Grand Theater

Sean Wright, executive director of the Grand Theater, has a Ghost Light burning as a fundraiser and as a symbol of hope. The Business News photo by Jerry Rhoden 

While the COVID-19 shutdowns of spring caught most people and businesses by surprise, crews at the Grand Theater had a little more work to do than many.

“We had just loaded in ‘Waitress,’ ” said Sean Wright, executive director of the Grand since January 2015. “For two nights. We had two sold-out shows and had to load everything right back up.”

It was just the beginning of the headaches for Wright and company as he found himself juggling a head-spinning onslaught of reschedulings, postponements, and cancellations. Some were smaller, more regional acts, some were bigger national acts. Some had a little more flexibility, some had less so.

“Then you throw the international acts in there, and they didn’t want to travel,” Wright said. “Then one act can make one date work but not another …

“My eraser’s been getting a lot of work!” While the Grand was just nearing the end of its 2019-20 season, Wright had the entire 2020-21 calendar long set and had to begin reworking those dates, too. That meant pushing some spring acts into fall, rescheduling some fall acts, but only when both could make the dates work. All the while, there was no firm date when everything would be able to reopen.

We appreciate all donations, but the ones that mean the most are the small donors. We got one of $50 with a note that just said, ‘I miss the Grand.’

—Sean Wright,

executive director,

Grand Theater,

Wausau

Among the variables to be renegotiated were percentages of ticket sales, particularly since there are no guarantees as to numbers of people who will be allowed in due to social distancing guidelines.

Wright kept in touch with colleagues around the country, including one in North Carolina, where hurricane season often disrupts schedules.

“It feels like a constant hurricane season,” Wright said.

One silver lining to the COVID cloud has been businesses’ development of alternate capabilities. The Grand Theater, opened in 1927, is no different.

The Grand Outdoors series ran from August through October, putting on 10 shows with statewide acts in local outdoor venues.

“It just let us remind people that we’re here,” Wright said. Never intended to be a moneymaker, it roughly broke even, he said.

“The artists get asked to do a lot and not make money,” he said. “We understand that it means a lot to them to be in front of people again.”

The Grand is in the midst of a Virtual Stage series running October through December, which entails live-streaming one to two shows a week. Fans who register receive an emailed link to access the show.

“We work with a different restaurant for each one,” Wright said. “People can set up their food and drinks and make it as much like a real show as possible. We’ve had classic rock, jazz, country and others.”

Wright has also moved the Grand Theater’s educational series to an online format. Instead of energetic youths pouring off yellow school buses parked around the block, the streets remain empty, but the kids can still log on and learn as can high school students who are focusing on particular eras of Broadway history.

The digitization of the nearly century-old theater has been neither cheap nor easy, but it’s been necessary and actually a great opportunity.

“We’ve been able to get to some longdelayed projects,” said Wright with scaffolding behind him.

A $100,000-plus investment has covered a lot of ground: digital upgrades for streaming, ordering, and ticketing; infrastructural updates including plumbing.

Throughout, the Grand has been running its Ghost Light fund. The old showbiz inspiration comes from leaving a light on when a theater is dark, symbolizing the hope of a safe return of patrons to the theater. It’s an effort to help the Grand offset about $2 million in revenue lost to the COVID closures since spring.

ost to the COVID closures since spring. The Grand is hoping to raise $600,000 with the fund and has reached about one-sixth of that. It replaces the Grand’s traditional $300,000 fund drive, and Wright has been energized by the support.

“Of the 250 donations we’ve received, about 90 were first-time or lapsed donors,” he said. “We appreciate all donations, but the ones that mean the most are the small donors. We got one of $50 with a note that just said, ‘I miss the Grand.’ ”

Through it all, the light stands alone on the stage as a beacon of promise.

“We’re dark,” Wright said, “but we’re not closed.”