BILLINGS — Staff at the Alberta Bair Theater in downtown Billings are waiting for COVID-19 infections to slow before they open the freshly-renovated venue to the public for performances, theater executive director Jan Dietrich said Tuesday.
“It’s going to take the virus numbers to go down. When we can have enough people gather, we will be ready to open," Dietrich said.
The Alberta Bair and its staff were in a unique position among performing arts spaces when COVID-19 started sweeping the country in February. Less than a year earlier in May 2019, the theater would close for a $13.6 million renovation project, expecting to open again in fall 2020.
COVID-19 slowed construction slightly, but by and large, the theater could host a performance tomorrow with the renovations now complete.
Dietrich said the number of staff at the nonprofit theater was already reduced before the pandemic to accommodate for the lack of performances during construction. While the theater itself was dark, staff were busy bringing performances to other venues around Billings like the Babcock Theater, MSUB's Petro Hall and the Lincoln Center Auditorium.
Much of the front-facing work at the Alberta Bair is done by volunteers who usually work the ticket counter, concessions and as ushers.
"We are in a little bit of a unique position in that we were closed, but doing events around the community. So we had already trimmed our staff down as much as possible. Even though we are laid off or furloughed now, there weren’t as many individuals involved when that decision had to be made. We knew we would not be reopening until a later date," Dietrich said.
During a normal year, there are 10 paid part-time and full-time staff working for the Alberta Bair. Dietrich said there are currently five staff members on the payroll, but once the curtain is able to be raised for new acts, there is a plan to hire people back.
"It will take an audience large enough that we can pay for bringing everybody back and be able to see a performance. We’re hoping that the vaccine helps and we’re very optimistic that will be in May," Dietrich said.
Dietrich said most of the performances that were booked for the 2021 season have been shifted later into the season to stretch into 2021-22. She said there are a few stakeholder events planned for May 2021, but the theater will open to the wider public in September 2021.
“We do have a couple of shows still on the books for May, otherwise everyone else has moved. We will have to test all of our systems before we can open to the public. We’re hoping to be able to start in May with a few stakeholder events," Dietrich said.
Dietrich received word back from the state last week that the Alberta Bair had been accepted to receive a live entertainment grant from the federal CARES Act (coronavirus relief). Dietrich said the theater hasn't received the money at this point.