Stern Grove Festival organizers are planning to bring back the popular summer concert series — The Isley Brothers show in 2019 is pictured — with limited audience capacity. (Ming Vong/S.F. Examiner)

Stern Grove Festival organizers are planning to bring back the popular summer concert series — The Isley Brothers show in 2019 is pictured — with limited audience capacity. (Ming Vong/S.F. Examiner)

Indoor shows won’t be flooding SF stages soon but Stern Grove might be back in June

While San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced that live performances may resume indoors on April 15, it remains to be seen how swift a comeback The City’s arts and cultural organizations will be able to make.

Many Bay Area groups won’t be opening their doors soon simply because it doesn’t make sense financially due to health rules to combat COVID-19 that limit audience size to 35 percent capacity.

“San Francisco’s new guidelines are a positive step, but opening at well under full capacity is not financially viable for most venues, PianoFight included,” said Rob Ready, artistic director of PianoFight, the Tenderloin bar presenting music, comedy and theater.

“For venues to open up, we’re going to need close to or full capacity, as well as direct relief grants from the state to dig us out from under the mountain of debt we’ve accrued,” Ready added.

Stephanie Weisman, founder and artistic director of The Marsh, which has small stages in Berkeley and San Francisco, echoed Ready’s concerns, saying that social distancing and vaccine/testing verification requirements “would be challenges” for the “intimate” theaters, which have a capacity of about 100.

Yet the organization, which has offered some 600 online classes and performances in the past year, is looking into presenting shows outdoors on its Berkeley rooftop, and feeling positive about the future.

“It is constantly evolving, and we are trying to get through it all. All we know for sure is we will be back on stage one day, and we can’t wait,“ Weisman said.

Presenters also must consider not only the time it takes to prepare a performance, but the reality that patrons may not want to come back yet.

“It generally takes many weeks or months to be able to create a production — it involves hundreds of artists, artisans and theater workers — so we will not be opening in-person on April 15, said American Conservatory Theater Executive Director Jennifer Bielstein, who added, “We know from survey data that audiences are not yet ready to return at the volume we need to make it possible… I imagine it will be a slow and steady build back of audiences to pre-COVID levels over the coming months.”

Brian Katz, artistic director of The Custom Made Theatre Co., which plans to reopen indoors in the fall at its new home in the Phoenix Theatre, added that actors’ well-being must be considered. “There are not enough performers two weeks past their second vaccination at this time to operate safely,” he said.

While additional troupes planning for a fall return include New Conservatory Theatre Center and San Jose Stage Company, others, such as Dragon Productions Theatre Company and San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company, will continue to stick to online events until capacity restrictions are lifted.

On the other hand, San Francisco Playhouse plans to be back onstage indoors in June with three productions that also will stream on demand.

“We are scrambling to put box office and front of house plans in place to deal with shifting government and union requirements and to assure our audience that they will be safe. We are excited and terrified. But this is what we do. And we have no choice but to do it,” said Bill English, SF Playhouse artistic director.

And chamber music is likely to return indoors in July, according to Melanie Smith, president of San Francisco Performances, a longtime presenter of classical music and dance.

“We’re ready to jump through the hoops,” said Smith, referring to taking all precautions required by health officers, to bring live concerts back. Smith said she and the organization are excitedly planning to present their first summer season in the Herbst Theatre.

While Dance Mission Theater is slated to host indoor performances by Timothy Rubel’s Human Shakes on June 25-27, the venue’s managing director Stella Adelman said she remains “frustrated” that The City has been slow to grant permits allowing outdoor shows in parks.

Also, pop music by name acts won’t be happening in the near future in The City’s clubs.

“The concert industry was the first to close and will be the last to ropen,” said Sarah Fink Dempsey of Bay Area promoter Another Planet Entertainment, who added, “If everything continues in this positive direction, we are hoping to see concerts back sometime in August. Obviously, this is all still unfolding and is a dynamic situation and will only do so when it is deemed safe.”

But the picture looks different for San Francisco’s beloved Stern Grove Festival, which may return in June with its slate of 10 free outdoor summer concerts.

“We’re hopefully optimistic. We’re making plans and will proceed depending on getting approval from the San Francisco Department of Public Health,” said Bob Fiedler, the festival’s executive director.

If The City OKs the plan, he said, “3,300 lucky people” will be in the 33 percent capacity audience in the grove, which holds 10,000.

He said there will be other significant changes to the festival, which usually operates with no tickets and no gate. While performances would remain free of charge, there will be a fence around the perimeter of the park and audience members will have to reserve in advance, with seating offered in pods of up to six people.

Fiedler offered no information on the 2021 season’s lineup, which has not been finalized, but said it would resemble a typical year, perhaps slightly smaller, and offer diverse styles of music and genres.

“We have our fingers crossed, we don’t have permission yet,” Fiedler said. But if things go according to plans, in three or four weeks, the festival will announce a schedule of Sunday concerts that will begin June 20 and continue through August.

Freelance writer Robert Sokol contributed to this report.

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