Forty-eight hours. It took less than 48 hours to turn wait-and-see into “stay home, please.” Almost overnight, states across the country went from options like merely limiting the number of people at large events to major closures. Big dominoes fell late Wednesday night and into Thursday as the NBA suspended their season after a player tested positive for COVID-19. Most major sporting leagues followed suit.
For theatre, that big domino was the extremely rare and difficult decision for all of Broadway to go dark.
“Even on Wednesday,” said Snehal Desai, artistic director at East West Players in Los Angeles, “we had decided we would perform through the weekend. Then we were told that the county would shut things down next week. And then Thursday we were told, ‘You need to shut down as soon as possible.’ It was just very, very fast.”
It has been a turn that has left theatres across the country stunned. After all, many theatres see it as their mission, if not their civic duty, to provide some kind of escape or respite in times of crisis. It was Broadway, after all, that reopened just two days after 9/11 devastated New York City and the world, providing the balm many seek when attending theatre (not to mention bolstering the fortunes of New York’s biggest tourist industry). But this is different. While there have been shutdowns and strikes before, all 41 of Broadway’s theatres are closing their doors for a month, looking at resuming performances on April 13.
“Our top priority has been and will continue to be the health and well-being of Broadway theatregoers and the thousands of people who work in the theatre industry every day, including actors, musicians, stagehands, ushers, and many other dedicated professionals,” reads the statement from the president of the Broadway League, Charlotte St. Martin. “Broadway has the power to inspire, enrich, and entertain, and together we are committed to making that vital spirit a reality. Once our stages are lit again, we will welcome fans back with open arms so that they can continue to experience the joy, heart, and goodwill that our shows so passionately express every night.”
Beyond Broadway, though, theatres nationwide have scrambled to find their bearings, variously deciding to cancel performances, postpone productions, move fundraising galas, and end school programming. All while still trying to keep employees and artists paid, and patrons happy. EWP, who just had to postpone their annual fundraising gala due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is looking at cost-cutting all the way down to the bare essentials, including personnel pay. Without their gala, which usually helps them through a production-less summer, Desai has found his company contingency planning in the face of a closure with no clear end.
“We’re asking anyone else that we owe money to that we are given some time or some extensions,” Desai said. “I think the biggest question is how long all of this is going to be happening. We were told right now we should prepare for three months of closure. At that point, what most theatres don’t have is savings or reserves.”
This has led to EWP to talk to their funders about whether grant money slated for three to six months in the future can flow in sooner, Desai said. It also means looking into whether funds usually restricted to use for certain programs can be opened up to cover general operating costs. For now, Desai is looking at a completely changed theatrical, and global, landscape in which the arts are no longer a constant.
“It’s pretty bleak,” Desai conceded. “What’s really eye-opening about this is it’s not a local thing. It’s not a city. It’s not a state. It’s not even just a nation. It’s a global issue. So it’s going to take us a very long time. I think it’s figuring out, in this new world, what our role will be. And I think it will be different for a while.”
Some companies, like New York City’s Irish Repertory Theatre, are doing their best to stay prepared in case, by mid-April, everything is able to go back to some semblance of business as usual. To the best of his abilities, Ciarán O’Reilly, co-founder and producing director of Irish Rep, is trying to follow Broadway’s lead, which means being ready to reopen come mid-April. This also means using time strategically to get their upcoming performance of A Touch of the Poet (postponed from a March 25 start to April 15), which had already been in rehearsals for three weeks, finished with rehearsals and tech before sending everyone home for a couple of weeks. For Irish Rep, which relies heavily on box-office income, being ready to reopen and produce as soon as possible could be critical to their bottom line.
“It’s catastrophic,” O’Reilly said of the economic impact of closure on his company. It’s made worse, he pointed out, by all of the unknowns in terms of the timeline moving forward. “Even when thinking of past disasters, like Hurricane Sandy or 9/11, there was something definitive about them: ‘This happened and it’s going to take some time to get back. When the electricity is turned back on or when the streets are clear or the transportation is up and running, we will get back.’ This, we just don’t know how far it goes.”
Deb Clapp, executive director of the League of Chicago Theatres, which serves more than 200 area theatres, noted that small theatres dependent on earned income who don’t have big donors or funders are going to have a very tough time in the coming days and weeks. Clapp was in meetings Thursday weighing options for theatres in light of the Chicago ban on events with more than 1,000 people and recommendation that all events gathering 250 people or more be postponed or canceled. Speaking on Friday, Clapp noted that even though heads are spinning right now, “We’re in day one here. The financial losses that are going to be incurred at all levels of this industry are as yet incalculable. We have many artists, contract workers, part-time workers who are going to be going without pay, not because people don’t want to pay them, but because they simply do not have the cash.”
On Thursday, Actors’ Equity Association put out a statement after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo made the announcement that gatherings of 500 people or more are banned and Broadway was to close. The statement commended Cuomo on his decision to put health and safety first, but also acknowledged that this means a lot of uncertainty for thousands of people who work in the arts. The statement from AEA executive director Mary McColl read, in part:
“Equity will use all of our options to advocate for all our members and is engaged at all levels to ensure members are protected and paid. Now is the time for Congress and local governments to put workers first to ensure that everyone who works in the arts and entertainment sector has access to paid leave, health care, and unemployment benefits. Payroll tax cuts won’t help those whose theatres are now dark. For every middle-class actor you see onstage, there are dozens of other workers behind the scenes and in an administrative capacity.”
Clapp echoed the calls from AEA for government support of the arts to offset these losses. This will be even more urgently needed at a time when theatres’ largest donors are also being hit by the financial instability of a fluctuating stock market. Calls are out to arts councils, local governments, as well as the national government to raise awareness. As Clapp noted, when economic relief eventually does come from the government, it’s crucial that the arts and its workers not be excluded.
With so many people finding themselves suddenly out of work or with severely reduced opportunities to work, theatres across the country are looking for ways to bring in income or retain income for shows that have to be canceled. At Berkeley Repertory Theatre, managing director Susie Medak adds up potential cost of closing the theatre for an unspecified amount of time running into the millions of dollars. Still, she said, it’s a priority for her and the company’s board to take care of staff and be respectful of their artists.
“We’re trying to figure out what to do with our overhire and hourly workers,” Medak said. “We know that if we abandon them, they are going to be in enormous trouble. We know that if we want them to be there when we reopen, we have to help them now.”
Medak and Berkeley Rep are also looking at ways to serve their patrons, exploring a deal with Broadway HD to film and stream their productions to ticketholders, which they are planning to do for currently running shows Culture Clash (Still) in America and School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play. (The Bay Area’s American Conservatory Theater is also planning to do this for their shuttered productions of Toni Stone and Gloria.) Filming performances is not a sure-fire solution, Medak pointed out, as this solution isn’t realistic for all the shows they’re mounting this season. But it could provide a way to pay actors for the broadcast (with Equity’s blessing, of course), give ticketholders something close to what they purchased, and give the artists involved a chance to share their work.
The threat of lost ticket revenue has led some nonprofit theatres, in messaging about cancellations to patrons, to ask them to consider donating the value of their tickets to the organization. Posts are even cropping up on Instagram and social media to remind people of the fundamental need theatres are having right now to simply survive these closures. At EWP, Desai noticed that the conversations around ticket refunds or donations weren’t quite going as expected.
“Initially when we started to put word out,” Desai said about reaching out to patrons, “we got a lot of folks calling in, and most were wanting to donate or just to say, ‘We want to wait.’ Then there were some that wanted a refund immediately. But also we found them suddenly starting to talk a lot about what the stresses were, and what they were afraid of and all these other things. They were just happy often to get someone on the phone. It wasn’t really about the refund or the money—it was about making sure that they were heard.”
Even Yale Repertory Theatre, which artistic director James Bundy admits isn’t as reliant on ticket revenue as other theatres, stands to lose substantial ticket revenue and significant resources after cancelling their productions of A Raisin in the Sun and Testmatch. On top of the loss of revenue, Bundy notes, theatres are having to adjust to a new—hopefully temporary—reality of a world where as many people as possible need to conduct their work from home. “It’s hard to make collaborative art at home,” Bundy said.
He continued, “I think everybody in our community is sad that the work isn’t able to continue right now. There’s significant uncertainty right now as to how long the situation is going to last. We have to adjust, sometimes in real time, to try to keep planning and doing pre-production for next season. But there’s no guarantee at this point that we’ll be able to resume normal production processes even early this summer.”
For a field that relies not only on close collaboration but scheduling, planning—not to mention a script—it is profoundly unnerving to look toward a future that is so uncertain. But one consistent theme that emerged in every conversation and every interview I conducted is the deep sense of community that has come out of these trying times. In a sort of last grasp at normalcy, and in lieu of a closing night of their production of Culture Clash, a group from Berkeley Rep got together last night at a neighborhood restaurant for drinks and pizzas.
“We’re all in this together,” Medak said. “Because, at the end of this, whatever that means, it’s going to be sort of like who’s the last man standing—which restaurants will survive, which of our vendors will survive. All of that is the sort of unknown at the moment. And then, at the same time, I woke up this morning realizing we’ve got to finish our season planning for next year. We’ve got to look ahead. It’s so hard today, but it is what we have to be doing.”