Hassan judges Random Acts series worthwhile

CacheARTS director Wendi Hassan says the recent Random Acts Community Performance Series at the Ellen Eccles Theatre helped to pioneer the safe resumption of live performances in Cache Valley despite the coronavirus.

LOGAN – The recent Random Acts Community Performance Series at the Ellen Eccles Theatre was no roaring success financially, but CacheARTS director Wendi Hassan believes the effort was nevertheless worthwhile.

“A labor of love?” Hassan asks. “One hundred percent … But we needed to convince the public that some performing arts events were still happening despite the coronavirus … In that respect, the Random Acts series may have been the most mission-related activity that we’ve done in a long time. It just felt good to be doing shows again.”

Like most local performing arts venues, the Ellen Eccles Theatre in downtown Logan closed in mid-March when the coronavirus outbreak occurred. By July, the leaders of Cache Valley arts groups wanted to do something on an experimental basis to regain the trust of local audiences.

“We planned to start small,” Hassan recalls, “learn quickly and share information about best practices so that live performances could be safe.”

“Starting small” was an understatement for the Random Acts series, she admits.

“When the lights went down on that first performance,” Hassan says, “I was on the verge of tears because it felt so good to be hosting events again. There were only 13 people in the audience that night, but we still felt like it was a success since it had been so long since we’d done anything like this.”

The performances in the Random Acts series ran the gamut from a magician to a mime and from a solo troubadour to concert quality singing by local theater companies. The series ran from early July through August with performances on most Friday and Saturday evenings.

Although the largest audience of any of those shows was 139 patrons in the huge Eccles Theatre, Hassan says those limited turn-outs were not only anticipated but also to some degree self-inflicted.

During the Random Acts series, the Cache Valley Center for the Arts booked local performing artists who were, for the most part, not what Eccles Theatre audiences were accustomed to seeing on stage there. Those acts were therefore given the unusual responsibility of attracting their own audiences.

“That in itself may have been the reason that all of our events didn’t sell out,” Hassan says. “I think that was a learning curve both for us and for the artists in our Random Acts series. They got a real lesson in how hard it is to draw an audience through word-of-mouth, mailing lists and social media.”

Audience sizes during the Random Act shows were also impacted by statewide social distancing guidelines.

Seating in the Eccles Theatre was deliberately limited to its main floor during the Random Acts shows and ticket holders were given a radius of six empty seats in all directions around them as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19. By that standard, the 139 people who turned out for a concert performance by Music Theatre West veterans was actually a capacity crowd.

With limited seating capacity and the bargain basement ticket prices for the Random Acts events, Hassan says a financial shortfall was almost guaranteed.

“Our goal was just to meet out-of-pocket expenses,” Hassan explains. “So the cost of our staff members’ time, the electricity and the gas bill? Initially, we didn’t worry about any of that. Toward the end of the series, we were actually meeting the out-of-pocket expenses almost every time, which was fabulous. Admittedly, that was a very low bar.

“One of our other goals was actually to get some money into the hands of the artists … So we split everything that came through the ticket office 50/50 with the performing artists.”

But the Random Acts series wasn’t a total financial disaster. Late in the series, the initiative qualified for a “Shop in Utah” grant that allowed CacheARTS to use federal CARES Act funds to recoup some of its earlier institutional expenses.

In retrospect, Hassan says, the practical lessons learned during the Random Acts series have contributed to allowing the Eccles Theatre to resume its resident company productions with alternating performances of “Forever Plaid” and “The Taffetas” starting Friday.

Those lessons included ways to manage social distancing in the theater, safely sell concession items and limit congregating in the lobby and restrooms.

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