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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The virus is already pushing small theaters to the brink. One Shakespeare theater hopes it can make it back.

The cast of American Shakespeare Center’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” one of the productions scrapped. (Lindsey Walters, Miscellaneous Media/American Shakespeare Center)

The first sign that things were going south fast for the American Shakespeare Center came from the high schools.

In droves, secondary school groups — a lifeblood for the repertory company in Staunton, Va. — began emailing their cancellations. Next came college and university groups, which tended to book performances in April and May. And then finally the loyalists, many of them senior citizens, from Virginia and surrounding states who make ASC a destination, started pulling out, too.

In the two weeks since coronavirus worries began intensifying in early March, officials of the company — producers of four, four-play “seasons” a year, plus a national college tour — saw revenue marching toward zero. (Lacking virtually any savings, the organization needs about $50,000 a week from single and group sales to sustain productions, meet mortgage payments for its 300-seat Blackfriars Playhouse and pay 70 full- and part-time staff.) And suddenly, a virus still barely touching a bucolic slice of the Shenandoah Valley, just over the mountains from Charlottesville, amounted to a potential theatrical extinction event.

“What we said to the board,” recalled artistic director Ethan McSweeny, “was that this is an existential threat at ASC, with no meaningful financial cushion when we turn off the box office.”

McSweeny’s story is playing out in similar fashion at countless nonprofit arts companies across the country — not to mention at commercial venues and ventures as well. An explosively popular moneymaker such as “Hamilton” is not the rule in America, it is the radical oddball. Few arts organizations maintain a substantial rainy-day fund; they exist, as it were, from audience paycheck to paycheck. In a bit of bitter irony, the company — founded in 1988 as the scrappy Shenandoah Shakespeare Express — had just submitted a five-year economic plan, calling for an endowment fund for just such exigencies as a pandemic.

Throughout the theater business, murmurs and speculation abound about the Darwinian moment, and about which groups might not survive until something like normalcy resumes. When plays stop, lives don’t, and workers in the arts are as vulnerable as those in any other field. The coronavirus crisis forced American Shakespeare Center, which draws 80 percent of its audience from Virginia, to scrap eight productions, some already on the Blackfriars stage, others in rehearsal. “Much Ado About Nothing”; “Henry IV,” parts 1 and 2; a world premiere, “The Defamation of Cecily Lee,” based on “Cymbeline,” are among the shows scratched.

“We’re trying to crash-land the ASC plane with minimal casualties and the biggest chance we can to get it up and running again,” McSweeny said.

Staff had to be furloughed for nine weeks: 18 full-time employees, according to managing director Amy Wratchford, including the education director, marketing manager, development associate and literary manager. Four others will be on half pay — including McSweeny and Wratchford — and hours, and another four will work 10 hours a week, for a quarter of their regular pay. The actors, 14 in Staunton and a smaller group on the road, were all given two weeks’ notice but a promise to continue health coverage and residency in company apartments for the run of their contracts. In a city of 25,000 where ASC is a centrifugal aspect of a lively cultural and culinary scene, the shutdown radiated instantly through the business community.

“We have canceled all of our advertising for the rest of the ‘Renaissance’ season” — the quartet of plays in which actors direct themselves — “and all of the advertising for the rest of the spring,” Wratchford said. “We do postcards and fliers for each season; of course that’s canceled. And we canceled our telemarketing.”

Even so, McSweeny and Wratchford and the staff calculated that they would need $350,000 just to get to a proposed restart of full operations on May 26 and return to the stage with “Othello” on June 19. As the scale of the calamity sank in — and state and federal officials kept increasing limits on public gatherings — the ASC team changed its emergency plan again and again. Each day it felt as if there was less to be salvaged. “Sometimes, I was thinking of that episode of ‘Game of Thrones’ where they’re fighting and moving back and back into another, smaller part of the keep,” McSweeny said.

The goodwill of the company’s audiences has opened a stage door of hope. Like many arts groups, ASC sent out a plea for ticket holders to withhold requests for refunds and take promises of seats at future productions. One of the company’s tech-savvy staffers set up a digital dashboard for Wratchford to monitor refunds in real time: It revealed that fewer than 15 percent of customers wanted their money back.

Calls went out seeking temporary relief on the mortgage. Wratchford was on the phone this week to Staunton’s local and state political representatives, to lobby for arts groups to be included in any financial relief packages being discussed. In the space, too, of several hours after McSweeny sent an email blast Monday enumerating the monetary challenge, ASC received $23,000 from supporters, in amounts from $5 to $2,500.

“What that says to me is that we are incredibly valued, and we are an important resource for our community,” McSweeny said, adding that this week, ASC is, like many companies, putting the canceled productions on film and, if union issues can be resolved, offering them to the public.

ASC’s creative family will await their all-important cue for the box office to reopen. Until then, McSweeny said, daily survival take center stage. One of the actors approached him this week to recover tools that the company had borrowed from him. He needed to look for work as a carpenter.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

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The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

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