This article originally appeared in the April issue of District Fray Magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.
The paint was still drying on the set of Signature Theatre’s world-premiere production Camille Claudel. The five members of Happenstance Theatre Company were packing for New York City where they were scheduled to make their off-Broadway debut. And the 170 teens in Young Artists in America’s Beauty and the Beast were days away from the first dress rehearsal of a production that composer Alan Menken was planning to attend.
These are just a few of the 70 shows that came to an abrupt halt in the DC region as the Coronavirus put America and all of its performing arts organizations on lockdown last month, forcing theaters to shut their doors indefinitely in response to a crisis that has no clear end in sight.
With no way of knowing when they will be able to open again, organizations are now being forced to make gut-wrenching decisions to ensure their very survival. The business side of theater is a precarious model in the best of times, and few organizations have enough of a cushion to make up for the sudden loss of revenue that befell them last week.
“I’m not gonna lie,” says Signature Theatre’s Managing Director Maggie Boland. “I’m absolutely concerned about the long-term impact this is going to have on the industry as whole. We are all under strain. Some won’t survive, and we will all come out of this smaller.”
So how are theaters, whose very existence depends upon people getting together, supposed to stay alive when people are forced to stay apart? And what are the region’s arts organizations doing to ensure they can withstand this unprecedented challenge? I spoke to the management of numerous organizations to find out.
Log onto any theater website these days and you are likely to see a message that goes something like this: SEND HELP.
Even though the shows aren’t running, theaters can’t pause their operations entirely. Depending on size and structure, organizations typically have numerous fixed costs including rent or mortgage payments, utilities, and staff salaries. Contractual obligations to playwrights and designers still need to be paid on canceled shows, even for work that may never see the light of day. And because no one knows when they will be able to reopen, theaters have no way of knowing just how long they will have to operate on reserves (if they have any to begin with).
Theaters are working diligently to develop short-term and long-term plans and rewriting those plans almost daily as new information comes in about the duration and severity of the crisis. “The hard part is that there is no firm ground for determining the future,” says Shakespeare Theatre Company Executive Director Chris Jennings. “We are all making multiple contingency plans for now.”
An initial step that nearly all theaters have taken is to set up a fund to accept public donations. Arena Stage calls theirs the Roaring Back Fund, while Round House Theatre boasts the Round House Resilience Fund and Shakespeare Theatre Company, the Phoenix Fund. Call it what you want, the goal is the same: To replace some of the cash that evaporated overnight when box offices closed, endowments shrank, and tuition payments ceased.
Jennings has observed some success with STC’s Phoenix Fund, noting that the theater is already more than halfway to its goal and that most gifts are from first-time donors contributing small amounts.
Other organizations are looking to grants and government assistance to make up for the lost ticket revenue. GALA Hispanic Theatre, a nonprofit 264-seat theater offering bilingual programming since 1976, relies heavily on grant money. “Tickets are only about 20% of our revenue, but it’s a vital 20%,” founder Rebecca Medrano shared. “When I apply for grants, I need to show that we offer something people want to buy tickets to see.”
Organizations without large staffs or property may have an easier time waiting things out. Young Artists of America, a performing arts training program for young people across the region, produces shows at venues including Strathmore and The Clarice but has no spaces of its own to maintain. “We are just in a holding pattern for now,” Producing Artistic Director Rolando Sanz says.
Theaters estimate losses in large numbers. Round House, a mid-size theater with an annual budget of $8 million estimates its expenses to be around $100,000 per month during this crisis. Shakespeare Theatre Company, with an annual operating budget of $18.5 million, projects losses of $3.5 million for the remainder of the season that they have canceled.
Signature Theatre Managing Director Maggie Boland puts it in stark terms: “We don’t have a big financial cushion. Trying to maintain the operations while not producing anything is a giant math problem. If we can’t produce in the summer, it will be a catastrophe with millions of dollars of lost revenue.”
It takes a village to keep a theater running, and many organizations are now being forced to reconsider how much staff they can afford.
Arena Stage and The Kennedy Center both recently announced large staff furloughs, but most other organizations are working to keep staff intact while admitting they are unsure how long they will be able to do so.
Ed Zakreski, Managing Director of Round House Theatre says he and Artistic Director Ryan Rilette have sketched a framework for continuity guided by four priorities. “We want to keep our staff employed, find a way to help artists who are out of work, provide online content, and be prepared to launch our season in the fall.”
Zakreski says their ability to keep paying staffers is due to a small reserve fund and good fortune that the first three shows in their season were big moneymakers for the theater. “We’re not in a bad cash position from that point, but we still need help,” he observed. “Continuing to pay staff for as long as possible is a matter of prioritization for us.”
Sabrina Mandell from Happenstance Theatre is prioritizing the three ensemble members who make up Happenstance along with herself and her husband. The small itinerant ensemble that specializes in physical comedy has been together for 14 years. Mandell is using savings to pay performers through the summer, even for contracts that have been canceled. “I’ve got to take care of my people,” she says.
Signature, Woolly Mammoth, Shakespeare Theatre Company, and GALA also stressed the importance of taking care of staff for as long as possible.
“We’re trying to lead with our values,” says Woolly Mammoth Managing Director Emika Abe. “We are grappling with doing the right thing by artists who have held this time for us and were planning on this income.”
Although full-time staff positions are safe for the time being, Boland highlights all the other jobs Signature Theatre would normally be providing right now. “Under normal circumstances, we would have two shows running and another in rehearsals. All those front of house employees and all our actors, who are really the heart of this institution, are now out of work.”
But continuing to pay full-time staffers is a luxury that theaters may not have if this closure drags on for more than a few months. “It depends on how long this goes on,” GALA’s Medrano states. “If it goes to summer, we will have to lay people off.”
STORING SETS AND CROSSING FINGERS
After devoting blood, sweat, and tears to productions that never opened or closed early, some theaters are hoping to remount those shows in the future.
“On the last day staff was allowed in the building, I walked through the empty theater,” Signature’s Boland recalls. “The Camille Claudel set was finished and it was astoundingly beautiful. All that work and no one saw it. I was crying.”
Signature put the set in storage and hopes to present the musical next season. As for Signature’s much-anticipated plan to produce the musical Mamma Mia! at The Anthem this summer? “Circumstances are changing every day, but right now it’s still on the calendar for June,” Boland says. “We hope people will be ready for a huge dance party by then.”
Round House has also stored the set for its production of Cost of Living and will remount that show in September of 2021. The play won playwright Martyna Majok the Pulitzer Prize for drama last year and was meant to be a homecoming for Majok whose play Ironbound played at Round House as part of the first Women’s Voices Theater Festival in 2015. Majok joined the Round House team on a virtual happy hour Zoom call last week to toast the production that is, for now, caught in limbo.
Some theaters are leaving themselves wiggle room as they navigate the future. Woolly is intentionally using the word “suspended” regarding its production of There’s Always the Hudson, which was supposed to open April 6. “Part of what is so heartbreaking in all of this is that we determine our seasons 12 to 18 months in advance,” says Abe. “We’ve been excited for these works for a long time. Paula Lázaro, the playwright of There’s Always the Hudson, has been working toward this premiere for four years and now it’s just gone.”
But finding future time slots for these orphaned shows is a daunting task, since most spaces already have their programming set far into 2021. Happenstance Theatre Company was slated to make its off-Broadway debut last month at New York’s 59East59 Theatre. The show, Barococo, won’t get another chance to play there until at least February of 2022, if then. That is the first slot the venue has open. “We are just peaking as a creative ensemble and I’m really sad because this feels like such a waste,” Mandell says.
Strathmore, the multi-disciplinary arts center in Bethesda, Maryland, is facing this crisis with the mantra “the artist is the priority,” says President and CEO Monica Jeffries Hazangeles. The organization hosts up to 450 acts each year at its three venues, from large orchestras to intimate concerts, but has managed to reschedule all but one of the shows it has had to suspend so far.
While some theaters, including Arena Stage, Round House, Studio Theatre, and Shakespeare Theatre Company, have preemptively canceled the remainder of their season, others are holding out hope that they will be able to run shows by June. Young Artists of America has tentatively rescheduled Beauty and the Beast, the production that means so much to nearly 200 high-schoolers, for June 12. Alan Menken, the show’s Tony Award-winning composer, has volunteered to do a virtual talkback with the students in the production.
GALA would love to put on its annual Tango show in June, an event that Medrano characterizes as “a real money maker.” But staging the event would involve bringing dancers in from New York and Argentina, increasingly unlikely as travel bans and lockdowns are still extending. There is also the uncertainty of audience readiness.
“What if you put on the show and no one comes?” Medrano muses.
Unable to stage live productions, theaters are quickly discovering new ways to reach audiences.
Olney Theatre Center and Signature Theatre each filmed their most recent productions (The Amateurs and Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes) and sold tickets to allow people to watch the plays online. Both sold out quickly.
Some organizations are hosting internal events to keep organizations connected. Round House hosts a regular Friday happy hour for its staff on Zoom. Young Artists of America rehearses online. Woolly Mammoth has developed a reading group in which its board members read plays together.
Young Artists of America’s Sanz is working to keep his students connected online. “Our organization is a main source of friendship for these kids. And this happened when they were also in rehearsal for their school musicals, which also closed.” YAA students can now join watch parties where they view past productions and high-five each other through chat screens. Strathmore’s Children’s Chorus and Maryland Classic Youth Orchestra are also continuing to rehearse online.
But most efforts to move online are geared toward the public, since organizations know it is paramount that they stay on people’s radar if they hope to retain their audience base.
Round House is offering a slew of free online content under the moniker “Round House in Your House.” This content includes online theater classes for students, live cocktail-making demonstrations for those 21 and over (Quarantini anyone?), and a series of video chats called “Playwrights on Plays” in which A-list playwrights including Majok (Cost of Living), J. T. Rogers (Oslo), and Dominique Morisseau (Pipeline) host weekly online sessions discussing their work and a play of their choice that inspires them. Audience members are encouraged to read the play before joining the discussion.
Shakespeare Theatre Company has had great success with the #ShakespeareChallenge, Artistic Director Simon Godwin’s call for people to perform their favorite sonnet online. STC also plans to take its annual mock trial online this year. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg will preside over the event, which normally sells out within minutes.
Strathmore now uses Facebook to live stream a weekly concert series called “Live from the Living Room” featuring its resident artists, including the Grammy-nominated hip-hop artist Christylez Bacon. For families, Strathmore presents “Family Jam Sessions” on Saturday mornings, free of charge. “This is an especially big challenge for young people and kids who are really grieving connections,” Strathmore’s Hazangeles says.
Theaters without budgets for splashy web consultants or tech-savvy staff have found it more difficult to transition to online content. “It’s really been an eye-opener in how behind we are on technology,” Medrano says. “Our senior staff are all in our 70s. You would have laughed seeing us try to get on Zoom.” GALA also hopes to get online to connect its Paso Nuevo students, low-income minority students who would normally be participating in GALA’s free after-school theater programming.
Contrast that with the experience of 4615 Theatre Company’s Artistic Director Jordan Friend. One of the new kids on the theater block, Friend is a scrappy 26-year-old whose theater company, now in its third season, was forced to close a world-premiere production called Museum 2040 halfway through its scheduled run. Friend responded by developing online play readings featuring 4615 Theatre company members just a week after theaters closed. He is also performing solo concerts live on Facebook, playing audience requests and sharing his Venmo address in case anyone wants to supplement his lost income.
For Woolly, a socially driven theater, the question of how to move online becomes an existential one: “How do we make people understand that we aren’t just frivolous entertainment?” Abe muses. Woolly is currently using its 3D printer to make masks for medical professionals and working with Chef Jose Andres’s Employee Support Fund. The theater has created #Woollycreates, a hashtag for people to use in sharing the ways that they are being creative from home.
LOOKING TOWARD THE FUTURE
With so much uncertainty, things could get worse before they get better. Theater leaders are trying to remain optimistic, but the whisper of the unknown makes it hard not to think in doomsday terms: What if theaters remain shut beyond spring or summer? And what if, when theaters do reopen, the audience doesn’t come?
“Will people feel safe to gather after this?” Abe wonders, noting that some people will be concerned about the close proximity of theater seating. “That makes us vulnerable.”
“I think this is just the beginning,” Mandell adds. “I think there is a lot of delusion around the long-term impact this is going to have.”
Boland worries about the lasting economic effects of the crisis. “What if the goal post keeps moving past the point where theaters can mobilize and come back? What if the economy is so damaged that the support won’t be there because people can’t afford it?”
But artists are also excited about next season and the opportunity to start fresh.
Zakreski, who was part of the team that helped the Kennedy Center recover after 9/11, is enthusiastic about Round House’s fall lineup. The season opens with Octavio Solis’s Quixote Nuevo, a modern characterization of Don Quixote, the Spanish idealist known for dreaming impossible dreams and facing difficulties head on. It is an apt metaphor not only for the challenge that theaters now face, but also for the power of theater to reinvent itself when faced with such a challenge.
“Artists are resilient and accustomed to change,” Boland concludes. “This will push us to be smarter and more creative. If anyone can bounce back from this, it’s theater artists.”
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO HELP?
- If you have a ticket to a show that was canceled, let the organization keep the money rather than asking for a refund.
- Donate to theatreWashington’s Taking Care Fund, which is providing grants to out-of-work theater artists.
- Consider a donation to the fundraising initiative featured on your favorite theater’s homepage.
- Buy season tickets to your favorite theater for the 2020-2021 season and spend the next month imagining the joy of being back in a theater!