Business of the Arts Poised for Much-Needed Revival
There are varied legends surrounding a light often left on overnight in empty theaters. Some say the illumination is for ghosts to find their way. Others simply believe a single burning bulb stays on so overnight workers don’t fall off the stage in the dark.
However the tradition came to be, many in the theater world continue to honor the lore—even during the pandemic. Even though no patrons entered the doors of the Maryland Ensemble Theatre on West Patrick Street from March 2020 until last month, staff decided to keep the ghost light on “as a tribute,” says Kathryn Vicere, managing director.
You could also say the light symbolized hope for brighter days ahead.
Every aspect of life was touched by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the arts-and-entertainment industry was one of the hardest hit. Even when restrictions were eased and low capacities were allowed for some businesses, like retail shops and restaurants, entertainment venues remained closed. Only now are they able to fully open their doors.
“It is super important when we all start to come back that we don’t forget the backbone of what our community is,” Vicere says. “We are a thriving arts community.”
It’s important for the arts … and much more. The extended closures not only affected venue artists, staff, volunteers and patrons, but also hit the local economy. Patrons of the arts often extend their economic reach by parking in a city garage, eating at a restaurant, grabbing a drink at a craft beverage tavern or area winery, or go shopping.
“You are coming here not only to shop and dine, but for the experience and clearly arts and entertainment are a big part of creating that experience for people who come to Downtown Frederick to enjoy this part of our community,” says Kara Norman, executive director of the Downtown Frederick Partnership. “It is a key differentiator for us and it is a key part of our economy and we are thrilled to be in a position where we can welcome so much more back now than we could previously.”
And it goes beyond that. The arts also add to the county’s appeal as a tourist destination and a community where businesses want to relocate or expand, says Helen Propheter, director of the Frederick County Office of Economic Development. “When we are selling [the county’s benefits] to other businesses in other industries, we get to sell the arts and entertainment as quality of life,” she says.
Last month, the MET wrapped up its 2020-2021 season with an outdoor theatrical production of Midsummer: A Most Rare Vision at the ThorpeWood retreat near Thurmont. The Downtown Frederick-based theater offered a virtual season throughout the pandemic.
“It was challenging,” Vicere says. “As live theater performers, we were essentially moving our craft over to a completely different industry. It was an uphill learning experience, trial and error for us to do that. … If there is something good to come out of the pandemic, new skillsets have been acquired. We found creative alternate ways to provide art during the pandemic. I think that was overall a really, really good thing for us.”
Plans are to keep some performances virtual on the livestreaming app Twitch. “It was a great opportunity for us and we saw our audience expanding,” Vicere says. “You see people in Utah logging in to watch a show that they would otherwise have had no access to, and that is pretty exciting. … That is an area of opportunity for us to grow the programming and provide access.”
The MET officially reopened its theater last month to welcome children to the annual FUN camp at a reduced capacity. The theater will also be performing Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds for young audiences at Baker Park in August and September. The upcoming season will be inside the theater.
Across Patrick Street, the Weinberg Center for the Arts held no public events for 15 months but was able to provide several virtual concerts during the closure. Last month, the theater re-opened its historic doors, hosting local dance company recitals. The full 2021-2022 schedule will be announced soon, but a few performances have already been announced, including singer-songwriter Jamey Johnson’s July 31 concert and comedian Lewis Black’s performance on Oct. 1. There will also be a new lineup in the popular Frederick Speaker Series, as well as having two rescheduled from last year: political humorist P.J. O’Rourke and bestselling author and journalist Michael Pollan.
During the closure, the theater upgraded the HVAC system and another change could be the elimination of printed programs. John Healey, executive theater manager, says to cut down on paper, the theater has been posting QR codes at shows so patrons can use their phones to download a performance program. It has been received well.
THE BIG SCREEN
Warehouse Cinemas in the old Frederick Towne Mall was set to open in July 2020 but COVID restrictions pushed their launch back several months to September 2020. With major studios deciding to hold off on large, blockbuster releases, the business had to get creative, sometimes promoting first-run movies that lacked huge studio marketing, according to owner Rich Daughtridge.
Other movies shown at Warehouse were beloved classics with related events. Around the holidays, showings of The Polar Express included Daughtridge himself dressed up as a conductor punching tickets for children. For adult moviegoers, the theater began offering cocktails inspired by the movies, such a take on a White Russian for The Big Lebowski. “People really latched on to the retro films and really enjoyed watching them,” Daughtridge says.
Big name movies are now being released to online streaming as well as in theaters. This shift means cinemas must coax folks away from their homes. “I think the world has changed with all things streaming,” he says. “I think the days of the studios doing 100 percent of the marketing are probably over. I think the exhibitors of cinemas are going to have to step up. … I think we’ve learned that we have to give people a product that entices them to get out of the house because oftentimes they will have a movie that they can watch at home. We have to offer a great product. We have to offer great customer service. We have to create events around the movie. We have to make an evening of it. We have to have food options that are interesting and fun and different. We have to have drink options that are unique.”
Warehouse continues to theme drinks around new movies. Cruella featured a White Russian drink with chocolate drops along with whipped cream in a nod to the villain’s connection to 101 Dalmatians. “We want to create moments worth remembering,” Daughtridge says. “That is our mission.”
Just down the Golden Mile from Warehouse Cinemas, Way Off Broadway Dinner Theatre was closed for more than six months during the pandemic. It was able to reopen in September after offering socially distanced seating, moving the buffet meals to cafeteria style and reducing the number of cast members. “Every time something came out, we tried to figure out how we would be able to incorporate it so that when the green light was finally given, we already had a plan in place and didn’t have to just then start thinking about it,” says Justin M. Kiska, president and managing director. “And it worked, knock on wood,”
Way Off Broadway’s current show Disaster, running until late August, is its first one with an increased cast and guest capacity. “We are going to ease into [expanded capacity] as opposed to just flipping a switch and ‘Oh, everything is back to ‘normal,’” Kiska says. One feature that will remain moving forward is the cafeteria-style food service. “That cut down incredibly on the amount of food waste at the end of every night.”
FUN AND GAMES
Victoria Piechowski has always had a passion for history and ghosts, so she combined the two into a new business that opened early last month. Spooks Under the Spires is an hour-long walking ghost tour in Downtown Frederick. Escorted by guides who discuss paranormal tales, customers learn about the haunted tales that come with each site.
“Right now, I think, is the right time to open this business because so many people are craving entertainment especially as they are starting to get vaccinated and they are wondering, ‘Is it OK to start coming out, start doing things?’” Piechowski says. “This is an opportunity for entertainment outdoors so [people] can spread out a little bit and feel comfortable and feel like they are not cramped into one space.”
Piechowski’s business was spurred by multiple ghost tours she took in Gettysburg, Pa. “I was thinking I could bring this to Frederick and I think there is a lot of history in Frederick that people don’t know about that they would like to know about,” she says. “Pretty much every building in Downtown has a rich history that people don’t think about when they are there. I think this just gives an opportunity to shed a light on that history for our locals and visitors.”
She went door to door asking for information on paranormal experiences. Some of the locations are not on other tours. “We have a bunch of fresh material that you would not hear anywhere else,” she says.
Closed for just over three months in 2020, Surelocked In Escape Games pivoted to virtual events, online trivia, scavenger hunts and making “takeout” escape rooms as a way to stay in business. After reopening in July 2020, the business switched to a private model in which guests only attempted escape with the group they organized.
“What the escape room industry is finding is that we are back to the same number of bookings as pre-pandemic,” says Chris Sparks, owner. “The challenge that we are facing is now that we have switched to an only-private game model, there usually aren’t as many tickets sold per booking as there used to be.”
Take, for example, a typical Saturday night before the pandemic. Between six to eight people of mixed groups would play one room together. Now that bookings are private, it’s mostly filled with couples or groups of four. “Which is fine and we love the challenge,” Sparks says. “[But] we aren’t selling as many tickets per hour as we used to so that is the current puzzle that we are adapting to.”
Sparks has seen other escape rooms across the country raise ticket prices or charge a fee for only having a few people in the room. “We want small groups to come and we will adapt accordingly,” he says. “… Private rooms are here to stay. They make the game better because it is a chance to experience the story just with the small group that you brought with you.”
Many of the area art and entertainment venues were able to survive the pandemic due to grants, loans and donations from dedicated patrons. Though they are now able to host events again, they continue to struggle financially and need support. “For us to continue thriving, we do need people to come out and we need people to enjoy what the city has to offer and the arts is a big part of that,” Vicere says.
The MET, Weinberg and New Spire Arts have joined in a partnership called Theatre Row Collaborative. “We are going to be working together to promote the arts in the area,” Vicere says. “Get that side of Patrick Street lit up. It is our intention for that [area] to be completely lit up all the time. We’re just pooling our resources to make sure that when we come back, we come back big.”
Healey notes there is safety in numbers with the collaboration. “We are trying to work together to figure out ‘OK. What are creative ways we can work together? What are creative ways we can share some of our resources?’” he says.
“We are all looking at ways to create a weekend that is going to draw people in from the outside so they will want to stay in Frederick at one of the many hotels,” Healey adds. The collaborative effort hopes to entice customers to perhaps see a show at the MET on Friday night, then head to the Weinberg for a big show on Saturday and cap off the weekend with a matinee at New Spire. “We are trying to look at ways to make our advertising dollars go further so we can start advertising together at different venues to help bring people in from the outside and help make Frederick the vibrant city that it is.”
Daughtridge believes humans want to share experiences with other individuals. “I think the pandemic has brought that to the forefront even more,” he says. “I think people want to get out of the house. There are only so many Netflix movies you can watch at home by yourself or with your spouse. At some point you want to get out and go out to a restaurant and just not cook.”
He notes there is a unique experience about being surrounded by other film lovers wanting to experience the same movie together. “When the auditorium erupts in laughter, I think that is the time that you realize that movies matter because getting together and enjoying a great movie on the big screen [is a shared experience].”
Healey echoed similar thoughts. “I think people like to experience the arts and they like to experience it live especially. We have all been having a great time binging on Netflix and HBO Max and Prime and things like that, but I think people are looking forward to getting back to a live experience because nothing beats it,” he says. “You want that sense of community amongst folks.”
Throughout the pandemic, Kiska says, arts and entertainment provided a much-needed decompression from grim news and negativity. “It is an escape,” he says. “Even at the best of times, people still want to forget about the outside world for just a few hours and go to a fantasy world with Disney’s Beauty and the Beast or go back in time to Victorian England and see My Fair Lady. People always like to be entertained and forget about their real life for a little while because entertainment is an escape, especially during the pandemic.”
Sparks says the pandemic has taught him that if you are creative enough you can always adapt. “The pandemic forced us to expand, reimagine and look at things in new way,” he says. “We came away with the understanding that nothing stops entertainment. It only changes what it looks like.”
Ultimately, the arts are what teach us how to imagine a better world, he says. “So when you are faced with a time when the whole world is stressful and scary, the arts give you the true escape to imagine a better tomorrow. … Business might be the heart of any community but arts are the soul.”