What variant are we on now? With the mu coronavirus variant making headlines, even as COVID-19 cases caused by the delta variant persist, the idea of sitting in a room full of potentially unvaccinated strangers may be the stuff of nightmares rather than dreams — even for longstanding patrons of the arts. Here’s how three frequent flyers at Seattle Arts & Lectures, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Taproot Theatre and Seattle Shakespeare Company are weighing the choice to return to seeing live art this fall.

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“If it feels too crowded … we’ll just walk away”

Diana Knauf with her surprise book from Seattle Arts & Lecture’s Date a Book initiative, in which participants receive a book wrapped anonymously in brown paper and see if they click with it. Knauf is a frequent Seattle Arts & Lectures audience member. (Courtesy of Diana Knauf)

“I am definitely someone who goes out and about under normal conditions,” said Diana Knauf, a community college instructor and frequent Seattle Arts & Lectures audience member. But normal conditions being absent, Knauf has had to make some adjustments, including wearing an N95 mask in crowded spaces like — most recently — concerts.

But going without live art had been a bigger adjustment. “I love live music. I love hearing authors talk about their books. I like going to lectures. So I would say the past year and a half has been difficult,” she said.

Knauf began attending SAL events in the late ’90s after returning to Seattle from New York City, where she’d gone to graduate school and attended events through cultural institutions like the 92nd Street Y. In Seattle, she saw SAL as a local equivalent.

Over the last 10 years, as Knauf’s teaching career solidified and she had more time to seek out arts programming, she became a devoted SAL attendee. “When I looked at the SAL schedule, there were very few people I didn’t want to hear,” she said.

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Not being able to attend her favorite author events and lectures during the pandemic had been a disruption, but Knauf appreciated that the organization, like so many others, pivoted to streaming programming when in-person lectures were suspended in 2020, which had the added value of opening up access to viewers with disabilities, she noted.

Despite the uncertainty the transition to fall and winter may bring, Knauf said she’d purchased tickets to attend SAL’s lineup in person. She was especially excited to see Anthony Doerr. But she had a backup plan. “My husband and I have both said if we get someplace and it doesn’t feel right — if it feels too crowded — we’ll just walk away, and that’s OK,” she said.

It wasn’t just Doerr she was excited to see. She missed the camaraderie of sitting in an audience with other people.

“It’s that ‘a-ha’ experience where you see something … and you turn to the person next to you … and you look at each other like, ‘Wow, did they just say that?’ Or, ‘Did that just happen?’ Even if you don’t know them,” she said. “And that connection just isn’t the same.”

Staying home but keeping subscriptions active

Daniel Ichinaga has a creative solution to the ambivalence that comes with wanting to support the arts during a pandemic that makes attending live performance a weightier decision than usual. Ichinaga, a season subscriber to both Pacific Northwest Ballet and Taproot Theatre, is keeping all of his subscriptions active. He’s just not sure yet if he’ll use them.

“What I’m likely to do is not go in the fall and see how things go, and then check it out in the wintertime,” he said.

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When live performances were suspended in the wake of COVID-19, Ichinaga opted to donate his tickets back to PNB and Taproot, and, this year, he re-upped his subscriptions, regardless of whether he’ll actually sit in an audience this theater season. “It’s doing a small bit to support the organization,” he said.

He’s not sure when returning to the ballet or a play will feel safe again, he said, but “I’d love to get to the place where I feel comfortable going to the theater, where it’s not a worry, where somehow we’ve gotten past it, case counts are nil … and I’m thinking: ‘Gosh, when is that likely to happen?’”

It seems like a long way off, but Ichinaga thinks that maybe within a two-to-three-year window, he’ll be comfortable going to see live performances, that even if COVID-19 is “a lingering concern … it’s not going to deter me.”

In the meantime, the arts organizations he’s singled out still have his support.

He said he’d found the experience of watching performances at home quite different from the ineffable excitement of seeing the ballet and Taproot productions live.

“There’s this energy to the live performance that comes through in a way that watching a recording doesn’t,” he said. Being in the room where live art happens means being open to engaging more deeply with the work itself.

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“There’s this greater sense of anticipation as well,” he said. “I tend to watch my watch and I’m watching the other people come in and I sometimes sense before it registers that, oh, the lights are dimming and there’s this greater anticipation that builds.”

“Theater and music are meant to be shared”

Terry and Rick Edwards host picnics every summer at Seattle Shakespeare Company’s Wooden O outdoor performances. They had to modify the gathering amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy of Rick Edwards)

Seattle Shakespeare Company’s Wooden O series, free outdoor performances of the classics, used to mark a major tradition for Rick and Terry Edwards. In the Before Times, it was the “biggest social event of the year” for the couple. “We throw a big picnic, and we invite people that we know from all aspects of our life,” he said. 

Neighbors, friends from church, former co-workers and classmates — in previous years, all were invited to potluck-style meals followed by Shakespeare. The picnic sometimes drew around 20 to 30 participants, said Rick Edwards. When COVID-19 disrupted the tradition in 2020, “that was a huge loss,” he said.

They were able to revive the picnic this summer, but it was different. With COVID-19, it had to be. “We had to be very, very explicit,” he said. Following Seattle Shakespeare Company’s guidance, the Edwards were clear that guests needed to be vaccinated to join. They were served individually rather than potluck-style, and instead of sitting in the middle of the action, the party kept to the edge of the audience. “It was probably about half our normal attendance for something like this,” Rick said. “We did it once, not twice … we’re being cautious and careful.”

Rick said he was “excited and a little fearful at times” about theaters reopening this fall. He has experience in occupational safety and a tendency to “go dig really deep into the numbers … so I have a fair amount of concern about what could happen.”

So despite their love of theater, the Edwardses have been tentative and cautious about returning to their seats in an indoor audience. They’d tested their comfort level with dinner performances at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley, where they either sat alone or with friends they knew were vaccinated. Edwards said they’d enjoyed both visits, in large part because Jazz Alley requires proof of vaccination. “We felt reasonably comfortable, but there was still that ongoing fear … ‘Is this really the right thing for us to do?’” he said.

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More than anything, he misses the social aspect of live performance. “Some of our deepest friendships … started by inviting people to join us at some sort of arts event,” he said.

He also misses more ephemeral aspects of being an audience member. “You’re not only being exposed to the artistic performance, you’re providing feedback to the people who are performing, and at the same time, you’re getting the feedback from other people on how they’re responding. I’ll laugh at things that nobody else finds funny, but other people will respond to something, and it’s this idea that there is a different way to react to what just happened.”

By contrast, “Laughing alone is, in some respects, the most isolating feeling on earth, particularly if you’re used to doing it in a theater full of people.”

Ultimately, said Rick, “I think theater and music are meant to be shared.”