Just such a moment was viewable on a recent Sunday, as Lia Wallace, the troupe’s college-preparatory programs manager, led an hour-long Zoom seminar from the Blackfriars Playhouse titled “Embedded Stage Directions.” Nine participants — including several high school and college students — discussed how Shakespeare’s words provide clues to the desired physical action.
“Tech is terrifying,” Wallace confided before the class, one of several she is offering on such topics as verse and rhetoric. The universities of South Carolina and Virginia have signed up for courses, in lieu of their canceled trips to the playhouse in the Shenandoah Valley. “The biggest struggle,” she added with a laugh, “is what if the video freezes?”
Companies like the ASC, which produces plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries year-round, are scrambling to control expenses and scrounge for revenue as covid-19 has stopped live performance cold; the travails of the 32-year-old organization are emblematic of the survival mode into which arts groups of all sizes have shifted. In the earliest phase of the shutdown a month ago, I wrote about how ASC Artistic Director Ethan McSweeny was staring nervously at the weeks ahead: He needed $350,000 he didn’t have to keep afloat until a hoped-for restart date of May 26. The company has little in reserve and lives on the $50,000 a week it usually takes in at the box office.
When the ticket revenue dried up, McSweeny and Managing Director Amy Wratchford were compelled to give actors two weeks’ notice and furlough much of the staff of 70 full- and part-timers. To belt-tighten further, they received approval from their bank to reduce their monthly mortgage payments on the theater and even turned off lights and air conditioners to lower utility bills.
What’s changed since then has been in equal measure reassuring and unsettling. Appeals for help gave the ASC a financial cushion: They now have about $500,000 in cash. And the troupe was recently approved for a loan through the newly created federal Payroll Protection Program. But a May 26 reset for rehearsals, in anticipation of plays resuming in mid-June, proved far too optimistic. With no clear indication when the theater might be deemed safe to reopen, Wratchford and her remaining team (all on half or quarter salary) have written contingency operating plans, only to have to crumple them up and formulate new ones.
If a June start-up for the four plays in their summer-fall season no longer looks likely, can they count on a return after July 4? Or Aug. 1? Or after Labor Day?
“We are now meeting on financial plans G, H and I,” Wratchford said, a bit wearily. The company originally had come up with a $4.2 million budget for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. Now, Wratchford said, the budget has been trimmed to $3.3 million.
The American Shakespeare Center, founded in 1988 by Ralph Cohen and Jim Warren as the traveling company Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, has played to more than 2 million theatergoers since then. In 2001, the company opened Blackfriars, a $3.7 million, 300-seat theater modeled on a theater of the same name in which Shakespeare’s troupe performed after 1608. The ASC’s hallmark is its tradition of employing Renaissance practices, an intimate style mandating minimal sets and keeping the house lights on throughout the performance.
So Blackfriars remaining dark for months is a particularly alien phenomenon, one with which the actors and administrative staff are trying to come to terms.
“This place has been my life’s work,” said John Harrell, a company member who moved to Staunton in 2002 and has acted there in every one of Shakespeare’s 37 plays — some more than once. “I can’t believe that this could be terminal. We run so lean in the best of times.”
The company draws on a core group of experienced classical actors, many of whom live in Staunton. Others, who sign on for contracts of a few months or more, reside in the ASC’s apartments in the city of 25,000. Several of the actors noted the more secure aspects of repertory company work and the feeling of having an employer who takes a long-term interest in them: The ASC extended salaries for as long as it could and kept health-care coverage for the run of the performers’ contracts.
“If there was any time in my life I could be in a company like this, now would be the time,” said Topher Embrey, who was finishing up an ASC tour when the virus struck and was supposed to join the Staunton corps. “Being an artist right now is scary.”
It’s now a matter for company members to learn which pieces of their employment puzzle remain in place. Sylvie Davidson, an actress based in Nashville who was cast as Desdemona in the ASC’s summer production of “Othello,” in the meantime is writing songs in Staunton with her husband and songwriting partner, Trevor Wheetman. Constance Swain, with the ASC for five seasons, is exploring a side business in voice-overs. And Brandon Carter, a memorable Prince Hal in the company’s “Henry IV,” Parts 1 and 2, keeps tuned up oratorically by performing a Shakespeare sonnet every day and posting his performances online.
“Luckily,” Carter said, “Shakespeare gave you these things to sharpen your tools. We have all this creative energy. I guess I can speak for every artist now when I ask, ‘Where do I put that now?’ ”
McSweeny, who joined the ASC as artistic director in 2018, is looking for those outlets and trying to figure out how to bring in some money from them. Regular donors may at this point feel tapped out: “I can’t really go back to a lot of these people,” he said.
So McSweeny is throwing the company’s hat into what has quickly become a crowded online theater market: a streaming series of ASC videos that he calls BlkfrsTV. With tickets starting at $10, the seven titles include “Much Ado About Nothing,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the “Henry IV” plays. There’s also an adaptation of “The Grapes of Wrath” that went on a national college tour and “Imogen,” a new play based on “Cymbeline.” Over the past month, the company has sold almost 2,700 tickets for BlkfrsTV.
The plays were filmed on the Blackfriars stage immediately after the shutdown, while the actors were still on salary. Looking ahead now, McSweeny wonders what other innovations will be necessary to keep a company like his afloat.
“I think an audience all wearing face masks is a potential reality,” he said. “And my costume shop is ready to make ASC-branded masks right this second!”