The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kennedy Center cancels live performances through spring. Honors are still on, with a different look.

The Kennedy Center captured from the Georgetown Waterfront. (iStock)
Placeholder while article actions load

The Kennedy Center is canceling all scheduled live performances through April 25 as well as next summer’s slate of Broadway touring shows, pushing its pandemic-related closure into a second year, officials announced Wednesday. The annual Kennedy Center Honors — already postponed to March 7 — will be produced in late spring using a hybrid format of virtual tributes and live performances.

The cancellations will result in the permanent layoffs of 38 employees who had been furloughed, adding to the 64 who were laid off in July, when the arts center also eliminated 47 vacant positions. The administrative staff has been cut by 36 percent since the start of the pandemic, said Kennedy Center president and chief executive Deborah Rutter.

With the new cancellations, the national arts center has nixed more than half of an already limited 2020-2021 season and incurred earned revenue losses topping $80 million, Rutter said.

“It’s such a complicated, complex and confusing time,” Rutter said Wednesday. “I believe this is clearheaded. We’re confronting reality. We’re doing everything in our power to address the circumstances we find ourselves in. But all of this is beyond our control.”

Kennedy Center cancels most of its schedule through 2020

More than 384 ticketed events have been canceled starting in January, including the Washington National Opera’s planned productions in May and July of “La Bohème” and “Blue” and the national tours of “Jesus Christ Superstar” (May 25-June 13), “Freestyle Love Supreme” (June 8-13), “Oklahoma!” (June 22-27), “Dear Evan Hansen” (June 29-July 18) and “The Band’s Visit” (July 28-Aug. 8).

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performances, originally scheduled for Feb. 2-7, will be moved to June 22-27.

The arts center closed in March, when government officials banned large gatherings to prevent the spread of covid-19. Almost immediately, the center laid off about 800 hourly and part-time workers and furloughed several hundred more. Congress provided $25 million in relief funding, and the arts center spent $19.8 million on salary and benefits for employees for the first six months of the shutdown. Rutter said the $4 million balance is being used for current salary and benefits costs.

“The Cares Act made it possible for us to get through last year. Without it, I can’t imagine what would have happened,” Rutter said. She declined to say whether the arts center is seeking additional federal aid.

The center now has 264 administrative employees, down from 411, 153 musicians in its two orchestras and about 70 part-time workers, including stagehands, theater managers and ushers, who are hired intermittently, Rutter said. Salary cuts of 25 percent for senior executives and 10 percent for those earning $75,000 that were implemented this summer will continue. After originally taking no compensation for three months, Rutter increased her salary to 25 percent in mid-June and began taking 50 percent in mid-September. Her annual pay is about $1.3 million.

Kennedy Center plans large-scale productions starting in January

David McIntyre, president of Local 22 of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, the union representing about 400 stagehands, questioned the center’s attempt to present large-scale events this winter when most venues were not.

“It was clear things weren’t going in the right direction quite a while ago,” he said. “Until we get the virus under control, I don’t understand why they were even trying to plan a season.”

The union’s contract with the arts center expired in September and negotiations are stalled, said McIntyre, who predicted regular activity at the arts center would not return until the fall.

“They are pretty committed to what they view as necessary cuts,” he said.

But Peter de Boor, a French horn player in the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra and chairman of its orchestra committee, expressed sadness at the new slate of cancellations and laid-off personnel, saying the orchestra members share “the deep disappointment of everyone affected by these cancellations — the stagehands, ushers, box office workers and other employees.”

“We are hopeful that brighter days are ahead and grateful to the Kennedy Center and the Washington National Opera for their steadfast determination to survive and come back to life,” de Boor said.

Details about the upcoming Honors presentation are “all conceptual,” but Rutter said the Kennedy Center and producers are exploring ways to use the mostly empty arts center to create unique tributes to the artists. The honorees have yet to be identified.

“It’s completely under development,” Rutter said about the presentation, which will be broadcast on CBS. “Rather than fit it into a set period of time in one set space, we are looking at using different venues. We have these extraordinarily beautiful spaces.”

The Honors gala typically raises more than $6 million in donations, a significant piece of the $70 million in contributions Rutter said is needed to survive the current fiscal year.

“We are concerned about our ability to raise the dollars we need,” she said, noting that the center also has canceled its annual galas for the orchestra and opera. Those are minor compared with the Honors gala, which attracts some 2,000 guests. Smaller events focused on individual honorees are under consideration.

“We will have as many people participating as we safely can,” she said. “We will be relying on our deep and long relationships [with donors]. I pray that folks will find this exciting and interesting and stick with us.”

Although it remains mostly closed, the arts center has presented a few events, including “On Stage at the Opera House” and outdoor sunset concerts on the lawns of the Reach, which reopened this summer. It plans to offer about 20 in-person events through the spring, if conditions allow, including several chamber music concerts, classical vocalists and an 80th birthday celebration of jazz great Billy Hart.

The cost of ‘Hamilton?” The Kennedy Center paid almost $50 million

Like other performance arts organizations, the Kennedy Center has dramatically expanded its virtual offerings, which have been viewed more than 100 million times. A platform launching this month, Digital Stage+, will provide donors, members and subscribers access to original programming, including clips of past Kennedy Center Honors productions that have never been shared publicly, concerts by the National Symphony Orchestra and performances from the “On Stage at the Opera House” series.

“We are going to be more dependent on relationships with donors and patrons, and we are trying to find ways to give them special access to programs and artists. That is the only way we are going to get through this year,” Rutter said.

The arts center also plans a subscription series of on-demand performances for young audiences that will feature singer Maimouna Youssef, author and animator Mo Willems, the Glass Half Full Theatre from Austin and “Super Cello!,” a co-commission with the NSO.

The NSO’s Dec. 4 and 11 concerts will be performed without a live audience and available for purchase online in the future. The Dec. 18 Holiday Pops concert will be streamed online free.

The Washington National Opera will record “Blue,” the award-winning opera by Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson; documentary filmmaker Nefertite Nguvu is creating a movie about its making that is expected to be released in the spring.