On April 4, COVID restrictions will be eased in Pennsylvania, allowing greater capacities at restaurants and other public places.
But while movie theaters can operate at up to 75% capacity, event venues like The State Theatre are considered different and will bump from 15% to 25%. That change, and the hope that things will continue to improve, has officials at The State Theatre looking to start holding some public, in-person shows again, for the first time in more than a year.
“We are excited to start moving forward with some small-scale events since some of the capacity restrictions have gone up. We are just really excited,” General Manager Kerry Cavanaugh said.
With the eased restrictions, the theater will again be able to host movies and smaller local acts, she said. Twenty-five percent capacity for the theater of fewer than 600 seats is approximately 140 visitors, when staffing is considered.
This comes after a challenging year that the theater has weathered, thanks to the support of the community.
Last March, during the first wave of mitigation efforts, Cavanaugh said theater managers were unsure of how long they would be unable to hold events, so they began to push things back a few weeks.
“We were looking more at six- to eight-week timelines at that point in time; then the longer things went on, it really became apparent that we were mistaken,” Cavanaugh said. “We really didn’t know when we could expect to have any sort of live event, let alone those large-scale, national touring acts that are our main revenue source.”
Because of the loss of that type of revenue, many theaters have closed permanently due to the pandemic.
“We’re lucky that we were in a pretty good financial position before things hit,” Cavanaugh said. “So that allowed us to weather the initial shutdown a little bit better than some other places.”
Still, it was a struggle, she said. The theater had to trim staffing and expenses. Officials also worked to find new revenue sources.
In the fall, The State Theatre started hosting Penn State classes. It had worked with Penn State in the past, hosting a film class, so the transition to hosting a full week’s schedule of classes in the large theater was smooth.
“We could fit more students in our theater with the six-foot distancing requirements, so that was great that we were able to pivot to hosting classes,” said Cavanaugh.
It also began hosting small-group private rentals.
“We would have a couple renting us out to watch a film for their anniversary, small families celebrating a parent’s birthday with six, maybe 10 people, something like that. So that has been great,” she said.
Like other theaters, The State also began pursuing various forms of virtual programming, such as virtual movie screenings and live-streamed concerts.
“On Feb. 27, we had a live stream fundraiser, ‘We’re All In This Together: 10 Years Of Concerts with a Cause.’ We celebrated our decade-long tradition of hosting benefit shows and really highlighted the wonderful local musicians in the area,” Cavanaugh said. “It also functioned as a benefit for The State Theatre to help offset some of the losses of not being able to pursue our main revenue stream of those large-scale, in-person national acts for the past year.”
As the theater starts to reopen, it will continue to host private and virtual events as well.
“I think a lot of sectors of society have changed and we’ve learned lessons from the past year,” she said. “So, we’re really excited to move forward and keep the virtual aspects of our programming and then really just get back to doing what we do best, which is hosting our local community performance groups, our large-scale national acts and growing the variety and types of performances that people can come see.”
The community has been understanding and supportive throughout the difficult time, she added.
“We have been blown away and humbled by the community support that we’ve received — everything from just the understanding of patrons, when they reach out with questions that we just don’t have answers to, in terms of ‘When will the event be happening?’ ‘When is it rescheduled for?’ Particularly, when we first started having to reschedule acts, the community had been incredibly understanding,” Cavanaugh said.
“Then, from fundraising, we’ve had a lot of people continue to support us via their memberships and donations throughout the past year. And at our virtual fundraising event on the 27th, we were blown away with the amount of support we received. We raised $23,708, and that was over our goal of $20,000. I can’t say enough how grateful and humbled we were by the messages of support and excitement to get back into the doors that we got from our community.”
Over the past year, the theater has used the time to make some improvements and upgrades. Officials reconfigured the lobby and installed a new point-of-sale system, which will make things quicker and easier for customers.
Cavanaugh said theater staff are working to finalize upcoming programming and hope to have updates on the website in a couple of weeks.
She believes there is a big thirst for people to attend live events again.
“Obviously, there is a bit of the unknown there, but I anticipate the need to be there,” she said.
“And I think people are going to be excited about the ability to come back to the theater again. If the feedback we’ve been getting from our private events is any indication, we’ve had a great public response to our small-group private screening rentals. So, that leads me to believe the appetite is there. I think the various procedures and protocols that will be implemented will also give our patrons confidence and a feeling of safety and will encourage their desire to not just come out, but to keep returning.”
New procedures in place will include “some very basic things like getting away from hard-copy ticketing and hand-to-hand transactions, really trying to utilize touchless and mobile whenever possible; updating our lobby entry and exit pattern and putting out distancing spacing … making hand sanitizer and masks available, grading the percentage of outside air that is in our HVAC system; and then in terms of seating inside the theater, blocking off every other row and setting up sales so that when individuals purchase tickets, those seats will be appropriately distanced.”
Cavanaugh can picture that first big show at The State Theatre.
“I am looking forward to that first, big national tour (when) we can have a full house again. I just can’t wait for it. I think that’s going to be a great night. I think the community is looking forward to it. I can’t say it enough: We can’t wait to get back to really doing what we do best.”
This story appears in the March 25-31 issue of The Centre County Gazette.