URBANA — With coronavirus infection and vaccination rates improving in the area ahead of the fall performance season, the University of Illinois has given the go-ahead for venues like State Farm Center and Krannert Center for the Performing Arts to bring back live audiences.
Krannert will be the first campus venue to host an indoor event with live music since the pandemic began with a scaled-back edition of the Ellnora Guitar Festival, set for Sept. 17-18.
At State Farm Center, there are two public events locked in — the Hot Rod Power Tour car show on Aug. 27, and a Nov. 6 concert by Christian rock group MercyMe, for which ticket sales should begin in the next couple weeks.
Events for Move-In Week, like new-student convocation, are also ready to go.
The rest of fall semester, however, is still somewhat uncertain for both venues. Both are working on timelines far shorter than the six to 18 months it typically takes between the first talks with an artist to a booked show.
Varying state reopening rules have taken “what was normally a complex puzzle” to book shows “and made it even harder, on both sides of the equation,” said Brad Swanson, assistant director at State Farm Center.
Krannert is having some early success, having already confirmed several touring acts for undetermined dates this fall, namely the Philadanco and Contra-Tiempo dance troupes and musical acts the Brazilian All-Stars, the Jupiter String Quartet with pianist Gloria Chien and Las Cafeteras.
There’s a slate of student productions from the School of Music and departments of Theatre and Dance on the way, and Krannert is talking with community partners like the Champaign-Urbana Symphony, Sinfonia da Camera, the Champaign Urbana Ballet and the C-U Folk and Roots Festival.
Meanwhile, State Farm Center’s booking team has been in talks with several organizers and performers, and there are a few potential dates set up, “but it’s still very much preliminary, and it’s customary for dates to disappear as quickly as they appear,” Swanson warned.
It’s almost July, so there isn’t much room for error.
“I don’t want to say it’s impossible, given where we’re at in the calendar right now, to see a couple things pop into the fall,” he said. “It’s just going to be a matter of everything coming together to make that work. It really would have to be a pretty seamless process for that to happen.”
Ramping back up to full employment is another hurdle for the State Farm Center and Krannert teams.
“We certainly anticipate some of the folks who have worked for us in the past to come back, but from an actual hiring perspective, we pretty much have to start over since they haven’t worked for us in over a year,” Swanson said. “So it’ll be quite the HR undertaking for our venue.”
As State Farm Center head back into post-pandemic operations, it will be hiring hundreds of part-time event staff — security guards, ushers, concession workers and parking lot attendants.
After budget cuts, Krannert will be dealing with a shortened staff that will likely lead to fewer shows. Officials are looking for new student staff members to work as ushers, café workers and backstage managers.
The Intermezzo Café is open to the public from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., but the Promenade gift shop won’t make a return.
Attendance will likely be similar to the pre-pandemic experience in other ways, at least for State Farm Center. It has been given the go-ahead for 100 percent capacity, and fully vaccinated attendees do not have to wear masks on UI property.
Krannert received approval for 100 percent capacity, but the staff is still mulling over how to proceed, publicist Maureen Reagan said.
“There are certain considerations still. One is that we know not everybody is going to be vaccinated,” she said. “We’re looking at best practices, what the possibilities are and trying have the best experience for our audiences and our artists.”
For example, Ebertfest, which is put on by the College of Media, opted not to have 100 percent capacity at the Virginia Theatre for its 2021 edition, set for Sept. 8-11, after organizers spoke to season pass holders.
Those who are not vaccinated will have to wear masks in UI venues, but vaccine cards won’t be checked at the doors, Swanson said.
Now, it’s a matter of seeing how audiences will respond.
“There’s some obvious social trauma we’ve all faced in the aftermath of COVID, but I also sense the public is craving to get back to some sense of normalcy,” Swanson said.
After a much lighter fall, there are high hopes for State Farm Center “to get back to a more normal event load as we head into the winter and the spring,” he said.
Reagan agrees that audience response will be a mixed bag.
“If it’s a first outing back in, some people are going to be wary, and we respect that, while some people are going to be just hog wild to get back into this experience again,” Reagan said.
Reagan said she falls in the latter camp. She recalled a performance late last year from Somi Kakoma, an artist from Champaign-Urbana who returned to town to produce a film with the Krannert team. It was one of 50 digital events Krannert put over the last academic year.
Watching Kakoma sing from an empty stage in Foellinger Great Hall, with the walls once again reverberating during a pandemic that had ripped away the livelihoods of so many artists, Reagan said she and her colleagues were moved to tears.
“To hear her voice on stage was like, ‘Oh, we’re going to get to hear that again someday,’” Reagan said. “Very sad and very happy, all at the same time.”