Mary Poppins will be flying in Sandy on Wednesday, while Atticus Finch is again grounded in Salt Lake City — as two Salt Lake County theater companies respond to the coronavirus pandemic in wildly different ways.
Salt Lake City’s The Grand Theatre announced Tuesday that it will cancel its production of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which was set to have its preview performance Wednesday and its premiere on Thursday. It’s the third time the company’s attempt to stage an adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic story of racism in Depression-era Alabama has been canceled — and the second because of COVID-19.
Meanwhile, Hale Centre Theatre in Sandy is reopening its 911-seat in-the-round Centre Stage theater for the first time since March, with Wednesday’s premiere of the Disney musical “Mary Poppins.” The Hale’s smaller jewel box theater, which seats 467, reopened Friday with the company’s interrupted production of the musical “Bright Star.”
Mark Dietlein, CEO and co-founder of Hale Centre Theatre, said Tuesday the company surveyed its patrons, “and found that 70% of them were asking to come back and were ready to immediately rebook their tickets. I think they just wanted to feel that joy and experience of having live theater back in their lives.”
So far, Dietlein said, the performances of “Mary Poppins” are sold to between 70% and 80% capacity — somewhere between 630 and 725 theatergoers. Patrons will be “seated shoulder-to-shoulder, as long as the regular face masks are used,” he said.
Wearing face masks is required, by county order, for any indoor public gathering. Dietlein said Hale theatergoers have been compliant, and are getting used to the face coverings. “They get so engrossed in the show that they forget they’re even wearing a mask,” Dietlein said.
And filling every row, even with face masks on, isn’t the approach other Utah theaters have taken as they have reopened. The Utah-based Megaplex Theaters movie chain only sells every other row in its auditorium, and the ticketing software automatically puts a three-seat buffer between groups in any row.
The Grand, before it canceled “To Kill a Mockingbird,” had been deploying the three-seat buffer, and selling tickets only in every third row. It also had planned to have masks worn both by the audience and the actors, including onstage during performances. But the state’s ongoing surge of cases made even that plan “impossible,” The Grand decided.
Dietlein noted Hale is “following what the state guidelines have allowed us to do.” Other safety measures the theater has implemented include: Plexiglas barriers at the box office, hand sanitizer stations everywhere, suspending concession sales in the lobby, temperature screenings of employees, and having cast and crew wear face masks and observe social distancing when offstage. The company’s detailed public-health policies are posted on the Hale website, hct.org.
Ticket holders can exchange their reservations for later dates, Dietlein said, if they feel ill or uncomfortable being out in public just yet. “We’re certainly encouraging people to be aware of what their personal situation is, and to keep it safe for everybody,” he said.
Seats are reserved, Dietlein said, so if a theatergoer were to contract COVID-19, the theater could identify the other patrons sitting near that person — and help public-health experts with their contact-tracing efforts.
At The Grand, the theater’s executives announced that not only would “To Kill a Mockingbird” be canceled, but so were the runs of the musicals “Harriet,” set for Aug. 13-Sept. 5, and “The Producers,' scheduled for Oct. 1-24.
“Our staff and board have been working to bring ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ to life on our stage in some format for the past four years,” The Grand said in a statement. “However, the spike in numbers from the pandemic has made it impossible for us to carry on with the production.”
The Grand box office will issue refunds or credits to anyone who bought a ticket.
The Grand first scheduled a production of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a long-standing adaptation by Christopher Sergel, in spring 2019. That production was canceled after a legal dispute involving the publishers of the Sergel version, Lee’s estate, and Broadway mogul Scott Rudin — who was producing an adaptation for Broadway, written by Aaron Sorkin, the Emmy- and Oscar-winning screenwriter (“The West Wing,” “The Social Network”).
Rudin’s company sent cease-and-desist letters to regional theater companies across the country producing the Sergel version. When news of that legal move angered theater mavens, particularly in New York, Rudin relented and allowed those companies to produce the new Sorkin version.
The Grand had planned to produce the Sorkin version in March, but canceled a second time when the coronavirus pandemic made large public gatherings unsafe. The Grand’s directors had hoped rescheduling for July would be safer.