By: Elizabeth Gray
It was March 15, 2020 when the Civic Center Foundation made the call to close the doors to the Civic Center Music Hall for, what we thought, would be a few weeks – maybe a month tops. After all, Oklahoma had just a handful of confirmed COVID-19 cases. ‘We are different’, I thought! Little did I know we were just beginning a long term journey that would have lasting effects on performing arts and live entertainment for years to come.
However, we WERE different. We were one of the first performing arts centers in the country to re-open, LITERALLY. It was October 17, 2020, and after having planned, crumpled up the paper and re-planned at least 20 times, we jumped off the proverbial ‘cliff’ hand in hand with the OKCPHIL to host a live (but socially distant) concert for the first time in over 7 months. We prepared for this 10-fold more than we did for HAMILTON – if that tells you anything! And it worked.
It wasn’t a ‘barn burner’ by any means. Everyone struggled to break-even financially but there was a sense among us all that it wasn’t about the money. We filled a void for a few hundred loyal patrons that no one knew existed until this pandemic kept us apart for months on end. We brought people back together to collectively experience the emotion of performing arts. It wasn’t until we had figured out how to live stream performances and/or offer them on-demand for those patrons still not comfortable attending that we realized we were different. No one else was doing this. Over the next several months, organizations and performing arts centers reached out from all over the country to ask us how we did it. We were nominated for national awards because of our ingenuity and use of technology to bring the arts into living rooms.
Something was still missing though. It was the early Monday mornings of watching 5-10 semi-trucks pull down Couch Drive to line up and get unloaded. Everyone scrambling for 20-36 hours straight to hoist hundreds of tons of equipment, lighting and scenery in the air, prepping for a 7:30pm Tuesday performance. The process of loading in a national touring Broadway show is itself a work of art, a seamless choreographed dance before the actual choreographed dances. You don’t have to be an engineer or ‘theatre buff’ to appreciate the beauty. And then don’t get me started on the load out! 6-10 hours straight on a Sunday night after the last bows. The same hustle and bustle as the beginning of the week but only it’s in reverse and faster! The touring show has another drive to pull down in another city in less than 12 hours and it’s our responsibility to make that happen….All of it hadn’t happened in OKC in over 18 months….
Why could we re-open with OKCPHIL and Oklahoma City Ballet and Canterbury Voices performances but not Broadway? The full answer is too complex for a 700 word reflection but here goes nothin’. Imagine a snowball. It only exists in certain climates and will melt to nothing more than a small puddle in others. A national touring Broadway show is like a snowball…no, its not going to physically melt, but it has to remain consistent no matter where it is in the country. So, while OK county had a few hundred total active COVID cases in the trough of August/September 2020, LA County had a few hundred thousand. And the intricate choreographed dance of loading in, performing and loading out a Broadway show that I described above takes a tremendous amount of investment – upwards of 8 figures! To recoup that money a national touring show must book 40-45+ weeks out of the year in cities around the country, and consecutive weeks must be in somewhat adjacent cities, geographically. So that metaphoric snowball could not get from Kansas City to Oklahoma City to Dallas to Denver without ‘melting’ somewhere in the process.
I’ve spent most of this reflection, explaining and recollecting but to wrap it up and tie it back to Rotary – what did we and most other cities have to do to bring back Broadway and make it beneficial to all concerned?! We had to adapt. We had to encourage, and in some instances, require vaccinations. We have to test everyone – 3 times a week! We have to spend more money and be more inconvenienced but we’re doing it for the greater good. Not to push an agenda or ‘encroach’ on someone’s rights, but to bring back the magic of Broadway and make sure it stays back.