In a stark illustration of the financial toll the pandemic has taken on performing arts organizations, Watertown’s New Repertory Theatre has suspended operations indefinitely, raising the possibility that one of the Boston area’s most prominent theater companies could close for good.
“We were trying to make it work, but structurally, it became unsustainable,” Jo Trompet, chairman of the board of directors, told the Globe on Monday. Because the losses of revenue from nearly a year and a half of closure were so great, he said, “It became clear that we would not be able to produce” shows under the current circumstances.
While emphasizing that “we really want to find a sustainable path forward,” Trompet said that unless New Rep can secure ongoing commitments of $200,000 a year from donors over the next several months, the theater would be forced to close. Trompet said it “would not be prudent” to continue operating the theater without those commitments, which he said are needed to put New Rep on a firmer financial footing.
Even before the pandemic, New Rep was running a structural deficit, with earned income and donations not covering operating costs, according to Trompet. “This puts us in a very weak situation going forward,” he said. “We have to have a sustainable model to be able to relaunch. We need to attract sufficient support from our donor bases to prove we are able to continue. We cannot restart and just find ourselves in exactly the same place.”
The pandemic has landed with brutal force on the theater industry, a precarious business in the best of times. New Rep’s decision and the aura of uncertainty about its continued existence are likely to send a chill through the local theater community, which has been fervently hoping for a strong, sustained rebound after nearly a year and a half of darkened venues, cratering finances, and lost jobs. Some theater leaders have voiced fears about exactly the kind of scenario that is unfolding at New Rep.
“I would say most of the smaller theaters in the Boston area are struggling with the same financial issues,” said Trompet. “Our issues are not unique.”
Founded in 1984, New Rep is a respected midsize company that functions as the resident theater at the Mosesian Center for the Arts, with an annual operating budget of $2 million. Like other theaters, New Rep closed its doors in March 2020 when the pandemic took hold, not long after staging a production of “Hair.” Its finances were battered so swiftly that by April 2020 then-artistic director Michael J. Bobbitt was telling the Globe: “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.”
By the beginning of April 2021, the company had lost a projected $1.3 million, which equaled the entirety of its usual earned revenue per year. Trompet said Monday he did not have an exact number of the current total of lost revenue. He said the staff, which formerly numbered 10, has been reduced to three, including interim executive artistic director M. Bevin O’Gara.
New Rep has had four artistic leaders in the past decade: Kate Warner, who resigned in 2011; Jim Petosa, who was artistic director from 2012-2019; Bobbitt, who left the company in February after less than two years to become executive director of the Mass Cultural Council; and now O’Gara, who was named in March.
Asked at that time whether she would be a candidate for the permanent position, O’Gara told the Globe it was too early to say, adding: “I want to start by focusing on the good I can do in the short term with getting us through the pandemic.”
During the shutdown, New Rep gamely struggled to remain visible, presenting Zoom productions of plays including “A Very Herrera Holiday” and “[keyp-ing]” as well as open-air “walking plays” such as “The Charles W. Lenox Experience,” about a Black Civil War soldier, and “Listen to Sipu,” an outdoor exploration of Watertown’s Indigenous history.
But in recent weeks, even as numerous other theater companies jubilantly announced their schedule of productions for the upcoming season, New Rep remained silent about its plans.
As the pandemic dragged on, local theater leaders privately speculated that it would eventually claim casualties from among the ranks of Boston-area companies. Some have expressed worry that the return to performance is no guarantee of viability, given that theaters will be shouldering renewed operating costs amid questions on whether audiences will return in robust numbers. Those questions may flare up again in light of the current national resurgence of coronavirus cases, driven by the refusal of many Americans to get vaccinated.
“Running a theater is extremely challenging,” Trompet said. “It’s not just filling the seats and producing the shows, but also getting the donations in order to help cover your fixed cost structure.”