More than a year after closing its doors to the public due to a worldwide pandemic, Cape Fear Community College’s Wilson Center welcomed guests back for a performance in April.
“The energy was amazing. It was electric. There was just so much joy, with everyone just so happy walking in and getting to see a performance,” Shane Fernando, CFCC’s vice president of advancement and the arts, said. “The enthusiasm, if you closed your eyes, you would think it was a full house. The spirit of the house was remarkable.”
Opera House Theatre Co. performed for a socially-distanced 393 people in the 1,500-plus capacity venue. Working with smaller community theater organizations allows the Wilson Center to invite the public in for events while adhering to the guidelines set forth by the CDC and state mandates.
“It is tiny for us, and not viable for a touring program, but quite viable for a community organization such as Opera House where we are able to get an audience to the scale they are used to doing and we are able to provide it safely,” Fernando said.
Roughly 25 percent of its capacity is currently available for ticketing. Seating is set up in pods based on historical data of traditional sales.
Fernando said that the venue was forced to let go close to 200 staff members when it shut down last year, so these smaller events allow for staff members to slowly come back on board.
The impacts of the theater industry are wide and far-reaching. From cobblers to tailors to dry cleaners to restaurant owners, many business owners feel the effects when a theater is closed.
“From tiny to large-scale venues, theaters have a huge impact on their communities. Sadly, we are the first to shut down and the last to open, and there are so many businesses that we affect and a wide variety of vendors,” Fernando said. “So many folks with so many small businesses are ready for us to be back.”
The Wilson Center celebrated its five-year anniversary while closed for the pandemic in October, but it provided an opportunity to re-evaluate its operations, Fernando said.
“We took the time to look at our staffing model, our organizational model and our program model based on the five years of data we had available,” he said.
Considering it “almost doubled its revenue each year,” the economic impact on the tourism industry is obvious.
In its first year alone, 30,000 people from out of town came to see shows at the Wilson Center, Fernando said.
“It is a ripple effect of empty seats at this facility. This is a revenue stream for these businesses, and the effect is palpable,” he said. “A handful of businesses shut down because we weren’t open. They told me that.”
That is a responsibility Fernando said he does not take lightly as he works to take the necessary steps to have touring theater companies make their return to the Wilson Center.
Roughly 60 shows from national touring companies had to be rescheduled and are currently awaiting dates. Only a few shows were lost altogether, including Broadway touring companies that “collapsed” due to the pandemic shutdowns.
Managing the rescheduling of these tours has been “a weird type of game since it is every story of venues across the world,” Fernando said. Rescheduled dates have been the safety net of theaters across the country, “but it’s like a Rubik’s Cube” in terms of the complexity of finding dates that work with events for touring companies that are managing rescheduling with venues all throughout the United States.
“On a good year, it’s complicated enough in terms of finding a date, but now it is 10 times more complex,” Fernando said.
The target date for full reopening is late fall.
“The shows are not canceled. We are in the process of rescheduling them, and the show will still happen. It is on our books. Your seat is still good. Your ticket is still good. Once we can safely get the tour here, the show will still happen,” Fernando said.
Backstage protocols are even more complicated than public areas in terms of managing crews and performers, many of whom are working in close quarters, said Fernando, who added, “We are extra cautious of who works where.”
The conversation of safety protocols is still happening at a national level, and guidelines are still being prepared.
“We are doing everything and the kitchen sink,” Fernando said. “The priority is how we continue the mission of the department of this college and continue to find ways to bring in revenue, which means rethinking everything we do.”
Currently, the center is following CDC and state guidelines of social distancing, capacity limitations and sanitation procedures; in addition, its ventilation system ensures safe air flow.
“We are blessed at this facility that our air handling exceeds what is recommended for indoor ventilation, so we are in a good place there as far as the quality of air moving in and out,” Fernando said.
He said he wants the public to feel comfortable knowing they are doing everything to keep the community healthy and confident.
“The protocols are in place. When you are comfortable coming back, we’re ready to keep you safe,” Fernando said. “It’s on us to move forward.”