With COVID cases on the rise, venues and musicians speak out
The decision was difficult to make, but in an August 2021 Facebook post, Sara Nealy, Executive Director for the Kahilu Theatre, announced the venue would be canceling its four-show run of Matilda the Musical. “The show, with a lot of too-young-to-be-vaccinated children in the cast [included] children who leave the bubble to return to school this week,” Nealy noted. “Unvaccinated people in Hawaii County are at very high risk for COVID-19 infections. New cases are the highest they have ever been here; they reached 69 yesterday, a 9% increase from the day before… so, we had to cancel a remarkable show.” Matilda was to have premiered in 2020, but pandemic restrictions shut the theatre down for 14 months.
A few days after Nealy’s social media post, the theatre canceled its August music events and further clarified its decision on the venue’s website. “We no longer feel confident that the measures we have been taking to protect you when you come to the theatre are adequate to ensure your safety. And for that reason, the leadership of our organization decided it would be best to shut down all in-person performances at the theatre for August. We were not shut down by any authority. We simply made a proactive decision to take what we think is the responsible course of action.” The sad news for the cast and crew came during the launch of the theatre’s 41st season.
Hilo’s Palace Theatre recently finished a successful three-week run of the musical Beauty and the Beast, but it too went through many hurdles before offering it to the public. “It was a difficult production, to begin with, and then having an original cast of 10 and a 50 children chorus made it close to impossible,” said director Larry Reitzer. “Doing a show with actors wearing masks was incredibly challenging, too.” The Palace is currently showing movies with limited seating available.
The Aloha Theatre in Kealakekua is currently holding auditions for Romeo & Juliet, with an opening scheduled for October 1. “When it became clear that COVID-19 would turn into a pandemic, we realized pretty quickly that we would be the first place to close and the last place to reopen,” said Melissa Geiger, Aloha Theatre’s Executive Director. “Despite the recent surge in cases, the staff and board of directors remain confident that the Aloha Theatre will emerge from the pandemic even stronger [and] continue to bring great shows to West Hawaii for many years to come.”
In Honoka’a, the People’s Theatre has remained closed since the 2020 lockdown with no new updates on its marquee. Theatre owner Tawn Keeney explains, “We were going to open in July, but we decided to repaint the lobby,” Keeney said via email. “With the recent increase in COVID cases, I’ve decided that we should wait until we are ‘over the hump’ before opening. I have had multiple discussions with people about live performances and vaccine passports, and I still don’t know what to do about that. We have plenty of space to socially distance for the movies, especially putting chairs on the dancefloor, but live performances are a very different thing.”
Big Island musician Richard Russell, whose group The Castaways will appear at Gertrude’s Jazz Bar on August 29, has his concerns for upcoming shows. “My bandmates and I would be more comfortable if everyone at Gertrude’s were vaccinated,” Russell said. “I’m concerned that something could happen at this venue that would cause us to regret not being more cautious. It could happen to any of them/us and could interrupt our one date in August.”
Ryan Sabate is a rock guitarist for the Average Joes, and they’re a finalist in this year’s Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards. “As far as crowds go, it’s a mixed bag; a lot of people we see at our recent shows say they’ve missed us,” Sabate observed. “Fans say they need shows like ours, it’s long overdue. We’ve also gotten criticism along with venues and other bands for putting on shows during this time of crisis, even if all protocols are followed.”
From this vantage point, mid-August, it’s difficult to see a turning point soon. Everyone hopes for a decrease in COVID-19 cases to allow music and theatre events to again flourish on the Big Island.
Steve Roby is a music journalist, best-selling author, and editor of Big Island Music Magazine.
Photos: Nick Fewings (featured image) and Steve Roby.