(UPDATE: The musical Hamilton at UNM's Popejoy Hall has joined the list of cancelled shows in Albuquerque. It is now rescheduled for May 9 through 18 of 2023.)
It was starting to look good for our local arts scene. Late last summer, with vaccinations on the rise and COVID numbers dropping, some of Albuquerque's beloved performing arts venues began to reopen to live shows and in-person audiences. Then came last fall's Delta variant. That was enough to give some places pause and to redouble enforcement of mask and vaccination rules. But with winter came the Omicron variant, which is sweeping through our population like wildfire now. For some public venues, staying open is too big a risk to take. Sometimes, it appears, the show must not go on.
In the last couple of weeks, countless events across New Mexico have been cancelled or rescheduled. The big Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn improv comedy show at National Hispanic Cultural Center scheduled for January 15 has been put on hold. It was intended to be a charity fundraiser for Cardboard Playhouse Theatre Company and New Day Youth & Family Services. Tickets were sold out weeks ago. The New Mexico Gay Men's Chorus was going to host a sing-along screening of Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge at the KiMo Theater on Jan. 22. That fundraiser has also been sidelined for the time being. Albuquerque's Dirty Deeds Burlesque troupe was scheduled for a gala "farewell" show at Launchpad on Jan. 29, but was forced to post on Facebook that, "It is with everyone's safety and health in mind that the Dirty Deeds Production Team has chosen to postpone the farewell show. This particular show is to be a very special show for the legacy of Dirty Deeds, and it just wouldn't be right to not have you all with us to share in the moment." The team is working on rescheduling.
Even live music is being impacted. AMP Concerts issued a press release last week stating that, "With all the turmoil going on these days, it’s no surprise that we’ve had to postpone a handful of shows." Among those postponements: a Lucinda Williams concert at The Lensic Performing Arts Center and an Eliza Gilkyson CD Release Party at St. Francis Auditorium, both in Santa Fe.
So why are so many shows closing down? Put the blame on caution and concern over Omicron.
The newly formed Actors Studio 66 was all set to debut its inaugural production, Aaron Posner's comedic "update" of Anton Checkov's Uncle Vanya. Appropriately titled Life Sucks, the play was to open at Nob Hill's Black Cat Cultural Center on Jan. 28. It's now been postponed until at least April. "It was an incredibly hard decision to make, but the only one ethically that we could come up with," said Frederick Ponzlov, co-artistic director of Actors Studio 66. "Anything that increases the burden of health care workers needs to be dealt with seriously. Now that UNM Medical Center is one of only five hospitals in the United States that President Biden is sending military hospital workers, we cannot turn a blind eye to the surging pandemic that is currently threatening our hospital staffs. It would be unconscionable to proceed if we put any one single person in jeopardy of becoming infected."
Doug Montoya, creator and co-artistic director of Albuquerque's long-running children's theater Cardboard Playhouse, concurs with the assessment. It was definitely the rise in Omicron that caused them to hold off on the Odenkirk/Seehorn fundraiser at NHCC. "It became clear that this new variant was just too contagious, and [we] had to make the hard decision to postpone the event. We are excited that we were able to find a new date with enough time for things to settle down. Fingers crossed," he said.
Cardboard Playhouse and its venue, The Box in Downtown Albuquerque, has been at the forefront of this ongoing battle to balance fighting COVID and entertaining audiences. Over the last two years, Montoya notes that The Box has "shifted our improv shows and classes to online. We also created a few streaming shows: a kids variety show and an online quiz show. It helped keep our community engaged." But the streaming shows don't sell tickets and pay rent the way that live, ticketed shows do. The Box and its various performance troupes—including Cardboard Playhouse, The Show and The One Night Stanleys—were all eager to get back to in-person performances. But that has been curtailed for the time being. "We were lucky to have a really great air re-circulator. We required audiences to wear masks and be completely vaccinated. We performed to reduced our audience," says Montoya of his theater's precautions. "But now with Omicron we have had to shut back down."
"We have been rolling with the COVID punches since the beginning of the pandemic, doing whatever it took to keep doing shows in whatever capacity was possible," says Neal Copperman of AMP Concerts' many efforts. "You should see some of the ideas that got abandoned! I’m glad we didn’t buy all those huge hula hoops to create socially distanced seating in a field! We have done just about everything else though. Streaming, socially-distanced neighborhood block parties and drive-in concerts. We have been requiring proof of vaccination and masking indoors since late August."
The Albuquerque Little Theatre's Agatha Christie mystery A Murder Is Announced and The Adobe Theater's rural comedy Honky Tonk Hissy Fit just joined the list of theater openings that are now postponed. Opera Southwest and UNM's Popejoy Hall, however, are among the increasingly rare local venues holding fast to their schedules (for now). Popejoy, for example, is in the thick of its season, presenting a run of national acts and touring companies. The smash Broadway musical Hamiliton runs Jan. 25 through Feb. 13, and tickets are still available.
Opera Southwest Executive Director Tony Zacanella confirms that "as of January 17," the group is proceeding with plans to open its newly commissioned opera Frida on Feb. 13 at the National Hispanic Cultural Center. Still, he admits, certain things are "out of your hands." But, he says, "We're not being skittish. We're just proceeding and trying to produce theater—which, if you're masked and vaxxed, remains a relatively safe activity." Ticket holders are advised to check with venues before going to a scheduled performance. Things could still change on a moment's notice.
As for the future, when can Albuquerque once again look forward to unfettered access to the arts? It's anybody's guess. "We have no idea how long this will last," says Montoya, summing up this unwelcome encore performance from COVID.
"For us, the main driver is the artists," says Copperman. "We feel like we have pretty good protocols in place and feel good going ahead with shows. But many artists are postponing their tours. We are going ahead with shows from artists who are still willing to come and play."
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