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Kennedy Center cancels most of schedule through 2020

The Kennedy Center closed on March 12, and has extended its closure through Aug. 8. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

The Kennedy Center has canceled most previously announced performances for the rest of 2020, including its signature Kennedy Center Honors and Mark Twain Prize ceremonies, which have been rescheduled for next spring. The cancellations and postponements will cost the arts center $45.7 million in ticket sales and other revenue, increasing its coronavirus-related losses to more than $90 million.

The national arts center closed March 12 as large gatherings were banned to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. It extended the closure through Aug. 8, canceling or postponing more than 1,000 events.

On Tuesday, the arts center announced that it had canceled the National Symphony Orchestra and Washington National Opera performances that had already been announced and that it would not present other major productions, including theater, dance and musical events, for the rest of 2020.

“It’s enormously disappointing,” Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter said by phone. “For a number of weeks, we have been talking about what would it take to be able to bring people back, how seating in the theaters could be with social distancing and thinking about the performers onstage. But it became increasingly apparent, for the safety of our artists and audience and our staff, it was going to be impossible to do that in the near term.”

The Kennedy Center Honors will be moved to March 7, 2021, and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor ceremony is set for June 20 next year. Both will be broadcast on TV at later dates. New dates for “Hamilton,” which was supposed to return for 14 weeks this summer, have not been set.

“We are confident that ‘Hamilton’ will return to the center. However, in light of the condensed season and the fact that our 2021 summer theater programming has been booked for some time, ‘Hamilton’ won’t be possible next summer,” arts center spokeswoman Eileen Andrews said.

Next month, the Kennedy Center will release updated schedules for the NSO and WNO, starting in January, and new schedules for theater, dance and ballet. Subscribers holding tickets will be contacted by the center.

In a letter to staffers, Rutter said the arts center expects its “usual volume of activity will decrease by 50 percent in FY2021.”

‘Hamilton’ is postponed as Kennedy Center extends closure through Aug. 8

For the remainder of this year, the center plans to announce a smaller slate of performances and events that conform to social distancing policies. They will be held both indoors and on the grounds of the Reach, the $250 million, mostly underground annex that opened last fall. Rutter said she is also considering using the Opera House stage as the site of chamber music concerts.

“We might be able to put smaller programs in the large venues. And outdoors seems to be a real possibility,” she said. “My guess is the maximum we’ll do in the main building is 10 or 12 performances. We could do that in two days, and now we’re talking 3½ months.”

WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello said digital and innovative in-person programming will be critical to the organization’s future.

“We want to stay connected to our community, and the best way to do that is for us to create things they can still experience,” she said. “Theater is so much based on community. It’s us and you, this amazing symbiotic relationship.”

The arts center laid off about 750 hourly and part-time workers in late March and then furloughed about 250 staff employees in April. About 198 employees remain on furlough, Rutter said. Their health coverage continues through August, for now, said Andrews, who would not comment on the potential for another extension. In her letter to employees, Rutter wrote that more information would be given to furloughed staffers by July 24.

The 50 or so employees brought back from furlough are mostly members of the social-impact and education teams, Rutter said, and some backstage workers are doing repairs and maintenance. But she did not say when the rest of the staff would return.

“It’s a dire time for everybody,” she said. “I’m doing my very best to take all people into consideration. The sooner we can get back, the better.”

Members of the arts center’s two orchestras agreed to 25 percent pay cuts earlier this spring as part of the first wave of cancellations. They expect the arts center will ask for more.

“We do anticipate them asking for further modifications,” said Peter de Boor, a horn player and the chairman of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra committee. “We will hear what they have to say and take them under consideration.”

Ed Malaga, the president of the Washington Local 161-710 of the American Federation of Musicians, which represents the NSO musicians, said the union and the arts center had already renegotiated their contract to provide relief during the crisis. The agreement expires in 2024.

Eric de Waardt, a viola player who is in his 34th season with the NSO, said the decision was sad but expected. “We’ve been watching what [orchestras] are doing in New York and San Francisco, so we knew it was coming,” de Waardt said. “It’s very sad, but it’s nobody’s fault.”

The NSO musicians learned of the cancellations in an email sent minutes before the public announcement. There are many questions about potential negotiations, de Waardt said.

“It’s not a great relationship, and we’re always trying to read between the lines, always listening for a double meaning,” he said.

The NSO’s opening-night gala on Sept. 26 is among the canceled events. It will be replaced by a “special effort” to celebrate its 90th season, Andrews said.

According to Rutter, Kennedy Center officials plan to negotiate with their other unions.

“A couple of those contracts expire in the next few weeks,” she said. “We are in the process of working with those, given the fact that the season will be so different.”

The Kennedy Center received $25 million in federal aid as part of the Cares Act in March, but it is not seeking another grant, Rutter said. The arts center is in contact with federal officials, including its high-level ex officio board members, to support the extension of the federal unemployment bonus.

“It would be so so helpful given the circumstances,” she said.