How Austin's Performing Artists Are Reopening Their Spaces

After months behind screens, the folks who run the city's theatres, concert halls, and comedy clubs are welcoming audiences back inside

Courtesy of The Paramount Theatre

Can you hear it? The sound of applause? Coming not from some ersatz arts space on your computer but from actual theatres, concert halls, and comedy clubs?

Yes, after an excruciating year of having their spaces shuttered and being unable to engage directly with audiences in the intimacy of indoor venues, performing artists are once again opening the doors and bringing people back in to see them play. It's a reunion that's been a long time coming.

From the minute the city went into lockdown last March, performing artists companies and artists began to search for ways to keep making work and stay connected to their patrons. Because they collaborate, they innovate, they improvise (some specialize in it), the artists created alternatives: dances performed in a house with the audience watching through windows; drive-in concerts with audiences listening from their cars; plays told in audio, in letters, in phone calls; and Zoom improv, Zoom stand-up, Zoom orchestras, Zoom choirs, Zoom dances, Zoom theatre, Zoom everything.

Still, chat rooms and hand-clap emojis were mere shadows of the response from in-person crowds and ultimately made everyone feel more keenly this new distance between audience and artists. Even when groups were able to close that gap with shows outside – where air could circulate more freely and there was more room for physical distancing – it didn't have the feel of a show indoors, of being in that magical other space where a group of people, apart from the rest of the world, is transported to another reality. For a time – what often felt like an unbearably long time – we wondered if we'd ever get back to that place.

But with the arrival of spring – and widespread vaccination among the populace – more of Austin's performing artists began to welcome audiences back indoors to enjoy their work. We reached out to a few of these pioneers to learn more about their return to performing inside – how they did it and what it felt like. Here's what they had to say.

Lietza Brass

Chief Programming Officer, Austin Theatre Alliance

The Paramount Theatre was among the first venues to reopen to the public with indoor performances, back in October.

When did you start talking about resuming indoor performances?

Almost immediately! Truthfully, a couple of us were in denial for a few weeks at the beginning of the pandemic. Not that we didn't think it was real, we could tell it was extremely serious. But we thought we would be out of commission for a month, tops. Finally, after a reality check, we became very serious about establishing new COVID operations and safety protocols.

What finally prompted you to do it?

For many months, everyone we know had been concerned with physical health and safety, and for good reason. Over the long haul though, it became apparent that people's emotional and mental health was important, too. Entertaining and lifting people's spirits is what we do best. It was the right thing to do.

What pandemic protocols were in place?

We had the full array of PPE and protocols. As a theatre, one of the unique problems we had was how to seat people safely. We worked with a company out of Dallas who devised a ticketing software that automatically "killed" two seats between small groups. Then we killed every other row. Patrons were given reserved times to arrive at the theatre to prevent clustering. Our creative services department designed a directional sign­age system that adhered to the carpet. This allowed patrons to seat themselves in their reserved seat in the theatre. It's a brilliant system and we will continue to use it after COVID. Jonathan Humphries, our head of facilities, completely outfitted the venue with plexiglass shields, stanchions, and in-depth cleaning protocols, including a fumigation process between shows. Front of house staff (including a registered nurse) was increased to cover their new duties, which included taking temperatures, handing out masks, making sure people were separated. Several changes made then are now permanent including: print-at-home tickets and cashless concessions. The clear bag policy is here to stay at the Paramount.

What was the size of your audience?

We kept to the guidelines established by city and state leaders, so we opened at 25% capacity in fall 2020 with a film. A couple of weeks later, Bruce Campbell made a live appearance with a film and Q&A. To make up for the small capacity and still provide enough seats for fans, artists would perform 2-6 shows. We are currently at 50% capacity.

How did you feel in anticipation of the performances?

It was a wild mixture of feelings. I won't lie, I was extremely nervous and I wasn't alone. Having been isolated for so long, we were all skittish. But we also knew we were taking every safety precaution we could.

What was the first performance like?

For all of us, there was an overwhelming rush of emotion seeing our staff and patrons carefully come together at the Paramount during a time of extreme uncertainty. Our patrons are very cooperative and willing to do what it takes to have a safe night at the theatre. It was a unifying experience.

What feedback have you received?

The feedback from the patrons and staff has been positive. Many people are giddy to be out, and they are grateful that we have gone to such great lengths to make sure they are safe.

Any advice for other groups that want to resume in-person performances?

You can do it! If you are wondering how, come to a show at the Paramount and get a first-hand view of how it's done right.

Bonnie Cullum

Valoneecia Tolbert’s Tales of a Blerd Ballerina at the Vortex (Courtesy of The Vortex)

Producing Artistic Director, The Vortex

Following some outdoor projects in fall 2020 – the drive-by theatre experience The Vortex Odyssey and the solo performance Wildcraft, a co-production with Bottle Alley Theatre Company – the Vortex opened its first indoor show, a workshop of Valoneecia Tolbert's Tales of a Blerd Ballerina, April 8.

When did you start talking about resuming indoor performances?

We never stopped pondering it and even made plans several times but had to cancel. I went to an outdoor reading in Sarah Saltwick's backyard in October. Shortly after that, she submitted it for the Tapas development I was offering to company members. I talked with Valoneecia about doing a reading at the Vortex and maybe a workshop production – she wanted a small live audience. We planned for an outdoor reading in December, but it rained, and then it was Stage 5 and then the snowpocalypse. Meanwhile, I wrote the National New Play Network Bridge Grant in November, and in December, we found out we got it.

What finally prompted you to do it?

We got the funding to pay the artists and pay for the production without having to have a full house. We all got tested, and we all got vaccinated.

What pandemic protocols were in place?

We added UV filtration in the HVAC and also have a large portable air filter in the theatre. In April, we required masks, limited seating, spread the seating out, and did not allow food and drink. We also required all production personnel other than the performer to wear masks at all times.

We have relaxed that standard as of June 8 and are no longer requiring masks and are allowing food and drinks. We have had one new play reading indoors since then.

What was the size of your audience?

14 live plus online viewers.

How did you feel in anticipation of the performances?

Excited, grateful, emotional, disbelief that it was really happening.

What was the first performance like?

Very emotional. So much love. Some folks wept with the joy of being in the theatre.

What feedback have you received?

I wish we could have accommodated more people.

Any advice for other groups that want to resume in-person performances?

Everyone on the team needs to be vaccinated. Take baby steps and allow people grace around this. Some may be fearful and some may be reckless. Try to come to community agreements about behavior and exposure. Don't worry so much about the surfaces and the restrooms, but do consider the air flow.

Arielle LaGuette

Courtesy of Fallout Theater

Co-founder and co-owner, Fallout Theater

Like other Austin improv and comedy spaces, the Fallout Theater survived the pandemic by going online. But it made the return to live performance on April 23.

When did you start talking about resuming indoor performances?

We had been talking about resuming indoor performances constantly throughout the pandemic. Our theatre is a bit of a machine, and once the gears start turning again, it's hard to pivot ... and as we found out, it's also hard to get the gears turning in the first place. I think our first serious plans to reopen were in August 2020, tossing around the idea of outdoor shows in our alleyway. As soon as we would get close to kicking off the next steps, case numbers in Austin would take a turn, inevitably forcing us to change directions every time.

Ultimately, we started seriously talking about opening back up when the vaccines were announced.

What finally prompted you to do it?

Part of it was necessity; the money we had saved up for bare essentials (rent, utilities, etc.) was getting dangerously low. Then most influentially, the existence of the vaccine. We kept close tabs on vaccination rates in the general population, but also among our community of performers to help us make this decision.

There have always been two primary perspectives to account for when it came to opening up Fallout: performers and audience. We would not have been able to proceed without focusing on both.

What pandemic protocols were in place?

Masks required at all times; 50% capacity with seating spaced six feet apart and sold in "pods" of two; no BYOB and no food/drink sales; audience enters through one door and exits through another to minimize crowding; performers did not wear masks but were heavily encouraged to only book vaccinated comics; lots of cleaning protocols.

What was the size of your audience?

39 max (~50%), which just recently expanded to 60 max.

How did you feel in anticipation of the performances?

Serene and excited. We had really put the planning through its paces, and as owners we worked the box office and front of house every night for the first few months. It was honestly surreal given the year we had all been through.

What was the first performance like?

Really great. The audience was so ready to laugh, and performers were just ready to have a great time. And they did. Given the past year we all endured collectively, it felt like a huge release of energy that was so grateful and positive.

What feedback have you received?

Almost all feedback has been positive. There's been some difficulty in mask enforcement as you'd expect, but mostly our audiences have been respectful when asked to abide by the rules we require for the safety of our staff and the community.

Any advice for other groups that want to resume in-person performances?

Listen to your performers, staff, and audience. Sometimes the Band-Aid just needs to be ripped off, and it may never feel like the perfect time to do it. So, just remember to have grace for yourselves, for others, and that you won't always please everyone – and that's OK.

David Pratt

CEO/Executive Director, Austin Symphony Orchestra

For most of the 2020-2021 season, the ASO filmed its concert performances in Dell Hall without an audience and streamed them. But the symphony ended the season with two in-person performances at Riverbend Centre May 13 and 14.

When did you start talking about resuming indoor performances?

During the spring of 2021 when the risk guidelines set by the City of Austin started to improve.

What finally prompted you to do it?

We had final masterworks concerts coming up in May, and with the improvement in risk levels and the interest from many of our patrons to return to live music, we decided this was the right path forward.

What pandemic protocols were in place?

We required masks to be worn and we enacted social distancing, so only used 1/3 of Riverbend's capacity. At around 2400, we could sit approximately 780 people.

What was the size of your audience?

Austin Symphony Orchestra (Photo by Robert Faires)

We sold out both nights at 780 for each evening.

How did you feel in anticipation of the performances?

As a performing arts organization where live performances are at the core of what we do, we were so excited to return to live music as were many of our patrons.

What was the first performance like?

It can only be described as joyous – the atmosphere in the space was electric.

Peter Bay, ASO music director and conductor, adds:

The audience that was present for those concerts were more than just present. They provided the inspiration for all of us on stage to not only do our best by the composers but to go beyond that. We all feel the act of making music as an orchestra is to make a complete circuit – from the composers' notes, to the musicians' ability to make those notes come alive, and finally to an audience who receive and react to this all. The reception both the music and the performance received those two nights were all we could have hoped for after not having that complete circuit for 15 months.

What feedback have you received?

Audiences love the ability to reconnect with live performances. Many remarked on the emotional connection to live performances compared to virtual performances and that nothing beats hearing the music live. People expressed a tremendous amount of gratitude and thanks for making these concerts happen.

Any advice for other groups that want to resume in-person performances?

Follow the guidelines, communicate regularly with your audience/patrons with what you're planning, and survey them regularly to test what they're comfortable with.

Matt Teodori

Artistic Director and one-third of line upon line percussion

Over the past 15 months, line upon line had some opportunities to perform outdoors – at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and under Texas Performing Arts' big tent – though they seemed to wind up playing on the coldest of days. On June 17 and 18, they made it back inside at the Rude Mechs' Crashbox space on Bolm Road.

line upon line percussion (Photo by Robert Faires)

When did you start talking about resuming indoor performances?

Hmm, March-ish.

What finally prompted you to do it?

When it seemed that everyone who wanted to be vaccinated could be.

What pandemic protocols were in place?

None really. [No one was required to wear a mask, and the majority didn't. The seats were not distanced.]

What was the size of your audience?


How did you feel in anticipation of the performances?

Beyond excited.

What was the first performance like?

I felt like it was the last thing I needed to do to feel fully like myself again. It seemed there was a palpable appreciation from all for being able to be in this setting again.

What feedback have you received?

All positive and grateful feedback.

Any advice for other groups that want to resume in-person performances?

Go for it!

Upcoming Live Performances – Indoors & Outdoors

Esther's Follies, Esther's, ongoing, Thu., 8pm; Fri.-Sat., 8 & 10pm

Come Together: Beatles Redux, Zach Theatre, The People's Plaza, through July 25, Thu.-Sun., 7:30pm

Much Ado About Nothing, Austin Shakespeare's Young Shakespeare at Curtain Theatre, through July 18, Thu.-Sun., 8pm

Mamma Mia!, Georgetown Palace Theatre, through Aug. 8, Fri.-Sat., 7:30pm; Sun., 2pm

Little Shop of Horrors, Zilker Theatre Productions at Hill Country Galleria, through Aug. 14, Thu.-Sun., 8:15pm

Sure Thing, Fallout Theater, July 16, 23, & 30, Fri., 9:30pm

Nick Turner & Nick Vatterott, The Creek & the Cave, July 15-17, Thu., 8pm; Fri.-Sat., 7 & 9pm

Slide in the DMs, Fallout Theater, July 17, Sat., 10pm

Maestro, Hideout Theatre, July 17, Sat., 8pm

Erik Bergstrom, The Creek & the Cave, July 18, Sun., 8pm

Rad Time Comedy Party, Fallout Theater, July 19, Mon., 9:30pm

Brooks Wheelan, The Creek & the Cave, July 22-24, Thu., 8pm; Fri.-Sat., 7 & 9pm

Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, City Theatre at Trinity Street Playhouse, July 22-Aug. 1, Thu.-Sat., 8pm

Boeing Boeing, Georgetown Palace Theatre, July 23-Aug. 22, Fri.-Sat., 7:30pm; Sun., 2pm

Colin Mochrie & Brad Sherwood, Paramount Theatre, July 24, Sat., 7pm

Fuck.Marry.Kill, Fallout Theater, July 24, Sat., 10pm

Vortex Summer Youth Theatre's The Pandemdem Edition, Vortex, July 29-31, Thu.-Sat., 8pm

80s Dance Party, Zach Theatre, The People's Plaza, July 29-Aug. 8, Thu.-Sun., 7:30pm

Night Birds, Ventana Ballet at the Cathedral, July 30-31, Fri.-Sat., 6 & 9pm

Mo Amer, Stateside, July 30-31, Fri.-Sat., 7 & 10pm

Mookie Thompson, Fallout Theater, July 31, Sat., 10pm

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coronavirus, COVID protocols, Paramount Theatre, Lietza Brass, The Vortex, Bonnie Cullum, Valoneecia Tolbert, Fallout Theater } Arielle Laguette, Austin Symphony Orchestra, David Pratt, Peter Bay, Riverbend Centre, Matt Teodori, line upon line percussion, Crashbox

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