A crowd of more than 700 attended the Topeka PAC’s first event since mid-March. (Courtesy Topeka Performing Arts Center)

Topeka Performing Arts Center welcomes back audience

When students at the Radiant Dance Studio took the stage at the Topeka Performing Arts Center on July 2, it was an occasion worthy of a victory dance.

The gathering in Kansas’ capital was among the few ticketed live events that have taken place in an indoor venue since the arrival of COVID-19 shut down arenas, theaters and clubs around the world.

Larry Gawronski, the PAC’s executive director, stood before the audience full of dancers’ families and friends, “and I said, ‘You will be happy to know that you are our first live audience since March 12, so give yourselves a hand, because live entertainment is back,’ and they were just like, “Woo-hoo!”

The dance recital, postponed from the spring, sold 765 tickets and grossed about $5,000 at the theater.

Gawronski runs the building for VenuWorks, which lists 11 theaters among the more than 40 venues it operates, many of them in the Midwest. He said that only four of those buildings are open and that the show in the Topeka was the first post-shutdown ticketed event for a VenuWorks facility, followed closely by a pair of back-to-back junior livestock competitions that began Wednesday at the Swiftel Center in Brookings, S.D.

VenuWorks gives its venues guidance on operating in COVID-19 times, Gawronski said, but lets its people on the ground adapt to the particular state and local requirements that they face.

Preparation included “the signage, the sanitation, all the protocols,” he said. New electrostatic sprayers, which disinfect everything from walls, seats and carpet to aluminum and chrome, helped the get the theater ready.

“We didn’t have to do temperature checks and we still don’t have to,” Gawronski said, “but we’ve got thermometers just in case that happens.”

Topeka is part of Shawnee County, and Gawronski said, “The county health department came into the building and they said, “All right, 2,600 is your max, so your capacity will be 1,300 max or 6 feet social distancing, whichever is less.”

Because gatherings of up to 45 people are allowed, the venue and the county worked to create a plan with clusters of 45 seats, separated from other clusters by at least 6 feet. The seating was general admission, so venue workers “put crepe paper, white crepe streamers” to mark closed seats and rows, Gawronski said. Masks were highly recommended.

He said patrons worked within the rules to keep themselves and others healthy. “People were fine,” he said. “They don’t want to give it or get it.”

Shawnee County commissioner have since then required masks in indoor public spaces, so when another dance group has its recital Tuesday at the PAC, attendees will need to wear masks to enter. The venue, a nonprofit, will sell masks for $1.

Gawronski, who went to work for VenuWorks CEO and founder Steve Peters under the company’s previous name, Compass Facility Management, in 2000, worked at venues across the country before coming to the Topeka Performing Arts Center five years ago. The art deco building opened in 1940 and underwent a major renovation that was completed in 1991.

Gawronski is already looking forward to another date on the calendar, when Kansas City band Shooting Star will top the bill for a local rock radio station’s birthday bash. The concert, originally set for April, has been rescheduled for Aug. 7. “We are now reseating everybody who’s a ticket holder presently so that they’re sitting within those clusters,” he said.

The show has already sold a little more than the capped capacity of 1,300, so Gawronski and his team are reviewing their comp list. They also have the option of adding a night and spreading the crowd out over two shows, which would allow them to open up ticket sales again.

There’s been plenty to learn along the way, but Gawronski said the biggest takeaway was the excitement he felt from that first crowd Thursday, full of people who were excited to see their children dance on stage but also thrilled just to get out of the house and attend a live event.

“We can attest, with a live audience, that people are starving for live entertainment,” he said.