How live entertainment venues are attempting to beat COVID-19 with some creative approaches

Even though Ohio’s restaurants and bars reopened in late May after the mandated hiatus due to the coronavirus (COVID-19), some of Cleveland’s most beloved music venues have yet to reopen to audiences.


The question of when – and how – to reopen is consuming many of Cleveland’s brightest minds in the performing arts scene, and there’s no easy answer in sight for venue owners.


Local theaters and opera houses, meanwhile, have pivoted to continue their productions and arts education missions digitally, with the working assumption that the coronavirus is here to stay until a vaccine is developed.


Karamu House, 2355 E. 89th St., will be presenting its first-ever virtual streaming performance in the theater’s 105-year history tomorrow, Friday, June 19th.


For Cindy Barber, co-owner of Beachland Ballroom & Tavern, 15711 Waterloo Road, and Todd Gauman, marketing director, the pandemic means a complete re-imagining of live performances in Cleveland.


Barber says the Beachland, along with other Cleveland venues, artists and health officials, is part of the national Reopen Every Venue Safely (REVS) pilot project, which has similar task forces in seven other major music cities in the U.S.


Barber is also part of the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), which advocates for federal aid for independent venues. Barber says that both the REVS taskforce and NIVA provide a way to communicate with other venue owners about best practices as they look to reopen.


A collaborative approach is needed now, Barber argues, because music venues struggled even before the pandemic.


“A lot of that is talking to the artists and the agents about what’s going to make the touring musicians feel comfortable going forward,” Barber says. “We’re talking about costs…we have to compromise with each other because usually it’s a $2,000 guarantee for a 500-capacity room and we’re not going to be able to do that [due to spacing concerns]. So, it’s a new kind of negotiation on how people are going to get paid and what the expectations are.”


Gauman explains that music venues have long dealt with razor-thin profit margins, and there’s a high level of financial risk associated with shows because they often guarantee a certain pay-out to artists before all the tickets are sold.


Things have become even more dicey in recent years as the costs for hosting touring acts—insurance, utilities, and alcohol—continue to increase.

During the pandemic, group buying power means strength, says Barber, for buying bulk liability insurance for multiple venues, or collectively buying employees’ health insurance.


“Hopefully, this [collaboration] opens doors for the music venues to work as a group, as an economic force, as a buying power,” says Gauman.


In the meantime, Sean Watterson, co-owner of Happy Dog, 5801 Detroit Ave., says his business has still been able to host a few talks and artists via live stream (with donations going to his workers), but it’s not a viable long-term event-hosting model.


Watterson, also a REVS taskforce member, says Happy Dog typically has over 300 live events each year and he questions how his business will be able to continue hosting community events safely with musicians, artists, and customers feeling comfortable enough to return.


For the Beachland, to reopen safely it’s “going to be a whole new platform,” Barber says. The bar and restaurant are currently undergoing large-scale renovations to help it achieve that goal.


Gauman explains that current renovation plans call for several phases over the next few months.


The first phase is to turn the 500-capacity ballroom into a pop-up restaurant with socially distanced tables, Gauman says.


Then, they will reintegrate live shows with a reduced capacity— ideally beginning in July. And, Gauman says Beachland’s ballroom is large enough to accommodate a decent number of customers, even with things spread out.


Beachland Ballroom & Tavern's marketing director Todd Gauman stands in the bar space that is in the process of being renovated while the bar is closed due to the pandemic.Meanwhile, Beachland’s smaller tavern will also be transformed into a live streaming studio— with new equipment and high-speed broadband to showcase local and touring artists.


“Prior to all this, it was at a 150-capacity space, and really, when you look at tables and spacing people out, the max we could get in there was like, 14 to 16 people,” Gauman explains. “That is not going to be conducive for any type of shows.”


Then, there are plans to transform Beachland’s parking lot into an outdoor venue space. The business has asked the state Division of Liquor Control to expand its liquor license to cover the parking lot as well, Gauman says.


Health experts have said in recent months that people are less likely to contract the coronavirus outdoors, considering the virus will be diluted by even a light wind (it typically is transmitted by water droplets emitted when one speaks, coughs or sneezes).


However, for Happy Dog’s Watterson, he doesn’t have an outdoor space that can be used as a performance area. He says he faces a lot of tough questions when considering how to reopen.


“It’s not just about reopening safely but recognizing these venues as neighborhood anchors and culturally important institutions, and trying to figure out how to preserve them,” Watterson says. “They’ve been at risk even before the coronavirus came around.”


Meanwhile, Megan Thompson, director of education and outreach with Cleveland Opera Theater, 5000 Euclid Ave., says she is keenly aware of the potential for singing to spread the coronavirus.

Young artists performing during Cleveland Opera Theater's Master Classes online class.

Instead, Cleveland Opera Theater has launched an entirely virtual 2020-2021 season, with live-streamed performances, classes, and more programming.


Thompson says an expert panel, assembled by the National Association of Teachers of Singing and the American Choral Directors Association, asserts there is no safe way for singers to rehearse or perform together without a vaccine, which could take as long as two years to develop.


That stern warning came after 45 people were infected with COVID-19 and two died after singing in a Skagit County, Washington choir in early March.


So, to prevent a local tragedy, Opera Theater performances will all be online for the immediate future, Thompson says, including a weekly “Maestro’s Corner” with maestro Domenico Boyagian conducting interviews with musicians from around the world.


There is plenty of creativity-at-play as local theaters figure out how to continue their programming while keeping patrons safe.


Cleveland Public Theatre (CPT), 6415 Detroit Ave., is still planning on hosting its annual Station Hope arts festival on Saturday, June 27, where over 250 artists come together to celebrate Cleveland’s social justice history and future.

Station Hope

But the big difference this year is the Station Hope artists will be performing from their own homes, spokesperson Caitlin Lewins says, with the theme of envisioning, interrogating, and seeking out hope.


“Those are probably going to be some pretty timely conversations,” Lewins says.


Karamu House, CPT, Cleveland Opera Theater and other local theaters are all continuing their education programs digitally, as well, with Karamu House’s Arts Academy Summer Intensives classes continuing digitally this summer.


CARE is a theatre education program that draws on lessons from social-emotional learning theories, trauma-informed care, and evidence-based literacy learning for students in grades K-8.There are some difficulties in teaching performing arts digitally, however, says Cleveland Play House’s BJ Colangelo, a teaching artist with the Compassionate Arts Remaking Education (CARE) in-school theater education program. The biggest one is the “digital divide” for some of her students, she says.


Some don’t have access to a webcam, which means Colangelo will need to adapt her lesson plan for the day to accommodate them. Other children don’t have access to the Internet at home, but some are finding their own solutions, she explains.


“Some of our students are logging into classes using devices with Wi-Fi from restaurants and stores in their neighborhoods because they don’t have it at home,” she says. “It really speaks to the resiliency and passion that the youth of Cleveland have that they want to be here. They want to be in their classes. They want to continue their education by any means.”


Conor Morris writes for the Northeast Ohio Journalism Collaborative and is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Read more articles by Conor Morris.

 Conor Morris is a corps member with Report for America. Morris covered Appalachian southeast Ohio for the weekly newspaper The Athens News for six years. He reported on Athens County, but especially local government, the campus of Ohio University (his alma mater), cops and courts, and the social and economic issues facing the residents of Ohio’s poorest county. Morris helped guide The News toward two Newspaper of the Year awards in its division of the annual Ohio News Media Association Hooper Contest. Morris himself won six first-place Hooper awards for his reporting over the years, including for a story series about police and hospital failures in a sexual- assault investigation in Athens. Morris was born in Marietta, Ohio.