Riverside Theatre goes dark for 2020-2021 season

Riverside Theatre has decided the show can’t go on this winter – the biggest indication yet that life here during the island’s coming high-season, though still months away, will be substantially changed by the novella coronavirus pandemic.

A letter sent this week to subscribers and patrons informed them that the theater productions scheduled for this winter would be performed instead as Riverside’s 2021-22 Season.

A second blow to islanders’ winter plans came with the Indian River Symphonic Association’s announcement of the cancellation of its 2021 concert season (story, Page 4).

“Nobody feels safe now going into a crowd,” said Allen Cornell, Riverside Theatre’s producing artistic director/CEO, explaining the decision.

“We’re live theater; you have to have an audience. We can’t be like Major League Baseball, for example, playing in an empty stadium with cardboard cutouts in the seats.”

Riverside Theatre seats an audience of 630 people and most of those seats need to be filled for a production to be financially viable, he said.

“The last thing any of us want is have somebody become infected, whether they’re onstage, backstage or in the audience. A real driving factor is that a huge part of our audience are among the most susceptible. And I know, from speaking to a number of people, they would be very uncomfortable coming to the theater, even wearing a mask,” Cornell said.

In mid-March, when Florida entered Phase One of the coronavirus shutdowns, Riverside was just one week into its production of “La Cage Aux Folles,” with “Bakersfield Mist” and “The Bodyguard” still to come.

At the time, the thought was that conditions would have improved enough by the summer to begin the process of gearing up for another active season, including trips to New York for auditions.

The summer spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths put a halt to all that.

“Making the decision was based on a number of, sort of, insurmountable layers,” Cornell said. “We’re just trying to protect everybody at this point in time. An awful lot of theaters across the country have already made the decision to postpone what they’re doing for a year.”

This will be the first time the theater has gone dark for an entire season. “We didn’t even go dark when we were rebuilding it,” Cornell said. “We managed to still do things while we were under construction.”

But virus-related roadblocks range from the impossibility of putting 40 people together in a rehearsal room to the need to shut everything down if someone were to be diagnosed with COVID. If a play were in production and had to be shut down, Riverside would still be on the hook to meet financial obligations imposed by various contracts.

Altering seating for social distancing would be cost prohibitive, Cornell said, because the theater would still incur all the production costs but would not have the required ticket revenue to cover expenses. And, with the high costs of big-budget productions, it was more cost effective to postpone the whole season than to shut down after reopening.

“What I’m hoping is that our subscribers will hold on to their seats for the following year and wait this out with us. When the lights come back on, we’re going to deliver the same product that we were planning to do this year,” said Cornell.

Cornell said he hopes conditions will have improved 18 months from now, adding, “I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that we’re back to some kind of normalcy by then.”

“Seeing that empty theater is just heartbreaking,” said Heidi Waxlax, Riverside Theatre board president. She said her fellow board members were supportive of the decision when they were informed of it via a Zoom meeting.

“They all thought that it was the responsible action. It was the right thing to do to protect everybody; our staff, our audience, the actors, everybody. They’re all very reasonable people on the board and they just said, ‘Yes, you’re right,’” said Waxlax.

On a positive note, Waxlax said the theater plans to keep its staff employed, “because we are now at the point where we have exactly the staff we want. We are very happy with them and so we will keep them on. The decision to postpone was made to keep everyone safe. The second step is the safety also of their financials. We are responsible for all these people and we take it seriously.”

Financially, she said, Riverside Theatre is on solid ground, having not had any debts the last couple of years, thanks to the generosity of donors. She noted that more people had signed up this year than in previous years for the theater’s Patron Producer program (theater devotees whose annual donations of $10,000 or more help fund big-budget Broadway productions), and said those contributions will be rolled over into next season.

In the meantime, Cornell said, all public events have been canceled except for the weekend Comedy Zone performances and the free Live in the Loop outdoor concerts. Both have limited seating to comply with public health guidelines.

If conditions permit, Riverside hopes to have some sort of special fundraising events next spring for major supporters and subscribers.

“The Friends committee is working on ways to do that. They are very creative ladies and they are looking into finding new ways. We will come up with something, whenever it’s safe,” said Waxlax.

“We are here to stay and we will survive. We will get through this and then we will get back to what we do best; making theater.”

The now 2021-22 lineup features: “Almost Heaven: Songs of John Denver,” “Billy Elliot,” “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” “A Comedy of Tenors,” “Carousel,” “A Doll’s House Part 2” and “On your Feet.”

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