Raising the curtain in pandemic times

Tue, 05/04/2021 - 12:00pm

As the curtain rose on “Nomadland” at Lincoln Theater March 19, Andrew Fenniman couldn’t have been happier. The sold out audience of 50, masked and socially distanced, was ready – despite the pandemic.

Despite the state’s 50% capacity for theaters, opera houses and the like, at this point during the pandemic, Fenniman said the theater will probably stay at 50 for quite some time, or maybe 60.

“We could have 125 people, but we want people to be safe, and to feel safe,” Fenniman said.

To that end, Fenniman oversaw the upgrading of the ventilation system. Air from the outside passes through the new disinfection filters of UV-C lights and bipolar ionization six times per hour. Inside air is replaced by outside air twice each hour.

“Thirty percent of the inside air is replaced with outside air two times each hour,” said Fenniman. “Once we learned about air transmission and COVID-19 we knew we had to ramp up the air filters. People are concerned about airborne transmission.”

Rebecca Recor of Round Pond has been to all but one show. “I think they have gone out of their way to make it safe for everyone and comply with the protocols. It’s just so nice to be back! The only thing missing is the popcorn … I was thinking maybe they could have a pop up set up outside to eat before going inside … You need to have it in your system ...”

The Theater’s new ticket-buying program automatically blocks out three seats on either side of a solo person or group seeing a show. Tickets are for seats in rows A,D, G, K and the new back row made for these pandemic times. All theater staff has to do is mark the blocked seats with the thick burgundy cording purchased for the task.

Tickets are paid for online and printed by the theater-goer to hand to the ushers, or tickets are shown on the person’s cell phone. When buying tickets from www.LincolnTheater.net, click on the “buy tickets” button under the event listing of choice. A seating chart shows the green/still available seats. Red seats are sold seats while the X-ed out seats represent the six-foot blocking between sold seats, which appear gold. From there, it’s onto the payment process.

The theater office is open to help people who do not have a computer, or do but can’t figure it all out, on Tuesdays between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.

“A cool thing about our ticketing system is it would allow us to perform contact tracing,” Fenniman said. “If someone called to tell us they had contracted the virus, and what show they went to, we would contact all of the others at that show to let them know – but this hasn’t happened yet.”

Juanita Raushdy is a Theater board member fond of sitting in the front row. Fenniman said she’s been to several screenings.

Raushdy admitted she was a little nervous because it was the first time she’d been inside a building that wasn’t her house or her neighbors’ home in over a year.

“It didn’t take long for (nervousness) to disappear. I attended opening night with my 90-year-old neighbor, in part to support the staff’s efforts and to show the public that as a board member I stand by the team who had done more than necessary to make the theater a safe place,” Raushdy said. “Everyone, staff included, was masked and kept their distance. It was a good experience and we were all glad to be back at the Lincoln Theater.”

Fenniman noted another precaution that’s been taken to make audiences feel safe is limiting restroom use to one person at a time.

Prior to each show, Fenniman has been emailing ticket holders to tell them he and the staff look forward to seeing them, masks are required, and concessions are not being sold at this time; nor can any snacks be brought in from home.

“We don’t want masks to have to be taken off for any reason. We’re trying not to move too quickly,” Fenniman said, adding he believes it will be quite some time before concessions, particularly the popcorn, will be offered.

He’ll be sending out other surveys to theater members and all movie enthusiasts to poll their comfort level as the months go by.

The theater sold out four of the first seven shows – exciting news even if “sold out” referred to 50 people. “You have to trust that as more people are vaccinated, and when they feel comfortable about it, they will come. Another step we’ve taken is to keep the time spent in the theater to two hours … if a film is a bit longer we only show one preview instead of two.”

Despite ticket sales, Fenniman wondered how the Theater was doing compared to others in Maine, and around the country. During a conversation with his booking agent, Fenniman was assured that the Lincoln Theater’s ticket sales, although not normal, were healthy in the long run.

The agent noted that when “French Exit” opened the previous weekend (it opened at the Lincoln Friday, April 30) on 481 screens, the national per screen average was $361. Fenniman shared these remarks by the booker, “I think it's important that you keep that context in perspective when assessing how you're doing. It's not ‘normal’ but all signs thus far point to the Lincoln being poised to recover more rapidly than the industry at large!”

In addition to a variety of films, other programming is coming to the Lincoln Theater stage, starting May 20 with Talking Art in Maine with Jane Dahmen whose first guest is Jeffery Becton; Lincoln County Community Theater will present “Women In Jeopardy” in June. Fenniman said the cooking program with Cherie Scott will also return at some point this season.

But what of the return of the popcorn? As Raushdy said, popcorn is another something to look forward to. “Then, the movie experience will be complete,” she said. “Nothing like a movie to send all your cares away!”