By Bill Marx
Vibrant, independent theater in Boston and throughout New England will not be sustained if the demolition starts at the bottom and moves up.
What is being planned to help Boston theater survive the coming bloodbath? Many of those in the city’s small and medium-sized theater community feel as if they are dead ducks, sheltering-in-place. Read the panicked commentary from JJ Gonson, the owner of Cuisine en Locale/ONCE Somerville, a music performance venue. An organization vitally interested in the health of New England’s cultural sector, ArtsBoston, is waiting for the data to come in before they take any action or announce any strategy. Why am I not reassured by its caution?
About a week ago, ArtsBoston sent me a copy of The Arts Factor, which detailed the $2 billion economic impact of the region’s arts and cultural sector. The idea was to show what was at risk with the arrival of the pandemic. This felt like Trump-ish sleight of hand to me: that was then — and this is now, soon to be followed by a “new normal” for the performing arts. What are ArtsBoston’s strategies for what’s to come? I was told that the organization would be “the regional Boston partner for an international longitudinal survey of artsgoers. The study will have regular reports about the feelings/concerns/expectations of ticket-buyers, showing the changing nature of what they’re thinking as the pandemic and recovery develops.” The project will “get underway later this month with some initial results in early May. ArtsBoston will inject regionally appropriate questions and get localized results.”
Meanwhile, other cities are garnering information a bit more quickly, and the “longitudinal” news is sobering. According to an April 13 survey of 2,762 DC-area theatergoers by Bethesda-based Shugoll Research, Inc. only 25% of the audience is likely to immediately return to attending live events once the CDC says that theaters can safely reopen.
Only about 1 in 3 (31%) say they are very likely to return immediately while about 1 in 5 (21%) are very unlikely. Around half (49%) suggest they will probably wait a few months or more before returning while only a quarter (25%) think they will attend right away.
“This will be disappointing news for Washington area theaters who already lost their spring and potentially summer seasons” said Mark Shugoll, Ph.D., the study author. “Many theaters are counting on a strong relaunch to begin to offset the significant losses they suffered during their closures from the pandemic.”
Granted, as the pandemic progresses and businesses begin to slowly reopen, these wary sentiments may change. But the bottom line is clear: the public’s health fears will not end until there is a vaccine, which by all reports may be well over a year away. This spells financial catastrophe for many stages, a majority of which have extremely limited reserves. Chances are that only the big, well-endowed theaters will be fit enough to weather the coming storm. Are we just supposed to watch as small, independent companies are eradicated before interested parties offer their help? Given the need for quick action, what can be done? On April 16, the Theater Communications Group released a survey (set up in March) from 168 of its members. The highlights:
- The majority of theatres had already made hard decisions to cancel performances and other activities. Eighty-eight percent of participants had cancelled performances that had already been scheduled to take place and/or were scheduled to take place in the coming weeks, 58% had already cancelled education programs, and 38% had already cancelled their annual gala.
- Revenue losses will be substantial. Theatres are not only losing income from ticket sales but also from other revenue streams such as rentals and investment income, and their usual fundraising efforts are severely compromised. In respondents’ earliest projections, the lost revenue through June 2020 totals nearly $120 million. As stay-at-home orders have extended and expanded, the true lost revenue will no doubt prove to be much greater for those theatres and for the field as a whole. TCG estimates that for the larger universe of U.S. professional not-for-profit theatres (1,855 theatres per TCG’s Theatre Facts 2018), total revenue loss through June 2020 alone will exceed $500 million.
- Theatres need immediate and ongoing relief and support. With limited cash and no revenue, many theatres are fearful about the survival of their organizations. They need flexibility in the use of existing grants and significant additional support from the government, foundations, corporations, and individuals both for the short-term and beyond. Theatres are concerned about the pressure on the funding community, since every arena is being affected by the pandemic, and they worry about where the arts will fall in funding priorities.
TCG argues that these “losses will have a dire financial effect on individual theatres and, in turn, on their communities and the U.S. economy as a whole.” Fair enough. We are then informed that “TCG joined a partnership of more than 40 national arts and culture organizations in sending a new slate of policy recommendations to Congress on Monday, April 21. The recommendations urge the federal government to do more to support the arts sector as funding is exhausted for programs created under the CARES Act.”
“Theatres have been working hard to apply for Payroll Protection Program relief through the SBA as well as other forms of federal relief, but the severity of the crisis has outpaced the relief that is available,” said Laurie Baskin, director of research, policy, and collective action, TCG. “So, in addition to working to access relief and fundraise in their communities, theatre leaders are also contacting their elected officials in record numbers to tell their stories of COVID-19 impact.”
Understandably, no mention in the report is made of a real life debacle that centered on Washington, DC’s Kennedy Center for the Arts. According to Noah Schaffer, “tucked into the $2 trillion stimulus bill was $25 million earmarked for the DC arts complex. By comparison, the entire National Endowment for Arts, which provides grants for thousands of arts groups nationwide, was only allotted $75 million, at a time when every art organization has had to close its doors or cancel its season.” These shenanigans are symptomatic of business as usual: political/economic muscle means that some theaters impacted by COVID-19 will receive a lot more love than others.
The failures of the Payroll Protection Program are coming to light, spotlighting stories of big fish gobbling down money meant for the small fry. (The lack of support for self-employed and independent workers in these replenishment bills is also telling.) So the TCG’s advice to theaters — that they contact their elected officials — is worrying. Why? Because institutions with the coziest connections with government officials inevitably pocket the most mazuma. The Huntington Theatre Company, the American Repertory Theatre, and ArtsEmerson will thrive in this kind of glad-handing environment — they have the resources, the political heft, and the tony patronage. Like DC’s Kennedy Center, they will no doubt argue that, as major nonprofit theaters, they deserve generous support, if only because of the number of people they serve and employ. My fear is that, given all the well-documented misfires of the PPP, theaters down the food chain will end up being kicked to the curb, along with so many other small-to-medium businesses. Vibrant, independent theater in Boston and throughout New England will not be sustained if the demolition starts at the bottom and moves up. In fact, it will further homogenize a stage scene that is already dangerously innocuous.
We don’t need data to be forewarned and forearmed about this all-too-familiar pecking order in the “creative economy.” Members of the Boston theater community should be prepared to question, forcefully, which theaters are selected to be funded and at what level. There should be public commitments from ArtsBoston and StageSource — as well as government, business, and grant organizations — to support the survival of small, medium, and fringe companies — no matter the data. Hyperlocal companies that serve the community — rather than Broadway — deserve to be nurtured in this brave new world. The media’s arts coverage must give up on happy talk, even if it means that some well-heeled favorites might be caught red-handed. Elizabeth Warren has it right: in this crisis we need to chuck business as usual and remedy systemic abuses, invest in the have-nots rather than suck up to the haves.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of the Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.