SARATOGA SPRINGS — The amphitheater is quiet with a passive unease. Neither bluster nor discord rise from these seats, and a disturbing tranquility hovers atop the stage. These first days of summer in the summer of COVID, the grounds are vacant of any human. The earth takes deep breaths and exhales a hissing of summer lawns.
“On March 16, our whole staff of 25 began working from home and have not been back to the office,” says Elizabeth Sobol, president and CEO of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. “Our magnificent amphitheater – normally a frenetic hive of activity – is now shuttered. Who or what you might ask is SPAC in a summer that seems to have gone silent? And who are we in a world of hurt that longs for healing?”
Deep behind the scenes, however, plans are underway that point to renewal. This place of creativity is getting creative. “Untethered,” Sobol calls it.
“Un-tethered. We are no longer tethered to this beast that is SPAC in the summer. It’s forcing us to be open and creative and kind of invent stuff on the spot and figure out what we can do,” Sobol says.
“We’ve been thinking about ways we can help the community of musicians, the community of wellness practitioners. That’s where we really started focusing our energy: How can we use the SPAC grounds and the new spaces to allow the community to do the things here that they really need to do and where there’s not any other place to do it?”
SPAC has been working on staging in-person gathering on its grounds this summer, which is slated to potentially include wellness activities in partnership with COESA, art classes, small-scale musical events, cinematic performance screenings and other types of gatherings, all in adherence with guidelines from the state, and all on the sprawling SPAC lawns.
“We’re putting together detailed procedures and protocols which include socially distanced parking, contact-less registration and ticketing.” Spots to be inhabited by humans will be separated and marked off in chalk, attendance will be limited, and one single-use sanitized bathroom will be open.
The organization is also set to unveil The Pines at SPAC - a new construction project which should be completed by the second week of July. The 4,000 square foot indoor/outdoor, year-round education and community events space features a pavilion and a terrace where some small gathering events may take place.
“The challenge for us: When the acronym ‘SPAC’ is uttered people imagine thousands and thousands of people and the ‘COVID Shudder’ goes through them; what we’re trying to do is: don’t think of us as SPAC – the home of Live Nation and presenter of the New York City Ballet and Philadelphia Orchestra in the amphitheater. Think of us as a home in the park and all the acreage of open space that we have where people can gather safely. And we have this incredible team who has created this fantastic protocol,” says Sobol, who arrived at SPAC in the fall of 2016.
There are of course financial ramifications. SPAC is a 501(c)3 charitable organization with an annual operating budget of about $10 million. While capital funds for infrastructure projects have come via Parks and the State, there is no similarly sourced financial support for operating the organization.
To normally meet that $10 million operating budget, about $5 million in revenue is generated from ticket sales, rent paid by promoter Live Nation which stages the summer pop concerts, and some other miscellaneous sources. The other $5 million must largely be raised through SPAC memberships, charitable donations and corporate underwriting.
“The only thing that will sustain us and allow us to operate in 2021 is if we have people support now, because you can’t shut SPAC down until the end of the year and think you’re going to have a summer next year. The work we do, the programming itself takes a year to do a season at SPAC. We just don’t know what next year is going to look like. Are we still going to be in social distancing mode - in which case we’ll only be able to (for example) sell 1,200 seats in our 5,200-seat amphitheater? Will the ballet be able to perform? Will they be able to put an orchestra in the pit? There are just so many questions,” Sobol says.
“And there is our education program – we went from 5,000 to more than 50,000 kids a year throughout the Capital Region. That’s a huge impact we’ve had on the community and the children and creating that next generation of kids who care about the arts. That’s critical work we’re doing 24/7, 365 days-a-year. If we don’t have the support that all goes away and the programming for next year goes away.” That program worked with more than 120 local schools and non-profit organizations to present more than 400 unique classes, events, performances, and presentations in 2019 alone.
The Capital Region is scheduled for Phase 4 of its reopening plan on July 1. SPAC is anticipated to announce its summer events shortly thereafter.
“To those who may ask why art is important during times like these, when even basic survival may be in question, remember this: art is not entertainment. Art is not a beautiful pastime. Art is a profound and essential expression of the human soul.”
This weekend, in lieu of the staging of the Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival, a virtual jazz festival will take place on June 26, 27 and 28, featuring both national and local artists, produced in partnership with Caffe Lena. SPAC has also created a virtual Learning Library featuring artists on its website. For more information, go to: SPAC.org.