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Greenville Business Magazine

Pandemic Proves ‘Devastating’ to Peace Center

Dec 04, 2020 01:19PM ● By David Dykes

By Donna Isbell Walker

Earlier this year, Greenville’s Peace Center had big plans for its 2020-2021 Broadway season, with a roster that included blockbusters such as “Hamilton” and “Wicked.”

As it has done across the world, the coronavirus pandemic swept the Peace Center’s calendar clean, postponing this year’s Broadway season until autumn 2021 at the earliest, and forcing the performing arts center to make drastic cuts.

“It’s pretty devastating,” said Megan Riegel, Peace Center president and CEO. “We’re down from 54 full-time staff to 15 full-time staff, and we’ve just kind of buckled down, and we’re going to ride through it. We’ll be fine, but it’s certainly not business as usual.”

Broadway itself has gone dark, with theaters closing through next spring, and touring productions are off the road. Musicians and comedians aren’t touring either, so the Peace Center stage has been largely empty since spring.

The gap between the last Broadway season at the Peace Center and the next will be about 18 months, Riegel said.

Things have been challenging for the Koger Center for the Arts in Columbia as well. Since the pandemic began, the venue has canceled or rescheduled more than 40 performances. 

The Koger Center began selling subscriptions for its 2020-2021 Broadway season last January, during a tour stop for “Wicked.” 

“We had already gone on sale, and we had a robust set of subscribers before the pandemic hit,” said Koger Center Director Nathan Terracio.

And like the Peace Center, officials at the Koger Center are hoping to get the next Broadway season up and running in the fall of 2021, if touring companies return to the road.

“We’re not locked into any dates,” Terracio said. “I’ve been thinking, ‘I wonder if 11 months from now is too soon.’”

The Peace Center recently began presenting intimate, acoustic performances at Genevieve’s, its theater lounge, and a few socially distanced productions in the Concert Hall.

The Genevieve’s performances, which feature such artists as Phat Lip and David Wilcox, seat 100 people, and tickets are sold in groups of four, Riegel said.

“That’s going well, so we’ll keep doing that because it’s safe for audiences, and they have an opportunity to have a nearly normal experience. But the big shows, it’s going to be a while before they’re out,” she said.

The 1,800-seat Charleston Gaillard Center has also been forced to find creative ways to cope with 2020’s effects on its calendar.

Over the summer, the Gaillard Center produced and presented virtual content for a series called Lowcountry Listens, said Marketing Director Kellie Lawson. 

And this fall, the center presented three socially distanced concerts with livestream options for patrons who weren’t comfortable attending in person.

“We are excited to announce new content for 2021 in the next few months,” Lawson said in an email.

“Patron safety will always remain our top priority.”

At the Peace Center, some annual traditions continue, but with smaller audiences. 

Holiday at Peace, Greenville Symphony Orchestra’s Christmas concert, will feature three performances this year. But the Concert Hall’s usual capacity of 2,100 seats has been pared to 650, in keeping with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines and state law.

During the shutdown, the Koger Center presented a few performances through livestreaming, and it has begun to return to socially distanced live productions. 

For the holiday season, there will be local ballet company performances of “The Nutcracker,” but with only 464 tickets, out of 2,200 total seats, sold for each performance.  

For music fans and artists in Greenville, the Genevieve’s shows are nice, but revenue from all of the Genevieve’s shows combined doesn’t equal one sold-out Peace Center Concert Hall show, Riegel said.

And even if big-name shows were on the road, an artist’s performance fee would be spread out among 650 potential ticket-buyers rather than 2,100 at normal capacity, greatly raising ticket prices, she said.

Covid-19’s economic toll has been especially tough on the entertainment industry, and at the Peace Center, it’s not just full-time staff who’ve been affected, but also part-time employees, plus folks who work at downtown Greenville restaurants, which once buzzed with activity on show nights.

The Koger Center has been fortunate to operate with a pared-down full-time staff of 12, and so far one position has been eliminated, but Terracio is hopeful more cuts won’t be needed.

“It’s challenging to pare down both from an emotional point of view – no one wants to let staff go – and from a business point of view, from the idea that, when the time comes we will need highly qualified people to get us back on our feet,” Terracio said.

During the Peace Center’s down time, they’re working on small construction and technology projects that patrons may notice when things reopen next year.

This year marks the Peace Center’s 30th anniversary, but celebrations won’t happen anytime soon. Everything has hit “the big ol’ pause button,” Riegel said.

Some larger single-night shows should hit the calendar during second quarter of 2021. And Riegel expects that previously announced Broadway shows will come to Greenville at some point in the next two seasons, depending on routing schedules, plus she’s got holds on a couple of not-yet-announced shows.

But “we have no control over it. We don’t want to announce anything until we have a better sense that everything has stopped moving around,” she said.

Riegel praises patrons and subscribers for their patience. Few people have asked for refunds on Broadway season subscriptions, she said, and Riegel emphasized that the money the Peace Center receives for ticket sales is segregated into accounts the venue can’t touch until the week of the production.

Her message is: “We care. The relationship that we have with (our patrons), that’s the single most valuable asset we’ve got right now.”