The show can go on, but when will it? Delaware theaters hesitant to reopen

Despite permission to hold performances under Phase 1 of the state’s reopening plan, Delaware theater groups and performers are hesitant to resume shows.

Delaware Shakespeare's

Kirk Wendell Brown is seen here in 2016's performance of "Pericles." Brown plays Shylock in Delaware Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice." (Delaware Shakespeare)


On Wednesday, Delaware Shakespeare officially postponed its summer festival performance of “The Tempest.”

“The Delaware Shakespeare Summer Festival means so much to so many people, and we’re sorry to deliver this disappointing news,” said David Stradley, producing artistic director. “Our audience’s affection for Del Shakes and the Rockwood Park experience is tangible. We look forward to gathering as a community again next summer, or sooner, if public health conditions allow.”Even though Delaware will likely be in Phase 2 of reopening by the July 17 start of the festival, actors would not be able to safely meet together in close contact for rehearsals.

“Before we can welcome an audience, we first have to welcome artists,” said Julie Russ, board president. “The health of our artists was the leading guidepost for this decision.”

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“O, brave new world,” wrote Shakespeare in “The Tempest.” For arts organizations operating after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, it will certainly be a new world.

That play was supposed to be performed this summer by Delaware Shakespeare at the annual Summer Shakespeare Festival at Wilmington’s Rockwood Park. Now, even though arts performances are permitted to begin June 1 under Phase 1 of the state’s reopening plans, the festival is up in the air.

A full house is a great sign of success for any arts group, but that’s not possible under Gov. John Carney’s reopening plan that allows for just 30% of seats to be filled for a performance.

“The logistics and financial reality for how performing arts organizations work, it’s pretty impossible for us to open and do a performance with only 30% of our paying audience,” said David Stradley, producing artistic director for Delaware Shakespeare.

While retail stores and restaurants are also limited to 30% of their capacity, those businesses can more easily spread out patrons over the course of the day. “For a performing arts company, you’re gathering all those people at the same time in the same place,” he said. “It’s pretty hard to do the financial math at 30% of audience capacity.”

Delaware Shakespeare has not yet announced plans to postpone this summer’s festival which was scheduled for July 17 through August 2. Stradley said the group is “doing the math” to determine if it makes sense to go forward with their production.

Other theater groups are in a similar situation. Delaware Theatre Company in Wilmington postponed its spring musical “Million Dollar Quartet” and is in a similar “wait-and-see” position as Stradley’s group. While there are no definite plans on when theatre-goers will be able to see the next Delaware Theatre production, “DTC is in a strong position to produce theatre once again when it’s safe and continue to entertain and serve the community,” the company said in an emailed statement.

The Grand Opera House in Wilmington has also canceled multiple performances.

“The wonderful staff of The Grand have been working hard to reschedule our postponed performances and plan ahead for an exciting season to come,” said The Grand’s executive director Mark Fields in a video message posted online. “Just think of this as a brief intermission.”

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How long will that intermission last?  “Patron, artist, and staff safety is the guiding principle as The Grand and The Playhouse look to reopen,” Fields said in an emailed statement. “Until there is significant adjustment in safety protocols, it is unlikely that any of our venues can resume normal operation because those guidelines restrict both the quality of the experience and the financial viability of most of our programming.”

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A different story for museums

The situation is a little different for museums. Like performance groups, museums, galleries and historical attractions will be allowed to reopen on June 1 as part of Phase 1.

For the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington, there was some surprise that museums were listed in Phase 1 reopening plan. “We had internally been operating under the assumption that we were more likely a Phase 2 return,” said Heather Morrissey, the museum’s director of operations. “Our staff has been primarily working off-site and there is quite a bit that we feel we need to do on-site to prepare to reopen.”

Because of that prep work, Delaware Art Museum won’t open its doors June 1. “However long it takes us to prepare to adequately accept visitors and guests, that’s when we plan to reopen,” she said. When the museum does open the doors, it will be only for members. Members don’t need tickets to access the museum’s galleries, so that complies with the state’s ban on paper tickets. “It kind of gives us a little bit of an idea of what reopening is going to look like,” she said.

Winterthur Museum and Garden will open on June 1, but only its outside amenities. Winterthur is also limiting guests to members who live in Delaware. “We are completely committed to making sure that everyone stays safe, staff and guests,” said Mark Nardone, Winterthur communications manager. So while visitors can stroll the gardens and walk through the forests, they’ll have to don face masks when crossing paths with others in narrow spots.

Looking ahead to Phase 2, Nardone said it would be difficult to offer guided house tours of the 175-room former home of Henry Francis du Pont because that requires using elevators and walking through some narrow hallways. Instead, visitors might be able to take a self-guided tour using an app instead of a tour guide to describe the history and art on display. “It’s kind of a neat experience and something that’s really different for Winterthur,” he said. “It will definitely be a slightly different museum when we reopen, and we think, in a lot of ways, a better experience for the guests.”

With lots of out-of-state members, Nardone said they’re hoping the ban on out-of-state visitors to Delaware will be lifted as part of Phase 2.

During the lockdown, the performing arts groups and museums have been posting lots of content online in hopes of staying connected to their audiences and providing people a chance to experience art and beauty while stuck at home.

For Winterthur, that’s meant video tours of blooming gardens through the springtime. Delaware Art Museum has created a virtual museum with an online look at specific artwork in its collection and video lessons on creating art at home.

Delaware Shakespeare actors have been posting daily readings of sonnets online and the group has hosted an online salon with actors sharing an inside look at their community tour which takes Shakespeare to some unexpected places, including inside Delaware prisons.

The Grand has been posting videos from previous performances on its stage, including some captured by WHYY’s TV program On Tour.

And though the theaters and museums have been vacant for more than two months, Delaware Shakespeare’s David Stradley hopes the old proverb “absence makes the heart grow fonder” is really true.

“Large public gatherings are one of the ways that we define a community,” he said. “When we suddenly realize we can’t do that, it makes us go, ‘oh wait, that’s what made Wilmington, that’s what made Delaware special.’ Having those experiences where we can come together and experience something as a group, it’s what creates that sense of shared humanity.”

He said it’s that sense of shared humanity that will help defeat the COVID-19 pandemic and hopefully will create even greater appreciation — and support — for artists and performers in the future.

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