BRATTLEBORO — If you haven't seen it, there is a good flick opening at the Latchis Theatre this weekend - The Wizard of Oz. You know, the one where Dorothy tells her dog Toto that they aren't in Kansas anymore.
The reopening of the downtown movie theater in a limited capacity on Friday, June 19 with that revered classic marks an important milestone in the region's cautious return to normalcy in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although Gov. Phil Scott recently extended Vermont's COVID-19 emergency measures to July 15, at this stage of addressing COVID-19, a number of arts venues are beginning the cautious process of reopening for public performances.
“Our plan is to reopen the theater with all the proper hygiene and safety safeguards and in accordance with the governor's and the state's requirements,” said Jon Potter, the executive director of Latchis Arts, the nonprofit organization that owns the historic building and runs the theater and hotel.
“We are opening initially only in our main theater,” Potter said. “We think that in there we are able to provide proper social distancing.”
“People, of course, will be required to wear their masks when they enter our lobby and purchase their tickets,” he added.
Potter explained that the Latchis would reopen following the basic guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which urges people to wear masks in public and stay 6 feet apart - something easy to do in a theater that seats 750.
Basic hygiene elements, such as hand sanitizer, would be readily available, he added.
Several other venues are opening up, or planning to.
According to the Rockingham municipal website, the Bellows Falls Opera House is working on space plans to enable social distancing for the 525-seat theater in the town hall.
At Epsilon Spires on Main Street in Brattleboro, plans are underway to begin hosting outdoor performances, followed by films.
“In July, we're transitioning into outdoor events, where we going to do drive-in style screenings with live performances in our parking lot,” said Jamie Mohr, the creative director. “We'll mark off spaces, and when people get a ticket they can get a space where they can bring chairs and blankets and so on.”
“I think it will be a fun way to celebrate the summer but in a way that everyone feels safe, where we're outdoors,” Mohr added. “Right before dusk, we'll have maybe a short musical component or live component like a band, and then at dusk we'll start the films.”
A time for 'excitement and joy' of classic films
As it reopens, the Latchis is constrained in its offerings by the limited options in terms of new releases, which studios are delaying for months or have begun releasing for home viewing on streaming services, bypassing the big screen entirely.
So Potter says the theater will mainly show older films, many of which no one has seen on the big screen for years or decades.
“Hollywood has pretty much delayed all of its new releases, with a few exceptions,” said Potter, “so we're going to take advantage of that opportunity and try to present things that will lift people out of where they are and experience the excitement and joy of the love of the classic films.”
“We have also been in touch with some community partners to develop film programming around issues of social justice and equality,” said Potter. “We're trying to do what we can.”
'Not the same'
During a time of social isolation, audiences at home have welcomed the efforts of many regional venues in broadcasting their shows through online videoconferencing applications like Zoom.
But it is not the same as seeing a movie or a jazz show in person.
“You know, it's very hard to Zoom and have that have any real weight,” said Potter. “The electricity of being in proximity with a live performance, which is really the essence of why people go, is not something you can even hint at digitally.”
For Eugene Uman, the director of the Vermont Jazz Center, the final performance of the season will be streamed online on June 20. The performance starts at 8 p.m.
Uman talked about how there was a “silver lining” in the way that COVID-19 forced performances onto a virtual platform, creating the ability to bring performers from different areas into the same arena and to create shows that included elements of commentary from experts in jazz.
At the same time, he said that as a performer nothing online compares to the experience of performing in person.
“I really miss playing for people,” Uman said. “You play for others, you give them energy and then they give you energy back. And then their joy just gives us, you know, that juice that propels us to want to play better because we know we're bringing joy to other people.”
“When I am performing for a camera and there is no one else but the camera person, it has no feeling in it,” he said.
Vermont has taken a cautious approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the question remains of when arts venues may be able to open again at full capacity.
“It's a trying time,” said Potter. “It can be inspiring at times to to think about recreating the art experience for people, but it's also very trying to think of what a long road it will be to get there and whether you can get there.”