Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
KPBS Midday Edition

Live Audiences Return To San Diego

The Civic Theatre in San Diego sits empty in an undated photo.
Nels Akerlund Photography
The Civic Theatre in San Diego sits empty in an undated photo.

As California lifts pandemic restrictions on crowds and social distancing, San Diego performance venues prepare for a long-awaited return of live audiences.

As California lifts pandemic restrictions on crowds and social distancing, San Diego performance venues prepare for a long-awaited return of live audiences.

As restrictions are lifted across the state of California, the region takes a big step towards normalcy, ready or not. In the spotlight and ready for their close-up are San Diego's performing arts groups, venues and theaters after more than 15 months without a live audience, and in many cases, without ticket sales or performances at all.

As venues transition to in-person events and welcoming audiences back, we look at the new challenges performing arts groups face — and whether or not you'll be seeing masks on the people sitting next to you.

On The Plague Year

Any relief with the reopening comes hand-in-hand with a type of trauma, too. Barry Edelstein, artistic director of The Old Globe, said they're mindful of this duality.

"Something like 600,000 Americans died of this pandemic," Edelstein said. "There was economic hardship around the country and the state and here in San Diego. And indeed in the community of people who work for The Old Globe and in the artistic community of the American theater in particular. So the joy is not unalloyed."

As far as the devastating financial impact, Carol Wallace, president and CEO of San Diego Theatres, which operates Civic Theatre and Balboa Theatre said that even with the highest category of Shuttered Venue Operator Grant funding combined with PPP loans, the theater group was still only able to recuperate about half of its losses.

Social Distancing? Masks? Vaccination Cards?

In live music venues like Soda Bar, The Casbah or The Observatory North Park, audiences are standing room only, with general admission ticketing. A sell-out crowd can mean shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers, and regional guidance will no longer require masks worn indoors.

Cory Stier, partner and talent buyer at Soda Bar said they can only reopen at full capacity.

"We're not able to operate, you know, in any other way, really. That's why we haven't reopened. We've waited until this time to reopen because, you know, financially, it just wouldn't make sense for us. We'd be better off closed," Stier said.

At Soda Bar, the first show is a month away so the venue is still working out details, like refining the way drinks are ordered at the bar, or how to use barstools.

Soda Bar, a live music venue and bar in City Heights, is shown in an undated photo.
Cory Stier
Soda Bar, a live music venue and bar in City Heights, is shown in an undated photo.

The pandemic has been marked by unclear or varied restrictions from public health authorities, Edelstein said.

"I remain deeply grateful to the public health authorities," Edelstein said. "It's also true that the guidelines could be clearer. And so we find ourselves having to answer questions to our audiences and to our employees that we simply don't know. And planning, therefore, becomes a real challenge. And that's a struggle. You know, how many tickets are we allowed to sell in our theater, I don't know. It seems to change every week and therefore it's hard to know what the financial picture is going to look like until we do have some sense of that."

The Old Globe announced its season but individual, seated ticket sales have not yet begun.

Similarly, the La Jolla Playhouse has announced its season without full clarity on how many tickets will be sold for each show.

"In terms of budgeting for the season, we have assumed the worst and hoped for the best," Christopher Ashley, artistic director at La Jolla Playhouse said. "We're budgeted so that if we need to do heavily socially distanced, that is absolutely planned for, although it's also been interesting to watch how much faster the opening up process and people's willingness to — especially vaccinated folks — to come back together, how much faster that's going than I anticipated. So I think we won't actually announce the sort of final layout of seating until we get closer and see how things play out."

On the other hand, San Diego Theatres is already selling tickets for upcoming concerts and Broadway shows — with no planned limits or restrictions.

"On all of my industry calls we've talked about: are you doing any kind of mask mandate? And we're not. Are you requiring vaccinations? And we're not. So we're open at full capacity," said Carol Wallace, president and CEO of San Diego Theaters. "Our expectation is that after June 15, the governor is going to open in California without a mask mandate, without social distancing. And so that's how we're going to open."

For "mega events" with audiences of 5,000 people indoors, some additional restrictions like proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test may be required, potentially impacting large indoor venues like Pechanga Arena or Viejas Arena.

However, Civic Theatre has a maximum capacity of 2,967 and Balboa Theatre's is 1,339. The Old Globe's theaters seat either 620, 580 or 250 depending on the stage, La Jolla Playhouse is under 500 and Soda Bar holds up to 230 people.

Actors read scripts before an audience in the 2019 DNA New Works reading at the La Jolla Playhouse. The event returns to the Playhouse beginning July 22, 2021.
Courtesy of the La Jolla Playhouse
Actors read scripts before an audience in the 2019 DNA New Works reading at the La Jolla Playhouse. The event returns to the Playhouse beginning July 22, 2021.

What's On Stage?

For live music, early bookings tend to be local acts for now. But as the summer progresses, audiences will see touring bands coming through town. Soda Bar is kicking things off July 16 with locals Mrs. Magician, then Dani Bell & The Tarantist the following week.

When asked if there will be a pause or a delay as theaters ready new productions for the stage, La Jolla Playhouse's Christopher Ashley said he's seeing quite the opposite.

"We had a season announced that we had to hold on," said Ashley. "And in addition, I mean, every artist I know has written three new plays or if they're a director, they've workshopped seven new projects. Everybody has all of the stories and all of this art that they're ready to go with. So if anything, one of the challenges for this moment is there's so much pent up desire to tell your stories that with our six shows on subscription, I wish I had 30 opportunities for this year because I think there's a lot of amazing stories that people are hungry to tell."

La Jolla Playhouse will kick off its season with three world premieres: "The Garden," in September, "to the yellow house" in November, and a musical, "Bhangin' It" in March. And in the meantime, readings for its DNA New Works series will be held in July and a Pop-Up WOW festival outdoors in August at the Liberty Station outdoor stage. The stage just wrapped up a month-long outdoor dance festival.

San Diego Theatres is starting slow. Just two acts are scheduled in August with blues-rock guitarist Joe Bonamassa and pop-violinist and YouTuber Lindsey Stirling, with several more musicians and comedians throughout the fall. The first Broadway show to return is "Hairspray" in mid-November, and Wallace said Nutcracker performances will be held through the holiday season.

Word Up, a free, outdoor performance and discussion on June 4, 2021 was the first in-person event held at The Old Globe since the pandemic began.
Courtesy of The Old Globe
Word Up, a free, outdoor performance and discussion on June 4, 2021 was the first in-person event held at The Old Globe since the pandemic began.

At The Old Globe, Barry Edelstein said a sudden demand for talent may dictate how quickly touring performers can come to town.

"The entire American theater is opening at the same time. So we have artists that we're talking to who we want to have here in San Diego who've got gigs in New York and Chicago and L.A. and we're navigating these very, very complex schedules," he Edelstein.

The Globe is starting this weekend with outdoor cabaret-style performances on its outdoor festival stage. We'll also see a production of Hair in August on the outdoor stage. The first indoor show will be a Globe-commissioned world premiere musical, "The Gardens of Anuncia" in September, followed by "Shutter Sisters," another Globe-commissioned world premiere in October.

The End Of The Tunnel

Fortunately, there are some silver linings. For nonprofits, they've found renewed support from philanthropists, and the degree of federal funding for the arts hopefully represents a sea change, said Edelstein.

"In my 30 years of working in the American theater, I would not have been able to imagine $16.2 billion flowing out of Washington toward live performing arts. And the fact that that's happening is gigantic," he said.

And at San Diego Theatres, tickets are flying off the proverbial shelf.

"You just would not believe a show would go on sale and immediately you see hundreds of tickets sold within a few hours and so much so that some of our clients are adding second shows immediately," Wallace said.