At the NorShor Theatre, the stage is still set for “Spamalot” — the Monty Python musical that closed before it ever opened in mid-March.

Duluth Playhouse executive director Christine Seitz intended for the theater company to eventually pick up where it left off earlier this year, when performances around the country were canceled to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“Even though I stood in front of the entire cast and said, ‘You will be the first show on the stage,’ I don’t anticipate ‘Spamalot’ will be the first," she said.

Among the problems: The cast and crew is large, and there is a lot of singing.

Steve Highland performs with the Highland String Quartet at the Great Lakes Aquarium recently.  (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Steve Highland performs with the Highland String Quartet at the Great Lakes Aquarium recently. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

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At a time when most performing arts organizations would be polishing season-opening shows, stages are still dark. Some executive directors, working with a smaller-than-normal staff, are applying for grants and doing the math on audience seating. They’re surveying patrons, looking at calendars, considering scrubbing musicals for one-man shows. They are looking at guidelines set by the state and health organizations to see what they can do.

“It’s a scary time to be an arts organization,” said Kelli Latuska, executive director of the Minnesota Ballet, which hasn’t yet brought its professional dancers back to work. “We don’t know when we’ll get back to things that would usually bring in revenue for us.”

Moving forward

There is a single show on the Minnesota Ballet’s schedule, the makeup performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Originally scheduled for March, the ballet will tentatively go on nearly a year later — February 12, 2021, at Symphony Hall.

According to state guidelines, venues must run at less than 50 percent capacity — which caps at 250 people. If allowed audience numbers aren't increased before December, Latuska said, there is a chance there will be a virtual production of “The Nutcracker” — a long-running tradition that has in the past featured company members and students from the School of the Minnesota Ballet.

The company has not called back its dancers yet, though some are attending maintenance classes in the studio space at the Depot. It’s possible the season might be extended beyond spring to fit in a full schedule of performances.

This year’s company is larger than it has been in the past, including additional apprentices, Latuska said.

Last week, the Minnesota Ballet launched a virtual fundraiser. The Celebrity Dance Challenge All-Stars is a chance to revisit winning performances and pick the best of the best.

In a normal year, last week would have been the kickoff to the Duluth Playhouse’s 2020-21 season. Instead, Seitz — who had planned to retire in August, but is sticking around through the pandemic period — was at the NorShor Theater applying for grants.

In July, the theater’s board of directors surveyed its patrons about its comfort levels with attending shows during the pandemic.

Four thousand people responded, Seitz said.

While more than 95 percent said they can’t wait for the Playhouse to re-open, about half of those don’t want to return until there is a vaccine, she said.

So they are considering options, including smaller shows with smaller audiences, streaming options and more.

Much of this is in the hands of the theater’s new artistic director, Phillip Fazio, who joined the staff in mid-May after graduating with an MFA in directing from Penn State. He was involved with the production of “Diana” that has shifted from Broadway to Netflix — a streaming cue he is open to considering. He is applauding the creative shifts in presentation that he seeing from other theater companies.

“To me, live theater is a connection between an actor and an audience, but desperate times call for desperate measures,” he said.

The Highland String Quartet performs at the Great Lakes Aquarium recently.  (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
The Highland String Quartet performs at the Great Lakes Aquarium recently. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Solutions

The Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra has found ways to stay in the public ear despite canceling three performances at the end of the last season. In addition to concerts re-played on WDSE-TV and on Wisconsin Public Radio, it offers a DSSO at Home, where select concerts are available on demand.

A small ensemble has been playing outside the Great Lakes Aquarium as part of the Earth Rider Beer Garden and at Duluth Cider.

It’s not all Mozart. Recently, when a listener requested rock ’n’ roll, they obliged.

“Our string quartet played ‘Freebird,’” said Brandon VanWaeyenberghe, the DSSO’s executive director — an innovator who had already planned to launch streaming options before it was a necessity.

In the fall, musicians from the long-standing company will be among the first to perform on an indoor stage in front of an audience.

The DSSO has three concerts on its schedule to close out 2020 — starting with a performance of works by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Samuel Barber, Astor Piazzolla and Jessie Montgomery on Oct. 10 at Symphony Hall.

Audience space is limited — there can be only 250 people in the venue between musicians, staff and patrons. But subscribers will also have the opportunity to attend virtually.

“We’ll make it a very special, albeit odd, experience of a concert,” VanWaeyenberghe said.

Lessons from a socially-distanced opera

In July, a revised version of the Northern Lights Music Festival was held on the Iron Range — which included a staged production of “Tosca.”

The artists were quarantined together, wore masks during rehearsals, and the orchestra was spaced with Plexiglass between wind instruments and no sharing of music stands.

The festival’s founder and director Veda Zuponcic said it went very well — and in a post-performance survey, found no issues with COVID-19. They practice masking, hygiene and social distancing.

“For us, it was a wonderful opportunity to make the payrolls and put the shows on and to show it was all possible,” she said, adding she doesn’t know why more companies aren’t doing it.

The University of Minnesota Duluth’s theater department is: An outdoor production of “Henry V” opens Sept. 24 on campus at Ordean Court.