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Empty Performance Spaces During a Global Pandemic

           Before COVID 19, there was not a time of the year that the Scottish Rite Theater was not occupied in some way by theater, or art, or individuals.

           Austin Scottish Rite Theater’s mission has always been to share and preserve the historic Masonic facility, serving the greater community through high-quality performing arts, educational programs, and events. However, that has been greatly affected in the past year by COVID 19 that has challenged the programming as well as those who worked there. The pandemic really did not start to affect the theater until late February 2020 when they finished their run of February’s children’s show and became aware of possible school closures for their April show. According to De Belardinelli, the Operations Manager and Technical Director for the Austin Scottish Rite Theater, everything effectively changed when the city, and their theater, went on lockdown on March 16, 2020.

           “And since that moment our theater has effectively been closed, only operating at our bare minimum,” she reported, as the questions about whether they would be able to do public or school showings in the future were finally answered.

Everything changed in that moment.

           In an average year, Austin Scottish Rite Theater produces seven full-blown theatrical productions, numerous co-productions and presentations of other artists’ work, and extensive summer camps. As a theater, they produce four children’s shows throughout the year, had countless rentals from other arts communities, and run two and a half months’ worth of summer camps. Not only did the theater produce its own work, but Belardinelli also stated that the staff managed venue rentals to innumerable organizations, individuals, and groups. There was not a time of the year that the theater was not occupied in some way by theater or art.

An empty stage that hasn’t housed a performance in over a year since COVID hit, essentially shuttering Austin’s Scottish Rite Theater since March 2020.

Now all the programming has virtually ceased to be.

           On March 13, the City of Austin ordered that all theaters halt operations due to the pandemic. The theater no longer has any live performances, rehearsals, camps, or rentals and all that comes with it has ceased. There is no money generated, no large gatherings, no children, no audiences, no volunteers coming in, and no face-to-face interactions with the actors. According to Vicki Yoder, the building manager at Austin Scottish Rite Theater, there is “no fun!” The changes in production have been very significant. Since the pandemic began, all of the above has either come to a screeching halt or has pivoted to being greatly reduced and minimized online. Austin Scottish Rite Theater has attempted to create distance productions in order to try and maintain its mission of serving the community with high-quality theater.

           Belardinelli stated that they are only producing theater through online means with digital staged readings, where they have recorded and edited them through Zoom. They have also put up some of their archived shows on a streaming service so that they can be accessible to others when their theater cannot. The response to the pre-recorded shows has been positive, but negligible.

And the audiences have been minimal.

           “It is laughably much less than what a normal show would bring in,” Yoder stated when talking about the number of people that attend or rent the pre-recorded shows online. “It’s nothing compared to what we had before, but it’s nice to know that our presence is still out there in the world and that people are thinking about us,” Belardinelli added, providing a more hopeful tone towards the online numbers. It is through Belardinelli’s work that many of the shows have been put online for people to rent and experience, even if they are not available to see live.

           However, many of the theater practitioners have suffered unemployment since the pandemic began. Those who have not been able to stay with the theater have had to get online or remote jobs or delivery and grocery store-type jobs. Yoder reported that her hours have been cut back now as she is on contract and works with the help of PPP loans and relief grants that the theater secured.

An empty stage that hasn’t housed a performance in over a year since COVID hit, essentially shuttering Austin’s Scottish Rite Theater since March 2020.

The theater’s work has changed now.

           It no longer plans and produces plays for the people but looks to work on the theater both on the outside and inside. The small staff of three spend their days working to repaint the auditorium, oversee the stage floor being refinished and repair some water-damaged walls and woodwork. The only silver lining for the theater is the ability to carry on with major building projects and historic preservation. According to Yoder, “none of the work pertains to performances except reorganizing the props and costumes.” But in a sense, Scottish Rite has been lucky. Funding sources include grants and loans from the government, monthly rent from building tenants – and the Spectrum News Network next door rents the parking lot, making this historic theater exceptionally resilient to the crisis.

           The staff is waiting until it is safe to have performances and camps again before they make any changes to what has quickly become the new normal with Austin Scottish Rite Theater. They all hope to go right back at it as soon as they can and that it will begin with this coming year for summer camps and performances. Live theater will only really happen when the shows can go live again safely. According to Susan Gayle Todd, the producing Artistic Director for Austin Scottish Rite Theater, they believe that the theater and the staff will survive this long pause and go back to doing the same great business that they did before. She was not the only one that felt that way.

           All are ready to jump back into live theater again, including those who have not been able to continue working at the theater during the pandemic. There has not been a live performance on the theater’s stage in over a year, but the hope is still there. Actors touch base with the staff weekly while they continue to meet over Zoom with plans to reopen as soon as it is safe to do so for all those involved. The sense of interaction and a need for communication with other people through the performances that Austin Scottish Rite Theater put on is missed, but not gone.

            “This is a very hard time for theaters,” Todd proclaimed. “We do expect to rise from the ashes as soon as it is safe to bring artists and audiences back into our space.”

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