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More Pittsburgh Performing-Arts Venues Prepare To Open For The First Time During The Pandemic

In March 2020, City Theatre became Pittsburgh’s first big arts group to cancel in-person programming because of the coronavirus pandemic that was about to strike. Like many troupes whose theater spaces were shuttered, City Theatre quickly turned to online programming; last fall, it organized an innovative drive-in outdoor arts festival.

The Kelly-Strayhorn Theater plans to welcome back in-person performances in September.
Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
The Kelly-Strayhorn Theater plans to welcome back in-person performances in September.

Now, City’s preparing to welcome guests back to its home on the South Side in October. But that space will look a bit different.

This summer, workers tore up the box office, lobby and office space on the ground floor of the historic former church the group has occupied for decades. The idea is to help patrons spread out once they begin visiting again, as a COVID-safety measure. Once work is complete, the lobby will be 50 percent larger, having grown to include a formerly walled-off space occupied by offices. (Staff are relocating to a different building down the street.) The box office will move to the lobby, eliminating a pedestrian bottleneck that occurred because the box office was located right across the hall from the restrooms.

“You’re not crowding in in confined spaces when you come to the theater,” said artistic director Marc Masterson.

Because the coronavirus is spread largely through the air, and experts say improved air circulation and filtration are two of the best ways to prevent it, City Theatre also has upgraded its HVAC system.

With some Pittsburgh performance spaces already open and most others about to do so, City Theatre’s changes echo moves by many venue operators and arts programmers around town. By October, if all goes well, the city’s performing-arts calendar will be nearly as busy it was as before the pandemic. And arts leaders say they’re striving to make sure it’s a safe return.

This spring, the state’s loosening of restrictions on the sizes of indoor gatherings and the end of the mask mandate had theaters turning on their lights across town. Concert halls such as Mr. Smalls in Millvale, and Lawrenceville’s Thunderbird Café resumed hosting shows, with more returns on the way in August, including Stage AE on the North Side; the Roxian Theater in McKees Rocks; and the Carnegie Library & Music Hall of Homestead.

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust will begin reopening its long-shuttered venues in August, with the return of the popular PNC Broadway Across America series set for October. The Kelly-Strayhorn Theater is bringing in-person performances back in September. So is Heinz Hall, from touring acts to concerts by the resident Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre returns to the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts stage in October. The list goes on.

As at City Theatre, many of those venues will be handling the very air that audiences breathe differently than the last time they visited. The Trust, for instance, has overhauled the HVAC systems at its buildings, including the landmark Benedum Center and Byham Theater. Scott Shiller, vice president of artistic planning, said all Trust buildings will bring in more fresh air, and filtration has been upgraded. And in 2020, coincidentally, the Kelly-Strayhorn completed an overhaul of its HVAC system that had been planned pre-pandemic, said executive director Joseph Hall.

Many theaters, include the Trusts’, also have made all of their restroom fixtures touchless to reduce potential transmission.

Venues started making many of these moves shortly after the pandemic began, but some of the thinking around operations has shifted. Last winter, programmers and venue owners nationally were discussing the use of vaccine passports and other potential means of screening patrons to prevent the spread of COVID. The Trust initially planned to require visitors to download and use the health-status app CLEAR to gain access to indoor Three Rivers Arts Festival concerts in June. But after the state lifted limits on outdoor gatherings, those shows were moved outdoors, and the app — though it still was tested with festival staff and volunteers — is not being considered for indoor fall events, Trust officials said.

Instead, the Trust and other venue operators are largely following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which simply require unvaccinated people to wear masks when indoors.

Venues also are asking anyone who feels sick to stay home — and preparing for the possibility that events could be canceled because of illness.

“There’s a lot of concern about cancellations and how the public will handle that,” said Mitch Swain, who as executive director of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council has been in continuous contact with groups during the pandemic.

“I think the biggest concern that organizations have is they’re trying to be really flexible with how they handle customer-service issues and refunds and things like that, particularly if there are health issues, and just concern that they’ll get financially hurt in some pretty difficult ways if all of a sudden there are some mass cancellations,” he said.

Still, few venues seem inclined to verify that unmasked patrons are vaccinated.

“It’s basically the honor system,” said Liz Berlin, co-owner of Mr. Smalls. On July 2, the concert hall held its first show since March 2020, featuring New York City-based jazz-funk trio Too Many Zooz. The band, led by saxophonist and Pittsburgh native Leo Pellegrino, drew about 400 people. Only a handful of folks in the ebullient crowd were masked.

At least one venue, however, is planning to check. The August Wilson Center for African American Culture has resumed hosting private events — but only for visitors who provide proof of vaccination or who have recently tested negative for COVID-19, said executive director Janis Burley Wilson. All guests must wear masks regardless of vaccination status, including visitors to the Center’s art gallery.

Universal masking rules also will apply at the Center’s Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival in September, which includes a concert by Chaka Khan at the Benedum Center and an all-day outdoor show at Highmark Stadium, both of which will also limit seating.

“It’s the world we’re living in,” said Wilson. She added, “COVID has hit the Black community hard, harder than many other communities.”

Wilson said the Center has not yet determined whether proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test will be required of attendees at those events, or when the Center itself reopens to in-person performances, a development tentatively scheduled for October.

But indeed, even venues operating or planning to operate strictly on the honor system are aware that COVID variants are spreading and cases are rising across the nation. As of this writing, cases are up in Allegheny County and across Pennsylvania, too. Arts leaders know the rules for indoor gatherings could shift again.

“As things change, we’ll change with those changes, and we’ll make whatever changes we need to make,” said City Theatre’s Masterson.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: