For venues like Woodstock Opera House, Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, Barrington’s White House and Arcada Theatre, there’s growing hope for the year ahead, as they slowly return to in-person performance.
There’s a sense of hope in the air. For most of past year, arts and entertainment venues across the suburbs have been dark. But as a “new normal” sets in and venues adapt to new delivery and performance methods, the arts are taking baby steps toward resuming in full.
Woodstock Opera House
Like most theaters, the Woodstock Opera House has been largely closed to the public since April 2020. Looking ahead to this spring, the team is preparing for new ways to keep the community engaged in the arts.
“We’ve attempted to do a few programs here throughout the year with limited success and with very limited audiences,” says Daniel Campbell, managing director of the Woodstock Opera House. “Last summer, we were able to pull off a few concerts in our downtown park, which is in front of the Opera House, and that allowed us to do a lot more social distancing when we kept people outside.”
During the fall, when it became apparent audiences couldn’t return indoors, Campbell and the team started looking into virtual programming. The staff invested in video equipment and presented live-streaming events, including The Nutcracker, in November and December.
The venue is currently teaming up with local artists for its Spotlight Series, in collaboration with Off Square Music. On March 12, musicians Karen Reshkin and Mike O’Regan bring their traditional Irish music to the stage in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. On April 9, local band Small Potatoes brings its “cowboy meets Celtic” style of music to the theater. Additional shows are planned for May and July. The entire Spotlight Series will be streamed on the venue’s website, woodstockoperahouse.com.
“What we have really relied on are our heavy supporters and our diehard supporters, all those people in the community who have a love for the arts and a commitment to our particular venue, as well as other venues in the area,” says Campbell.
To help sustain the Opera House through this challenging time, the municipal-owned venue has launched a membership program that allows supporters and patrons to sustain Woodstock’s arts scene. Members can enter at seven levels, and they’ll receive special perks like having their names listed on the digital donor list or receiving invitations to advance ticket pre-sales.
“We don’t rely heavily on donations here at the Opera House as some other theaters do, just because we are municipally owned,” says Campbell. “But we do take in quite a few donations every year. All of it goes to help support the historic structure and help us run it administratively. Every ounce of support we can get is wholly welcome on our part.”
Metropolis Performing Arts Centre
This cozy venue in downtown Arlington Heights has remained open throughout the pandemic and is looking to not just survive but to thrive this year.
“We’ve survived well through this, which is maybe one of the most challenging times in U.S. theater history,” says Joe Keefe, executive artistic director. “Over the past five years, we were able to build up reserves that carried us through these challenging times pretty well. We’re in a good position and we’re looking forward to emerging into what we call the new normal.”
Like most theaters, Metropolis has begun streaming shows digitally. Virtual tickets cost $30 and can be purchased online at metropolisarts.com. This spring, the venue presents a series of classic radio plays in preparation for the return of its mainstage performances. If things go according to plan, the classic musical “Little Shop of Horrors” will debut April 29 and run through June 12. Preview performances are $35 and regular tickets are $40.
“We are planning to have that under a tent in an outside venue,” says Keefe. “We’re looking forward to that, and we’re doing all our planning for that.”
Attached to this venue is the Metropolis School of Performing Arts, a community education program that remains open for students ages 3 to 90. For the time being, the school teaches music, group classes and private lessons online. Acting classes include audition preparation for high school students.
Keefe is grateful for those who’ve provided financial support to the nonprofit theater during this time.
“We have a wonderful base of subscribers and donors who are regulars to our theater, and to expand that base has been a very big goal of ours,” says Keefe. “We’re also always interested in contributions people can make that maybe aren’t money. If people have property that they want to donate, we’ll take everything from props and costumes up to things that we could sell in order to raise money.”
Barrington’s White House
Cultural Director Rollin Potter had many discussions with staff on how to confront last year’s shutdown of arts venues.
“We cancelled the rest of spring 2020,” says Potter. “We started to venture out in the summer of 2020 with virtual and cultural events. We had a number of artists and performers who had worked with us over the past few years, who were willing to join us in doing some virtual performances.”
The summer brought a range of events, including lectures, painting lessons and musical performances filmed on site.
“We kept alive that way,” says Potter. “We advertised these online presentations. Then, we decided we would go ahead in the fall. We did our full series in the fall of 2020 but all virtually.”
Audiences came, and they continue to come in this new year. This January Barrington’s White House hosted its latest Town Warming with some major appearances. Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Motorola President and CEO Greg Brown had a fireside chat about the post-pandemic world. Then, William N. Daley, the vice chairman of public affairs for Wells Fargo and the U.S. Secretary of Commerce under President Bill Clinton, talked with Brown about post-election politics.
This March, Barrington’s White House presents traditional Irish tenor Paddy Homan as he performs and airs segments from his PBS production “I Am Ireland.” Classical pianist Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner, a local favorite, returns with his original compositions and piano classics by the likes of Claude Debussy and Frédéric Chopin.
Quinn Welder, the Rising Stars 2020 vocal winner and a current senior at Crystal Lake Central High School, performs on April 11. Then, on April 25, Dr. Avis Proctor, president of Harper College, provides insights on the state of higher education.
All events this season are live-streamed. Tickets can be purchased ahead of the performance or within 30 days of the premiere.
“We’ve been very fortunate that many of our donors continued to support us through this time,” says Potter. “I think people in Barrington and the surrounding communities wanted us to continue. We did some surveys, and they told us that they were really interested in our continuing virtual programming.”
This past year’s shutdown of arts venues has afforded a unique opportunity for this historic venue in downtown St. Charles. Crews have been updating the 94-year-old building so that it’s ready for a grand reopening when performances can resume.
“We’ve added restaurants, bars and a new HVAC system,” says Ron Onesti, CEO and president of Onesti Entertainment Corporation, which owns Arcada. “We’ve enhanced the entertainment and overall experience since the shutdown happened. We’ve locked down our entire operation, restaurants and performing venues since March 2020.”
Although things have been quiet, Onesti’s team has been hosting periodic livestreams to keep the customer base engaged. On Dec. 12, 2020, a group of local musicians performed Frank Sinatra material for what would have been the late musician’s 105th birthday.
Onesti has been working to add film festivals to the lineup.
“We weren’t a big movie venue; we’re mostly live music,” explains Onesti. “I want to do whatever I can to support other venues. This isn’t a time to profit on any of these situations. This is the time to support them to whatever degree that they’re allowed to, or desire to have a performance space.”
Onesti is also looking at other creative uses for the venue that might include hosting seminars or workshops.
For the time being, Onesti asks patrons to hold on to their tickets until the theater is fully reopened. By sitting on tickets, patrons help to preserve the cash reserves that theaters like Arcada need to reopen. No show is going to be cancelled, just moved, Onesti adds.
“The community support has been tremendous,” says Onesti. “We are entering our 94th year and we’re one of the only vaudeville-era venues that has been going nonstop since we opened in 1926. We’re going to reward our patrons’ loyalty with an amazingly upgraded entertainment and culinary experience.”