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Venues suffer during pandemic

By Ben Rodgers

BROWN COUNTY – What do John Fogerty, AJR, Lauren Daigle, Reba McEntire, JoJo Siwa, Luke Bryan, Cher and the Foo Fighters have in common?

All were scheduled to play the Resch Center and have either been cancelled or rescheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Terry Charles, senior manager of corporate communications for PMI, estimates close to 100,000 people have missed out on events at the Resch Center because of COVID-19.

That includes the end of the Green Bay Gamblers season, the majority of the Green Bay Blizzard season and the WIAA Girls State Basketball tournament, which was called off in early March after a handful of games played with nearly empty stands.

“That was the beginning of the end, really,” Charles said of the basketball tournament. “That was the start of the shutdown of entertainment and sporting events as we know it.”

PMI is unique in the fact that it manages venues owned by other parties, he said.

For example, the Resch Center and the soon-to-be-completed Resch Expo are venues owned by Brown County.

The Meyer Theatre, which PMI also manages, is owned by a private company, but is run by a board of directors.

“There’s nobody with deep pockets,” Charles said of PMI. “Our company is similar to the Packers in that we are run by a board of directors. We exist solely to provide entertainment to the folks of Northeast Wisconsin. Any profit our company makes goes back into the buildings we manage or the communities we are in.”

He said PMI was collecting money for tickets at both venues before the pandemic hit and then had to refund some of those tickets if people are unable to attend the make-up date.

“We can’t control what’s going to happen as far as what the artists want for money, but as it is now, there’s a price tag a promoter pays the artist and then sells seats for what that promoter would pay,” Charles said. “Unless artists would drastically reduce the seats, that model doesn’t work out.”

In response to the slowdown, he said PMI laid off 30 full-time employees, half its full-time workforce July 1.

Charles said the plan is to welcome them back at the venues when major acts resume touring and sports are back at the Resch Center.

Aside from the full-time employees, he said the PMI employs “several hundred” part-time employees who work concessions for shows and are currently out of an income stream.

He said he also didn’t have a timetable for when events will resume at venues, because the pandemic is unpredictable and social factors are involved.

“Our thoughts have always been: What will we be able to do? What can we do instead of what can’t we do?” Charles said. “At this point we’re waiting to see. It takes many people to do these events.”

One thing at the Meyer PMI is able to bring back are shows by Let Me Be Frank Productions.

Charles said the Meyer seats 1,000 people and Let Me Be Frank is unlikely to sell out any shows, which will allow for socially distanced seats.

The performers are also local and not part of any touring company.

“It’s one of those things,” he said. “Would you say our industry is necessary? Is it necessary and essential? Well, maybe not literally essential, but I think a lot of people have found out getting out, doing things, recreating, that’s part of life.”

Weidner woes

UW-Green Bay’s Weidner Center for the Performing Arts is far from immune from the effects of COVID-19 after the dominoes started to fall, said Kelli Strickland, executive and artistic director.

“We might have had one of the first major cancellations and that came on March 12…,” Strickland said. “We had a pretty close-to-sold-out – it likely would have been sold out by the end of the day – with Joe Bonamassa, who’s an international blues guitarist, and that was the first of many events that were scheduled between March 12 and early May.”

“Beautiful,” a musical about Carole King, community events, university events and more have all been cancelled, she said.

The Weidner Center for the Performing Arts has seen its main 2,000 seat hall empty since the pandemic hit in March. Submitted Photo

“All told, between ticket revenue, bars, concessions, all that kind of stuff, it was about a half-a-million dollar loss for us in revenue,” Strickland said. “Early on, things were trying to reschedule right away and as that target date kept getting pushed further and further out, almost everything now is cancelled.”

The Weidner Center did offer a virtual meeting with presidential historian Michael Beschloss, who was scheduled to appear in-person with Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Kearns Goodwin March 9, but couldn’t make it.

Strickland said the Weidner, which seats just over 2,000 people, is also looking at technology improvements to facilitate streaming of performances this fall thanks to a grant.

“We are really grateful right now, the Greater Green Bay Community Foundation had given us a grant for our Diverse Voices program and we reached out to them to let them know programming is not clearly going to happen as planned,” she said. “It might happen in the following season… and they incredibly generously said ‘Use the grant for what you need to use it for.’”

To help cover its losses, the Weidner laid off four people, or half of its full-time staff. The pandemic also affected hourly employees and contractors for shows.

“We will restaff once we’re operational again, but right now it’s very unclear as to when that might be,” Strickland said. “For the time being, those touring artists are not on the road, so we have this window of time to try and figure out what the economic window is that might work to host these events.”

She said the effect of the pandemic across the industry has been substantial.

“Arts organizations in particular, even more so than the restaurant industry, have been devastated,” she said. “It’s not very productive to compare who’s hurting worse during these times, but it is important for people to understand how the artist sector is suffering, the artist who does the work and the venues who host them. It’s quite devastating, unfortunately.”

Strickland said acts playing the bigger venues will likely be fine financially if they don’t perform for a year.

It’s the smaller acts that oftentimes play the Weidner where artists will suffer, she said.

“Our assumption might be Reba is going to be fine, but there’s a whole industry that works around her, from backup singers to musicians, those are the working artists,” she said. “They are lucky if they are making a solid, working, middle-class income from gigging that way. Right now Actors Equity, the union for actors, they’re not issuing any contracts whatsoever. The percentage of actors specifically that make a living, let alone a really healthy living, where you could have a full year without work and be financially stable is infinitesimal.”

Strickland said she is hopeful people will come out in droves to venues once the pandemic lifts.

“I just hope when we’re able to host mass gatherings again of this nature that there’s going to be renewed appreciation for what that live experience is, not just how special it is to see an artist perform live, but how special it is to enjoy it in-person with your community,” she said. “It amplifies the way that arts build community.”

Students impacted the most

The Ashwaubenon Performing Arts Center is unique in that it is funded in a 50/50 split between the school district and village.

It’s also unique in that the pandemic shut down a number of end-of-the-year student performances, instead of big-name performers.

Kate Green, executive director, said at least 15 student performances were cancelled because of the pandemic.

“The heaviest activity occurs in late May and early June,” Green said. “Those are cumulative performances for music, choir and theater, where they recap everything they’ve worked on all year long.”

The Ashwaubenon Performing Arts Center, which seats 736 people, had to cancel 15 student performances since March. Submitted Photo

She said the 736-seat venue would be packed for each show.

“Those are experiences you can’t gain back – like commencement, you can’t get it back,” Green said. “I think that’s the most difficult part for students. When it was their senior year to be involved in a production they’ve been involved in their entire high school career or perhaps the first time, and to have that truncated before they could fulfill, it is very heartbreaking for them.”

She said all of the non-student performances at the PAC were able to be rescheduled for the following season, but even then there is a question mark.

“It’s watchful waiting as we watch the health climate ebb and flow and we’re going to do the best we can with the knowledge we have,” Green said. “I think the thing to remember is none of us have done this before. We’re experts in our fields and we’re going to do the best we can in our fields.”

Because the PAC only has two full-time staff members, no one was let go due to the cancelled shows.

She said discussions have started around streaming some school events at the PAC next year, but it depends on what the virus looks like at that point.

She said live events are still no substitute for a streaming alternative.

“We’re having conversations about using technology in the live performing arts in ways where we haven’t had that conversation before,” Green said. “It’s a different feel. Seeing ‘Hamilton’ on Disney+ is a wonderful opportunity, but it’s not exactly the same as being in the same room where it happens.”

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