By Bill Hirschman
The brightly-colored set for How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying still stands silent and ready inside the Maltz Jupiter Theatre even though the production did not get past a dress rehearsal.
The same goes for the set for Zoetic Stage’s A Little Night Music at the Arsht Center in Miami, which was days away from opening when COVID-19 seemingly shut down the world.
But the fact that both sets remain in place, that costumes and props have been carefully stored, that actors and crew have been assured that they will be rehired when the tragedy passes, those are silent pledges that these productions and theater itself in South Florida will resume – albeit in what many believe will be a different world.
What that cultural world will look like for audiences and artists could not be more uncertain, say theater professionals who have had to rethink and rethink again their plans. It’s different from when other disasters have struck Florida like hurricanes; this one may be open-ended.
“I mean everything that we have done for the past two weeks has been thinking forward and trying to imagine what the world is going to be like on the other side of this” said Michael McKeever, managing director of Zoetic Stage in Miami “The thing that’s crazy, which makes this so, so scary, is the utter and complete inability to know what’s around the corner next.”
Some theater professionals worry about the future even after the worst of the crisis has passed. Will people want to go to theater, will they feel safe being in a crowd of people, and if so, when, asked Andie Arthur, executive director of the South Florida Theatre League. “From what I’ve been reading, it seems like we’re going to probably go in and out of (this type of) period until a vaccine is discovered,” she said.
Will donors’ generosity shrink? Will audiences who have been forced to find other entertainment avenues for a period, stay away for good?
“What are our audiences going to be able to afford? Are our audiences going to be emotionally ready to do it again? These are all variables that no one has a clear answer to at this point,” McKeever said.
The ultimate vulnerability is that theater as much as any art requires an audience and the creation of a sense of community, noted Tim Davis, producing artistic director of New City Players in Fort Lauderdale.
“I hope the paradox of our separation and connection is not lost on you. While we cannot be together, we are united by circumstances in our world like never before,” Davis wrote.
Maltz’s Producing Artistic Director and CEO Andrew Kato knows his audience values culture and art in their lives. But at the same time, “I think that when we go through times like this out there, it’s a bit of a survival of the fittest instinct. Something like tickets, which would be essential at some times and (people know) the value is high, in times like this their priorities change. They start thinking about what am I going to do with my life? How am I going to pay my bills? How am I going to eat? And that drives them to make other decisions.”
But veteran actress Irene Adjan and former Equity liaison said “Maybe I’m just being optimistic, but my hope is once people are able to get out and go, they’ll be even more inspired to go see a play, to get out and see things.”
The crisis comes at a watermark in the evolution, maturation and growth of South Florida theater.
“I think we were really hitting a robust period,” said Matt Stabile, artistic director of Theatre Lab in Boca Raton. “In the last eight years…we’ve seen an increase in the number of productions and the number of contracts out there…. And I think because of that, the talent pool has also grown because people are like, oh…I can actually find a career down here. And if we start losing companies again and productions again, that’s going to have a ripple effect across the industry that we’re not going to even fully realized for years.”
But there’s an added dimension the crisis provides – an opportunity to rethink the entire paradigm, said, among others, William Hayes, producing artistic director of Palm Beach Dramaworks.
“We know that theater has to change. How do we make it more than just surviving but thriving?” Hayes said. “So I say, well, okay, so let’s spend these months to be proactive and brainstorm nationwide as organizations, whether it’s regional companies, (national) companies or the actors’ union and the publishing companies — to say we need to think outside the box.”
One idea that has captured his imagination, one requiring a nationwide coordination for both local and country-wide productions, would be to make broadcasting live theater a widespread option. He likens it to the watershed moment when professional sports overcame its fear that broadcasting games would cripple attendance – when the move actually increased its visibility and therefore live attendance, as well as increased its revenue stream countless times.
“It’s like a national theater network. You (could) see livestream productions anywhere in the country, pay X amount of dollars for it, which would be cheap. So you have certain performances at your theater during the run that are live recordings,” Hayes said, citing the success that The Metropolitan Opera had with live broadcasts that increased its ticket sales. Although always committed to the live theater he loves, he said he plans to spend the next several months brainstorming and networking on expanding what “theater” can be.
REWRITING THE SCRIPT – AND THE SCHEDULE
The show did not go on. Whether the season will or not, and when, is a huge question. And whether some companies will still be around when productions resume is a bigger question.
Most theaters and venues suggest that current and upcoming productions will likely be moved to later in the year, perhaps in the summer. Initially, several companies and venues suggested possible dates for reopening this spring. But as the virus spread intensified, most backed away from hopes that the delay would only be a couple of weeks or a month. Most directors and producers interviewed now say everything on their calendars is in pencil.
Some hope simply to move their shows further out such as Theatre Lab, which hopes that a rescheduled To Fall In Love only will mean pushing its annual fund-raising Overnight Theatre Project deeper into the year from its current May date.
Slow Burn Theatre Company in Fort Lauderdale, which was days away from opening a large-scale production of Ragtime on March 20, currently plans to move it almost exactly a year from now “in hopes to keep the original production intact,” wrote Artistic Director Patrick Fitzwater. Its planned production of Footloose is slated to continue as previously scheduled for June 5, but the company’s Plan B is to move it to August if need be.
Zoetic’s Sondheim musical “has such promise to be a truly stunning production,” McKeever said. “So what we’re going to do is put everything into storage and then probably bring it back next season.”
Actors’ Playhouse, which had “85 percent” teched Camelot, postponed the show as well as its May-June Murder on the Orient Express, plus moved its crucial Gala Auction to Sept. 12 and started working out details for putting its Young Talent Big Dreams Youth Talent Contest to an online paradigm with video submissions, wrote Artistic Director David Arisco.
Some companies merely cancelled their current piece such as Urinetown at Pembroke Pines Theater of the Performing Arts. Dramaworks has scrapped its summer musical, The Last Five Years, partly in hopes of making space for The Light In The Piazza that was near opening. Also scrapped is GableStage’s highly anticipated The Price, which was deep in rehearsals with director Joseph Adler who had decided several weeks ago to have other people direct the rest of the shows in his season.
MAKING THE CALL
When the severity of the pandemic became increasingly apparent day by day, decisions were made and remade — and are still being remade. Economics played a part, but everyone cited safety as the deciding factor.
Stabile held a first preview of Theatre Lab’s last show of the season on a Thursday with one of its best advance sales ever. “We knew that there was going to be stuff coming, but we were thinking it was going to be weeks off. So we thought, wow, well, we’ll get one, two, maybe even three weeks of the run done. And we’ll just have to postpone (the rest) later. And then we had Thursday night. Out of 46 tickets that were on the books, we had 16 people come calling.”
“And that Friday morning… I called everybody on the staff and I said, look, let’s talk. I said, it’s pretty easy for us to immediately postpone…. We didn’t have a giant musical or anything like that,” Stabile said of the two-hander. “We could do one of two things: We can go forward with the show this weekend and have the same thing happen where like either a bunch of ticket holders don’t show up because they don’t feel safe. Or we could have the other side, where everybody shows up and we’ve unnecessarily put people at risk. And I just didn’t feel that’s what I wanted Theatre Lab to be messaging. I felt like it was the only responsible thing to do at that moment.”
THE BOTTOM OF THE BOTTOM LINE
The predicted fiscal impact on every company ranges from serious to, as Slow Burn President Mark Palazzo wrote in an email, “perilous.”
Some of the largest companies took six-figure losses. The Maltz with its $8 million operating budget could lose $600,000 to $700,000, although it hopes to slip How To Succeed into a slot before its regular season resumes in October, Kato said.
Perhaps the most high-profile closing was Miami New Drama’s world premiere musical about Louis Armstrong, A Wonderful World. A show of epic scope and a record-busting $1.5 million production cost partially underwritten by some investors, it hired local talent but also many professionals from New York. It had an enthusiastic audience for its final preview, but never held the gala opening planned for the next day.
Its leaders still hope that the production can be resurrected somehow, but it, too, fears a company loss of $600,000 to $800,000. The difference is “we are a 3 1/2-year-old theater company without enormous reserves,” said Managing Director Nicholas Richberg. The massive set is still standing at The Colony Theatre in Miami Beach in part because it would be unhealthy to gather stagehands right now to take it down and because the cost of “load out” would be significant, he said.
Several companies paid their cast, crews and designers part of what they would have earned; Equity actors are required to get two weeks’ salary under certain conditions. Palm Beach Dramaworks and the Maltz Jupiter Theater paid its cast for two weeks of performance and allowed visiting artists to stay in company housing for days after the closing. Miami New Drama paid the very large cast, including non-union members, and crew the same two weeks’ salary.
The Arsht Center, the flagship presenting venue in Miami, reported Friday that all staffers “will continue to be paid and receive benefits for the foreseeable future. We are committed to keeping our part-time and hourly staff as financially whole as possible for as long as possible.” The Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale reportedly is doing the same, although neither can guarantee how long that will last since both have hundreds of employees.
In a few cases, companies like PPTOPA – which just began paying casts and crews this season — agreed to pay its participants for the full run even though it only had an opening night, leading to a total loss of about $70,000, said spokesman Alvin Entin.
Some like Theatre Lab paid off entire run of the show contracts because, Stabile said, he knows the economic pressure “having not too long ago been somebody who was working as an artist gig to gig” himself. “There’s no way to have somebody relying on a month’s worth of income and then take that from them,” he said.
Indeed, the effect will be incalculable for theater professionals who often depend on a second income to make ends meet. Actors and support staff in particular are unnerved because many of those “survival jobs” – waiting tables, dubbing voiceovers, ad hoc teaching – will be in payless limbo for an unknown amount of time, said Adjan who feels lucky because she has an office job.
It’s not just the current show; many artists had booked work for later in the summer that is in jeopardy. Noting that most theater professionals are contract players, Stabile said, “Artists are used to the sort of feast or famine that comes with booking gigs, and artists know how to budget their money and schedule themselves. (But) what’s happened to us with COVID-19 is completely obviously unprecedented…. I know artists personally who in the space of three days lost $10,000 in future contracts.”
Additionally, Equity members who had been counting on productions in the spring and summer will likely see reductions in the amount of, or eligibility for, union-provided insurance tied to the number of weeks they work in the industry.
There’s also a profound emotional cost for artists who have spent weeks, sometimes months investing their artistic soul in a show. McKeever was in the supporting cast of A Wonderful World when they got the cancellation news one day; then he had to turn around the next day and give the same message to his cast in A Little Night Music.
“It’s heartbreaking (to get the news that you will) lose the work, especially when you really believe in something that you’re doing” like A Wonderful World. “But then it’s also equally heartbreaking to have to give that news, to have to let these people go who have dedicated so much time and talent and energy into a piece.”
Considerable Facebook controversy occurred when Marilynn Wick, founder of The Wick Theatre went ahead with the opening night – and closing night – performance of A Chorus Line when virtually everyone else had decided to shutter.
But Emily Tarallo, who played Sheila in the production, wrote on Facebook, “As an actor in a show that just performed tonight, let me say that we chose to. And wanted to…. We have done everything possible to keep ourselves safe and were not forced or begged to perform. We didn’t have to. We are doing the necessary thing (postponing until further notice). However, we needed information before decisions were made.… But the one thing we love to do and the one place we feel safe and have been in for the last two weeks felt like the most magical thing this evening, in a time of chaos and fear.”
Over and over on Facebook, artists wrote of the pain and disappointment from an artistic standpoint as well as the fear of the financial fallout. Those directly involved in a show that barely opened, a few days from opening or were still in rehearsal wrote eloquently about their feelings.
Lito Becerra in Urinetown wrote, “We got one performance last night and we shook the pillars of heaven with laughter. This place, this show, these people, are a unique moment in history, which will never be replicated, but left its mark, and not even a global pandemic can erase it.”
Each theater and venue is developing return policies for ticketholders, usually spelled out on their websites. Most are asking patrons to wait until the box offices reopen to seek compensation. Other options usually include asking patrons to hold on to their tickets for the cancelled show or shows which they hope will be rescheduled later in the year, or offering to trade a current ticket for another show later in the season.
But tellingly, virtually all are asking patrons to “donate” their tickets as a tax-deductible expense. Ticket sales provide a third to half of most theater’s operating budget. “There’s no museum in the world that depends on admissions in order to pay their bills,” Richberg said.
Similarly, they are asking for donors to go to their website and increase their contributed support – a major source of the balance of the budgets.
“What we’re going through is so that we can be here for your future,” Kato said. “You know that the arts gets us through tough times always. And we’re going to be here for your future. Please help us. That’s kind of our slogan right now: We need you more now than ever.”
Several people interviewed worried that some companies – small, large and mid-sized – could be in danger of not surviving.
Some regional theaters in South Florida, especially smaller ones but also mid-sized, have traditionally had a thin cash flow and little reserves. They count on receipts from the current show to pay production costs to mount the next one. In the past, for them, if a show was cancelled or just did poorly at the box office, their future was imperiled.
Some companies have benefited from a successful couple of seasons like Zoetic Stage, or from assiduously avoiding deficit spending like Palm Beach Dramaworks, or from have a financial cushion from generous patrons like Island City Stage in Wilton Manors.
Martin Childers, managing director of Island City Stage, wrote, “We are currently able to keep staff and facilities only because of the generosity of our patrons and we thank them. We would have no reserve account if our patrons had not been so generous in the past.”
Even the Maltz with among the largest budget, reserves and most generous patrons in the state must underwrite a staff of about 40 employees and maintain a large physical facility, as well as being in the middle of a multi-million-dollar expansion. And many of its generous donors likely have lost small fortunes in the stock market decline.
Miami New Drama’s Richberg quipped dryly, “So it’s a complicated time to go ask people to be even more philanthropic than they are already being.”
Kato expanded, “It’s kind of hard for people to understand is how vulnerable even successful regional theaters are…. Luckily, we do have reserves, but we don’t have endless reserves.”
Oddly, while smaller theaters are obviously vulnerable, Andie Arthur said, “the really tiny people that have been operating on their own shoestring (for years), they might figure out how to operate on their own shoestring again.”
Some smaller companies dodged the worst simply because of timing. New City Players was planning to open shows at its new digs in a renovated space rented from ArtServe in Fort Lauderdale. But because the company was nearly three weeks away from its next community event and two months away from its next production, Davis wrote, “This has given us time to be patient, to think strategically, and to avoid immediate financial pitfalls.”
“We just hadn’t spent the money. I purchased the rights to the play, but that was one expense. We hired everyone” but the company pays its people a stipend at the end of the run, Davis said in a later interview. “I feel fortunate … that we are a young company and a small company so we can be flexible. We don’t own space that we have to maintain… and we don’t have to maintain a staff of ten, fifteen, twenty people who are expecting and hoping for a paycheck.”
But New City Players is hardly out of the woods because it struggled with the cash flow issue in 2017 and 2018, and survived last year in part because of donors, especially two generous ones, Davis said. The stock market plunge likely will “have a huge effect on them personally, which is naturally going to trickle down to us. So it’s the exact same issue for the future. Just on a much smaller scale.”
LESSONS TO BE LEARNED
The crisis is a wake-up call for those who support the arts and who work in the arts, observers said.
“I hope that we can get out of this with a sort of a better sense of how we feel financially about some of these issues (such as) not having a social safety net nationally in this country,” Andie Arthur said.
Stabile agreed: “We have to begin thinking about how can we put protections in place for not only these individual artists, but also for these organizations as a whole.” He noted that “the state has slashed funding to the arts budget repeatedly…. I would love to see the kind of grassroots funding that goes into like … Bernie’s campaign all the time, about how he talked about he’s got all these different donors at these small levels. I mean imagine if theaters and arts organizations could capitalize on that as opposed to focusing only on the top tier donors.”
Davis asked, “What is the government going to do to help some of these artists in the near future? And what can organizations do to… help right now?… I think we still have a responsibility to give to the community, contribute to the community, provide space for artists still to work, whatever that looks like possible, or at least to connect with one another.”
Actress Karen Stephens was taking a breather after a long procession of roles over the past two seasons, so she was able to serve clients still coming in to her hair salon. But she mused on the blithe attitude of patrons. “When you’re locked down in your house and you’re watching TV or you’re listening to music, remember who is providing entertainment for you…. How empty would life be without the arts? And I think people need to really be reminded of that because they take it for granted.”
Privately, a few artists expressed frustration that the industry in general and the unions in particular have not been focused enough on how to deal with the unique situations that arise when theaters try to expand their reach through technology. For instance, pay scales for livestreaming, can theaters charge ticketholders for the archival recordings that most make of their performances for their own use.
One optimistic thought kept being repeated in these interviews: that the South Florida theatrical community is unusually supportive, collegial and tight compared to some others. Local theaters traditionally help each other out, from loaning props to providing space for readings to sharing advice.
And the word that kept surfacing was “resilient.”
Richberg wrote last week of A Wonderful World: “This incredible group of talented, passionate, professionals laid it all out the last eight weeks of our lives. Away from families and partners and homes, and appropriate amounts of sleep, to come together to create something new and special. We may have been robbed of an official opening for now, but this is just the turn of a page, not the end of the story.”
The ghost light is still on.