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Will Chicago Theaters Go Dark for Coronavirus?

In most houses, the show will go on — but that could change quickly.

Photo: Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune

Last night, as I sat down amid a full house at Lookingglass Theatre for a performance of Her Honor Jane Byrne, no one seemed too concerned about the novel coronavirus outbreak. For once, I didn’t see any of my fellow patrons leave the men’s room without washing their hands, but apart from that, no signs of extra precautions.

But when I turned my phone back on at intermission, the cascade of headlines showed just how fast the situation was shifting. In the span of the play’s first act, President Trump had announced a ban on travel from Europe to the U.S., the NBA had suspended its entire season after a player tested positive for the virus, and Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson had announced they too were infected.

I’d already spent Wednesday afternoon asking Chicago cultural institutions what kinds of contingency plans were coming together within their walls, as localities elsewhere took steps to limit large public gatherings. Earlier Wednesday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot had canceled this weekend’s Downtown St. Patrick’s Day Parade and South Side Irish Parade. Also Wednesday, San Francisco Mayor London Breed nixed public events of more than 1,000 people, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee capped events at 250 in the hard-hit Seattle area. Late Wednesday night, California Gov. Gavin Newsom followed suit.

So how are Chicago’s arts organizations facing the outbreak? On Tuesday, Hyde Park’s Court Theatre was the first to announce a change, capping audiences at 100 through April 15 as part of a broader move by University of Chicago, on whose campus it sits. That covers the entire current run of Court’s The Lady From the Sea, which begins previews tonight and closes April 12.

Court’s auditorium has a capacity of about 250; the Tribune’s Chris Jones clarified on Facebook that the 100-person cap for performances would include the play’s cast, crew, and front-of-house staff. Court said in a statement that “we are relaxing our exchange and return policies and will work with patrons to find a suitable alternative including exchanges, ticket credits, and refunds on a case by case basis.”

Other institutions are taking a wait-and-see approach. Most have issued statements saying they’re monitoring the situation with the CDC and Chicago Department of Public Health, supercharging their cleaning regimens, and encouraging patrons who feel sick to stay home. Some theaters are offering similarly relaxed refund policies, but most suggested that for now the shows would go on.

The League of Chicago Theatres, which represents around 250 venues and producers in the area, issued a statement that quoted executive director Deb Clapp as saying, “The League of Chicago Theatres would like to reassure our patrons that all of Chicago’s theatres remain open for business,” while pointing patrons to its members’ websites and box offices for further inquiries.

Most theaters have echoed the same sentiment, with the occasional color thrown in (the Second City notes that, “Yes, and additional hand sanitizer has been placed around the building”).

At Steppenwolf, where Bug is in its final week of performances and I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is playing to crowds of CPS students during the week, ushers are now wearing gloves while interacting with the audience, and the theater is “recycling but not reusing programs.” A Steppenwolf spokesperson added that the theater has waived exchange fees for individual buyers who are feeling ill. The Goodman also noted no-fee ticket exchanges, but said that “at present, our productions and events are proceeding as scheduled.”

Broadway in Chicago, which operates many of downtown’s largest theaters and draws many out-of-state visitors, currently has just one ongoing show, What the Constitution Means to Me, at the 500-seat Broadway Playhouse; there are also two performances of The Bachelor Live on Stage scheduled for this Saturday at the 2,300-seat Cadillac Palace Theatre. BIC said through a spokesperson Thursday that it’s following the lead of the League of Chicago Theatres and “continuing with all operations as of today.”

On the museum front, a spokesperson for the Art Institute pointed me to a posted statement touting increased housekeeping services and stating that museum staff is holding daily meetings to reassess. At this time, though, there was nothing more to add.

The Museum of Contemporary Art posted on its website that this Saturday’s craft- and contact-heavy Family Day program is canceled, but that families will still receive free admission to the museum. The MCA is maintaining regular hours, though a spokesperson said Thursday that “there are still ongoing meetings here.”

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra said that as of Thursday, there are no changes to the concert schedule at Symphony Center, which this weekend include programs of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Boléro and two showings of Casablanca with a live score. “We have added flexibility for ticket exchanges for those patrons who may be personally affected by illness and need to switch to a future concert date,” a spokesperson said.

Amid all the talk of easing policies around refunds and exchanges, one institution has drawn a somewhat bolder line in the sand: The Lyric Opera doesn’t have anything onstage for the remainder of March, with Madama Butterfly having played its last performance on Sunday. But it’s gearing up for its massive, years-in-the-making staging of all four operas in Wagner’s Ring cycle, set to begin April 13.

In a statement provided by a spokesperson, following all the boilerplate about added cleaning and extra hand sanitizer, Lyric notes: “At this time, our ticketing policies remain the same. The Ring cycle is a limited-availability special event. You may elect to donate any unused tickets for a tax-deductible credit. Our audience services department can help you with that process.”

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