In announcing its first major show since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the Saenger Theatre is taking the spotlight off the performers and placing it on the audience and itself.
“We’re one of the only venues in the country doing shows,” Saenger management firm ASM Global spokesperson Mary Lee Gay said. “That understandably puts the spotlight on us.”
Country artists Jamey Johnson and Randy Houser will perform two nights in a row at the Saenger starting Friday, Feb. 19. The venue will allow for 600 people in the audience each night, Gay said.
“The two-night event makes it more of a financially viable situation,” she said. “It’s going to be a scaled-down show. It’s going to be the two performers with one backup person.”
The scaled-back, acoustic performance was a necessity, given the theater’s tight quarters backstage.
“We can’t have tons and tons of crew back there and be able to socially distance,” Gay said.
The theater is also changing the way equipment is unloaded. Gay said crew working for the band will unload the equipment off of a truck and leave it by the back door of the Saenger. Workers with the theater will then put it on stage and set it up.
“Then their people come on to rearrange it how they want it,” she said. “They have a contract rider that indicates where hand sanitizer needs to be and where Clorox wipes need to be.”
The show means a lot to the concert industry as a whole, Gay said, as well as to the Saenger itself. This could be the start of reintroducing the public to live music indoors.
“It’s really exciting to think that we very well could be a part of getting the ball rolling in getting this industry back to work,” she said. “This is a big thing for the industry. We’ve thought this through and we’re as prepared as we can be.”
That’s where Gay’s plea to the audience comes in. The theater is asking for audience members to follow the protocols put in place to allow the shows to continue.
“There are a lot of things we can control, but one of the things we can’t control is how the audience acts,” she said. “To be blunt, the success of this event lies in how the audience behaves. If people come in and they’re not cooperating, there’s a pretty good chance we won’t be able to do these things again.”
The theater has released a list of health and safety protocols being put into place for the upcoming show. Those protocols are highlighted by mandated face coverings, plexiglass barriers that have been installed in fixed concession areas and hands-free mechanisms that have been installed in the restrooms.
If the show is successful, Gay said, it may mean more and bigger shows could be on the way.
“This really could be such a big thing for Mobile,” she said. “It could bring a whole lot of things to Mobile.”
Gay gave a lot of credit to the Mobile Symphony for working with the theater and showing its leadership that live, indoor events at venues were possible during the pandemic. She said the symphony shows were very successful and showed them a roadmap.
“The symphony was the first big thing we did that included live music and an audience,” Gay said. “They really did a lot of research and studied and did stuff. It was very helpful to us.”
Celia Baehr, president and CEO of Mobile Symphony, said they used season ticket holder seats to determine how many could fit in the venue for the concerts, given the recommended six feet of separation for social distancing. That allowed the symphony to welcome about 400 season ticket holders to the concerts this season.
Baehr also said the symphony began allowing only stringed instruments on stage at first to cut down on the possibility of spreading the virus through performers blowing on horns. However, the symphony has added winds to the mix more recently.
The symphony also cut down on the lengths of performances, Baehr said, keeping all of them to an hour, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines on indoor performances. There is also no intermission and no concessions at the shows.
“It’s slightly less music, but not that much less,” Baehr said.
The shorter performances allowed for the addition of a second show on Saturdays and Sundays.
The protocols have certainly had an impact on how many people can see the shows each week. Baehr said under normal circumstances, the symphony plays host to 2,500 to 3,000 people over two days per week. Now, the capacity is 400 per show and 1,600 maximum per week.
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