What a time to be alive. This is a phrase I have said so often I actually got it tattooed on my body. I love it for its ambiguity—it’s not making any judgments, it can be used both positively and negatively, and it reminds me of the magic in the world. We are truly lucky to be here, breathing air, living our lives.
And man, what a time to be alive it is right now. I think we can all agree that things will never be the same. We’ll be measuring our lives pre- and post- COVID-19. The arts will never be the same, and that’s partly because I don’t think all theatres are going to survive this particular inflection point. The arts are notoriously under-capitalized, and now is not the time to be sitting on only days worth of cash.
It’s especially challenging because we have no idea how long all of this could last. This makes it impossible to plan and prep for the next show. But here’s where the business model of Dad’s Garage, where I’m the managing director, particularly shines. We do improv year round. All told, we produce about 400 performances a year, most nights of the year, and about 75 percent of that is improv. We also do scripted shows, and have had to postpone one scheduled to open in April. But once it’s safe, we’ll be able to jump right back into our blazing schedule of improv shows. This sort of flexibility and nimbleness has always served us well, but is really bearing fruit at this moment in time. Even though we aren’t onstage, we are still producing improv shows—digitally!
We started a Twitch channel to keep entertaining our audiences. I didn’t know what Twitch was before we started this. We’ve been streaming many hours of content daily, both new content created by our ensemble of performers (we work with the same folks year round) and archival footage from previous shows. Oh, that’s the other thing: The majority of our work is created in house, so all negotiations are with artists we’re trying to support instead of external entities and unions. In a little under a week, we’ve had over 2,500 views and are in the top 10 percent of content creators on Twitch. So far we’ve only monetized it through donations (almost $5,000 on that platform), but as we gain more viewership, we’ll be able to add paywalls for some content and more robust donation options. We’re splitting all donations with the content creators as a way to continue paying our artists as well.
We only have this flexibility because of operating reserves. Dad’s Garage may be known for being edgy, youthful, and boundary-pushing—but we can only do that if our finances are in order. Our board has worked to ensure we have a strong cash reserve for emergencies and a diversity of revenue sources constantly coming in. Our big revenue sources are shows, classes for the general public, and corporate workshops. In planning our reserves, I never imagined a scenario where we would have to stop doing all three at the same time (or at least radically reimagine them). And yet here we are.
I’m very worried about our theatre community right now. It’s taken Dad’s Garage a long time to have such robust and balanced finances, which can help us weather this storm. Newer theatres and smaller theatres may not have the liquidity to make it through a prolonged shutdown, and may have to face tough conversations with landlords, utilities, and banks to survive this. In Atlanta, the entire theatre community has banded together to create a unified message to the public. It reads:
We need donations now if you can afford it. Or please buy a gift card to see us in the future. If your show was canceled due to COVID-19 please convert it to a donation or gift card. And please have patience with us once this is all over because we will be far behind on bills.
We are also advocating for artists and arts organizations to be included in any economic relief bills. My hope is that our voices combined will make a difference here in Atlanta and in Georgia.
At the end of the day, every theatre is the community it has built. At Dad’s Garage, if we can’t protect and help our people, there’s no point in protecting the company. This people-first mentality has led to a fiercely loyal family that is doing everything in their power to keep the company thriving. They are the ones keeping us actively streaming content daily to our fans. They are the ones who, when they talk to their legislators about support for artists, are talking from their hearts about their personal needs. The power of theatre is that it builds community, and I firmly believe that this community support is what will help our industry make it through these uncertain times.
I don’t know what next year, next month, or even next week will look like. But I do know that using laughter to transform people, communities, and perspectives is more important than ever. Even during these stressful times—especially because of these stressful times!—Dad’s Garage will keep on making people laugh. And as long as we’re serving our mission of bringing joy and laughter to the world, it doesn’t matter if we’re separated from our audiences by a video screen. They’re still laughing.
What a time to be alive!
Lara Smith is the managing director of Dad’s Garage Theatre, a $1.9 million a year improv and scripted comedy theatre located in Atlanta. The company entertains more than 30,000 patrons a year, and produces more than 400 performances.