The most iconic performance venue in the country is back in business, or soon will be, God and fourth, fifth or sixth waves willing. The Hollywood Bowl and its sister amphitheater, The Ford, are both set to reopen for nearly full summer seasons in July, their overseeing organization, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Organization, is announcing this morning.
Programming and other details won’t be announced until May 11 for the Bowl and May 25 for the Ford, as the LA Phil is suddenly having to pivot from more limited plans that were coming together before California governor Gavin Newsom announced Tuesday that the state’s economy should fully reopen in mid-June.
Chad Smith, the LA Phil’s CEO and David C. Bohnett chief executive officer chair, says that bookings and staffing plans are very much a quickly changing work-in-progress, but optimism for a possible return to full capacity has become possible this week, even if they’re prepared for the sands to shift again before the concert schedule is set to be revealed May 11.
“I feel that by May, we’ll have more information and we’ll be closer to certainty,” Smith told Variety Thursday. The CEO acknowledged that, despite the state’s newfound bullishness on a June return-to-normal, “our community and our country continues to be in a precarious situation. We know that the virus is spiking in other parts of the country, and that’s something that we continue to watch. No matter what we do, our first consideration is going to be the health and safety of our audiences, our employees and the artists who populate our stage. But to the extent that the announcement from the state health department and Newsom was an indication that they feel confident that by the middle of June, our community will be in a very different place in this pandemic, then yes, I think that there’s a confidence that we’re going to be able to put on a really robust Hollywood Bowl season, which is something that we’ve all been waiting for.”
Plans have turned on a dime for the Bowl and the Ford just in the past few days. The LA Phil had planned to announce on Wednesday a much more limited run of shows this summer that would have begun with audiences at least initially capped at 25% capacity, which might have made for a very odd-feeling season if there’d been only 4,000 or so people inside a Hollywood Bowl that seats 17,000. Then on Tuesday, the eve of the planned announcement, the governor made his declaration about the California economy looking toward a full reopening in mid-June, and the LA Phil in turn pushed its announcement plans back by two days with the idea of being able to promise a much more robust season after all.
It’s been a frustrating 14 months for the LA Phil, like all other performing arts organizations in the country, with little certainty or guidance up till now about what could be planned for.
“At certain times it felt like reading tea leaves, except the glass was empty, so really there were no tea leaves to read,” Smith said. “What we’ve been trying to do was plan for a future where we didn’t know what we would be able to do, when we would be able to do it, what we’d be able to afford. All of these variables that are essentially the foundation of any decision-making process were in flux. Performing arts concert venues were not even mentioned in the tiers until last month,” he pointed out. “So I do think that today we’re in a different place” than even at the beginning of the week. “Every day there’s a little bit more certainty, and we continue to build in the flexibility in the next couple of weeks to know more, understand more and be able to plan more confidently.”
Amid the flurry of change and tunnel endings appearing closer, Smith says, “Details are in short supply right now. I’m not going lie. But what we do know is that we’re going to have a Hollywood Bowl season, and we’re going to do between 45 and 60 performances at the Hollywood Bowl.”
Before the season officially gets underway, presumably with a traditional 4th of July fireworks engagement, there will be four free shows, as a sort of warmup for the season and reward for frontline responders, at 25% capacity.
“We’re going to kick things off in May with four free concerts as a way to say thank you to the extraordinary sacrifices of our frontline workers and first responders and healthcare workers who have been making such remarkable sacrifices on all of our behalf this past year,” Smith says. “They are going to be for reduced audiences. We’re still under the current county guidelines that we think allow us to get to about 4,000 audience members in the venues. So for those four concerts, we’ll have 4,000 invited audience members. The first two are with Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil, May 15 and 22. On June 12 will be Thundercat and Flying Lotus, and then on the 26th, we’re delighted to welcome to the Bowl stage La Santa Cecelia. And our partners at Kaiser Permanente have been helping us and advising us on safety protocols as we reopen, and they’re sponsoring three of those four concerts. So it’s very exciting.”
Wouldn’t the Bowl have been operating at a loss if the governor hadn’t made his announcement and the Bowl had proceeded with plans to have much of its summer season also capped at 25%?
“Significantly, yeah,” Smith says. “And we’d made that decision. The Hollywood Bowl, when we’re operating at full capacity, I has close to a thousand employees, part-time and seasonal as well as the full-time employees who make that venue and the Ford operational. So when we were contemplating doing it at 25%, you’re right, it was (planned at) a significant loss. But we felt, that it was really important for us to give concerts for whatever audience we could, because we recognize that our audiences do need to come together. They need to hear live music, and it’s been so missing from Los Angeles County for so long, these past 14 months, that we were going to make the investment to do it.”
How will bookings change now that they may be looking at 10% capacity?
“I wish I had a better answer for you right now, but we’ve only had about 36 hours to kind of begin those conversations again. What I do know is that there are a couple of ways that our bookings will be impacted. When it was at 25% with the current protocols that are in place, we were contemplating having events with one band (and no openers), or having a shorter concert with the Philharmonic, with a much smaller orchestra. The current protocols don’t allow us to get bigger than probably 45 musicians on stage. If the Cal OSHA guidelines are relaxed, then we want to go back and do big orchestral programs, and we want to look at doing shows with multiple bands and multiple acts. So those are the kinds of considerations that we need to now put into the mix. And that’s what we’re going to be doing between now and May 11, when we will announce the full programming at the Hollywood Bowl, and between now and May 25, when we announce the full programming at the Ford. Those are exactly the conversations that we’re having.”
Will there be subscription series this summer? It’s gone from a definite no to a definite possibility.
“I don’t have an answer for you,” Smith says. “What we were planning to announce on Wednesday was that we weren’t going to have subscriptions, because at 25%, it didn’t work, and because there wasn’t a regularized cadence of events. But that’s something that we’re looking at right now. Again, all sorts of things have changed since Tuesday, but that’s something that we will announce on May 11 for the Bowl and on the 25th for the Ford.”