SARATOGA SPRINGS — “Nothing bears any resemblance to past seasons,” says Elizabeth Sobol, president and CEO of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
The SPAC campus first opened on a July night in 1966 when it welcomed to the stage the New York City Ballet. A few hours downstate, Mickey Mantle hit a home run in each game of a doubleheader against the Washington Senators at Yankee Stadium, and all across America, The Beatles’ “Paperback Writer” dueled with Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers In The Night” for a spot at the top of the charts.
In ballparks, across broadcast networks and atop performance stages, last summer was like no other, preceded by a distress of unpredictability over what could happen. Looking ahead to the upcoming summer, that still unpredictable aura has seemingly transformed into what can possibly be.
“This time last year – March, April, May – when it was clear what was going to end up happening – we started asking ourselves the question: Who and What is SPAC when you can’t use the amphitheater?” Sobol says.
Currently, there have been “regular and very fruitful conversations with all our resident companies,” she explains, referring to the New York City Ballet, The Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. “There is a huge effort going across many different organizations, because we all know how important it is to have some presence by these companies up here. We’re committed to having all of them in Saratoga and they’re committed to being here in some way, shape or form.”
SPAC also plays host to the annual Saratoga Jazz Festival, Opera Saratoga, and a summerlong staging of pop concerts presented by Live Nation, as well as the annual Saratoga Wine and Food Festival and an additional slate of imaginative programming. Right now, what form they will take: “Nobody knows yet,” Sobol says. Still, preparations are underway. And there have been a multitude of things learned.
“We learned so much about so many things. It gave us time and quiet to contemplate things we normally don’t have time to contemplate. The last year has honed our skills living with the jaws of uncertainty wide open, 24/7, and it’s forced us to not take anything for granted.”
Showing its merits beyond an oft-misplaced public perception as being solely a site for an amphitheater, SPAC exhibited its mettle as a holistic organization with a series of community collaborations alongside cultural agencies and the business community, as well as continuing its outreach in the world of education – where in 2019 alone it served 50,000 students around the Capital Region and worked with more than 120 local schools and non-profit organizations to present more than 400 unique classes, events, performances, and presentations.
“We started asking ourselves: How can we provide experiences that bring people together around beauty, rather than pushing them apart. That kind of informed everything we did: let’s look at our campus like a blank canvas and all the opportunities and possibilities we have here. So along with that question of who and what is SPAC when the amphitheater stage is dark, is also the question of how we can best serve art, artists and the community.”
On campus meanwhile, the organization last summer unveiled The Pines at SPAC. The new 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. While it is a structure much of the public has not yet seen, The Pines has been used to host more than 200 events since late last summer, 50 people maximum capacity at a time, and the grounds have also featured things such as dance classes, wellness classes, a teaching space for healing arts practitioners, and the launching of Culinary Arts at SPAC events.
A “Soundwalk” project was also initiated, merging performance and programming that takes audiences more into nature. “An embracing of our place in the natural world in a much more direct and celebratory way is going to be a big piece for us moving forward,” Sobol says. “Anything we could do using our rigorous COVID protocols and procedures to create a safe space for people to gather outdoors and do the things they needed to do for their soul. So, we now have a blueprint for doing things on a very small scale, for being flexible and agile. It honed a lot of skills for us.”
SPAC’s summer ballet gala will be re-imagined in 2021. “It’s not going to be a massive event with hundreds of people at the Hall of Springs on the lawn, but now that we know we can replicate these events – let’s say it’s for 50 people - maybe we’ll do 5 or 10 of them. We now have that blueprint, and we can execute that pretty nimbly,” she says. A culinary concept that has to do with ballet history is also being put together for a limited capacity gathering in 2021, and possibilities of having “rolling audiences” – that is, a few hundred people being rotated into the grounds at any one time – are being considered as a way to stage the summer Jazz Fest.
“We’re looking at every possible option so that if things are still very restrictive, we can accommodate that, and if they are looser we can accommodate that too,” Sobol says.
“‘All of these things are things we’re all working on together – how to bring companies to Saratoga, finding ways to perform that are safe for the audience and the performers and the crew, and also models that are financially viable for us and for them.”
Promoter Live Nation will have its own decisions to make regarding the summer pop season. More than one dozen scheduled shows are slated to take place from mid-July through September, featuring artists such as Rod Stewart, Hall & Oates, Maroon 5, Backstreet Boys, and Alanis Morissette, among others. A phone call to Live Nation seeking comment for this story was not returned.
As far as capacity in the amphitheater, a 10% max limit recently imposed on large venues by Gov. Cuomo would keep the audience inside the pavilion to 500 people, although those percentage numbers could fluctuate depending on vaccine roll-out and COVID-19 infection rates. SPAC being an amphitheater – a somewhat open building with an attached outdoor lawn – the stipulations specific to the venue are not clear.
“We are working on a regular basis with the governor’s office to talk about what amphitheaters look like, what that’s going to be, but imagine if we’re still at 10%,” Sobol says. “Even if we do use the lawn, we’re still limited to 500 people in the amphitheater. If they don’t give us a percentage but say we have to limit according to the six-foot rule, then that would limit us to about 1,200 people. It has enormous financial implications. And none of us knows right now. Trying to plan for July and August when we don’t even know when vaccinations are going to be widely available is tough,” she added.
SPAC is a 501(c)3 charitable organization with an annual operating budget of about $10 million. To normally meet that budget, about $5 million in revenue is generated from ticket sales, rent paid by promoter Live Nation which stages the summer pop concerts, and other miscellaneous sources. The other $5 million must largely be raised through SPAC memberships, charitable donations and corporate underwriting.
When programs were first cancelled last May and June, SPAC projected a $1.3 million shortfall, “but the community really rose up and was so generous that we ended up able to end the year in the black, so there’s tremendous gratitude around the generosity of the community,” Sobol says. “But at the same time, 2021 is going to be a lot more perilous for us, because we didn’t have the (high) costs last year. We are committed to major resident companies, so support at SPAC for this year is going to be even more important than it was last year.
“Most of our planning is done years in advance and right now what we have is about 50 plates juggling in the air waiting for a moment – which will probably be sometime in early April - to say this is our best bet of what three months is going to look like, because we’ve got to basically have 90 days between the time we pull the trigger on something, and we have our first performances. That’s an absolute minimum,” Sobol says.
“It’s also about the perception. There are more and more studies out there that ask, ‘Do I dare go out into an environment where there are hundreds or thousands of people?’ That’s the big quotient we can’t predict: behavior.”
Ultimately, SPAC is planning to actively showcase all its resident companies in 2021. “We just don’t know what that’s going to look like,” Sobol says. “Is it in the amphitheater at vastly reduced capacities? Is it in some other performance space – because if we’re seriously limited then we may have to look at some other spaces. But, we are committed to having the musicians and the dancers here in some capacity.”