The following Q&A is part of the CN&R’s Bring Back the Arts campaign, an interview series featuring artists and leaders of Butte County arts and music venues discussing their efforts to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
The bands are in the bars, the community theaters have announced their season schedules, and perhaps most significantly, live events will soon return to Chico State’s Laxson Auditorium. After a year-and-a-half of COVID-19 restrictions, the arts—including live in-person performances—are back.
The pandemic has been brutal to the scene, especially performance venues, many having been shuttered for at least a year. Some couldn’t weather coronavirus shutdowns, and in Butte County, the casualties have included downtown’s longstanding Blue Room Theatre and the south Chico cultural hub Blackbird.
As state restrictions gradually rolled back during spring, and relief grant monies rolled in, Butte County venues started to slowly come back to life. Now, more than a month after California has fully reopened, most have either started back up or have shows planned in the coming months. Notable exceptions include the Sierra Nevada Big Room (which currently has no shows or plans for live events in the works), Feather Falls Casino (nothing on the calendar yet) and the Pageant Theatre (which won’t reopen until air filtration and American Disabilities Act upgrades are completed).
Of those hosting live public events, most places have simply met the state’s mandate of asking unvaccinated individuals wear masks indoors. At Chico State, however—for the events produced at Laxson Auditorium by both the North State Symphony and Chico Performances—only those who’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19 will be allowed to attend.
On the eve of the announcement of a partial season schedule for Chico Performances (see calendar below), the CN&R talked to Director Stephen Cummins about what to expect when the lights come back on.
Do you have a full season booked for 2021-22?
We are going to announce September, October and November. We’re not going to announce any farther back. Frankly, I don’t want to go to full contract with people and have to cancel. There’s a whole lot of headache with refunding ticket sales and doing all that, so we said, “Let’s just go through November.”
What’s the first show?
The first show is easy for us to do; it’s Ira Glass. It’s one guy on the stage, nice and easy. He’s doing Seven Things I’ve Learned—from This American Life. Ira’s our first show, and then our biggest show is probably Post-Modern Jukebox, Scott Bradlee’s group—that’s a dozen musicians, horn section. And we’re doing a Cirque show, so that’s another dozen-plus performers.
And it’ll be vaccinated-only allowed to attend?
Vaccinated only. It’s self attestation, [plus] proof at the door. When you buy the ticket, you basically check a box that says, “I understand that I’m buying this ticket and a vaccination is required.” You can either show your card or show your California vaccination I.D.
Do you have a sense of whether people are ready to come to shows again?
They’re ready to come back. Our latest survey was of our community volunteers. We have about 100-plus folks who volunteer, ushers mostly. They’re a great cross-section—they love us, they love coming to events, they buy tickets, they volunteer. They also are an older group, and in our first set of surveys that we did, it was clear that our older population was our most concerned.
So, we surveyed this 100-plus group of people [recently] and it came back: “We are ready to come back.”
How do you feel about welcoming people back to Laxson Auditorium at this point in the pandemic?
I really do think people are ready. I feel like our audience—[with] the rules that we’re putting on everybody to keep everyone safe—I think they’re going to go with it. Somebody, somewhere will politicize it. It’s terrible that a health crisis has become politicized, and people are making bad choices because of it, which makes me sad. I think that maybe we’re a carrot in a world where people feel like there’s a lot of sticks out there. Here’s a carrot: get vaccinated and come enjoy an evening with David Sedaris.
How has the pandemic changed how you do business?
I know a lot of folks in the performing arts centers, we are so ingrained in our process. I’ve joked that I can measure my life in season brochures. There’s no season brochure this year. So, yeah, I think we’ve all changed. Our change has been this little three-month-season rollout, and maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe that allows us to be more flexible.
What needs to happen for the arts to come back and thrive again?
Arts and artists are resilient. They’re going to find a way. But what is the community’s support for them going to be?
This is the big performance space in the community, but it’s also located at the university, which also has dictates—curricular and cultural—on its time and space and use.
So, should there be a civic auditorium in this community? What are the other community commitments we can make? Right now it’s 1 percent of the Transient Occupancy Tax. In other counties around the state it’s 2, it’s 5. Do we put it on a bond issue to say, “yes, we’re going to create an arts district,” or build a facility that we can call Chico’s not just Chico State’s? Where’s the support, not just from the city, but also from us as taxpayers, or people who give to foundations and things that support that?
Return of the performances:
Tickets go on sale Aug. 17 for Chico Performances members and Aug. 24 for general public. Proof of COVID-19 vaccination required to attend.
All shows at Laxson Auditorium, except where noted:
Sept. 25: Ira Glass – Seven Things I’ve Learned
Oct. 2: LatinX Music and Culture festival (on Kendall Lawn)
Oct. 9: Tape Face
Oct. 22: Cirque Mechanics – Birdhouse Factory
Oct. 24: Jupiter String Quartet (in Zingg Recital Hall)
Nov. 2: David Sedaris
Nov. 9: Ballet Hispanico
Nov. 13: Postmodern Jukebox
Related this week: “Back to the hustle“