice rolling with things.”

Parker said Verge will apply for Save Our Stages funding, as it has for many other arts and nonprofit grants.

“We measure our vitality in impact person-to-person, but to see Congress come up and say these venues, these spaces, these people do deserve assistance, has been pretty great,” Parker said. “We are looking to take that funding and help people laugh and connect in 2021.”

Across the street from the Ellen, the Rialto Theater has also been mostly closed to audiences. Logjam, the Missoula-based company that holds exclusive booking rights for the Rialto, is also behind the Elm, a 1,500-capacity venue on 7th Avenue, originally scheduled to open in the spring of 2020. It’s unclear if a new opening date has been set for the venue.

Logjam declined to comment.

The Bozeman Symphony had a busy 2020, even during the pandemic. It announced Norman Huynh as its new music director after a nationwide search and held a few outdoor, limited capacity live shows, as well as multiple livestreamed events.

The symphony will likely apply for funding through Save Our Stages, said Abby Bradford, the symphony’s marketing and communications manager. Funding like that and donations from the community, help the symphony stay true to what Bradford said is its main priority: to always pay its musicians.

For now, the symphony has a few livestreamed performances in the works, mainly solo and small ensemble recitals. But symphony staff hope they can go in person sometime this year.

“Hopefully by summer, we will be able to do a summer concert. We are planning diligently right now for that,” Bradford said. “That would provide a safe opportunity to meet in person and experience concerts once again live together, which is what we love.”

Ludin and the Ellen are also looking ahead. The theater has some artists and shows holding dates for in-person shows in the fall of 2021 and the spring of 2022.

Ludin said he thinks it’s likely those shows will happen. It’s an exciting prospect.

In the meantime, the Ellen’s “skeleton staff” has been working on fundraising and maintenance projects that just fall by the wayside during normal times. They’ve knocked out a wall and completely reconfigured the concessions area, for example, and have a big painting project underway.

“It’s good to be prepared and ready for when we eventually will be able to open, but it’s so difficult to be definite. You just never know what will happen,” Ludin said. “What’s certain is that we’re here, and we’re going to do whatever we need to do to get through.”

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Melissa Loveridge can be reached at mloveridge@dailychronicle.com or at (406) 582-2651.