Re-emergence of theater amidst a pandemic

Sue Stevens offers insight on rebirth of theater after lockdown and what future for the arts may hold


Perfect Performance: Dayton Live presents “Hamilton,” one of the most favored plays on Broadway, on their 2018 National Tour. “Something special happens between the person on stage and the person in the audience,” Sue Stevens said. Photo contributed by: Joan Marcus.

Sage Spirk, Reporter

For lovers of drama, theater and all things pertaining to the arts, March of last year was detrimental. COVID-19 provided a sudden halt to iconic live shows like “Les Misérables” and “Mean Girls, all of which were professional Broadway productions that were planning to take the stage under a gleam of lights in Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio. But audiences who used to frequent home theaters—such as Loft Theater, Victoria Theater, the Schuster Center and PNC Arts Annex—are in luck, as Dayton Live is back in business, and Media Official President of Marketing & Communications, Sue Stevens has all the details. 

“Our team’s purpose is two-fold,” Stevens said. “Make sure we make all our ticket sales goals through whatever means of marketing and communication necessary AND promote the Dayton Live brand, our vision and mission.”

Stevens has worked in arts marketing for more than 30 years and has bore witness to the evolution of theater in Dayton for the last 20 years, making her an expert on audience reception prior to lockdown.

“[Audience reception was] excellent,” Stevens said. “We’ve always had great audiences in the Dayton region and they only continue to grow.” 

It’s no surprise that Dayton Live’s performances awe audiences with showings like “The Wizard of Oz” and “Waitress,” but after lockdown commenced, Stevens saw the shift in theater fanatics firsthand.

Audience members were naturally cautious and even fearful,” Stevens said. “But we instituted a COVID-19 Ticket Guarantee that basically said if once we’re back open again and you’ve bought tickets to shows, but for whatever reason you don’t feel comfortable coming to the theatre, then we have refund options for you.”

With Ticket Guarantee, Dayton Live has provided thousands of ticket refunds and even cancelled performances. But throughout this, many overlook the feelings and perception of officials whose lives revolve around theater. 

“It was a difficult and strange time to be in the performing arts,” Stevens said. “When what you do is plan for performances and communicate about performances that are happening and all of a sudden you can’t do that anymore, it’s strange – and frustrating. We were able to lend our skills to advocating for funding and assistance for the Arts & Events sector during this time which was pretty gratifying because it resulted in the Save Our Stages Act.”

While COVID hit established theaters hard, it also had an impact on Oakwood High School’s own productions that were set to commence right before lockdown, and Alex Heid recalls the feeling he got when news broke that the annual Fall Play would be cancelled.

“When I found out venues were closing, the first thing I did was reach out to some of my friends that were in the production of ‘Cinderella,’” Alex Heid (10) said. “They were just one week out from opening, and I felt so awful for all of them. As Broadway was shutting down, I got somewhat of an eerie feeling. Those lights are always on and most do eight shows a week, so it was pretty shocking.”

Presently, Heid is excited for the upcoming season of shows, and Stevens has all the information on the next month. 

“Our first performance with a full audience (fully masked) was August 26 with iconic vocalist Johnny Mathis,” Stevens said. “We have two shows late in September and then things really start to pick up in October. Our Premier Health Broadway in Dayton series has had record-breaking sales this year because of ‘Hamilton’ being on the season, among other fabulous shows like “Come From Away,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Mean Girls” and more.”

With stellar productions on the rise as well as accessible classes for youth, Dayton Live is in for a successful season, as they’re used to serving 100,000 students and adults each year with their Education and Engagement programs. But even with this sense of revived hope, one can only predict what the future of theater looks like amidst a pandemic.

“We’re confident theatre will keep happening,” Stevens said. “It’s been around for centuries and survived many a pandemic. The national tours of ‘Hamilton’ and ‘Wicked’ are already out and on to their second stop of the tour. They’ve figured out how to do it safely for their casts, crews and audiences. We expect that to continue to move forward and their procedures to be adopted by other tours and artists.”

Dayton Live also gave back to their community during a time of need by advocating for other venues, and they express gratitude for those who did the same for them during such an unprecedented time.

“Many arts & events organizations have had it really tough – and I’m sure some will not survive this pandemic – but there are funding sources available that can help you make it through,” Stevens said. “We’re so grateful for additional support we’ve received not only from government sources but also from local foundations, sponsors and donors.”

With all these resources being put into the arts, it’s important to know what draws people, especially youth, to theater and why it’s important that these types of funding sources continue to be available.

“Theater is an amazing thing,” Ellie Furmanski (10) said. “You make new experiences. And it’s great how you can pretend to be someone else for a bit.”

It’s apparent that audiences will never grow tired of sitting before a stage of performers who practice for hours on end to perfect their craft, and Stevens understands exactly how special that bond is—a bond that not even a global pandemic can sever. 

“I always say that what makes my job so cool is that I get to bring audiences and performers together so that magic can happen that can only happen as the curtain goes up, as the lights go down, as the orchestra starts,” Stevens said. “Not only are you entertained and taken out of yourself, you get a peak at different lives and different ways of thinking – and you can be overcome by just the sheer beauty of the music, the movement, the story.”