Sarnia’s Imperial Theater faces fallout from latest shutdown

Sarnias Imperial Theater faces fallout from latest shutdown

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The not-for-profit owners of Sarnia’s Imperial Theater are back to rescheduling shows and worrying about the future in the wake of the latest pandemic shutdown.

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Venues like the 600-seat downtown Sarnia live performance theater were ordered last week by the province to close their doors again to the public through most of January after being reduced to half capacity in December.

“We were just starting to get back to it and to be shut down again is a bit of a kick to the ribs, I think,” theater executive director Brian Austin Jr. said.

The theater had been operating with audiences back in its seats for concerts and shows since Nov. 13, following the lifting of earlier pandemic restrictions and the completion of renovations in its auditorium.

“It feels like we just back-slid about 18 months,” said Austin Jr. “We’re back to working from home and staff meetings in Zoom boxes.”

The theater has canceled or postponed eight upcoming performances so far following the most recent provincial announcement.

“That’s 2,500 tickets that we’ve had to exchange or refund,” Austin Jr.

“We’ve deferred or refunded over $ 125,000 just from this latest announcement,” he said. “The first lockdown, we refunded over half-a-million dollars in tickets, and had to move I don’t even know how many shows.”

He said the theater has been relying mostly on its reserves since the pandemic began.

While it has been running a successful online 50-50 lottery, money the draws makes can only be used for capital improvements at the downtown building.

“We can’t use any of that money for operating” costs, said Austin Jr. “That means we can’t pay salaries” or utility bills from lottery proceeds, he said.

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“Basically, the nuts and bolts of the operation is still running off of the good financial planning and foresight of the board and myself previous to COVID,” said Austin Jr.

The theater has been able to tap into some short-term government funding offered during the pandemic “but. over the last two-and-a-half years. that has really only covered about 15 per cent of operations, ”he said. “The rest is all from previous savings from successful seasons, prior to COVID.”

He said theater officials were excited to reopen in November and have a chance to begin replenishing the Imperial’s operating funds. That took a hit when the province reduced capacity for theaters in December and shut down food and drink service, which is “quite a substantial revenue stream for us,” said Austin Jr.

A full list of postponed shows can be found on the theater’s website at .

Promoters and tour managers who book dates at the theater are being “cautious” about what’s ahead, said Austin Jr.

“Some of the calls I’m on today are people deciding whether they’re going to pull the plug on some tours,” he said Monday.

“It’s the unknown that is so unnerving. If we knew Feb. 1 everything was going to go back, we could plan. ”

But live theater isn’t “a light switch or a faucet,” he said. “You can’t just turn it on or off.”

Months, or even years, of planning and preparation go into theater seasons and tours, said Austin Jr. Delays add costs and the pandemic has added expenses for personal protective equipment and ensuring public-health rules are being followed when audiences are allowed in.

He added the theater is running out of dates available to reschedule performances later in the year, which could also lead to shows being canceled and the loss of revenue.

“We know we’ll get through, and we’ll survive and we’ll thrive, but it’s tough right now,” he said.

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