September 14, 2020Jennifer Sowinski
For cultural organizations across the country, the 2020–21 season has been a constant cycle of planning, re-planning, adjusting, and adapting as new information about COVID-19 emerges. Amidst the uncertainty, many organizations have found ways to move forward with programming that is new and often unconventional for them, whether that’s producing in outdoor venues, creating content for online viewing, or designing performances for physical distancing.
One such organization is Ballet Arizona, which is planning fall performances in a venue that is a tiny fraction of its usual space, in order to allow for physical distancing, while also planning for online viewing. We spoke recently with the staff at Ballet Arizona, and asked them to share their plans and process for presenting their season.
Our season originally consisted of six shows: two in the fall, The Nutcracker, two in the spring, and a special performance at the Desert Botanical Garden. We are replacing our fall series and The Nutcracker performances with a mixed repertoire production called Inspire (October 14- November 15), and selected scenes from The Nutcracker called Nutcracker Suite (December 4- December 24).
We are presenting this shortened season in our Dorrance Theatre, which is a 299 seat venue that we have on site in our building. We will be socially distancing our patrons for these shows and limiting total people to 40 attendees per show. We usually perform in Symphony Hall, which has a seating capacity of 2,312, so this is quite a big change.
We have not announced our spring performances yet as we are continuing to monitor the ever changing landscape that is COVID 19.
The in-person portion of our fall season is open to our subscribers only. We will also offer these productions digitally for free to current subscribers and for a nominal ticket price to the community.
We will be seating our patrons one party at a time as they enter the building, leading them directly to their seats. We will also be enabling the contactless scanning feature that Tessitura just released last month, and are putting down social distancing markers on the outside of our building, filtering through the box office.
Once seated in the venue, there will only be two parties in each of the center sections and one party on each side. Each party is a minimum of four seats and one empty row away on either side from any other party.
We have abbreviated each performance in our season to be an hour long, and therefore eliminated intermissions. After the show we will escort each party out one at a time, while staffing the restroom to ensure social distancing standards.
Ballet Arizona’s Dorrance Theatre.
We came to this decision from several different angles:
Renewed subscribers have several options:
Currently, we are not accepting or marketing to new subscribers for a couple of reasons:
Ballet Arizona dancers Ethan Price and Mimi Tompkins in ‘The Nutcracker’. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.
We started our communication plan by calling top donors to tell them what the season will look like.
We then sent a letter to all subscribers and donors, outlining the new season and benefits, and inviting them to the alternate season.
About 5-7 days after the letters hit households, we began calling all of our subscribers and donors, 843 households in total.
The hardest part was trying to gather all of the information for our subscribers and conveying our season to them in the clearest way possible. In order to facilitate clear communication, we trained our staff on our anticipated FAQs so they could (hopefully) answer any questions received. We learned that we had to remain flexible and extremely communicative with our staff members when a change was needed.
Advice we would give is to ensure that your communication system is tailored toward fast and clear answers. Each subscriber is different with different needs and wants. You will not know all of the answers, but the most important thing is that you get the answers to them as soon as possible.
Also, understand that your procedures may have to be edited and tweaked along the way. Things will change all the time. Constantly re-evaluate and listen to what the patrons are saying, so you can match their frustration, excitement, or concern for the new season.
Subscriber response to our alternate season has been incredibly varied. Some patrons did not think twice about signing up, while others immediately refused our alternate season. Of those who declined, some felt we were being overly cautious (they did not want to wear masks), while others did not feel safe coming. When offered the streaming option, some subscribers either were not technologically savvy, or said that going to the ballet is more about the experience of getting dressed up and going downtown. Still, some subscribers gladly accepted the digital option and expressed that if the situation improves, they might be able to switch to in-person.
In order to enhance the production quality of the digital performances, we have opted to pre-record the performance. However, we are planning to treat the digital versions like an event and have them available on a certain day/time. We are currently working through music rights issues, and once we have those details finalized, we will know how long we can have the digital version available for subscribers on-demand. Right now, our thinking is to kick off the digital event on a weekend evening and then have the stream available on-demand for 24 hours following the debut.
For ballet, we have adapted Inspire to be mostly solos and pas de deux (2 dancers on stage, dancing with each other). Some of our dancers live together and therefore can dance together without the necessary social distancing measures. Our Nutcracker Suite has been edited and adapted to encourage social distancing on stage, while maintaining the intimacy and artistic excellence that our patrons expect. At this time, it is uncertain if our dancers will wear masks during performances.
Currently, the in-person aspect of our fall season is only open to subscribers. There are no options that will allow single ticket buyers to purchase tickets to those shows.
We will be offering our Inspire and Nutcracker Suite digital performances to single ticket buyers. The ticket price is still being finalized, but we do not imagine it being more than $20/digital ticket.
We are certainly going to evaluate the reach, cost, and feasibility of more digital performances down the road. One concern we have with adding digital performances while also having a mainstage performance is the demand, and how that might affect the single ticket sales inside Symphony Hall. On the other hand, what may also contribute to the decision-making is our desire to expand our audience. The more people interested in and exposed to ballet, the better!
Ballet Arizona is one of the many clients of ours that are launching dynamic new seasons in the face of COVID-19. We’re happy to share our clients' journeys, and provide advice for your 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons. Contact us directly or learn more about our consulting offerings at our Relaunch Center.
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