Spotlight Exclusives

A Curtain Falls on Neighborhood Theaters

Ed Finkel Ed Finkel, posted on

Self-employed Philadelphia-area actor Chris Davis, who does interactive historical comedy at schools, libraries and other settings like Renaissance fairs, can’t dream of performing live until at least a midsummer’s night.

“A couple of people are calling for July and August. I think they’re going to change their tune,” he says. “If I don’t feel safe doing it, I won’t do it.”

The old adage is that the show must go on, but it’s not going on right now. To a company and to a person, the COVID-19 shutdown has darkened smaller to midsized professional neighborhood theaters, along with their directors, actors, backstage crews and other personnel, as well as freelance performers like Davis.

Philadelphia-area actor Chris Davis performs with a helper in the pre-COVID 19 days.

When they do reopen – and in some cases re-opening is not a certainty – they might need to seat sparser crowds, at least for a while, as people attempt to socially distance more moderately.

Creative communities at risk

While policymakers in Washington and state capitals are focusing, understandably, on more familiar sectors of the consumer and manufacturing economies, the creative class that provides the modestly paid lifeblood for local theater scenes across the nation is also in jeopardy.

Theaters are seeking small-business relief from the federal stimulus bills as well as potential grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and state and local arts funders. And many theaters and artists are creating online dramatic content—but mostly to reach out to audiences and keep their talents fresh, not to earn revenue.

National companies and large-scale theaters have deeper financial resources and patrons to help as they try to weather the coronavirus storm, and some local troupes have been able to keep skeletal staffs on hand. But at the local level, most actors, crew members and other production-to-production freelancers are left with perhaps a few weeks’ pay, $1,200 stimulus checks from the government and varying prospects of drawing on unemployment checks.

Mid-America Arts Alliance President and CEO Todd Stein, whose organization serves artists of all types in six states in the Midwest and south-central U.S., says he hears a lot of fear and uncertainty. “When will organizations be able to reopen, and what will it mean for the public, as far as their level of comfort when this is over?” he says. “Will there be post-traumatic stress for the public, feeling safe going into theaters again? There are a lot of unanswered questions.”

The CARES Act and its Paycheck Protection Program provide some hope of relief for theaters, Stein says, although that money has disappeared rapidly even as more has become available.

He notes that it’s only a short-term remedy in any case. Arts-specific opportunities include the NEA, which opened a $75 million grantmaking process on April 27, as well as a $10 million artist relief fund created through a consortium of foundations offering $5,000 grants to those facing financial emergencies.

The 230 members of the League of Chicago Theatres, which range in budget size from low five-figures to multi-millions, all have lost their planned spring productions, as have their actors, directors, designers, artisans and stagehands, says Deb Clapp, executive director. “Every production has people working on it who aren’t necessarily employed full-time, but who put together a full-time living through all their projects,” she says. “None of those people are working right now.”

The Paycheck Protection Program, which covers about 2½ months of expenses at a 1% interest rate, forgivable if staff is hired back, reached quite a few theaters in the second round of funding, Clapp says. The $75 million allocated to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) “would not be enough to make Chicago theater whole, even,” she says.

And despite the $1,200 checks and possible unemployment benefits, “It’s going to be very rough on individuals for a long time,” she says.

But Clapp hasn’t heard any theaters talking about shutting down entirely, and she believes audiences will have a hunger to return. To help ensure that, as operators of the Hot Tix site that offers last-minute theater bargains, the League has been aggregating a wide range of videos posted by its member theaters, representing a mix of past performances and content that’s newly created since the shutdown. “It’s an important way for theaters to stay connected to people,” Clapp says. “There’s a lot of goodwill and hope that people will want to come back.”

Artists in crisis

In Chicago, the Lookingglass Theatre Company ended a production called “Her Honor, Jane Byrne,” about the former Chicago mayor, after a one-week run in mid-March. Andy White, director of community engagement, says the theater’s next production, scheduled to open in mid-May and based on the works of Lewis Carroll, is unlikely to happen, and the fiscal year ends Aug. 31. In addition, Lookingglass’ annual gala fundraiser had been unfortunately timed for April 3.

“A big chunk of both earned and contributed revenue for the year has just evaporated,” he says. “We’re trying to figure out … how to keep as many people on as possible. We want to sustain the organization.”

His company received a loan under the Paycheck Protection Program, “which will buy us some time as we figure out how to proceed from here,” White adds.

Most actors at the Lookingglass are on contract, and many belong to the Actors’ Equity Association, which meant they received two weeks of severance pay. Stage crew members, the production team and designers are a mix of staff and freelancers, White says, adding that everyone he knows in theater is either unemployed or scrambling to avoid it.

“You can get four months’ of unemployment, if you can get somebody on the phone or navigate through the online process,” he says. “The Illinois Arts Alliance and others have put together grants for artists who are in crisis. There are some resources out there, but not a ton.”

Lookingglass has developed a podcast and other online content to keep in touch with patrons, but before audiences return, “The challenge is, how can we keep our people employed, as many of them as possible, and for how long?” White says. “We have no income coming in, and no expenses going out. We know how that story ends.”

Elsewhere in Chicago, the Rivendell Theatre had just closed the first show of its 25th anniversary season and was about to begin preparing a new play called “Spay,” about the different life paths of two sisters from a small West Virginia town gripped by substance abuse, which is on hold at least through early 2021. In addition, the Rivendell Theatre had to postpone its anniversary gala from May to September, and that might need to be produced digitally.

“Everything has gotten shoved back,” says Tara Mallen, founder and artistic director. “Not only do we lose ticket revenue, but we don’t have that revenue coming from our gala.” And the theater also has lost rental income from a resident theater company that rents its space in between the Rivendell’s own shows.

The Rivendell has continued working on “Spay” with online readings as well as developmental and dramaturgical work, and the 22 people signed up for the production were paid up to one-third of their contracts; the Rivendell has applied for two weeks of paid sick leave compensation for its W-2 employees. “Most theaters did a certain amount of payout. If you’re working within the union, the union absolutely requires that,” Mallen says. “We tried to honor that while postponing ‘Spay,’ in good faith that hopefully they would be able to come back. If they couldn’t, they still deserved to get paid something.”

Not the same if not in person

In the meantime, the Rivendell has been releasing “sizzle reels” of its actors and their work over Zoom and other online platforms, including a “digital pivot” with material from a planned festival of one-woman shows written and performed by Chicago artists. The festival “ended up being really successful in regards to supporting the development of these four new solo plays and keeping our artists artistically engaged—and compensated,” she says.

While that’s helped connect with audiences, Mallen finds it unnatural. “The hardest thing to grapple with is the uncertainty of if and when we’ll be able to reconvene, given that we all work in a medium that is dependent on being integrated in a community, and sitting in a dark room together with strangers,” she says. “That is what is so special about theater.”

When the COVID-19 shutdowns hit in mid-March, the Enchantment Theatre Company in Philadelphia, which focuses on children’s theater, summoned home a touring company scheduled to spend the spring out west, while winding down local work as well.

Landis Smith, artistic director, production at the Enchantment, says he and his two co-founders, one of them his wife, were on furlough until receiving both an Economic Injury Disaster Loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration and a Paycheck Protection Act loan/grant, so they’re back part-time. “We’ve been in sort of a quieter time, anyway, to reevaluate our direction forward and business model.”

The Enchantment draws about 75% of revenue from earned income, and Smith says they’re trying to figure out how to become more dependent on funders. In the short run, they applied for the government funding to help with salaries, and “when things stabilize, as they will, we’re using this time to line up friends and supporters.”

They’re also creating online content to keep in touch with audiences as well as new virtual pre- and post-performance educational materials to increase performances’ impact on students going forward.

The one-man show

Davis, the self-employed historical comedian from Philly, says the $1,200 check from the government will provide “brief” help, and he hopes to access unemployment, which is temporarily providing relief for freelancers. But he doesn’t expect to access small business assistance as a one-man show.

To reconnect with schools and libraries, Davis has been exploring online content but sees a learning curve and does not expect to offer anything significant this school year, nor does he think educators would be receptive, yet.

“The goal of the [live] show has been to create curriculum-supportive interactive theater for schools and libraries—to work with pieces of curriculum, like Poe or Dickens or Shakespeare, that kids might find difficult, but in a way that’s funny and interactive,” he says. I’m going to be able to make recorded pieces that that hopefully people can use.”

But Davis figures that teachers and librarians are scrambling right now to find their footing online, and he’d rather take his time and get it right. “Even if I had something really good right now, they’re not ready for it,” he says, but he’s making “small chunks” available on YouTube, with a PayPal link for those who want to “put money in the hat, online.”

The Cherry Creek Theatre, which rents the 97-seat PLUSS Theatre in Denver’s JCC Mizel Arts and Culture Center, has postponed a mid-year production and will have to decide soon on whether to cancel it, with a third and last play for 2020 is scheduled for the fall.

However, the Cherry Creek, which does three productions of 12 to 16 performances per year, is better positioned to ride out the shutdowns than most, says Mark Rossman, board chair, who co-founded the theater with his wife, Maxine, who serves as vice chair. Cast and crew are independent contractors applying for unemployment on their own, and the theater itself has been able to pay its staff to date, while facing no long-term physical space commitments at the Mizel center.

A group of actors in the Denver area and elsewhere that includes Dan Rib, technical director and production manager at Mizel, has come together to create the COVID-19 Theatrical Response Team to keep theater in front of audiences, somehow. They’ve been livestreaming public domain pieces on Sunday afternoons on YouTube or Facebook, Rib says.

“We jumped on it quickly, learning what are the best practices, what works, and what doesn’t work,” he says. “Because it’s online, we’ve had casts of people from across the country, although a majority of them are in Denver. We have projects lined up through the end of May.”

But no one in the COVID-19 project is getting paid, and no one must pay to watch, although viewers are invited to contribute to the Denver Actors Fund, which provides grants for gig workers to pay their medical bills. Ultimately, Rib doesn’t see online theater as a moneymaker. “It’s going to be more maintaining contact with people,” he says. “Every band on Earth is putting on a free concert, and every comedian is putting out free material. You couldn’t justify saying, ‘Please pay $10 to come,’ even though it’s good content.”

Committed to the art

The children’s company at the Corinth Theatre in Corinth, Mississippi, had just finished a sellout production of “Steel Magnolias” and was turning next to “Frozen Jr.,” scheduled to open April 30 but postponed until social distancing winds down. Joshua Steen, who returned to “the theater I grew up in,” as resident director, has been holding online rehearsals for Frozen Jr. “We’re still going to do it. We’re just in a holding pattern,” he says.

With a “very, very lenient” lease from the City of Corinth and a staff of one, himself, Steen figures the theater will manage until July—but then he might not be able to take a salary. “We should already have sold thousands of tickets for ‘Frozen,’” he says, which will move to a smaller theater and sell fewer seats. “We expected to make $40,000 on that production.”

Without that revenue, the company will need to reconsider its plans for next season, too. “I’ll gladly do this for free, as long as I’m able to,” Steen says. “Theater folks, we are a strong bunch. We’re resilient folks. Even if I don’t get paid, we’re still going to do our art. That’s what’s most important for me.”

Ed Finkel is a freelance journalist based in Evanston, Illinois.


This story was co-published with Microsoft News 

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