How does the region’s most admired performance venue ride out the COVID pandemic? With bold leadership and military-like planning.
We recently spoke with Lynn Singleton, longtime President and CEO of one of the state’s most respected institutions, the Providence Performing Arts Center. With almost 40 years at the helm of PPAC, Singleton thought he has seen it all. Then, COVID-19 arrived.
“It’s been quite a ride,” he acknowledged.
“Since this all came down in March, we’ve been dealing with what I’ve called the ‘Four P’s,’ which are performances, personal, protocols and projection, not in any particular order,” explained Singleton.
“When things started falling apart in March, and this is how naïve we were, we had Blue Man Group scheduled for the end of that month … and we were trying to figure out how we were going to move it to May. Of course, at the time, we were dealing with the immediacy of it – you don’t know what you don’t know.”
Needless to say, we’ve all learned a lot since March 2020. Singleton was quick to act.
“Personnel-wise, we went with part time labor, and then we started rotating the staff, although in PPAC’s case, we never really closed. We had what I call ‘Seal Team Six’ here; we normally have seven ops people, we went down to one, my General Manager. We had four or five marketing people, we went down to one, so we kind of pushed through that (early) period.”
This swift response to the pandemic likely helped Singleton confront difficult challenges down the road.
“The initial reaction was the uncertainty,” he explained. “You were kind of peeling back the onion of what the issues were. Now at least there is certainty that there is light at the end of the tunnel, you just can’t determine how long that tunnel is,” admitted Singleton.
“Like much of the live event industry, (whether) going to see a hockey game or see A Christmas Carol at Trinity, we’re vaccine dependent. Until there’s wide distribution of a vaccine, I can’t imagine that the state’s powers that be aren’t going to continue to enforce capacity restrictions of some shape or form.”
Singleton is encouraging patience.
“My byline to the Board, staff and patrons has been, ‘we’re not going to sacrifice soon for safety, we’re going to do things very thoughtfully.’ We are replacing air filtration systems, adding touchless credit card machines, we’re making all those kinds of changes.
PPAC was already in the process of replacing the exterior terra cotta which covered front of the building, and had loosened due to water damage over the years. The timing of the repair worked out well.
“We had committed to do that work, and we did it, we covered and scaffolded the front of the building. That would have been operationally problematic to move patrons in and out of the building. That project turned out to be the second largest project we have ever done. We’re also going to add LED lighting in front … the $3 facility fee from what we collected from Hamilton last summer pretty much paid for that.”
Another initiative near and dear to PPAC is the outreach programs to area schools.
Singleton explained, “We (normally) do a lot of large community outreach programs into the schools where we bring schools to the facility to see local or regional performers five or six times a year. We pay for it, we pay for the buses and all. We made the decision to continue to do that, so we taped some performances and are streaming those into the schools this spring. Right now, we’ve got 25,000 students signed up for that. And its all free!”
We do another program called Experience PPAC, three or four times a year. We bring high school sophomores and juniors to see a Broadway show. This year, through our connections, we were able to get high quality video performances of Kinky Boots, which won the Tony in 2013, and Memphis, which won the Tony in 2010. We’re streaming those into the schools.”
Although many performance venues are facing significant fiscal challenges, Singleton had some good news to share on that front.
“In the early Fall, during the initial surge, our subscription renewal went out, and to my amazement, we renewed about 80% of our subscribers. My colleagues across the country, in most cases, have had a similar experience.”
Singleton recognizes there are bigger challenges ahead.
“We’re in a war right now, we all know what we gotta do to win the war. The challenge will be in reconstruction, not only in the arts but in the restaurant and hospitality industry. In the next 15-18 months, once we’ve achieved herd immunity, the hospitality industry is going to be in a rehab period. It’s almost like we’ve been in a car wreck and we have to learn how to walk again. And that’s going to take a while.”
He remains optimistic, noting “I think once people get past that initial hesitancy, that they are not putting themselves in danger, I think there’s going to be a tremendous resurgence. Now that people know there is a vaccine, sometime in late Fall probably, there are going to be shows in this building.”
PPAC’s popularity in the region continues to grow. In fact, it’s one of the most admired venues in the nation. The secret to Singleton’s success is simple.
“It’s all about the shows,” he explained. “Nobody gets in their car, drives downtown, pays $25 for parking for a chocolate chip cookie. They come here for the shows! My job, 80-90 per cent of my time, is working to make sure the software is here that people want to come and see and use. We’ve been here a long time and people trust us. We’re not Stubhub – if you want your money back, we’ll give you your money back. If we screw up, we’ll tell you we screwed up and we’ll try to make it right.
“We’re the 2nd largest venue north of New York, we’re a very good theater market, and we open a lot of Broadway shows. We’re also one of the three states that extended the film tax credit to include openings of Broadway shows. In the last ten year, we’ve opened twenty tours. We have a reputation, and we protect that reputation.”
So how can members of the community help support PPAC, we wondered.
“If you’re a subscriber hold on to those subscription tickets, if you’re a donor you can make a donation to the theater and we’ll use it for our community outreach programs. If you’re not a subscriber, now that we know there will be a fall season, pick up the phone and call 421-ARTS and become one.
“There is an end to this, you want to make sure you’re around for it!”