For the past 20 months I’ve been co-captaining Pioneer Theatre Company (PTC) with my partner artistic director Karen Azenberg. Just seven months into my tenure the world came to an abrupt halt and our Industry began to unravel. “Pivot” was the only advice given, with no elaboration on direction from our professional governing bodies and no concrete organizing from the top of the federal government.
I’ve made a career in managing change. While the stakes were undoubtedly higher in some of my previous posts, change is change, and moving through this past year has been no different, just on a much longer scale, and with many more indeterminates. Without delay, Karen and I got to work. Our priorities: how we could retain our staff; what would be our timeline for bringing back the ones we may need to furlough; how much money would need to be raised to keep them afloat and the organization sustainable through the pandemic; what could we be doing in a safe, socially distanced way to provide positive impact to the community and keep our theatre relevant; and what future priority could we aim for while knowing we would have to constantly keep an eye on the present?
Separately and together Karen and I planned: she on programming and work alternatives, me on resource development and economic predictions. We came together on fiscal management. We came up with a game plan and let the entire staff know the “State of the Union” when we felt it was flushed out enough to be able to answer as many questions as possible within impossible circumstances. For the first few months in the pandemic, we sent weekly updates, held team-building virtual “game days” on Fridays, over-communicated to the point of repetition. Less is generally more, but the importance of communication cannot be overstated. We joined the global “Zoom parade” and went partly virtual. Eventually we would fall into a groove, though it would take more than half a year for us to find consistent patterns amid the constant change, which have since given some solace.
For those first few months I remained the designated mandatory on-site employee, with Karen more than often keeping me (distant) company a floor apart. As we prepared for a different world, we challenged each other to get the best out of each other, leaving questions that were unanswered and remaining unflappable in response. When we needed to dive deeper, we profoundly dug. When we saw the potential of a negative outcome having a strong likelihood of outweighing a significant and measurable potential positive outcome, we argued it out and one of us would relent. We did what we thought was best for the organization—ie., what was best for the people who each day put their blood, sweat, and tears, countless hours, and all of their soul into Pioneer Theatre Company. And we did what we saw few others doing at that time: We came up with a forward direction when the path was not even the road less chosen, but a pathway entirely unknown.
As we walked in darkness with a single and untested lantern, we reminded staff that we were (and remain) in uncharted territory; we asked for latitude and we gave it freely; we set deadlines and gave space for change; we planned, then planned alternatives, then planned for entirely different eventualities, most of which would like not come into play and have not—and yet we planned; we set up resilience and communications workshops; we said “yes” more than “no” in a time when “yes” can be so easily and justifiably dismissed. Each step of the way we engaged our team, giving ownership, collecting buy-in, and steering the ship together.
What resulted was miraculous. Make no mistake, PTC would never have seen the following results by staying idle or by taking the easy route.
An affiliate of the University of Utah, PTC is responsible for its own fundraising so the onus to remain fiscally solvent falls heavily on Karen and my shoulders. Without a season, or rather an indefinitely suspended season, PTC had two choices: 1) Call it a state of emergency (you generally get one, and only one, chance to pull this card) or 2) Rethink engagement. The first option certainly had credibility since the world was—still is—in a state of emergency. We went with the second option.
PTC looked at how we were interacting with our patrons, constituents, and community; we positioned the story we wanted to tell, which was not one about “shutdown” but one in which we are actively working to rise again; we began to address important diversity and inclusion I undertakings, starting with our board of directors; we were honest about work that needed to be done to keep folks engaged when there was no live performance, and remained open to the feedback we received; we established meaningful community connections and reaffirmed togetherness. Karen, our development staff, and I collectively called thousands of our patrons (we still do so—I even have a weekly quota goal), not to ask for support but rather to provide support, and to see how folks were and are doing.
The most challenging endeavor at the time—and there have been tougher inclines to scale since—was addressing how to serve those who had purchased subscriptions and tickets to our canceled shows. We came up with myriad scenarios, and ultimately did what we thought would best serve the community.
What happened? As most professional theatres saw significant drops in philanthropy, we doubled our individual giving and maintained our foundational and corporate giving. This has held into FY21, when again we had to suspend our season and offer full refunds; we still ended up with more people donating back their tickets or electing to be given vouchers to productions, good for upwards of five years. We just completed this process, which ended with some accounts in deficit, but overall the subscription and single tickets profit/loss ended in the black.
In FY20, PTC faced a potential $1.4 million deficit; we ended the year with a true deficit of $66,000. We will end FY21 balanced. We didn’t achieve this by scaling back. We achieved this by simply scaling, and understanding the balancing act necessary to keep the scale even.
To date through the pandemic PTC has:
- Offered a return to employment for its entire staff, who have been back since January in their entirety;
- Committed and saw through the hiring of performers, directors, designers, and musicians for virtual performances and localized exhibits;
- Transitioned from live production to factory production, with our in-house shops creating face masks, cottage industry products, and holiday fare to generate a secondary stream of income;
- Reorganized our board, which previously had few historically underrepresented persons, to having 1/3 of its composition now representative of those communities, with the FY22 goal of reach 50 percent, to ensure we are investing in the whole of our community;
- Have carved aside funding to address structural deficits and staffing deficits, some which are decades past due;
- Audited procedures and processes to ensure the output from our administrative departments is being produced at current best practices;
- Planned and locked in the FY22 season, which was announced last week.
How were we able to do this? We found direction in a time of uncertainty. We built up our team instead of thinning them out. We sometimes took shots in the dark, and sometimes they landed, other times they never hit the ground. We evaluated our steps. We didn’t make the same mistakes. We learned from our failures. And we stayed in a perpetual state of motion. Most important, we supported each other, we trusted each other, and we didn’t feel bad for ourselves—we were grateful to all have jobs, and were unwavering about ensuring that together we can uplift the industry and get it back on track, leading in the only way that counts: by example.
Tomorrow will always be uncertain. But here at PTC we’ll be ready for whatever’s next.
Christopher Massimine (he/him) is managing director of Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City.
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