MOUNT VERNON – One of Knox County's premier entertainment venues is reopening its doors this weekend for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
The Woodward Opera House, located at 107 S. Main St. in Mount Vernon, will host its first concert since February on Saturday, when singer/songwriter Lydia Brownfield comes to town.
Brownfield, of Columbus, regularly performs in Ohio, Atlanta and New York, according to a press release from the Woodward Opera House Conservancy. She has opened shows for Loudon Wainwright III, Peter Case, Shawn Mullins and Indigo Girls over the years.
Brownfield will be joined on-stage by Jeff Dalrymple, a versatile performer who also writes instrumental music for film and television.
"His fingerstyle guitar work perfectly complements Brownfield’s ringing voice," the press release said.
It will be the first public concert at the opera house since Feb. 22, when nationally acclaimed country artist Suzy Bogguss graced the main stage.
Two weeks later, Ohio recorded its first coronavirus case. Within a month, the state had shut down all non-essential businesses – including entertainment venues – in order to prevent the spread.
Gov. Mike DeWine lifted the shutdown late last month, allowing theaters, concert and music halls to reopen at limited capacity Aug. 26. Danny Gum, managing director of Knox Partnership for Arts and Culture (KPAC), said he and Woodward staff have since been working with Knox Public Health to devise a reopening plan that would follow state health guidelines.
“We want to keep people safe. We want people coming back," Gum said. "So we’re following all the guidelines for safety."
Gum views Saturday's concert as a "trial run." It will look substantially different from events the venue has hosted in the past, given the safety measures in place.
The main floor of the opera house has been reconfigured to operate as a restaurant, with 15 private tables (and up to eight guests per table) available. Those who reserve a table will be able to order food and drinks from Stein Brewing Company after being seated.
Smaller groups not wishing to dine may reserve individual seats in the balcony. Bar service will be provided to all guests, regardless of seating level, by the Woodward Opera House Conservancy.
Because food will be served on the main floor, it will operate under state health protocols for restaurants. This means guests will be allowed to de-mask while sitting at their respective tables (they are expected to wear a mask when visiting the restroom or otherwise moving about the facility).
The balcony, meanwhile, will operate under state health protocols for theaters, which means guests must wear a mask for the duration of the show.
Guests are also required to practice six-foot physical distancing at all times, and are not allowed to congregate before, during or after the show.
The Woodward Opera House Conservancy has recommended that dining parties and/or families enter the facility together, which "will allow for an orderly traffic pattern that observes social distancing." Guests are urged to limit elevator capacity to two people per trip for individuals not with a group. Those who aren't feeling well are advised to stay home.
The Woodward Opera House is uniquely positioned to operate during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gum noted, given its versatility.
Because its main floor does not feature permanent seating, it can be turned into a dining hall. This will allow up to 120 people to occupy the main floor (15 tables, each with eight people), in compliance with state health guidelines. Add a maximum of 30 people from the balcony, and the Woodward can feasibly host up to 150 people for Saturday's show.
If the Woodward could not turn its main floor into a dining hall, and it had permanent seating on both levels, attendance would be cut in half. The state has ordered maximum capacity for indoor entertainment venues to be the lesser of 15 percent of fixed seating available or 300 people. Fifteen percent of the Woodward's capacity (500 people) would be 75 people.
The Woodward also contains Stein Brewing Company on first floor, allowing for seamless catering opportunities.
"I think it makes this venue very unique compared to other venues in the area," Gum said.
Still, Gum said the pandemic has been brutal on the entertainment industry. Event centers like the Woodward have suffered substantially. Normally busy with concerts, banquets, corporate meetings and weddings, the historic opera house has been largely unused since mid-March.
KPAC has had to lay off workers and implement a hiring freeze to stay afloat.
"It’s had a drastic effect financially. We’ve had no income streams whatsoever," Gum said. "And we’re a nonprofit, so we have to depend on the generosity of our donors to keep going.”
The Woodward's temporary shutdown has likely been a financial loss for the community as well, given its role in the local economy. The opera house has become a "landing spot" for tourists, Gum said, "bringing people into town that wouldn’t normally be here.”
Given that Saturday is being viewed as a "trial run," Gum was unsure what the Woodward's entertainment schedule would look like moving forward. He does envision more catered concerts, and potentially some physically distanced performances in the fourth-floor Black Box Theater, in the coming months.
It will likely be hard to attract nationally touring artists to the Woodward, however, for some time. Some national entertainers aren't scheduling live performances until next August, Gum said, and the Woodward's size has also proven burdensome.
"Due to limited seating, we cannot at this time offer national touring acts," Gum said. "But we’re doing our best to research regional acts and up-and-coming performers, artists that we see will be gaining popularity.”
Around this time, Gum said he would typically be scheduling for the next year's concert season. That's been challenging, however, due to the uncertainty of the pandemic.
“It’s very, very difficult right now to even think about scheduling, until we know something concrete," Gum said. "Because we have to make down payments for these artists, and I really can’t make any down payments and raise our expectations and theirs and then have to turn around and cancel.”
Still, Gum said things are brighter at the Woodward now than they have been in a while. Last week, staff began discussing how it could host physically distanced events in the facility – including small meetings, conferences, banquets, weddings and receptions – for the first time in months.
Saturday will mark another step forward.
“It feels good. It feels like this is what we’re supposed to be doing. It just feels natural now," Gum said. "It’s somewhat scary because this is new ground.
"This isn’t opening up the whole venue and having 500 people in the audience, but our hopes are that we’re going to get the same reactions, which is people coming, singing and smiling as they leave. Whenever we see that, we know that we’ve done our job. It gives us justification for being here.”