Despite dire warnings in March and April of 2020, when the shutdown’s duration was anyone’s guess and the prospects for knights with shining bank accounts were bleak, many theater companies found salvation in donations and government aid.
Yet according to theater leaders in the District and suburban Maryland and Virginia, while this year looks fairly stable, a greater threat may still lie ahead. The emergency infusions of cash that kept so many companies afloat — as well as savings from furloughs and shifting artistic output online — will trickle away once they start staging shows again for live audiences, which could begin on a significant scale later this year.
“This year, we’re all going to make it,” said Paul R. Tetreault, the longtime director of Ford’s Theatre. But rebuilding audiences and bringing back workers, he added, will take time, all while companies will be expected to begin mounting costly live productions, to show their continuing artistic vigor.
“We have lost all our [ticket] revenue, but we’ve also lost all of our expenses,” Tetreault said. “So next year, all that expense is going to come flooding back. Guess what’s not going to be flooding back at the same pace? The revenue. So next year is going to be the difficult financial challenge.”
Running a nonprofit company — a category into which virtually all of the region’s dozens of theaters fall — is risky in the calmest of times. But the vicissitudes of a traumatizing and unpredictable pandemic have not only thrown those risks into high relief, they’ve affected nearly every aspect of how theater companies operate: from how they create seasons to the rehearsal process to staging productions. Add to that the imperative to show a restive artistic community that they’re listening to the reform demands of their colleagues of color, and the evidence amounts to a period as stressful as any the theater world has known.
“I feel I have been on overdrive, and a lot of organizations have,” said Maria Goyanes, artistic director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre. Like a number of companies, Woolly is aiming for a return to live theater this fall. The region’s arts behemoth, the Kennedy Center, has announced an October start to a breathtakingly ambitious 2021-2022 season that includes 12 Broadway musicals and a perhaps overly optimistic expectation of full-capacity audiences in masks. (As of May 1, the District will set indoor gatherings at 25 percent capacity or a maximum of 500 people.)
“I do not know what our capacity will be, what the unions dictate, and I fear people have left our industry,” Goyanes said of Woolly’s evolving plans. “I’m pretty nervous about it, and I’m trying to be conservative about how many people might actually show up.”
In little increments, the community is taking the first tentative steps toward reopening: On May 1, Shakespeare Theatre Company will welcome audiences indoors for the first time since March 2020 with “Blindness,” an experience in which theatergoers will sit in isolated pairs in Sidney Harman Hall and listen to a recorded narration through headphones. And GALA Hispanic Theatre starts live performances on Thursday of “Tia Julia y el Escribidor” (“Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter”).
How radically times have changed is evident on GALA’s website, where in Spanish and in English, the organization lays out the evidence of its safety awareness, down to arcane ventilation details. “We have installed high efficiency filters in our newly revamped HVAC system,” it says. “HVAC system has HEPA Filter (including 20 sub filters) with a MERV 14 rating which filters particulates as small as 0.3 microns with at least 99.97% efficiency.”
You got that, arts fans?
“Clearly, the issue of safety was a big part of the conversation,” said Abel Lopez, GALA’s associate producing director. Going live, he said, also came down to a desire to give actors and designers employment in the city’s only company for Spanish-speaking audiences. “The fact that we’re the only game in town made the responsibility for doing it more prominent,” he said.
In conversations with leaders of more than a dozen companies of every size, what came through was a reaffirmation of doing things live and in person as their prime directive. Some digital presentations over the past year have proved artful and enjoyable: Signature Theatre has had a measured hit with its virtual revue, “Simply Sondheim,” for instance. And Round House Theatre’s co-production with Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Center of an online festival of plays by Adrienne Kennedy proved to be one of the superior endeavors during the shutdown.
Still, the financial rewards from digital have been negligible. Maggie Boland, Signature’s managing director, said the company was “unbelievably thrilled” that 1,200 households bought $200 subscriptions to its five-production spring digital season. “But you know,” she added, “the ticket price is $35 per show, and because most often we’re hearing families watch together, it’s really something more like $17.50.” Tickets to a live Signature show can run to as much as $125.
Even if digital has been disappointing for the bottom line, it has paid off for some companies, such as Arena Stage, in broadening their reputational reach by making films with local talent. And there have been some surprising advances. Rorschach Theatre, an enterprising company run on a shoestring since 1999 by Jenny McConnell Frederick and Randy Baker, looked at the daunting terrain and came up with “Distance Frequencies,” an interactive show mailed to participants, with clues to D.C. destinations they can explore. Viewers in far-flung cities even substituted landmarks in their own communities.
“It is our highest-grossing project in 22 years,” Frederick said. She and Baker built a budget for 60 subscribers; they’re up to 400 and growing. “It’s been such a difficult year for so many people, but for us, it’s been kind of magic.”
Solas Nua, an Irish-culture-focused fixture for nearly two decades in the constellation of smaller Washington troupes, took the live-performance pause to upgrade to full-time status for two leaders: artistic director Rex Daugherty and executive director Miranda Driscoll. In a remarkable commitment by a foreign government, Driscoll’s salary is being paid for the year by Ireland’s Foreign Affairs Department through its emigrant support program.
As Daugherty notes, the shutdown has bestowed on theater people one luxury: more time to contemplate innovation. “A lot of this would have been slower if we hadn’t had the pandemic,” he said of his organization’s efforts to evolve its programming and mission.
At Theater J, the pause has intensified Artistic Director Adam Immerwahr’s interest in archival projects, such as an expansive online Israeli Theater Collection, which curates some of the best Israeli productions of the past several years. At Arena, the shutdown has compelled a pivot even more sharply to civic and political consciousness: It has opened its gleaming Southwest Washington complex to Black Lives Matter demonstrators and, more recently, turned the space into a community vaccination center.
“I can’t tell you the joy of seeing people come in happy, nervous, relieved — ready to get on with their lives,” said Artistic Director Molly Smith.
As for a commitment to social justice, that has not progressed as rapidly as some artists would like — especially after the declarations of allyship by many theaters after the deaths last year of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
“A lot of theaters, they’ve made the statements, but nothing has changed,” said Kevin McAllister, a Washington actor recently hired by Olney Theatre Center for the new position of director of curated programs and artist advocate for people of color.
At Olney, he plans to bring issues that concern artists and audiences of color to Artistic Director Jason Loewith and the staff on a regular basis. “I am looking at being a voice of perspective, a different lens, asking the questions that get overlooked when the cultural look of the room is the same,” McAllister said. “I’m part of a theater that’s openly saying, ‘We’re actually doing this.’ ”
Arts leaders, then, are facing a world quite different from when the first strains of covid hit these shores. They’re going to have to be nimble, generous of spirit and mindful that change is afoot in every corner of their cobwebbed performance spaces.
“This is all very, very complicated,” said Simon Godwin, artistic director of Shakespeare Theatre Company, who spent part of the shutdown in his native England, directing a filmed “Romeo and Juliet” for London’s National Theatre that premieres Friday — Shakespeare’s birthday — on PBS.
“You’re trying to do exactly the arithmetic to go: ‘Well, actually, if we do that show, it’s going to take that many people. That was our income, therefore justify that,’ ” he said. “And if you get it wrong, you’ve ended up re-contracting a lot of folks you suddenly can’t afford to pay, and you go backward.”
Amid the vast fiscal and logistical challenges, though, a positive outcome for artistic directors such as Studio Theatre’s David Muse has been the bedrock devotion of those who want to experience live theater again.
“One of the things we were wrong about is, we anticipated a more significant curtailment of people giving to the theater, like if the programming wouldn’t be happening, how do we remind people we are in the universe?” Muse said. “We were wrong about that, and we didn’t see the kind of drop-off in the contributed income we anticipated.
“It’s one of the things that helped me through,” he added. “It’s like, ‘Wow, people do care about us.’ ”