The problem, as most producers of live entertainment will tell you, is planning. Though everyone is expecting indoor entertainment to return to the Outer Cape in the next few months, last-minute green lights and guidelines leave little time to prepare. Which is why most venues are relying on outdoor stages, with a wait-and-see approach to going indoors.
“The difficulty is that the process of querying and negotiating with an artist takes a minimum of four or five months,” said Kevin Rice, executive artistic director of Payomet Performing Arts Center in Truro, which hosts touring bands and singers. “I’m usually preparing in September for the following year. And here it is May, and we’re still waiting for final approval from different entities.”
Rice has written an interactive play that he hopes to present in the mothballed Payomet tent. “Technically speaking, the tent is considered indoor,” he said. “This year we want to use lawn seating and drive-in, a hybrid approach at our outdoor venue, the ballfield stage at the Highland Center. We want to do the tent. But we have to have more guidance from the governor.”
Rice is skeptical that the big acts will be available before the fall. “It may take until 2022 before people are comfortable sitting next to one another,” he said.
In Provincetown, club owners are relying on outdoor venues as insurance, but hope runs strong that indoor seating will make its way back soon.
“They come out with a set of guidelines one day, and two weeks later they change,” said Paul Melanson, who owns the piano bar and restaurant Tin Pan Alley with his husband, Jack Kelly. “You’re never given much notice. You literally have two days to get your seating plan approved by the town.” Kelly and Melanson recently purchased the Post Office Café and Cabaret, where they expect to showcase singing, drag acts, and comedians on its upstairs stage.
“Technically, as of May 29, you can have indoor entertainment again. But the guidelines have not been announced yet,” Melanson said. “It’s very hard. We do have all sorts of people lined up. We’re telling them that unless we can do indoor entertainment, it might be canceled.”
Even so, he and Kelly are moving forward with the upstairs stage. “It’s 115 seats, so it’s not really that small,” he said. “If we’re able to seat 50 bodies, spaced accordingly, we’ll go ahead with it. Most likely, we’re looking at July 1 as a tentative opening date. If that means limited capacity, we’re certainly willing to do that, just to help our community of performers.”
As backup, Melanson said, they’re planning to have some acts, such as the drag queen Mama Tits, booked at the outdoor stage at Pilgrim House, further down Commercial Street.
“The Post Office and Pilgrim House have formed the Ptown Together group,” said David Burbank, director of administration, events, and entertainment at Pilgrim House. “Basically, it’s local businesses working together, rather than going against each other. To build everybody up.”
Pilgrim House has already scheduled a season of outdoor performances at its parking lot stage, much as it did last year. “Our performers would love the additional seats that we would have indoors,” Burbank said. “But to get to that point, it’s tough to read into what the governor is saying. Singing is going to be allowed indoors, but there will be strict protocols.”
Mark Cortale, producing artistic director of the Art House in Provincetown, where he has booked drag acts and Broadway headliners, anticipates being indoors this summer.
“At this moment, everything on my website except Bianca Del Rio is happening,” Cortale said by email. “I’m waiting on the governor’s guidance in terms of capacity and safety guidelines, but I intend to be open at the Art House the last weekend of June.”
Rick Murray, owner of the Crown & Anchor complex in Provincetown, has a large outdoor venue at poolside next to the beach, as well as the Paramount theater indoors, with more than 210 seats. Last year, during the pandemic, the poolside outdoor stage featured many local acts.
“We’re repeating the same thing this year, with a few more shows,” Murray said. “We’ve made some improvements in our outdoor lights and entertainment. We’re going to carry on the tradition of carrying on. By June 12, we’ll be doing seven days a week.”
When asked about shifting the bookings indoors, Murray said, “Unfortunately, we haven’t seen any guidelines. So, it’s difficult. We may be able to for rain dates.” But Murray is ready to make a move once the state sets the parameters. “I can pivot in one day,” he said.
The Provincetown Business Guild (PBG), which is behind some of the town’s theme weeks — from Pride to Carnival — went virtual last summer. This year, the town boards voted once again not to have fireworks on July Fourth weekend, and not to issue parade permits, which puts a damper on Carnival. Even the Provincetown Bears will not be holding official events.
“We wanted to do more than virtual, yet we were limited in what we could do — primarily outdoor events and smaller gatherings,” said Bob Sanborn, executive director of PBG. “One idea we came up with is ‘express yourself days.’ Provincetown is about diversity: people come to express their individuality, to express themselves. You see guys in harnesses and chaps, bears in singlets. And, during Carnival, people like to dress up in costumes.”
The guild wants to bring back the party atmosphere, but not dangerously. “We will do whatever we can do safely, with the guidance of the town,” Sanborn said. “We’re easing back into the new normal. For planners, the landscape is fluid; that makes it very difficult.”
No one doubts that the crowds will come, however. “Everyone misses live entertainment,” Melanson said. “I imagine there will be a line out the door.”