The Wells Fargo Playhouse in the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte usually seats 248. The theatre is not currently holding any in-person productions, instead focusing on virtual options. Photo courtesy: Children’s Theatre of Charlotte

A devastating electrical fire broke out at Theatre Charlotte’s auditorium early in the morning on Dec. 28. Wilted down chairs and burned wires littered one side of the pristine performing space. The fire department was able to save the other half.

On top of finding ways to perform through the pandemic, this was an unimaginable blow to the 93-year-old theatre — the oldest arts organization in Charlotte. 

“It’s multi-layered because of the fire,” said Chris Timmons, the associate artistic director of the theatre. “We obviously, you know, any sort of financial contributions are welcome. And, you know, that will certainly play a key role and us being able to build and rebuild and get back into our building.”

Performance theatres in Columbia and Charlotte are working to stay connected with their audiences through the pandemic, while facing reduced revenue and testing the waters of in-person performances.

Trustus Theatre, located in Columbia’s Vista, lost around $400,000 over the past year, said producing artistic director Chad Henderson. The theatre typically depends on ticket sales and concessions, which used to make up 75% of its operating budget. Now, Trustus heavily relies on donations and grants.

“We’ve been very fortunate to keep our staff employed and, you know, get our monthly bills paid, thanks to emergency relief grants, and then, of course, the support of our producer circle, which is our collective of donors,” Henderson said.

Theatre Charlotte is also depending on donations, Timmons said. A big part of their revenue was ticket sales, but it has been “nonexistent” since February of last year. The theatre has taken pay cuts twice throughout the pandemic, but Timmons said individual contributions were far higher this year — partially due to the fire.

“I think people are understanding how much we’re hurting and willing to give when they can, and in some cases, giving a little bit more than they normally would. Trusting and knowing that we’re working toward coming back stronger,” said Timmons. “It’s all about staying in the mind’s eye, you know, staying out there in the community.”

Trustus tried to bring back in-person performances with “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” a play about famous jazz singer Billie Holiday. But with ticket sales low and COVID-19 cases rising, the show has been postponed indefinitely.

A lot of patrons aren’t quite comfortable coming in-person yet, Henderson said. He believes that will change as the vaccine rollout continues.

“For the most part, the people that are uncomfortable are just not going to take the risk, and they wish they could be here. They desire the material, and they desire, you know, the act of witnessing theater, but they don’t feel comfortable sitting indoors. And I totally get it,” Henderson said.

Henderson said in-person shows will hopefully return by this fall.

The Children’s Theatre of Charlotte had an 80% drop in revenue from “production and education programming,” the Charlotte Observer reported. But the theatre has seen “tremendous success” with their new streams of revenue, said Cindy Taylor, the theatre’s director of marketing and communications.

“Schools can stream any of the four shows in our season directly to the classroom,” said Taylor. “It gives us a good feeling and provides them with an arts-based experience at a time when the ‘magic’ of theatre is truly needed.”

Both Trustus and Theatre Charlotte also have virtual options, but it is not enough to sustain their businesses.

“Fortunately, we’ve been able to take advantage of some federal and state funding and relief, money that’s out there,” said Timmons. “The streaming stuff is not, it’s not going to replace ticket sales.”

Trustus’ virtual options have included archived plays and FEST24, where teams write, rehearse and perform plays all within 24 hours. Henderson said the virtual content helps the theatre connect with its audience, but it does not bring in enough money.

“We’re just gonna keep creating content,” Henderson said. “I think it’s important to provide opportunities to create, and to, you know, have trust of providing that in our community.”

To try to make patrons more comfortable coming back, Trustus Theatre has installed an air ionization system.

Like Columbia, Charlotte’s COVID-19 restrictions have been the children’s theatre’s “top priority,” Taylor said.

“We created a team dedicated to safety protocols during this time,” said Taylor. “A part of that commitment meant staying attuned to recommendations and guidelines from the CDC as well as other state and local agencies.”

Currently, the theatre is working productions remotely, but their essential staff has to follow strict guidelines while inside the building. When it comes to bringing back in-person performances, Taylor said there’s still much hesitation to do so and “it’s still an unknown.”

Henderson said he’s not quite sure where the future of theatre lies, but that he hopes it is more equitable and theatres are “telling the community’s stories and addressing the community’s needs with their work.”

“These places are the places we go for joy and to feel human,” Henderson said. “And so, I can only imagine that people are going to be craving it when they feel safe doing so because I can’t really take much longer of my entire entertainment regimen being provided by Netflix.”

A December electrical fire damaged much of Theatre Charlotte’s auditorium. The theatre is currently fundraising to repair the damage. Photo courtesy: Theatre Charlotte

“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” was supposed to be Trustus Theatre’s first in-person play since its March closure. The play was postponed because of rising COVID-19 cases and limited ticket sales, said producing artistic director Chad Henderson. Photo by: Christine Bartruff

Both Trustus Theatre and Theatre Charlotte have said they are relying on donations and grants because of reduced ticket sales. Photo by: Christine Bartruff

The Trustus Theatre in Columbia’s Vista can normally seat 134 people in its main room, but its COVID-19 capacity is 66. Photo by: Christine Bartruff

Cindy Taylor with the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte said it is still unknown when the theatre will be able to return to in-person performances. Photo by: Daniella Ramirez