How Covid Transformed US Theater

How Covid Transformed US Theater

The art form has been forced to reinvent itself.


Eric Ting remembers the chill that passed through the room when someone coughed during the California Shakespeare Theater gala in March of last year. The annual fundraising event—essential to the theater’s $5 million budget—was celebrating a turning point for the 47-year-old company, where Ting became artistic director in 2015: He would announce that Cal Shakes was planning to move its offices and shop from Berkeley to downtown Oakland, showing that “where we make our home reflects our priorities,” and he would describe ways the company would be collaborating with community partners. “It was kind of a seminal moment,” Ting says.

Ting had visited Wuhan, China, only a couple of months earlier to celebrate the 103rd birthday of his great-uncle, and amid the gala’s live music, decked-out guests, and raffles for trips to Tuscany and Paris, he sensed a coming calamity, glinting like the bottles of hand sanitizer arrayed along the hors d’oeuvre tables. Indeed, the March 7, 2020, event, he says, turned out to be “the last big party in the Bay Area before everything shut down.”

A few days later in New Haven, Conn., Jacob Padrón hosted a kickoff for the new season of the Long Wharf Theatre, the first one he had planned since taking the reins as artistic director in early 2019. Featuring five plays written and directed by women and benefiting from new partnerships with some local organizations, the season, he hoped, would “mark a new era.” Within 48 hours he had to call it off.

Meanwhile, in Missouri, Hana Sharif was overseeing the final rehearsals of Dreaming Zenzile, a musical about the South African singer and anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba, at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, where Sharif had begun as artistic director in June 2019. The show—one of 12 planned for the season at a company that typically operates with an $8.5 million budget—was slated to begin performances on March 18. The week before opening, “the middle of America was not experiencing the reality of Covid,” Sharif recalls. But when out-of-town designers started canceling standard final-touches trips to the theater, “the reality of what was happening and how large it was came crashing in.”

National media breathlessly covered the closing of the 31 shows that were on Broadway last March—an unprecedented rupture in an industry that supports 96,900 jobs and pumps $14.7 billion into the New York City economy annually, according to the Broadway League. Scant attention was paid to the scenes unfolding across the country at the hundreds of nonprofit theaters like Cal Shakes, the Long Wharf, and St. Louis Rep, which, taken together, employ far more artists than Broadway.

A Brookings Institution analysis published over the summer estimated that the performing and fine arts industry had by that point—four months into the pandemic—lost 1.4 million jobs and $42.5 billion in sales. It’s difficult to generalize about the nearly 2,000 professional nonprofit theater companies in the United States given their disparate sizes, missions, locations, and aesthetics, but in interviews with The Nation, some 40 artistic directors, actors, playwrights, administrators, funders, board members, and technicians around the country unanimously agreed that the losses could be more than twice as bad now. Cal Shakes had to slash its budget by half and its staff by two-thirds; Long Wharf let half of its staff go; St. Louis Rep made a steep reduction in its budget and still operated at a $2 million deficit and the entire company went on furlough for a period.

Larger theaters have taken larger hits. The dynamic Children’s Theatre Company (CTC) in Minneapolis saw its budget plummet from $13.5 million to $4 million and its staff from 80 to 25. At the renowned Public Theater in New York City, the budget plunged from $60 million to $29 million as revenues declined by two-thirds and the staff of 270 dropped to 70—and that doesn’t include the additional 2,500 people the Public employs as independent contractors in an average year. Just about every theater relies heavily on freelancers but could do little to help them financially; Payroll Protection Program funds—if a theater is able to secure them—cannot be used to pay independent contractors.

Most theaters at least paid out the artists’ contracts for runs that began but couldn’t be completed. And some, particularly small, agile companies, have redirected resources to new programs that give work to artists. “We wanted to shift the dynamic,” says Soho Rep’s Sarah Benson, describing Project #1, an initiative that pays eight artists a salary—$1,250 per week for a year, with health insurance—rather than a fee for a product, to come up with whatever emerges. “How we’re making things right now is speculative and abstract, and pushing into the question: How can this be theater?” says Benson. “That is so exciting.”

Indeed, imagination is one resource still in ample supply. The past 14 months have seen an explosion of new forms: podcast versions of Shakespeare plays, interactive web dramas, an epistolary love story unfolding in a series of letters sent to audiences by snail mail, a Chekhov adaptation for The Sims 4 video game, one-acts designed to be performed by audiences in their homes, site-specific Zoom works in which the plot involves the characters themselves connecting through the platform.

Still, a full year has gone by with America’s theaters dark, and they—along with the tens of thousands of gig-economy folks who act, design, choreograph, stage-manage, build sets, run tech, and direct in them—are hanging by fraying financial threads.

That is not the only crisis theaters have been reckoning with. Like the country in general, theaters have been called to confront the systemic racism embedded in their standard operating procedures. Many responded to the uprising that followed the murder of George Floyd by posting statements of solidarity with Black Lives Matter; some opened their otherwise dormant buildings as bathroom and snacks stations for protesters or as staging areas for distributing provisions to food-insecure neighbors ravaged by the pandemic. Theaters of color—there are several hundred of them, long beleaguered by what much of white America was just awakening to—did more: The queer-trans Theater Offensive in Boston offered bailout support to arrested protesters; the 45-year-old Penumbra Theatre, an African American company in Minneapolis, began to reshape itself into the Center of Racial Healing.

On June 8, a letter hit the in-boxes of thousands of producers, artistic and managing directors, and other theater leaders, signed by more than 300 theater makers who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). Titled “We See You, White American Theater” (WSYWAT), it put the industry on notice: “We have watched you exploit us, shame us, diminish us, and exclude us. We see you. We have always seen you. And now you will see us.” A month later, the group followed up with a 29-page list of demands, among them: “a bare minimum of 50 percent BIPOC representation in programming and personnel, both on and off stage,” a Native land acknowledgment at the start of events, and an end to the six-day rehearsal week. The manifesto has amassed more than 104,000 signatures of support. And as a February “accountability report” attests, more than 100 institutions have been taking steps toward “naming and addressing the tenets of white supremacy ingrained in our culture,” according to Kelvin Dinkins Jr., the assistant dean at the Yale School of Drama and the general manager of the Yale Repertory Theatre.

The issues called out by WSYWAT are hardly new. Various organizations have tracked the field’s feeble diversity record for years. According to the most recent surveys, more than 70 percent of writers whose work is produced on US stages are white men; 23 percent of acting contracts go to performers of color; 85 percent of directors at New York theater nonprofits are white—and on Broadway, 94 percent.

“We’ve been having these conversations for so long,” asserts Adrian Budhu, the deputy director of Theatre Communications Group, a national organization for some 700 nonprofit theaters. New formations like Broadway for Racial Justice and Black Theatre United, which focus specifically on African American concerns and the commercial stage, share the exasperation. “We’re beyond ready for change,” says BTU cofounder LaChanze. “Those that aren’t ready will have to catch up.”

The pandemic, strangely, is providing the opportunity. “The hiatus has given us a chance to wrestle within ourselves,” explains Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater, which revamped its leadership structure over the summer, promoting three artistic staff members to a team that joins Eustis in decision-making. “I don’t think we could have done that while producing 20 shows a year.”

The nonprofits, officially driven by missions, not by moneymaking, can be called to account more pointedly and readily than Broadway. By challenging theaters in the terms of their own admirable ideals—to “serve and engage a diverse community” (Williamstown), “giv[e] full voice to a wide range of artists and visions” (Goodman), or “advance a more diverse and inclusive future” (Berkeley Rep), to cite just a bit of three major theaters’ stated raisons d’être—WSYWAT lit the long-smoldering fuse of the regional theaters’ legitimacy crisis. How can theaters live up to such promises when only those who can afford to take unpaid internships can chart a path into the industry? Or when plays by BIPOC writers are deemed “risky” and relegated to a theater’s smaller stage, which comes with smaller paychecks for all involved, thus perpetuating an ever-widening structural inequality?

These sorts of inequities are built into the nonprofit theater. “We have known for many years that the model is broken,” notes the Long Wharf’s Padrón, one of a new generation of artistic directors along with Sharif, Ting, and others installed within the past half-dozen years—many of them BIPOC or, Sharif is quick to point out, white allies. They inherited—and are tacitly being counted on to dismantle—that dilapidated, discriminatory structure. “We have been waiting for our turn to lead and try some bold ideas,” Sharif says. “Covid has catapulted us five to 10 years into the future.”

Nonprofit regional theater burst into being in the early 1960s, thanks to a deliberate, heavily funded effort by the Ford Foundation to root professional stages around the US; the theaters bloomed in the context of postwar economic exuberance, aided by Cold War claims for the superiority of culture in a democracy and by a liberal humanism that blithely assumed the “human” to be white, male, and financially comfortable. Within five years, the National Endowment for the Arts was established as a means of providing leverage for fundraising—never intending full underwriting—and the number of theaters in the US mushroomed. Notwithstanding some important, scrappy exceptions, these theaters cemented the foundation for what has become an entrenched institutional order: a single charismatic leader; a building that is expensive to keep up; reliance on wealthy donors, some serving on theaters’ governing boards; a slew of administrative and managerial staff on the full-time payroll, but few artists; an aging, white subscription audience; and a timid repertoire that doesn’t risk scaring that audience away.

The seasons Ting, Padrón, Sharif, and their cohort were set to launch last March aimed to dislodge that old model on more than an ad hoc basis. Now the demands of WSYWAT and the upheaval of the pandemic are pushing more sluggish theaters to follow their lead toward radical, sustainable change with two entwined goals: One strand of that is, as Theater Offensive’s Harold Steward puts it, creating “anti-racist multicultural institutions, not better white-dominant ones,” and the other is what Dina Janis, the artistic director of the Dorset Theatre Festival in Vermont, describes as “centering artists and centering community, and asking, how do you make theater anyone can come to and would want to come to?”

This shift has become possible not least because, in the words of Stephanie Ybarra, the artistic director of Baltimore Center Stage, enough theater leaders have come to share “a spirit of abundance rather than scarcity and competition.” Over the past year, they have been attending various virtual meetings with their peers in the theater or other spheres. For instance, in Minneapolis, the CTC’s artistic director, Peter Brosius, participates in weekly national calls among colleagues in youth theater, local ones among heads of Twin Cities youth organizations, and another with all kinds of local arts organizations. Such meetings are fostering a new sense of solidarity and a recognition that all these institutions inhabit the same ecosystem. And they are helping to mobilize theater makers to organize for government support like never before.

They have reason to feel optimistic. For one thing, the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Package enacted on March 11 includes funding increases for the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities. For another, a coalition of about 40 nonprofit theater leaders helped win a critical victory to bring nonprofits into the $15 billion Save Our Stages Act, signed into law in December and expanded in President Joe Biden’s Covid relief package. It’s not perfect—it gained traction only because it was initiated by commercial music venues, and accessing the funds involves confusing bureaucratic processes and costly delays. Nonetheless, the Senate lobbying campaign landed powerful arguments about the needs of arts workers.

“Workers” is the operative, nonpartisan word among a number of grassroots efforts gaining ground on Capitol Hill. “There’s a myth that artists are either choosing to starve for their art or they are out-of-touch celebrities, and we are trying to change the conversation,” explains actor Brooke Ishibashi, a cofounder of Be An #ArtsHero, which she and some colleagues formed “out of our own desperation” to press for relief funds. With volunteer labor, they have put together a slick website where you can read hundreds of passionate letters from theater artists to President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris as well as access a kit for writing one of your own, and they have been drafting bills and lobbying representatives by the dozens, calling for, among other things, $43.85 billion to sustain arts institutions—5 percent of what the arts add to the economy, and proportionate to the $50 billion given to airlines.

Meanwhile, the call for the appointment of a cabinet-level secretary of arts and culture has been gathering force. Ignited by an open letter to Biden written by stage directors Rachel Chavkin and Jenny Koons, the campaign quickly garnered 10,000 signatures.

There’s clamor, too, for a 21st century version of the New Deal’s Federal Theatre Project, the massive jobs program established in 1935 under the Works Progress Administration that supported theater troupes all over the country, including 17 “Negro Units” that produced formally and politically radical plays, as well as units for vaudevillians, children’s theater, and productions in Yiddish, Spanish, and other languages. Congress defunded the FTP in 1939 for its allegedly “un-American” activities, among them its calls for racial equality. Though short-lived, the program enabled cultural achievements, not least the development of the still-vital form of the Living Newspaper, a theatrical genre that dramatizes current events. A safer, decentralized, less easily politicized paradigm, some artists suggest, is the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) program of the 1970s, which disbursed federal monies to state and local governments to use as they saw fit to hire workers for public services—including in the arts. Brosius, the CTC director, paid his New York rent in the late ’70s through a CETA job making theater with psychiatric patients; the Public Theater’s Eustis calls himself “the poster child for CETA,” as the program gave him his first theater job as a teenager. Penumbra was founded on a CETA grant. Significantly, “CETA money went directly to artists, not to institutions,” recalls Philip Arnoult, who hired artists for his Baltimore Theatre Project through the program.

All these efforts share a tacit sense that the market triumphalism of the past four decades may finally be ending. Especially if the Biden administration delivers on vaccinating the whole population, government might reassert itself as a mechanism for serving the people and providing necessities that shouldn’t be left to the parsimony of the profit motive: education, health care, mail delivery. And yes, art.

While theater companies will have a tough time coming back as they grapple with eroded funds and audiences in no hurry to share armrests with sniffling strangers, their purpose—at least for those who have spent this grim year reassessing it—will feel more urgent than ever. The country will need healing as it comes out of the pandemic and the ascendant white nationalism of the Donald Trump years, and it will need spaces and frameworks for unpacking the past and dreaming the future. Theaters can provide them. “How do you make the world larger? How do you create that which no one has ever imagined?” asks Brosius. “That’s what artists do every day.”

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