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Kansas City's Performing Arts Groups Cancel 2020 Dates At Kauffman Center

Tim Hursley
courtesy of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts
The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts plans to reopen on August 3. But some arts organizations will not be presenting events there until 2021.

With ongoing concerns about the coronavirus, Kansas City Ballet, Kansas City Symphony, Lyric Opera Of Kansas City, and Harriman-Jewell Series opt out of large gatherings at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

In a joint statement released on Tuesday, the Kansas City Ballet, Kansas City Symphony, Lyric Opera of Kansas City and the Harriman-Jewell Series announced canceling or postponing performances scheduled through December 31, 2020, at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

“It was determined that it was in the best interest of our shared audiences, artists, staff, volunteers, and guests that resources be conserved now to put us in a stronger position to return for a dynamic and robust season next calendar year,” Kauffman Center President and CEO Paul Schofer said in a news release.

Arts organizations across the metro in mid-March began to close and cancel events — due to mandates and concerns about the coronavirus. Stay-at-home orders started to be lifted in May, with restrictions in place.

In June, some museumsstarted to reopen — with timed tickets, limited hours, and lots of sanitizing and cleaning. Six-foot social distancing and masks are encouraged or required, based on city or county guidelines.

But performing arts venues, organizations, and presenters face a host of unique challenges.

By its very nature, the Kansas City Symphony is a large group of people who gather indoors -- and many of them are blowing into their instruments vigorously for an extended period of time.
Tal Wilson
courtesy of the Kansas City Symphony
By its very nature, the Kansas City Symphony is a large group of people who gather indoors — and many of them are blowing into their instruments vigorously for an extended period of time.

Difficulties with social distancing in opera, dance, and orchestra

“It really comes down first and foremost to safety,” said Danny Beckley, Executive Director of the Kansas City Symphony. And, during the coronavirus pandemic, he said, it’s just not an ideal environment in the Kauffman Center’s 1600-seat Helzberg Hall — for the audience or the musicians.

“Both from the standpoint of the orchestra and the way that we have to sit closely together,” he described, “the way that we have to blow through our instruments — not just breathe but blow. It doesn’t lend itself well to a respiratory disease that’s highly contagious.”

Kansas City Ballet Executive Director Jeffrey Bentley said that it's not yet clear when it will be safe in the COVID-19 era for dancers to gather together — to perform or to rehearse.

“I mean, we are the absolute contradiction to social distancing,” said Bentley, who's also a former dancer.

“A dancer’s job is to touch each other, to lift each other, to turn each other, to roll around on the floor with each other. And until we can do that safely, how do we bring these wonderful artists back?”

Deborah Sandler, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s General Director and CEO, said the safety of the artists and the audience are also top of mind.

"What we know is that choral singing is one of the most difficult activities in the midst of this crisis," Sandler said.

And, it's not only public health and safety standards to consider, she said, but data based on national and local research about the audience’s willingness to return.

“What we have consistently been getting is 80 percent of our audiences did not want to come back until there’s a vaccine,” she said.

'The Nutcracker' is a major source of funding for the Kansas City Ballet. The company will not perform it in 2020 at the Kauffman Center.
Brett Pruitt
courtesy of the Kansas City Ballet
'The Nutcracker' is a major source of funding for the Kansas City Ballet. The company will not perform it in 2020 at the Kauffman Center.

Taking a look at the bottom line

The decision to postpone or cancel performances — on top of previous cancelations — comes at a cost. And arts organizations, who rely heavily on ticket sales, are facing a significant dip in revenue.

According to Schofer, 50% of the revenue at the Kauffman Center is earned revenue, including ticket sales from their own events, special events, as well as rentals to resident companies or community arts organizations.

“And certainly the lion's share of that revenue goes away,” he said, “so we will be looking at every possible avenue to tighten our belt on expenditures.”

As Harriman-Jewell’s Clark Morris put it, “the revenue that we've collected has to flow with that season. So we won't be spending any of that money in this coming year.”

Morris added, “It’s certainly a strain and we couldn't make it without our donors. But with their support, we’ll be able to not only survive but also to come back with some interesting programming.”

When the Kauffman Center closed in March, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City was halfway through its run of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.” Two performances were canceled, plus the final show of the season, “The Shining,” based on the classic Stephen King novel, and a fundraiser ball.

The majority of patrons, said Sandler, donated ticket costs to the organization. But that was for the fiscal year that ended June 30.

“We lose an enormous amount of earned income when we don’t perform," Sandler said. “So the impact for us is that our budget is about half of what it was.”

The Lyric Opera and the Kansas City Ballet perform in the Kauffman Center’s 1800-seat Muriel Kauffman Theatre. With recommended social distancing, an audience of 300 would be, as the Ballet’s Bentley described it, “completely economically untenable.”

The company planned to open the 2020-2021 season with choreographer Michael Pink’s “Dracula,” followed by the annual holiday production of “The Nutcracker,” which, he said, helps fund the rest of the ballet’s season.

Bentley estimates a financial hit of about $3 million in ticket revenue — just from the loss of the two productions.

With a raft of cancelations last season, Symphony officials described their multi-million dollar loss of revenue as “extraordinary.” But donated unused tickets from patrons also provided support, as well as new philanthropic gifts. And, like other large arts organizations, they have an endowment, which provides annual investment income.

The Lyric Opera of Kansas City could present more small productions in their black box theater, such as "...When there are nine."
Brian Paulette
courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Kansas City
The Lyric Opera of Kansas City could present more small productions in their black box theater, such as "...When there are nine."

Moving forward with programming – in new ways

The Kauffman Center remains closed through August 2. But when the venue reopens, said Schofer, there are plans to host special events and receptions for smaller groups, 50 to 150. On-stage events will remain under consideration.

“As we get maybe 60 to 90 days out, we'll look at the current situation — not just regulatory and healthcare driven restrictions and guidance, but what makes sense for our community as well — and then make those decisions on whether those performances should be a go or no go,” Schofer said.

The Kansas City Symphony’s Danny Beckley said they’ll postpone the subscription concerts — and present the pops, classical, and family series from early January to June 2021 in Helzberg Hall.

But, Beckley stressed that the musicians will be fully employed, starting in September. They’ll just perform in smaller configurations, online or outdoors.

“We’re going to take concerts all over the community and try to play in outdoor spaces,” he said, “very short performances for pop-up type performances for groups of people.”

He joked, “You know, there are 141 zip codes in the Kansas City metro area. What if we went to all of them?”

Harriman-Jewell Series executive and artistic director Clark Morris said the organization has been able to keep this season “largely intact” and reschedule performances for 2021-2022.

“Because we're a lean organization and we don't really have any fixed assets, we have the ability to kind of come back and reprogram this year in a more nimble way while we tend to do, you know, pretty extreme advanced planning,” Morris said.

They’re in the process of reaching out to artists and exploring single events that can be announced as little as two weeks from the performance date, possibly in the spring rather than the fall.

“It’s gonna look different, much different than what we typically do,” he said. “We're trying to be creative and come back to the industry community with things that will be safe, appropriate, and then inspiring.”

The Kansas City Ballet's Jeff Bentley said they'll continue to provide digital offerings, from podcasts to classes. Another option includes hosting performances for 50 or 60 people in the studio that seats 180 inside the Todd Bolender Center for Dance & Creativity in the Crossroads.

“We are very committed to keeping these dancers with us, regardless of what the programming challenges are,” said Bentley. “We all feel like we have a social contract with all of our employees, and especially our dancers.”

“We don't just hire dancers. We curate the company," he said.

The Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s Production Arts Building in the East Crossroads has a small black box theater that seats about 300 people. And, with social distance, Sandler estimates it could still accommodate around 100.

“We are thinking small, we are thinking local, we are thinking partnerships,” she said. “We’re using it as an opportunity to invest in the company, in terms of programs that we can roll out in the future, and develop our own muscles internally.”

She added, “We hope people stick by us. We can't wait to perform again and to be with people. We can't wait until we're back on the main stage."

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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