The theater industry is an economically precarious business in the best of times. Now the phrase “box-office hit” is taking on a grim new meaning as Boston-area venues confront the prospect of a prolonged period with no paying customers.
Even in the short term, the implications of the lost revenue because of the coronavirus outbreak are dire.
“We’re taking it one moment at a time, but certainly there are enormous challenges,” Huntington Theatre Company managing director Michael Maso said Monday. “We operate without margins in our field, and we have so many people whose lives depend on these institutions.”
The financial challenges facing theaters stem not just from the revenues lost from tickets that would have been sold to now-vanished shows, but also the potential flood of requests by patrons for refunds for tickets already sold. Maso said the Huntington could potentially take a revenue hit as high as $3 million in the next couple of months, a sum that would amount to nearly 20 percent of its annual operating budget of $16 million.
SpeakEasy Stage Company, which has an annual budget of $1.8 million, suffered a $60,000 blow when it was forced to cut short “The Children” by two weeks, according to producing artistic director Paul Daigneault. SpeakEasy also had to cancel an annual fund-raising gala that usually raises $200,000, although the company was halfway to that goal via previously pledged donations and sponsorships.
At Lyric Stage Company of Boston, which has an annual budget of $2.25 million, the financial toll from closing “The Treasurer” a week early could be around $50,000, according to executive director Matt Chapuran. At ArtsEmerson, executive director David C. Howse said a preliminary estimate is that the premature closing of “Plata Quemada” at the Paramount Center resulted in lost revenues of around $50,000.
And those numbers only scratch the surface of the kind of economic damage being sustained — and likely to worsen — at theaters all over the Boston area, where the curtain has dropped on performances of current productions during a busy time of year, upcoming productions have been cast in limbo just as they enter a vital rehearsal phase, and galas designed to raise money and build momentum for the next season have been postponed.
Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater has postponed or canceled numerous events, and is postponing its annual gala until this fall. Watertown’s New Repertory Theatre has postponed “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” canceled “Fences,” and postponed its gala. Lowell’s Merrimack Repertory Theatre has postponed the two remaining productions of its season, “The Lowell Offering” and “Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End.” In addition to cutting short “Plata Quemada,” ArtsEmerson postponed “Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower.”
For theater executives and staffers, it has been a nonstop scramble to keep up with fast-changing circumstances, culminating with Governor Charlie Baker’s announcement Sunday night that public gatherings of more than 25 people are prohibited, significantly tightening the limit of 250 the governor had previously imposed. “The most challenging thing right now is that the ground is shifting beneath our feet on an hourly basis,” said Chapuran, of Lyric Stage. “There’s no aspect of our business that’s not touched by this.”
For actors, musicians, directors, designers, electricians, stagehands, and technicians, it could mean an extended period of unemployment.
Among the casualties as the city’s theaters have gone dark in recent days are the Huntington’s world premiere of Kirsten Greenidge’s “Our Daughters, Like Pillars,” slated to begin performances this week but now canceled (though Maso said he plans to present it in a future season), and the touring production of “The Band’s Visit,” winner of 10 Tony Awards, scheduled for next week but now postponed by Broadway in Boston. Broadway in Boston also had to postpone “Jersey Boys,” which had been slated for this week.
“We are doing everything we can to reschedule shows that have been postponed in Boston,” Broadway in Boston spokeswoman Ann Sheehan said via e-mail. “As you can imagine, re-routing the entire country with short notice takes some time and we are asking our ticket holders to remain patient as we respond to this unprecedented situation.”
For the time being, at least, there will be no more onstage scenes of love or conflict in the Boston area, no more witty repartee or lavish spectacle, no more rapturous ovations during curtain calls. Virtually no more theater, in other words.
Several theater executives interviewed by the Globe said they are asking patrons who have already purchased tickets to canceled shows to consider donating the cost of those tickets to the theaters, in order to help pay actors and other theater employees. They also expressed the hope that Boston’s philanthropic community will step up in theater’s hour of need.
For now, things are in a state of flux. The Huntington had already installed the sets for “Our Daughters, Like Pillars” on the stage of the Calderwood Pavilion’s Wimberly Theatre. Now those sets will be removed, Maso said. As for the Huntington’s next scheduled show, “The Bluest Eye,” which was supposed to start rehearsals in two weeks, a decision will be made by next week, according to Maso.
He and other theater leaders interviewed by the Globe Monday emphasized that a top priority is avoiding staff cutbacks and keeping their employees safe by allowing them to work remotely. “We intend to protect our staff above all,” Maso said. And they acknowledged that the public-health crisis, not the threat to the fiscal health of their theaters, is the most important matter right now.
But it was clear that the wave of closings and postponements has been jarring, even to veterans of a profession where uncertainty is a prime occupational hazard. “This a very vulnerable moment for all cultural institutions,” said Howse, of ArtsEmerson. “The financial impact varies widely across institutions, but we are all vulnerable in this moment.”