Live Shows Are Back in Santa Barbara
Venues Small and Large Cautiously Welcome the Return of Performers and Audiences
By Charles Donelan | August 19, 2021
Describing the pandemic experience for venue operators as a “hellacious rollercoaster,” Teri Ball, executive director at Santa Barbara’s beloved Center Stage Theater, spoke for many when she said that the latest news about the Delta variant surge tested her resiliency. “I feel like with COVID, I’ve learned the opposite of the power of positive thinking,” Ball told me in a recent phone call. “Just when you think it’s going to get better, something comes along that sets us all back.” Despite the rise in cases and the return of the indoor masking mandate, great progress has been made, largely thanks to vaccines and the people who get them. As a result, we can finally look forward to the return of live performances to stages large and small, indoors and out, as Santa Barbara anticipates its first active in-person performing arts season since March 2020. The information that follows is presented in the spirit of allowing everyone to make well-informed choices that will leave them feeling safe.
Over at the Santa Barbara Bowl, where the first show in more than a year will be comedian Chelsea Handler (read our interview here) on Saturday, August 21, the motto now is “know before you go.” The Bowl’s website will be updated continuously with the latest information about the status of individual events and the protocols suggested for those who wish to attend them. It’s all part of an effort to reduce anxiety around returning to the Bowl, a place that Santa Barbara has always revered as safe and welcoming. A joint statement issued by the Bowl’s Executive Director Rick Boller and Goldenvoice Senior Vice President Moss Jacobs emphasizes the key role that good communication will continue to play as we all navigate a rapidly evolving situation:
Our goal is to begin hosting events as safely as possible. At the moment, we will be following state and local guidelines for outdoor events. We strongly encourage all attendees to wear a mask. For the non- or partially vaccinated, masks are required. They are also required in various enclosed or partially enclosed locations within the venue, including the public restrooms. We will have plenty of signs throughout the Bowl. In regards to vaccinations, we will follow industry standards and guidelines as they develop. We encourage anyone attending or thinking about buying tickets to visit our website, which has the most detailed and up to date information.
The fall lineup at the Bowl exceeds all expectations, especially for a venue of this size. Jackson Browne (Sun., Sept. 5), John Legend (Thu., Sept. 16), HAIM (Fri., Sept. 17), Trevor Noah (Sat., Sept. 18), Gary Clark Jr. (Sun., Sept. 19), and My Morning Jacket (Thu., Sept. 23) are headed for town, and that’s just the first of three months of programming this fall. All these acts will appear at bigger venues for most of their upcoming tours, so Santa Barbara is more than just a convenient place to see them. Thanks to the excellent work done during the hiatus, the Bowl is cleaner and more efficient than ever. The management understands that audiences here have options, and as a result, they are focused on providing a superior concert experience. From the Bowl’s point of view, everyone from the ushers to the people who buy the tickets to the artists onstage and the crews behind the scenes should leave feeling they have had a better night than they could have had anywhere else, and, to their credit, that’s exactly the reputation the venue has earned.
Expect These Changes
The first thing to recognize is that you can do this. While there is still a risk inherent in participating in any large gathering during what remains of a pandemic, for those who are fully vaccinated, the dangers are minimal. Certain things will be different, and by keeping those changes in mind, you can improve your chances of having a relatively carefree and satisfying return to concert-going.
Bring a mask. Regardless of whether or not you are attending an indoor or an outdoor event, you will want to have a mask handy for certain situations, such as using the restroom or visiting the concession stand.
Stay in touch. Conditions have a way of shifting rapidly at this time, and the only way to be sure you know what’s going on is to stay in touch with the venue. At the Santa Barbara Bowl, they recommend consulting their website on the day of the show just in case there’s been a change or simply to remind yourself of what to expect.
E-tickets are the new norm. Paper tickets will more and more be a thing of the past. Digital tickets with scannable QR codes that live on your phone, not in your wallet, have taken over. That’s in part because they reduce physical contact, but it’s also a bit deeper than that. The concert industry has long been plagued by scalping, and the problem has only gotten worse since the move to online ticket sales. Predatory organizations using bots to scoop up scores of seats have profited from hot secondary sales markets without adding any value to the transactions. In an industry-wide drive to contain these digital troll farms, the big ticketing companies such as Ticketmaster and AXS have acquired secondary market brokers like StubHub. The result is that the days of a whispered approach in the parking lot — “Need tickets?” — and the furtive exchange of cash for seats are long gone. Instead, the secondary market is now routed back through the same interface as the original sale. For popular and sold-out shows, latecomers have the option of browsing certified resales at the same time they see whatever inventory is left.
This means that the venues and promoters not only participate in the transaction, but also that they have access to a clear trail of information regarding who will be sitting in each individual seat. Before you get too excited about this invasion of your concert-going privacy, think how you would feel if airline boarding passes were anonymous and transferable. One additional heads-up for those who have never browsed StubHub or any of the other earlier iterations of the online secondary market: You are likely to experience sticker shock, especially if you’re looking for seats at shows that started out expensive.
If the show is indoors, expect to have to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test that’s current. I spoke with the operators of multiple indoor venues, and their response was clear — for the vast majority of audience members, proof of vaccination will be just as important as a valid ticket. At Center Stage, where they have been hosting events since April 13, this policy is already in place, and they are happy with the results. Teri Ball reports that in the months that she’s been operating, there has only been one objector to the policy, and, more importantly, no cases of COVID. At SOhO, where the action begins again on September 3 with local reggae favorites Soul Majestic, co-owner Gail Hansen says she wants the crowd to be “vaccination only,” explaining that “we’re in herds, and vaccination is the only way the herd can be safe.” Over at the Lobero Theatre, where a policy of proof of vaccination or a negative test within 72 hours of the event is already in place, the calendar is packed with exceptional talent, including two performances by Toad the Wet Sprocket on Labor Day weekend, Jakob Dylan and the Wallflowers on September 8, and two nights with Los Lobos on October 7 and 8. Expect to hear announcements of similar policies as the New Vic and other indoor venues come online.
How They Made It Through
For virtually all of these venues, the last 20 months have been an unending trial of spirit and resources. Many faced uncertain financial futures from the beginning, and some did not make it. Jason Jones, an owner at State Street’s popular Red Piano, where many revelers chose to celebrate Fiesta, says, “Business may look good on the outside, but it is a daily struggle. Colin [Campbell] and I as owners are completely fried.”
Like multiple other organizations including the Bowl, UCSB Arts & Lectures, SOhO, and Center Stage Theater, the Red Piano received federal funds from the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant Program, or SVOG. The program, which was announced by Representative Salud Carbajal on April 8, allows organizations that have been negatively affected by the pandemic shutdown of live performances to recoup some of the revenue they have lost through applying for a grant. According to Ball (and others), the SVOG has been “a lifesaver, but an organizational disaster,” and although many checks have been cashed at this point, other clearly deserving major organizations remain caught in bureaucratic limbo, awaiting a final determination of the status of their applications.
Ultimately, the impact of this unplanned and unprecedented break with decades of continuous operation will take time to comprehend. Venues may have trouble finding and training employees, and audiences are sure to encounter unexpected glitches as a rusty system gets back into gear. Patience will be a key factor in maintaining the kind of atmosphere that we all crave on a night out. Yet there are some bright spots that show no sign of dimming. Ticket sales have been robust across the board, and the quality of the acts that Santa Barbara venues have booked rival those of a city three times our size. The performing arts hiatus has also offered operators a rare opportunity to reflect on their intentions. At Center Stage, where many performers and directors get their start, the emphasis coming back will be on promoting greater diversity in programming. “The hard times are when you learn,” says Teri Ball, “we will be stronger and better for them.”