Checking In With Becky Hancock and the Tennessee Theatre

Tennessee Theatre Blade Sign Re-lighting, Gay Street, Knoxville, August 2016
Tennessee Theatre Blade Sign Re-lighting, Gay Street, Knoxville, August 2016

I spoke with Becky Hancock, Executive Director of the Tennessee Theatre. I asked if she would talk us through those early days when they realized this would be a significant event, through what transpired over the next weeks and into what she sees in the coming months. As she noted throughout the conversation, events tomorrow could change what we think will happen in the future, but she shared the arc of their story, so far.

March started with five the conclusion of five sold out performances of the Broadway musical “Waitress.” After that final March 1 show, Bob Weir played a sold out show on March 6. The week of March 9, the staff began thinking about enhanced hygiene and other procedures and reached out to the other local venues and to the Knox County Health Department to set a meeting time to discuss how they would approach the spreading virus. They set a meeting date for March 16.

Three shows were scheduled for that week. Tommy Emmanuel played on March 12, Amy Grant played on the 13th, but America cancelled for the fourteenth, returning their advance. Despite offering refunds for anyone not comfortable attending the first two shows, 85% of the people with tickets attended. Meanwhile, Marc Broussard cancelled his show set for the 13th down the street at the Bijou.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Big Ears 2019, The Tennessee Theatre, March 2019

It was during that week that a group including representatives from AC Entertainment and the Tennessee Theatre concluded that they needed to close. Becky said it was a difficult week for everyone. So little was known. The initial decision was to close until April 6. It quickly became obvious this would not be over that quickly and the announcement was made that the Tennessee Theatre would be closed until further notice.

When the city announced on March 20 that they must close, it was a relief. It affirmed the decision they had made and it allowed them to break contracts since it was an order from the city. One of their insurance policies covered a small portion of expenses as the cancellations dominoed. Working from home, the staff began the formidable task of refunding $750,000 in tickets to cancelled concerts. All shows through August were postponed or cancelled.

“I was in shock and couldn’t process the magnitude of what was happening. It was too fast to keep up with. We thought it would be thirty days and just didn’t appreciate the magnitude. We are serious about the health of our audience and performers. There are twenty inches from nose-to-nose in those seats.”

Gregg Allman, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, June 2016

They began to consider how to conserve during the shutdown, as 95% of their operating budget comes from ticket sales. They reduced the HVAC settings, but couldn’t shut it down because the interior of the auditorium would suffer. They shut off beer and wine coolers and refrigerators. They have been able to continue to pay employees and their bills. They applied for and got a PPP loan in the first round.

They had to call their extensive list of vendors and service providers to cancel contracts and explain they had closed. They worked toward freezing some payments and reducing others. They had to contact sponsors who had paid money in return for publicity and would not get the publicity. They were offered to convert the sponsorship to a donation or to have the return for the sponsorship come when the theatre reopens.

They continue to largely work from home. If they need to go into the office they text each other to let their co-workers know of their plans so they can avoid contact. They wipe every shared surface as they leave, including copy machines, door knobs and locks, so they will be clean for the next person.

Marquee of the Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, November 2016
Interior of the Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2014

Becky said they are continuing to talk to entertainment venues at the local, state and national levels. She shares a conference call twice a month with all the venues in town. She has regular calls with the historic theatres across the state and another with all venues included. She said it helps, “to learn from each other and not reinvent the wheel.”

She also talks with directors of other historic theatres across the country, but that is more difficult because the situation in each city is unique. Still, she says, “We can learn from each other.”

“Touring is our lifeblood and most of those artists are not comfortable touring. Most shows have been changed to 2021.” She also pointed out that once the theatre is open and the artists are willing, they still have to route a tour and there have to be enough venues across the country to allow them to string together dates. And then audiences have to be comfortable attending a show.

As a part of phase two in Knox County, the Tennessee Theatre is allowed to have fifty people in attendance. Phase three allows one hundred people. In a 1600 seat facility, the economics are just not there. “It must be close to regular revenue.” She says she is in regular contact with the Health Department to help them understand the theatre’s unique situation. “They are listening and we appreciate them.”

Mighty Wurlitzer, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, July 2018

They have discussed alternative programming and have live-streamed Mighty Musical Monday from an empty auditorium. They’ve considered doing other live streams from the stage of individuals or duos, but they’d want to pay the performers and without ticket sales, there is no money.

She said if we get to the point four or five hundred people were allowed to attend an event, classic movies might be workable as they are less expensive to show. Still, that raises all the complications of masks, taking temperatures, no-touch ticketing. If they schedule events and the situation shifts would they have to cancel?

Director Becky Hancock with the new written history of the Tennessee Theatre

She said she is “impressed with the staff and with their creativity and commitment. “We have to be patient. We are watchful and waiting. It would be devastating to open and then have to close, again.” They are still hoping to have the Broadway series, perhaps starting in 2021.

She said they were not able to keep the ticket prices as donations even if patrons offered as much. You can find all sorts of related information here, including a list of all shows and whether they have been canceled or postponed. They can always use donations and Becky said that is now more true than ever. You can donate here to the Tennessee Theatre to help them through this difficult time.