Strong ticket sales, empty seats for Berkeley venues during omicron

With omicron cases on the rise, the local performing arts scene is once again experiencing a wave of cancelations and postponements.

Pianist Aldo López-Gavilán (left) and his older brother, violinist Ilmar Gavilán, scions of a celebrated Cuban musical family, restart Cal Performances’ 2021-22 season at Zellerbach Hall on Jan. 23. Courtesy: the artists 

With omicron cases continuing to rise in Berkeley (and just about everywhere else), the local performing arts scene is once again experiencing a wave of cancelations and postponements. While some major presenters are soldiering on — Cal Performances and the Berkeley Rep are forging ahead with scheduled events — it would be prudent to check online before heading out to see a show.

The stakes are high. With presenters just starting to recover financially and operationally after almost two years of lockdown and pandemic-inflicted uncertainty, the implications of going dark again could be dire. Though available data suggests that vaccinated audiences are at little risk of serious illness, the calculus includes weighing the odds of facilitating omicron’s spread as some performers test positive for the virus against the despair and disruption of another arts shutdown. 

Cal Performances Artistic Director Jeremy Geffen said in a statement that “we do not currently know of any upcoming performance cancelations at Cal Performances due to omicron infection and are looking forward to picking up live performance again,” starting with Jan. 23’s Cuban jazz concert at Zellerbach Hall by violinist Ilmar Gavilán and his brother, pianist Aldo López-Gavilán. (Berkeley’s health department requires patrons at all theater and entertainment venues to wear masks and show proof of vaccination.)

But other venues have lost much of the month, and in many cases it’s the artists themselves pulling the plug on shows, looking to protect the health of their collaborators and audiences. Just about every performance on Freight & Salvage’s calendar through Jan. 17 has been nixed, and the club is weighing whether to proceed with two sold-out shows by guitar star Tommy Emmanuel on Jan. 18-19.

“We’ve been keeping our eye on the numbers,” said Peter Williams, Freight & Salvage’s artistic director. “We don’t want to cancel anything. At the same time, we want everybody to be safe.”

Mark Hummel canceled an extensive West Coast tour celebrating his 30th annual blues harmonica blow out, including a Jan. 7 show at the Freight. And women’s music matriarch Cris Williamson postponed this weekend’s reunion with the bandmates from her landmark 1975 album The Changer and the Changed (now slated for the Freight in January 2023).

“Cris didn’t feel comfortable going ahead with the shows and Mark Hummel has all those blues legends in his band, and the feeling was they shouldn’t get on a plane,” Williams said.

Concerns over safety led the Freight to cancel Hot Tuna’s New Year’s Eve performance, the fourth and concluding night of the group’s engagement, after the decision to end concession sales left no way to toast the new year. Williams said that ticket sales remained strong through the end of the year, but up to 20% of the seats ended up empty.

The Berkeley Rep’s longtime managing director Susie Medak, one of the leaders of the pandemic-inspired East Bay Arts and Cultural Alliance, has heard similar accounts from other venues. “Even before the holidays we’d been hearing from colleagues having no-show rates of 40%,” she said. “I think it’s different community-to-community and organization-to-organization.”

She noted that Mike Birbiglia’s one-man show The Old Man and the Pool, which runs through Jan. 23, hasn’t experienced more unused tickets than previous productions. But the omicron surge has left many people deeply anxious and ambivalent about going out to shows.

“The message right now is so complicated,” Medak said. “Many people buying tickets are saying they’re uncomfortable about attending, but the tickets sales are as strong as ever. Audience members are clearly feeling they are done with isolation. They want to engage again and want us to be open. We will do so as long as we can. If we get to the point where we feel we can’t deliver a performance up to our standards, we’d reevaluate.”

Concert venues have a good deal more flexibility when it comes to postponing and rescheduling shows, an option that many musicians are taking advantage of during this stage of the pandemic. Like at Freight & Salvage, just about every act scheduled to perform this month at the Back Room, the cozy venue on Bonita Avenue just north of University, has opted for a date later in the year (except for jazz/blues pianist Joe Warner, who’s playing a free show with his trio Jan. 16).

“Everyone is waiting for the wave to go down,” said pianist and Back Room proprietor Sam Rudin, who was recovering after a two-week bout with omicron.

A major difference between theaters and music presenters is the exponentially larger commitment of resources, time and staff required to create scenery, costumes and sets. Like other theaters, Berkeley Rep is dealing with the loss of many longtime backstage employees who’ve changed professions or moved away over the past two years. And every position on and off stage involved in a production needs an understudy, drawing on an already winnowed pool of talent. Even one-person shows like Birbiglia’s and Fran Leibowitz’s upcoming run Jan. 21-26 require numerous backstage staff.

Exacerbating an already fraught situation, the rise of omicron has turned every performance into a minor miracle. But for many theatrical organizations going dark again could mean never turning the lights back on. Federal COVID-19 relief for arts organization was slow in coming in 2020, and there’s no evidence it will be forthcoming in 2022.

“If we can’t perform, that’s going to create enormous economic issues for our organization,” Medak said. “We were bailed out the first two years and it’s hard to imagine they’re going to do it again. None of us were looking and budgeting this year as if we were going to have to shut down again.”

A Berkeley resident since 1996, Los Angeles native Andrew Gilbert is a longtime arts and culture reporter who has contributed to Berkeleyside since 2011.