Baton Rouge's performing arts organizations are treading carefully as their new seasons open in this socially distanced era.
Most groups resorted to ticketed virtual performances when Louisiana implemented its coronavirus lockdown in March, but internet streaming can hold an audience's attention for only so long.
"It was kind of hard to know what to expect as far as virtual theater, because we didn't have anything to compare it to," said Jenny Ballard, artistic director of Theatre Baton Rouge. "We made a decent amount of money, and we had decent success, but we've also been doing a lot of surveys, and people say they'll take any kind of theater until we're back in our space, but they prefer live theater."
Like other performing groups, Theatre Baton Rouge is looking at ways to ease into the new season and to engage with its audience.
Theatre Baton Rouge will be kicking off its 75th anniversary year on a different kind of stage.
The theater planned to celebrate its 75th anniversary in the 2020-21 season but moved those performances to the 2021-22 season.
"We had a lot of musicals scheduled, and it's too much to stage with the danger of COVID," Ballard said. "All of these shows have big casts and are physical. So now, we're kind of piecemealing our season together, deciding how many shows we can do at the theater versus virtually."
Because ticket sales make up 65% of the theater's income, Ballard said it cannot opt "to do nothing."
New Venture Theatre, which does not have the overhead of maintaining a performance space, had to cancel productions of "Annie" in March and "The Bodyguard" in July, which resulted in major monetary losses.
"Its been a hard year for us," said Greg Williams, artistic director. "In 2021, we want to do our 'One Night Only' fundraiser, but we don't want to do it virtually. We're hoping for January or February. Our patrons are the rock stars of all of this. They understood the entire process, and we're grateful."
Williams is set to direct Theatre Baton Rouge's physically distanced production of "American Son" in September. The story is about a young Black man who has been shot by a policeman.
"The story is so timely, and we're hoping we can do it," Ballard said. "It will be the only play we'll stage in the theater in the fall, and a lot depends on what happens in August. We're in an ever-changing, fluid situation. If there's an element of danger in the situation, we're not going to be able do it. We'll see what happens in August."
Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra is also scheduling performances.
"Our season tickets are going online," said Eric Marshall, executive director. "We're going forward. We're still going to have concerts and be a part of the community."
The symphony will stage small chamber concerts in the fall and full orchestra performances in the spring. All tickets come with an option of attending live or online.
"The tickets are good for both options," Marshall said. "They'll come with a link and instructions on how to watch live if you decide to stream the concert. Or you can attend the concert."
"I was once told that the 11th commandment is 'Be flexible lest you be broken,'" said Garland Goodwin Wilson, the dance company's artistic director. "That's the way a lot of arts organizations have to look at the fall."
For these organizations, it's essential they figure out a way to generate income to stay afloat.
The symphony has furloughed all staff members except Marshall. Of Moving Colors moved out of its rented headquarters, and staff members are working from home.
In one of the biggest blows to the holiday season of cultural traditions, Baton Rouge Ballet Theatre has canceled its annual production of "The Nutcracker — A Tale from the Bayou" for safety reasons and to save money.
"We've been doing 'The Nutcracker' since 1982 or '83, and this will be the first time that we've canceled it," said Molly Buchmann, the company's co-artistic director. "It's a big production, and it costs a lot for us to stage. We have to think about that while keeping our dancers and patrons safe."
The company will keep "The Nutcracker" alive through a series of three small virtual performances called "Nutcracker Sweets" in November and December. These live shows will include such interactive activities as cookie decorating, crafts and dancing.
The company also will offer a live virtual performance titled "Midnight Magic" in October, and it's planning a full-length performance of Arthur Saint-Léon's comic ballet, "Coppelia," in the spring.
For now, it's offering a ticketed link for a recorded performance of its original production, "She Moves … ." The show was canceled in the spring because of the state's lockdown order, so the company staged it without an audience in the Manship Theatre.
What happens if you give a performance and no one comes?
"The dancers wore masks through the whole thing," Buchmann said. "They performed excerpts from the spring show, where they debuted new choreography that we believe is meaningful. It is a tribute to suffragettes and women's right to vote, and when we have choreography based on a set of dancers, it's never the same after that. It's popular, but it's not going to make us any money. We're just letting people see what we're doing."
Baton Rouge Ballet Theatre's auditions for its company and youth company are still scheduled for Aug. 22 and Aug. 29.
"Dancers have to keep dancing," Buchmann said.
And musicians have to keep playing.
The symphony spent the summer hosting a series of virtual solo and ensemble concerts spotlighting its members performing from their homes.
That will change in the fall with chamber concerts on Sept. 17, Oct. 16 and Nov. 12, wrapping up with Holiday Brass on Dec. 16. Full orchestra concerts are scheduled for Jan. 21, Feb. 4, March 18 and April 23.
The Jan. 21 concert will feature guest conductor Jeri Lynne Johnson, founder of the Black Pearl Orchestra in Chicago, with violinist Melissa White. Retiring conductor Timothy Muffitt will conduct the final concert, which also will include the Baton Rouge Symphony Chorus.
"We were supposed to have a gala for Tim at the end of last season, but that had to be canceled," Marshall said. "So, we're moving it to April."
Opéra Louisiane also is planning to stage a canceled show next spring.
"We're looking at a $75,000 loss because we weren't able to perform 'The Tales of Hoffman,'" Executive Director Leanne Clement said. "But the board put up $16,000, which was matched, and we were able to keep our staff employed through a Professional Payment Program loan from the government."
The company focused on virtual engagement with its audience during the summer through Trivia Night games on Zoom and weekly "Maestrotini" talks by Music Director Michael Borowitz.
"We're going to start the season with fantasy opera draft," Clement said. "It's like a fantasy football draft where patrons get to pick their singers between Aug. 14 and 30. They'll use their dollars to vote on the singers they want to sing in specific roles. We'll reveal the show in October."
Of Moving Colors has rescheduled its "Sofa Stories" to the spring, and Cangelosi Dance Project has already scheduled live shows in the Dunham School's auditorium, including its "Holiday Nutcracker" Dec. 12-13.
Cangelosi resumed dance classes in the studio on Monday.
"We're practicing safety," said Kris Cangelosi, artistic director. "There are stations where the dancers will be learning, and we'll be cleaning everything. The kids will help out with this — everyone has duties."