Act One has certainly been harrowing enough: canceled productions, lost box-office revenue, furloughed staffers, out-of-work actors, playhouses gone dark that are normally full of light and life.
What now has local theater makers on edge, though, is that they have no idea know how Act Two of the coronavirus pandemic will play out.
Suddenly, in the words of that oft-quoted epigram, the future isn’t what it used to be. Interviews with more than a dozen artistic directors found a consensus that the ripple effects of COVID-19 will change both the business and the art of theater as practiced in the Boston area, in ways that will only become clear in the months and years to come.
However, it’s far from guaranteed that all theaters will survive long enough to be part of those changes. The situation is especially dicey for the smaller theater companies, which have absorbed a stunning and unprecedented blow while lacking the financial resources that will help their larger cousins to recover. Yet the reality is that question marks hang over theaters of all sizes.
Even after the crisis abates and public health authorities give the green light to resume daily life, will audiences return to the playhouses, eager for live performance again after being cooped up indoors for so long? Or might they stay away, anxious about predictions that a second wave of the coronavirus could arrive later this year? Will some theater companies simply founder?
“For a company like us, who already lives on the financial precipice, this is potentially devastating,” said Juliet Bowler of Flat Earth Theatre, a fringe company that canceled its scheduled production of “Walden,” absorbing a hit of more than 10 percent to its $30,000 annual operating budget.
“It’s already such a difficult landscape,” added Bowler. “With something like this, I’ll be surprised if we don’t see half the theater companies in Boston — fringe, small, and maybe even some midsize companies — either totally cut back on their next season, cut back on the amount of money they pay, or go under entirely.”
Even for an industry that prides itself on resiliency and adaptability, COVID-19 has been an earthquake. “The impact of this cannot be overstated,” said Lauren Elias, cofounder and producing artistic director of the fringe Hub Theatre Company, which had to postpone “Wittenberg,” expected to bring in $10,000, a third of the company’s annual budget.
“We all do it on the razor’s edge,” added Elias. “We try to plan for everything: What happens if an actor gets sick, what happens if it snows, what happens if whatever. It’s safe to say I don’t think any of us thought to plan for this.”
Not surprising, given that theaters and other cultural entities across the state are confronting a highly unusual triple whammy, according to Anita Walker, executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council. “We’ve gone through recessions, and cultural organizations have soldiered through when they’ve seen declines in earned income, donated income, and investment income,” said Walker. “But never in my experience have I seen such a tremendous hit on all three revenue sources at once.”
Consequently, the road ahead is strewn with artistic unknowns as well. “When we all come out of this eventually, does this change our programming going forward?” said Christopher V. Edwards, artistic director of the midsize Actors’ Shakespeare Project. “What kinds of things are people going to want to see after being in their houses for months? It might be a time when people are looking to be socially conscious, or they might just want escapism.”
If theaters do turn to safer, crowd-pleasing fare in order to rebound financially, that will mean an uphill struggle for the kind of new and experimental work — including plays that might offer perspective on the human impact of the pandemic — that smaller theaters in particular pride themselves on. “We work with a lot of beginner playwrights and beginner actors, many fresh out of school,” said Louise Hamill, artistic director of Fresh Ink Theatre Company. “If you lose fringe companies like us, how do those fresh voices get seen, get heard?”
Plays with small casts and low costs will likely be seen as safe harbors, as they were after the 2008 financial crisis. That will mean fewer jobs for actors, musicians, and other theater artists, and it will also darken the production prospects for playwrights, designers, composers, and book writers whose work involves elaborate sets on a heavily populated stage. As companies play it safe, they might also cut the number of productions per season.
A set of possibilities on the business side of operations emerged from the interviews with theater executives. Theaters may seek safety in numbers, embarking on joint ventures in the form of co-productions, marketing collaborations, WeWork-style sharing of office space, and even mergers. Theaters may coordinate with one another more often to avoid overlap in terms of what kinds of shows are running simultaneously in Boston. Auditions and communications that are now taking place remotely are paving the way for digital technology to play a more prominent, permanent role. Theaters may try to build audiences for shows by greatly increasing the online streaming of rehearsals and glimpses behind the scenes.
“This is going to force us to rethink the business model that we’ve been operating under for a long, long time,” said Michael J. Bobbitt, artistic director of Watertown’s midsize New Repertory Theatre. In fact, Bobbitt suggested that it might be time, in the interest of giving theaters greater flexibility in this moment of uncertainty, to reexamine the longstanding practice of committing to a fixed slate of productions that are staged one after another over a period of months.
As for the present, one silver lining has become visible in an otherwise grim picture: a tightening of previously tenuous connections among theaters that are now, quite literally, all in it together. “It sucks that it came to this, but we’re un-silo-ing a little bit,” said Dawn M. Simmons, executive director of the Boston theater service organization StageSource.
Simmons herself has been key to building a sense of community. Since the pandemic brought an end to live stage performance, she has been convening weekly online conversations — optimistically titled the “We Will Be Back Community Check-In” — among local theater professionals on Zoom.
“In the short term, there is a conversation about how folks can keep the lights on,’’ said Simmons. “Many of these theater companies employ quite a few people, both as independent contractors and full staff. So many of them badly want to keep paying folks.”
That has never been harder. At Actors’ Shakespeare Project, where the premature closing of “The Merchant of Venice” blew a $75,000 hole in the midsize company’s $1.2 million annual budget, artistic director Edwards and interim managing director Mara Sidmore furloughed themselves along with four other staffers. Edwards said it is the first time in 20 years, since he was a young actor, that he has had to file for unemployment benefits.
New Rep had to postpone a fund-raiser that usually raises $150,000 toward its $2 million budget, in addition to canceling a planned production of “Fences” and postponing “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.” Acknowledged Bobbitt: “We’re going to be scrambling with cash next year. This whole thing will mean we’ll be catching up for a number of years.”
Catherine Carr Kelly, executive director of Cambridge’s Central Square Theater — where The Nora and Underground Railway Theater present their work — said what theaters need now is “emergency funding, funding that is not restricted, that goes to keep the organizations running, so we in turn can hire artists as soon as possible.”
Carr Kelly oversees seven full-time employees and four part-timers and an annual budget of $1.9 million. “The longer we go without producing,” she said, "the more dire the situation becomes, the more difficult it becomes for us to keep staff on full time.”
That dilemma is widespread, to judge by a statewide survey conducted by the Massachusetts Cultural Council March 16-22, the first week after Governor Charlie Baker imposed stringent limits on public gatherings. The 566 nonprofit cultural organizations that responded reported a total loss of nearly $56 million in revenue.
Of those who responded to a question about potential staff cutbacks, nearly 60 percent said they planned to lay off or furlough employees or reduce their hours. The survey included 87 organizations from Boston, who reported total lost revenue of $23 million and more than 1,000 jobs affected by layoffs, furloughs, or reduced hours.
Walker, the executive director, said the council intends to help cultural organizations access federal assistance through the Small Business Administration. In addition, the council will meet Tuesday to consider an emergency relief fund of $225,000 that would issue $1,000 grants to theater artists, musicians, dancers, and other workers in the cultural sector who have lost income because of COVID-19 closures.
That money will be welcomed by actors, designers, directors, and other theater professionals whose plight has been worsened by the fact that many of the “day jobs” they rely on to pay the bills — in offices, stores, restaurants, universities, and tourism operations — have also evaporated. Hamill, of Fresh Ink Theatre, said an actress told her that over the course of two days she lost five gigs.
“It is a very complicated web that we have constructed to make our living that has been disrupted,” noted Simmons, of StageSource, who is also artistic director of the Front Porch Arts Collective and a freelance director and playwright.
Amid that disruption, a number of actors cast in postponed productions have left town to hunker down with their out-of-state families, raising concerns they will not be available when postponed shows are rescheduled. More broadly, there are fears that the crisis will discourage young theater artists from committing to careers in Boston, where sky-high housing costs are already a huge problem for low-paid artists. And some older actors have said they might call it quits rather than subject themselves to the health risk of performing in a crowded theater.
Theater is an inherently communal experience — group gatherings are at the very heart of the enterprise — and theater professionals are clinging to the hope of collective action on behalf of their industry. They say patrons can help keep theaters afloat by making cash donations directly to their favorite company; eschewing refunds to canceled shows and instead relabeling them as donations; and buying their season subscriptions early.
More broadly, the general public can remind elected officials who control funding that the arts in general are cornerstones of the economy and part of the connective tissue of civic life — especially important at a time like this.
“When you think about what people are going through emotionally, I have to think the arts are essential,” said Sharman Altshuler, producing artistic director of Moonbox Productions.
But those who work in and love the theater are also counting on their own trademark ingenuity and creativity to pull them through.
“I’m not going to doomsay,” insisted Danielle Fauteux Jacques, artistic director of the Chelsea-based Apollinaire Theatre Company. “The arts sector is very well practiced at living off of almost no money, making things work under the worst of circumstances. Artists always find a way.”