Bank of N.H. Stage, Hatbox Theater take steps to reopen this month

  • HATBOX THEATRE: The space inside the Steeplegate Mall will only be able to seat a few more than 20 people when it opens with “Copenhagen.” AP file

  • CAPITOL CENTER FOR THE ARTS: Major productions at the city’s largest stage are on hold or rescheduled for 2021. Monitor file

  • BANK OF N.H. STAGE: The city’s newest arts venue is organizing outdoor concerts with local artists held music school and the audience at the Fletcher-Murphy Park. Monitor file

Monitor staff
Published: 7/12/2020 7:29:01 PM

Two Concord performing arts venues will start tentatively reopening this month, but even a scaled-down version of the city’s normal music and theater scene is still a long ways off.

The Bank of New Hampshire Stage will hold the first of six “Music in the Park” outdoor shows featuring local or regional performers on Saturday. Dover-based songwriter Kimayo will play on a stage next to the Concord Community Music School to an audience seated in adjacent Fletcher-Murphy Park.

Only 50 tickets will be sold to allow social distancing, and if it rains the show will move into the BNH Stage, which in pre-COVID days could seat between 300 and 420 people.

“All ticket proceeds will go to the artist, as a way for us to get some artists a little bit of work. We will keep the ticket fees to cover basic costs,” said Nicolette Clark, executive director of the Capital Center for the Arts, which owns the BNH Stage. “We’re feeling a real need to do what we do, which is bring people together to enjoy the arts.”

On Friday, July 24, Hatbox Theater in the Steeplegate Mall will stage Copenhagen, an award-winning play that was scheduled to run in April before the pandemic arrived. This is the first performance at the theater since the lockdown began, but with social distancing requirements at somewhere between 21 and 40 people will be able to attend in a space that can fit 100.

“We can fit 21 single guests. But if some people come in a group of two or three or four household members that sit together, that increases our capacity,” said Andrew Pinard, Hatbox Theater’s founder.

You may not be able to buy tickets online yet because they’re trying to get the ticketing software to handle this new complexity, figuring out which seats to “block out” for future purchases based on past purchases.

That is an example of the unexpected complications which COVID-19 has brought to arts. Another complication: Cast size.

“You can’t have any shows with more than five people on stage – but trying to fit them on our stage, which is 21 feet wide by 24 feet deep, is hard,” Pinard. The play “Copenhagen” has three performers.

And don’t expect any Hatbox musicals because audience members have to be at least 25 feet away from any singer to minimize the spread of the virus through aerosols.

“Performers would have to stand at the back wall and we couldn’t sell front-row tickets,” said Pinard. “That’s not a very good experience.”

Pinard said the Hatbox Theater was setting up a performance schedule for three months at a time. “We can’t release an entire season – we don’t know whether guidelines will change, whether we might be shut down again,” he said.

The city’s biggest venue that regularly features national acts, the Capital Center for the Arts, remains dark for the time being.

“At this point all of our major performances in both buildings (Capital Center and Bank of New Hampshire Stage) … have basically been canceled or rescheduled to dates in 2021,” said Clark.

“There are three variables we don’t have a lot of control over,” she said. “Are the tours going to go out, will there be enough places open around the country that this make sense for the artist? How many people will feel comfortable and come back? At what point is it going to be safe enough that we can have full capacity?”

Under social distancing guidelines issued by the state, which were drawn up by a workgroup that included both Pinard and Clark, as few as 300 people could be put in the 1,300-seat Capital Center.

“There is no way for us to survive long-term like that. It’s obviously not viable to operate either of our buildings,” said Clark.

Clark said the operating budget for the two stages this year was going to be “just under $3.85 million.” That has been pared back to a little over one million dollars to cover seven remaining staff and all the overhead of large buildings such as insurance, heating and cooling, and mortgage payments. 

“Facilities don’t do well when they’re not being used. Care and upkeep of these buildings is an ongoing cost,” she said.

Both these institutions, like many arts groups, have been applying for COVID-relief funds. This has proved particularly difficult for Hatbox Theater, which is not a non-profit and thus ineligible for those funds but has no paid staff, so it couldn’t apply for Paycheck Protection Program money.

“We didn’t have to fire anybody because we didn’t have anybody employed in the first place,” Pinard said.

The theater had gross revenue of “about $140,000” last year, of which 60% went to the production companies or performers. Even before the pandemic it broke even at best, Pinard said.

“In 2019, I paid $4,000 out of pocket,” for costs related to the theater, Pinard said.

Clark said the network of donors built up by the Capital Center has proved invaluable.

“We still need those dollars. It has been wonderful to hear from business sponsors – show or no show we’ll be there for you,” she said. “The hope will be as we turn the corner into 2021, we’ve got our hands around this virus and we can get back to normal.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

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