Chandler Arts Center prepares for comeback - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Chandler Arts Center prepares for comeback

June 21st, 2021 development
Chandler Arts Center prepares for comeback

By Kevin Reagan
Staff Writer

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 and enjoying its season of touring musical acts.

For the last year, audiences could only watch the center’s concerts online by streaming performances virtually. 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 big in-person events.   

“This is really our grand opening in many ways,” said 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 said her staff intentionally reduced seating limits for the summer concerts in an effort to maintain some 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 said. “So, this is part of a strategy.”

A Boz Scaggs concert on Sept. 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 2021-2022 season currently 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 back to its pre-pandemic routines, there’s still some uncertainty surrounding how the institution’s finances will hold up in the future.

In a normal year, the center would be selling subscription packages to customers and generating a enough revenue to carry the theater through the whole season.

But the touring industry has been reluctant to fully commit to booking acts. 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 said, since it will have to mostly depend on single-ticket sales for its current lineup of fall shows.

The center will be seeking out some grants to help cushion any shortfall, she added, 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 that would specifically aid 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 percent 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 the majority of its revenue last year, Mac Lennan said it’s still not enough to satisfy the government’s initial eligibility requirements.

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

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

Regular patrons have remained loyal to the center throughout the pandemic by making generous donations and quickly purchasing tickets to upcoming events once they became available.

“The sales look encouraging,” Mac Lennan said. “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 by both 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 said this unique partnership has proved to be beneficial to the center during the pandemic, since her nonprofit didn’t need to worry about a substantial amount of operational costs.

The center has earned a reputation as an institution that has almost always operated in the black and kept its doors open for the community.

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 said her staff has learned during the pandemic what the center’s vulnerabilities are and will begin to rethink how they can be more adaptive to a business model that doesn’t rely solely on in-person programming.

This year could be the beginning of a “hybrid” era for the performing arts, she said, 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 added, but the method in how theaters deliver entertainment may begin to look different in the future.

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