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by Terri Hogan
Senior Staff Writer
Late September was a bittersweet time for Olney Theatre.
As theater officials celebrated winning three prestigious Helen Hayes Awards, they faced the grim task of furloughing over half of their employees.
Debbie Ellinghaus, managing director of Olney Theatre Center (OTC), said that when the coronavirus pandemic hit in mid-March, she and her staff were in the middle of the best season in the theater’s history and had just learned about its record-setting 27 Helen Hayes nominations.
Then lights went dark.
In a recent letter to OTC friends, Ellinghaus wrote, “When the Governor finally lifted the ban on September 1, allowing indoor performances up to 100 and outdoor performances up to 250, entertainment workers throughout Montgomery County breathed a sigh of relief. But in a baffling about-face, the county announced on September 4 that it would continue its outright ban on all live entertainment, with the exception of entertainment provided at restaurants.”
Later, the county issued guidance to allow outdoor performances for up to 50 people, but issued no word on indoor performances of any number in any size facility.
In his own message to Friends of the OTC, Artistic Director Jason Loewith wrote, “As you know, 83-year-old OTC is the State Summer Theatre of Maryland. You may not know that we’re the second-largest employer in our part of Montgomery County. In the before-time, we supported hundreds of professionals across four labor unions, with almost 100,000 admissions each year. But this year, for the first time since World War II, all four of our venues on our 14-acre campus – including our outdoor theater – are closed.”
He added, “Starting today [Sept. 28], the majority of my employees are joining the ranks of other live entertainment professionals across the country wondering how soon they’ll need to make choices between paying for medical care or paying rent.”
During the County Council’s Sept. 29 meeting, the day after OTC announced its furloughs, Councilman Craig Rice (D-Dist. 2), chair of the Education and Culture Committee, said, “It did surprise many of us that we hadn’t heard anything from Olney Theatre in terms of them directly reaching out, but I know that, as a whole, one of the reasons why Councilmember [Evan] Glass and I partnered together on the $3.25 million was to help stand up some of these organizations.”
The council on July 7 unanimously approved the special appropriation to support creative professionals and arts and humanities organizations that have been financially impacted by the COVID-19 global pandemic.
“I know that it’s more about the long-term plan than it is about the initial funding, but I was actually a little bit taken aback by the fact that we were kind of lambasted and we were out here putting millions of dollars in the hands of artists all across Montgomery County certainly understanding the challenges that we had when it came to health concerns regarding opening,” Rice said at the Sept. 29 council meeting.
During County Executive Marc Elrich’s weekly media briefing on Oct. 7, Dr. Earl Stoddard, director of the Montgomery County Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, who regularly attends the briefings, said county officials are talking to movie theaters and live performance venues about reopening.
He said the county is monitoring theaters in D.C. to see how live performances do there.
Stoddard has said that some of the concerns with reopening live theater venues include the length of the performance, which is typically longer than the average dinner, therefore increasing time and risk of exposure, and that indoor air ventilation requirements in auditoriums or theaters are lower than those of an indoor dining location by about 50 percent.
Joshua Ford, OTC director of marketing and communications, could not confirm specific meetings, but said that he has sat in on meetings with county officials.
“We didn’t lambast the county or the council,” he said. “There is a lot of frustration anytime you let go half of your staff, and they lose their livelihood, or have hours reduced or salaries cut.”
He said Olney Theatre officials are “enormously grateful” to the county as a funding partner for capital projects and annual support, and through its Arts and Humanities Council.
“But we are in crisis mode, and they need to know that,” he said.
Ford said there is frustration that given the number of things people have found a way to do safely — such as getting a haircut, eating in a restaurant or shopping for groceries — they should be able to find a way to do theater safely, “and not send a message saying that going to the theater is the most dangerous thing you can do, more so than flying across the country in an airplane or having elective surgery.”
He added, “The live entertainment industry is really hurting.”
Ford said OTC recognizes the county has a lot on its plate, as does government at all levels.
“We just want to apply our humble trade and tell our stories, whether it be in front of 25 or 50, or eventually 450 people,” he said. “But we are never going to get there if we don’t start.”
Ford said Olney Theatre officials have spent the past few months implementing plans they believe will allow them to open safely, including consulting with their HVAC company regarding ventilation requirements. He said they will be transparent with their enhanced safety measures before any performance.
“We all agree while vital to culture, theater is not worth dying for, and we share that common goal,” Ford said.
Creative ways to highlight the creative arts
The county’s restrictions on entertainment venues required OTC to modify its previously announced 2020-21 season.
Ellinghaus said that no shows have been canceled, but they are being postponed.
“Obviously, as new information becomes available and the situation evolves, we will remain responsive to changing conditions,” she said. “We will keep working with local officials, industry partners, and medical professionals to ensure a safe return to performance. We fervently believe that we can — and will — produce live theater safely and look forward to sharing those details.”
Theater officials are hoping to offer Paul Morella’s one-man “A Christmas Carol” after Thanksgiving, performed on the Mainstage with a 25 percent capacity audience, and would then begin the new season in April.
OTC has found other creative ways to connect with the community, including offering livestreams of its performances, such as “The Humans,” which the New York Times called a “blistering virtual production.”
There have been classes offered for children and adults, and a social justice program, “Just Arts: A Celebration of Arts and Activism,” which is airing new episodes every Friday in October.
Beginning in November and running through March, OTC will add music programs on Mondays, learning podcasts on Wednesdays, Friday-night live experiences, and Saturday members-only opportunities to meet and talk with artists.
For program schedules and information, go to www.olneytheatre.org.
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