Photo courtesy of Kim Weston/Chandler Center for the Arts

By Kevin Reagan | July 12, 2021

After more than a year of barring patrons from visiting its theater, the Chandler Center for the Arts is preparing to welcome back audiences for live, in-person performances.

Since March 2020, the pandemic has prohibited theatergoers from buying tickets to the center’s 1,500-seat auditorium.

For the last year, audiences could only watch the center’s concerts online. Much of that virtual content has also been free — a perk that’s benefited the community but has done little to raise the center’s revenues.

Starting July 23, the center will begin opening for large in-person events.

“This is really our grand opening in many ways,” says Michelle Mac Lennan, the center’s general manager.

An upcoming free summer concert series will allow up to 480 attendees to sit and watch the performance from inside the auditorium. The event will also be streamed live online.

Mac Lennan says her staff intentionally reduced seating limits for the summer concerts to maintain distance between attendees and to gradually ease the public back into full-capacity crowds.

“It’s hard to go from zero to 1,500,” she says. “So, this is part of a strategy.”

A Boz Scaggs concert on September 24 will be the center’s first ticketed event at full capacity. Most of the center’s following events for the rest of this year are expected to allow full audiences.

The 2021-22 season includes an evening with Amy Grant, a puppet parody of “The Golden Girls,” a Bruce Springsteen musical tribute and a theatrical comedy about the life of Winston Churchill.

Although the return to in-person events is a positive sign that the center is reverting to its pre-pandemic routines, there’s still uncertainty surrounding how the institution’s finances will hold up.

In a normal year, the center would sell subscription packages to customers and generate enough revenue to carry the theater through the season.

But the touring industry has been reluctant to fully commit to booking acts, and some theaters haven’t been able to offer a complete season of events to their subscribers.

It’s going to be tough season for the center, Mac Lennan says, because it must depend on single-ticket sales for its fall shows.

The center is seeking grants to help cushion any shortfall, she adds, but competition will be high for any relief funds distributed by the federal government.

Earlier this year, new legislation passed by Congress allotted $16 billion to a grant program for theaters and musical venues impacted by the pandemic.

To qualify for the program’s first tier of grant allocations, a theater needs to have lost at least 90% of its gross revenue during the pandemic. Theaters with smaller revenue losses must wait two weeks or longer before applying for grant funding.

Even though Chandler’s theater lost most of its revenue last year, Mac Lennan says it’s still not enough to satisfy the government’s initial eligibility requirements.

“We lost 85% of our revenues last year,” she says. “It’s just devastating.”

The center had been in a comfortable financial position before the pandemic, which, Mac Lennan says she believes, will help the organization endure the unstable months ahead.

Regulars have remained loyal to the center by making generous donations and quickly purchasing tickets to upcoming events.

“The sales look encouraging,” Mac Lennan says. “I think people are really excited about coming back.”

Located in the heart of Downtown Chandler, the center has long been considered one of the city’s crown jewels.

The theater was built about 30 years ago through a partnership between the city and the Chandler Unified School District. The facility was built large enough to be utilized both by students and adults.

Programming is managed by a separate nonprofit entity led by Mac Lennan, but the city is still responsible for keeping up with the facility’s maintenance and capital expenses.

Mac Lennan says this unique partnership has proven to be beneficial to the center during the pandemic, because her nonprofit didn’t need to worry about operational costs.

The center has earned a reputation for operating in the black and keeping its doors open. During the darkest days of the Great Recession, the center still found a way to weather through the economic downturn and continue offering programming.

Mac Lennan says her staff learned of the center’s vulnerabilities during the pandemic and will begin to rethink its business model so it doesn’t rely solely on in-person programming.

This year could be the beginning of a “hybrid” era for the performing arts, she says, that might include continued dependence on virtual platforms to deliver events to homebound patrons.

There will always be a demand for live entertainment, Mac Lennan adds, but the method in how theaters deliver entertainment may begin to look different.

“I don’t think anyone knows the long-term impact,” she says. “No one’s ever done this before.”

Let the show begin

The celebratory concert series will begin July 23 and features bands of Motown, classic rock, jazz, blues and modern-day pop on the main stage at the Chandler Center for the Arts, 250. N. Arizona Avenue, Chandler.

Bands include Notes from Neptune (July 23), Kim Weston Jazz Quartet (August 6), Sandra Basset Motown Review (August 13), Big Pete Pearson (August 20) and Marmalade Skies (August 27).

The Summer Concerts will have limited capacity, so the public is encouraged to RSVP at chandlercenter.org. All seats are free with general seating on a first-come, first-served basis. Doors open one hour prior to showtime.

Those who wish to watch the livestream can RSVP at the same website.

Summer concerts will feature exclusive flash ticket sales for upcoming performances, and attendees can explore The Gallery at CCA to view “Take a Hike,” an exhibition inspired by Arizona’s parks, trails and public lands. Exhibition runs through August 14.

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