HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - In early March, Dave Moss moved to Honolulu from Chicago to take the reins as executive director of the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra.
Less than a week into his tenure, he was trying to figure out how to manage an orchestra in a pandemic.
The organization was in the midst of its 2020-21 season when stay-at-home orders forced the cancellation of about five weeks of performances — moving all musicians off stage and to computer screens instead. They made do, but it was nerve-wracking work because there wasn’t just the question of how to ensure the show goes on, there was the question of how to ensure the symphony does, too.
“One of the ways we have stayed engaged with our community here is through digital content, and our musicians ... have been creating at-home performances,” Moss said.
“As we look toward the future here, it’s probably not ideal for musicians to be 6 feet apart or woodwind instruments to have Plexiglas shields between them, but when there’s a will there’s a way.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has not just effectively shut down the live arts events industry in Hawaii, it’s raised serious questions about how it might emerge ― and what will be left when it does. Already, small firms that make up the backbone of the industry, from technical teams to suppliers and concessions, are on the brink of closure (or closing) and artists are worried about how to make ends meet.
Facing a bleak future, with no timeline for a return to normal, those that make their living on entertainment are grappling with how to push forward, looking for innovative solutions to keep viewers engaged until audiences can return. But for many, there’s no substitute for filling big venues.
“Nothing can replace being at a live act, being amongst several thousand people, listening to these groups sing with feeling, emotion,” said Darren Araki, who runs Precision Sound, a small business that provides sound systems for live shows.
Events are Araki’s life, and he struggles to imagine the day when huge concerts or even mid-sized gatherings will return. “The interaction is part of the experience,” he said. But until things improve, “I think everything will be virtual.”
For three nights in November 2018, tens of thousands of people converged on Aloha Stadium for Hawaii native Bruno Mars’ homecoming concert.
The following year, the Blaisdell Center saw a season of Broadway touring shows ― a first in Hawaii ― with back-to-back productions that began with “The Phantom of the Opera” and ended with “Rent.”
Industry experts heralded these large-scale events as the start of a new era in Hawaii’s arts and entertainment scene ― the kindling of a resurgence of live shows and performing arts in the islands that promised a major economic boost to the economy and a new energy to the entire sector.
But since March, most stages have been dark, venues shuttered and events canceled.
Hawaii’s live events industry encompasses everything from performing arts to sports to concerts, bringing in millions of dollars to the state each year. With gatherings over five people now banned on Oahu, organizers are unable to put together even the tiniest of events. And that’s a one-two punch: A massive economic hit and the loss of an important cultural asset in the islands.
Just a few months ago, in May and June, things were looking up for Hawaii’s live entertainment industry.
The state was seeing just a handful of new COVID-19 cases a day. On some days, there were no infections reported. The lull sparked hope that maybe, just maybe live events could return soon ― with precautions, of course. Organizations started to put together plans.
And then came July and August. Cases surged, first into the 50s and 60s and then into the 100s.
Hawaii is now regularly seeing new infections in the triple digits, a fact that prompted the city to impose tough restrictions on groups — first banning gatherings of more than 10 people, then dropping that number to five.
The new wave of infections has been another devastating blow to Hawaii’s performing arts industry, quashing any hope for a recovery in the short-term.
Along the way, there has been little to no help from government.
That’s had some in the industry worrying about its future. They say while performing arts may not generate as much in tax revenues as tourism or the military, it’s not insignificant. After all, events boost revenues for everything from restaurants to parking structures to lighting and sound companies.
“It just affects so many people throughout — all of the people that can work together,” said Mary Lewis, events and services administrator for the city. She points to last year’s touring productions of “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Illusionists” at the Blaisdell Concert Hall.
“There might be one artist at the top or a little group of artists, but as you go down the pyramid, all the people that are affected — the designers, the ushers, the audiences, the people that come,” Lewis said.
Blaisdell has been forced to virtually clear its calendar since the pandemic began.
The most recent blow to the Blaisdell: Hall and Oates concerts for both Oahu and Maui were recently rescheduled for next year.
Lewis said it could take years for the industry to claw its way back in the islands.
“It is a huge business as well as the reason for our quality of life,” she said.
Because even if touring productions were suddenly allowed to start up again, it would be nearly impossible for them to stop in Hawaii due to the state’s mandatory traveler quarantine.
“It’s economically not feasible,” she said.
That said, one of the major questions facing the arts isn’t necessarily when live events and gatherings will be able to return, but when will audiences feel safe coming back.
Steve Boulay is one of the promoters behind “Jersey Boys” and numerous Broadway touring productions. He said wooing patrons back will be tricky. “Even if a theater will allow you to do a show with social distancing, masks, whatever the requirements, there are an awful lot of people who wouldn’t go,” Boulay said. “It just boils down to when will we be confident that audiences are safe, that performers are safe, that staff and crew and stage hands are safe? And then people will go.”
Boulay, of a company called MagicSpace, said it’s unlikely that a Broadway production will infest the money required to come to Hawaii until they’re guaranteed to sell out their events. After all, putting on one of those big productions isn’t cheap and requires transporting dozens of people and large shipments of equipment to the islands. Plus, Broadway is closed through the rest of 2020.
But Boulay is hopeful about the summer of 2021, provided a vaccine is widely available.
One thing going for the industry, he said, is a lot of pent up demand. Despite streaming shows like “Hamilton” satisfying appetites for now, Boulay said they’re just a temporary fix and can never replace the novelty of live performances. ”It’s a shared event. It’s a remarkably human thing to love and participate and be a part of something bigger,” he told Hawaii News Now.
The Hawaii Symphony Orchestra doesn’t have the deep pockets or wide audiences of some its mainland counterparts. But they believe in their patrons ― and in their mission.
When stay-at-home orders were issued, HSO had to cancel about five weeks of remaining performances for the season. That would’ve been a potential revenue of roughly $750,000 — some of which has been donated by ticket holders and some returned through refunds.
Thanks to ticket income, fundraising and loans, the orchestra ended the fiscal year with a balanced budget, allowing staff to move forward with a lot of flexibility ― and start drawing up their plan of attack for a very different season to start in September.
Moss, the orchestra’s executive director, said the orchestra is continuing to put out virtual performances but they are also hoping to soon incorporate outdoor performances, including at the Waikiki Shell. “The opportunity to have such an iconic venue here in Hawaii with the Waikiki Shell, with Diamond Head in the background and all the social distancing room we could ever need, and really for the safety of the musicians too … it’s really been a high priority for us to go back there,” Moss said.
He added that not only does it help in this situation, but it could bring back a bygone era and build a new audience for the orchestra. “There’s a generation who grew up going to concerts there and laying on the lawn with their parents and hearing the symphony play, or hearing pop music play,” he said.
“There’s this real sense of place.”
Mary Lewis, of the city, agreed, saying that they’re looking into revitalizing the Waikiki Shell once restrictions are lifted due to its open air benefit.
She hopes it will also present the performing arts scene with some unique opportunities.
”We’re all hoping that the arts will have a chance to stay alive, people will contribute to them, and they will be able to develop new and interesting works of art, music,” Lewis said.
“This could be a real renaissance and flowering, especially of local communities and under-represented communities that are going to have a chance to come up with some wonderful new ideas.”
That doesn’t mean the symphony is ready to ditch indoor venues yet, Moss said, adding that the orchestra is working with Blaisdell Center and Hawaii Theatre Center to ensure a safe return, potentially in late 2020 or early 2021. When audiences do return, things will be different. Intermissions will likely be out, since those create opportunities for mingling, and repertoires will be shorter.
With up to 88 musicians on stage before the pandemic, the orchestra even had to reassess its music, looking instead for scores that maxed out the number of artists at 50. It’s not an ideal scenario, Moss said, but they have to keep their options open.
“This community needs music. Our musicians need to play. It’s the heart and soul of Hawaii.”
Community theatre in Hawaii is also grappling with a major paradigm shift due to the coronavirus pandemic. Some theatres, like Kumu Kahua Theatre, are moving productions to a digital stage. Others, like Manoa Valley Theatre, are waiting it out until live performance can return.
Kip Wilborn, MVT executive director, walks into the darkened venue on a recent day and flips on the lights. The stage is set with a country western theme, the backdrop for the now postponed “Desperate Measures,” but it’s otherwise eerily quiet. Manoa Valley Theatre was just two rehearsals away from opening night of “Desperate Measures” when the stay-at-home order was issued in March.
The cast and crew turned to rehearsals on Zoom, and Wilborn and his staff were left trying to figure out how to stay relevant to the community — while also bringing in revenue.
There are some bright spots for the organization.
For one, the closure has allowed Manoa Valley Theatre to complete some long overdue repairs. And while its doors are closed, the theatre has sought to figure out what their shows will look like in a world of social distancing. The current plan calls for pushing back the season to January. And in the meantime, the group is focusing on a digital talk show called “MVT Live.”
Wilborn said while he’s hoping a vaccine will be available by early 2021, he is making backup plans.
Some solutions: Double casting in case one person tests positive for COVID-19 and the entire cast and crew has to quarantine; moving its band offstage; and reconsidering how actors interact on stage.
“It’s just irresponsible to ask people to do a love scene in this current situation, so we’re just going to have to be really creative,” he said. “And the audience I’m sure will be indulgent because we’re all in the same boat. In fact, in a comedy, it could be very, very funny if people are doing a distanced love scene.”
Wilborn is also looking into spacing out the audience members.
But with a tiny theatre of 165 seats, that could mean just 49 paying patrons.
Wilborn said theatres have certainly started to embrace digital performances, but he contends that people want and need to physically be back in the theatre. There’s something about that live element that keeps audiences at the edge of their seats, he said. “Art is the flower garden of life,” Wilborn said.
“And right now, things can be pretty gray and we need that. We need those colors.”
One venue that’s open for business and holding live performances is the Blue Note in Waikiki.
But things are not the same there as they were before the pandemic.
For one, while Blue Note Hawaii’s normal capacity is 340 people, it’s now down to about 125. Meanwhile, the bands and singers perform behind Plexiglas barriers.
Steven Bensusan, president of Blue Note Entertainment Group, said it was “devastating” to shut Blue Note down at the beginning of the pandemic and he’s happy to be back.
“We’re going to do our best to make sure that people would be very comfortable sitting there and feel confident that they will be safe while seeing a show,” Bensusan said.
“To some extent, live music is essential. It’s a part of who we are and it makes people feel happy and it’s very important for our everyday life. And so I’m glad we had that opportunity to bring it back.”
But Blue Note Hawaii is the exception, not the rule.
Other venues continue to sit idle and there’s no immediate plan for reopening them — venues like Aloha Stadium.
On a recent July afternoon, a large tarp is being used to cover the stadium’s turf to protect it from sun damage while it waits for its next big event. A sea of unused rental cars remain still in the parking lot where families used to converge for pre-game tailgating.
The biggest events at Aloha Stadium these days are for food distributions.
The good news is that in early June, the stadium got the green light to restart swap meets — one of its biggest revenue sources. Face coverings are required, though, and so is social distancing.
The stadium doesn’t know when it will welcome people back to its stands.
So for now, they’re trying to figure out how it might even be possible and are planning for upgrades like touch-free ticket scanning, Plexiglass barriers, and enhanced cleaning.
Ryan Andrews, deputy stadium manager, said social distancing guidelines slash the stadium’s capacity to about 25%. “I think in the short term, we know it’s going to be a challenge, and with the social distancing, it’s going to limit how many people can fit here,” Andrews said.
“In the long term, we’re going to remain optimistic.”
Andrews estimates that the stadium has lost more than $1 million since the shutdown — and it’s likely that figure will only continue to grow. Andrews is also worried about the bigger loss to the community.
“I think every person that lives in Hawaii or at least on Oahu has an experience here, so it has that history, it has that culture,” Andrews said. “People again want to come together, they want to be part of something big and have that energy and have that shared experience.”