Seven months after doors last were opened to the public, Sight & Sound Theatres is ready for audiences again.
The theater, itself a bedrock of the multimillion-dollar tourism enterprise of Lancaster County and its most popular tourist attraction, will begin performances Thursday, July 30. According to Sight & Sound brand manager Dean Sell, that opening will involve cutting attendance to 15% of its 2,000 seat capacity, as well as the introduction of an ionized air purification system into the building’s filtration setup.
“We talk a lot here about being two things put together, a ministry and a theater,” Sell said Tuesday. “How do we balance ministry and margins? For this moment, we believe that the right thing to do is to begin, very slowly, to welcome a few people through to sort of get the motions going to understand what this might look like for the time being.”
The theater’s newest show, “Queen Esther,” was set to premiere on March 14, just five days before Governor Tom Wolf ordered the initial closing of all non-essential businesses. According to Sight & Sound CEO Matt Neff, the theater’s closing has resulted in $2 million in lost revenue per week and 400,000 refunded tickets. Additionally, 95% of Sight & Sound’s employees were furloughed while the theater remained closed; 10% of that number is not being asked back when “Esther” opens.
Sell said Sight & Sound consulted state representatives, county officials and legal counsel to determine the appropriate capacity for in-person performances.
“Based on outside counsel regarding the current orders, we fall under the 'entertainment venue' category, which still allow for 50% of legal occupancy,” Sell said. “However, as discussed, we will be opening at far less than that."
On Tuesday, the company also formally unveiled Sight & Sound TV, an online streaming service for past shows. The service is currently only available on desktops, with an app coming in the near future and can be found here. Users can register for Sight & Sound TV for free and access free behind the scenes footage, but to view past shows such as “Jesus,” “Samson” and “Moses,” fees are $5.99 and $19.99 to rent and purchase, respectively. The plan is to eventually bring older shows such as “Ruth” and “Colors of Praise,” which currently exist on old tapes in a physical vault, to the service as well.
According to Sell, the idea for a streaming service had already been in the works but was accelerated when Sight & Sound offered “Jesus” for streaming to the Trinity Broadcasting Station over the Easter holiday, which was seen by 3 million people in over 60 countries.
That success led to the announcement of the pay-per-view debut of “Queen Esther” on Sight & Sound TV on Friday, Sept. 4. Nearly a dozen cameras will film the show and broadcast it live, with repeat showings on Sept. 5 and 6. Though it is described as a “pay-what-you-will” event, the theater is asking for a minimum of $25 to view the show.
Sell hopes that with a microcosm of a regular audience and streaming viewers, the theater will be able to recoup some of the revenue spent on producing “Queen Esther” and continue work on future projects. The average production at Sight & Sound requires an average of four years to bring from concept to reality.
“This year is not just affecting this year, and I think you're hearing that everywhere,” Sell said. “This is rippling into 2022 for us, if not beyond that.”
As with other businesses on its scale, it’s less that Sight & Sound doesn’t have a plan moving forward further into quarantine, it’s that there are several plans ready without a clear idea of which is most applicable.
“We're really taking it moment by moment, day by day,” Sell said. “This truly is a walk of faith for us.”