First to close, last to open: Live performing arts venues in Sumter look for creative avenues to entertain in pandemic


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As COVID-19 cases continue to surge, the lifting of restrictions in South Carolina has come to a halt.

One specific restriction that isn't planned to be lifted anytime soon is a concern to the cultural arts.

In late June, Gov. Henry McMaster said theaters and concert venues will remain closed, and this has taken a toll on Sumter's local performing arts community.

Eric Bultman, executive director of Sumter Little Theatre, said they have not had performances since the pandemic closed Sumter School District in mid-March.

"When the schools closed, Sumter Little Theatre closed," Bultman said. "The safety of our staff, students, actors, volunteers and audience is our priority."

Traditional rehearsals were near impossible, as cast members would have to practice social distancing on stage, and Bultman said they are thinking of ways to provide arts to the public while being closed.

"We are exploring projects that don't require us to be in the same space at the same time," Bultman said. "Some creative ideas have been proposed for solo projects, online theater school classes and theater on video. This is challenging us to be creative."

Though the theater has been closed, Bultman did reopen the stage on June 15-16 to make a short video responding to the recent events going on in the country, including the coronavirus and public movement against racial inequality, and in honor of Juneteenth.

Bultman said great theater is created during times of conflict, and he and the rest of the community theater crew is eager to get back to work when it's safe to do so.

"We are a strong organization," Bultman said. "Theater will survive the pandemic, and so will we. During this time when we aren't actively producing plays, we are making plans for the future."

With months of no performances or productions, COVID-19 has caused a downfall in performing arts venues' financial status across the country.

Bultman said he would not discuss Sumter Little Theatre's current financial status with ticket sale loss because of COVID-19, but Seth Reimer, cultural director for the Sumter Opera House, said they've seen a major drop in revenue.

"We are down about a quarter of our revenue, based on what we bring in every year," Reimer said. "It's not a significant amount compared to other places and other venues, but it's a quarter amount of our yearly revenue and donations."

He said by the end of the year, the opera house will see a loss of almost half its annual revenue.

Reimer said the Sumter Opera House hosts about 110 event days each year, but this year they only hosted about half that number before the pandemic shut down schools and venues, as most of those event days were for students of the Sumter School District.

When it comes to money loss, businesses will tend to increase prices to make up for the financial burden, but Reimer said the Sumter Opera House, which the City of Sumter owns, will not do so.

"Knowing the impact it has on our community, locally and just how many people are unemployed, that's not our goal there," Reimer said. "It's to continue to provide creative experiences for people. There's not a price tag you can put on that."

As Reimer and the rest of the staff continue to abide by the governor's order, he doesn't think they'll reopen anytime soon. They were among the first to close, and he thinks they'll be the last to open.

"It's still one of the few things that aren't allowed to open, even at a reduced capacity," Reimer said.

However, he saw this as an opportunity to think outside the box and come up with ways to still provide cultural arts to the Sumter community.

From showing archival footage of past concerts online, with permission from the artists, to different strategies to engage patrons and keep the Sumter Opera House a relevant form of local entertainment, Reimer has done his best to keep the opera house a major artery in Sumter.

"It's been challenging to find new avenues of engagement in ways that we can still do what the arts are meant to do and really be an indispensable arts cultural venue for our community," Reimer said.

Recently, the Sumter Opera House celebrated 125 years of providing arts to the community, but COVID-19 put an end to the celebration, causing cancellations and postponements of several shows.

Reimer said they have been rescheduling events they already sold tickets to and will continue to do so until concert venues and theaters can return. He hopes they'll be back in business by October or November.

"It feels like the party has been put on hold," Reimer said. "We'll continue to be here, enriching our community, but also, we do hope we get to continue showcasing what the venue means now as we look to the future."