Theater never recovered from COVID — and now change is no longer a choice
Many of the problems facing the nonprofit theater industry in the U.S. right now — from scant resources to the lack of diversity — have been around for ages.
But before the pandemic, performing arts groups were so focused on raising the curtain each night it was easier to ignore long-standing problems than fix them.
Now, thanks to a combination of lackluster ticket sales and an end to government relief, they have no choice but to try out new things in order to secure a future.
"The key question is, what are the things that are being done in order to emerge from the pandemic in a sustainable way?" said Teresa Eyring, executive director and CEO of Theatre Communications Group, a support organization for the nation's performing arts sector.
No one has the answer. But organizations around the country are at least trying to find creative new solutions.
Overhauling systems at Oregon Shakespeare Festival
At Oregon Shakespeare Festival, securing a future means focusing on the stuff that most audience members don't see, much less think about: overhauling systems behind the scenes.
At a recent company meeting, interim executive artistic director Nataki Garrett explained how Oregon Shakespeare, founded in 1935, planned to correct years of deficits and declines in revenue.
"I have to change the way we do development, the way we market, the way we do finance, the way IT functions, instead of sort of plugging in the holes and filling in the gaps, which is what we've been doing," Garrett said at an all-staff meeting recently. "We didn't want to disturb the art. We have to disturb the art now."
The company recently slashed its expenses. It laid off and furloughed about 10 percent of its staff and cut two productions from the upcoming season. But the kind of ambitious reset Garrett imagines actually takes more money.
The company hopes to launch an $80 million fundraising campaign and it reached into its endowment for $4 million to cover emergency operating costs. Garrett told NPR she now wants millions more unlocked.
But endowment board chair Eric Johnson said that for legal reasons, his hands are tied for now.
"This endowment has already done a huge amount to help rise to the occasion of this crisis," Johnson said. "Additional distributions at this time of any substantial magnitude become extraordinarily difficult – if they're even possible."
Garrett said even if additional funding does not come through from the endowment, she plans to do whatever she can to save her institution.
Working toward diversity at Control Group Productions
For many performing arts groups, the future means diversity. That's true at the Denver-based Control Group Productions; which is why the theater company recently acquired an old school bus.
"It's a 2006 Thomas HDX 32-foot freightliner," artistic director Patrick Mueller said. "We actually bought it on Craigslist from a guy in Ontario, Calif. Flew out and drove it home."
Mueller said his nomadic company had performed in places like warehouses, theaters and even an old slaughterhouse. But the social justice reckonings of the past few years propelled Control Group to try to make more of an impact — and that means reaching new, more diverse audiences.
"We are a small grassroots organization," he said. "It's hard to get beyond our friends of friends of friends."
Staging plays on buses or trains or horse-drawn carts is nothing new. But the company's associate director Caroline Sharkey said that for the company, the bus isn't just a novelty. It's fully integrated into the action.
"We're taking people to places that they know," Sharkey said. "And we're shifting their expectations for those places. So that every time they go back, the memory of the art is still there."
Much of The End, Control Group's immersive production about climate change, unfolds on the bus. It visits some of Denver's most toxic hotspots, like the SunCor oil refinery and a polluted part of the Platte River, on its way to a fictional safe harbor known as "The Refuge."
Artistic director Mueller said for the Denver run of the show last summer (he's planning a version for San Diego audiences later this year), Control Group wanted to engage people who live in places like Commerce City, where the oil refinery is located. The company enlisted local environmental activists to help with outreach.
But one of those activists, Harmony Cummings, the founder of the Green House Connection Center, said the people who live in the shadow of the refinery often don't have the bandwidth to think about attending an experimental physical theater show on a bus.
"The problems in these communities – where am I going to live? Do I have enough food? – are so large, that it's hard to even talk to people about any of the environmental injustices," Cummings said.
Mueller understands this. He said Control Group is currently developing partnerships with theater makers in underrepresented communities aimed at supporting those companies' production efforts. But diversifying audiences will take time.
Sharing resources at West Village Rehearsal Co-Op
In expensive New York City, small performing arts organizations are putting their energy into sharing resources.
"As we saw during the pandemic, arts organizations that were working on their own were struggling on their own," said Randi Berry, executive director of IndieSpace, a nonprofit that provides support to New York City's sprawling indie theater community. "When we have an amazing resource for the community, the more people that can get their hands in it, the better."
IndieSpace is one of the main forces behind the West Village Rehearsal Co-Op, a rehearsal studio located in the Meatpacking District, one of the most upscale neighborhoods of Manhattan. (Louis Vuitton is a fellow tenant.)
IndieSpace, together with several downtown theater companies — Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, HERE and New Ohio Theatre — worked with the local community board, politicians and property owners to secure a 99-year lease on the basement of the building, exclusively for the use of small, local performing arts organizations.
"We love a good basement — it's quiet, dark and cool," said Berry. "And those spaces aren't generating a tremendous amount of income for the owners anyway."
In a city where it's not unusual to pay $50 or $60 an hour for rehearsal space, the co-op costs just $10 an hour. Selected Black and indigenous theater-makers have access for free.
"Not a cent! Which is great, because we have not a cent right now!" said Nedra Marie Taylor, the co-founder of The Grove Theater, a new endeavor using the co-op for community events, with the goal of eventually building a complex for Black theater artists in Midtown Manhattan.
Taylor said the West Village Rehearsal Co-Op is vital to her group's larger effort.
"Having a physical space in which people can share story, just say hi in passing, it's going to boost morale," Taylor said. "Especially for the indie theater community, who's been so hard hit in the past few years."
IndieSpace's Berry said brokering the real estate deal for the West Village Co-Op took years, and there's already a waiting list of theaters that want to use it. She wants to see the model replicated throughout New York City.
"We have to commit to doing this over and over and over again," Berry said. "That's when the real impact is felt."
Looking to the future
Theatre Communications Group's Eyring said it's this kind of long-term thinking that will secure the future of the non-profit theater industry, albeit that it's not how cash-strapped arts organizations are accustomed to operating.
"I would advise any company to have a three-to-five year plan for rebalancing their organizations, to get away from the urgency of the moment, even though it's there," Eyring said.
Yet, she added: "When we get there, our theater ecology, it'll be in a place of vibrancy, where people are excited to be working in it."
Audio and digital stories edited by Jennifer Vanasco. Audio produced by Isabella Gomez-Sarmiento.
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