How Can we Support Theatres During This Crisis?

As audience members we are disappointed when a performance or event is cancelled, our initial reaction is to think about what we are missing. This is particularly true of live theatre. Live theatre is unlike a concert, for which you can usually listen to the album or a movie, which you can watch at another time. Theatre requires you and the performers to be in the same space sharing a moment in time. Frequently there is no approximation ala CD, Blu-ray, or Streaming that you can fall back on, to at least get a sense of what was missed. So when a production is cancelled, we have to face the fact that something we wanted to see, is lost to time. Usually that’s as far as we take it. Depending on how excited we were for something affects to what degree we will dwell on it. What we probably never do is think about the theatre, the artists, and how the cancellation affects them. That’s normal and in most cases justified, things happen.

Well the Covid-19 crisis is a different matter. I had over a dozen performances on my calendar that have been cancelled, and there will be more. And yes, I am sad for myself and what I’ll be missing. There were a lot of shows that I was really looking forward to (Lizzie, The 39 Steps, The Color Purple, The Last Ship, The Red Shoes, The Rape of Lucretia). Some may be rescheduled, some will just be scrapped. Others, some great shows (Interstate, The Pink Unicorn), had their runs tragically cut short. But with cancellations on this mass level, it shifts the focus away from on what we are missing and onto what theatre companies and the artists have lost. When it’s one production, we tend to just think about what we missed and getting our tickets refunded. When it’s essentially every production we need to shift our focus to the creative community. Think of the time that has gone into each and every production. The weeks of rehearsal, the construction of sets, the hours spent lighting shows, creating costumes, props, makeup, promotional materials, sounds design, everything that goes into a single production. Then think of the two ways in which this crisis has affected the people and institutions who created them. Financially and creatively.

Creatively, imagine spending several months of your life on something, pouring your heart and soul into a work of art and then never getting to share it with an audience. Imagine you are an actor and you’ve been working for a month with a group of people to create something special, you have bonded with these people, made connections on a creative level and then suddenly it’s over. No three weeks of performances and a wrap party to celebrate and find closure, it’s just over. Imagine you’ve designed and had built a set that you are proud of, that you feel is the best work you’ve ever done, and rather than be utilized to help realize an artistic vision, it’s dismantled without ever being performed on. That goes for every artist and craftsperson who has worked on these shows. People who work in theatre generally are not in it for the money, they are involved because they are passionate about theatre and the work they do. They invest not just time and energy, which we all do in our jobs, but creativity. That is a resource that needs to be shared to be completely fulfilling. Of course on top of that is the financial concerns.

Financially, artists, theatres, and theatre companies are all facing uncertainty in this area. There’s a lot of theatres and performance spaces in the Twin Cities and even more theatre companies. I don’t think a week goes by that I don’t see something in a space I’ve never been to before. For every Orphuem, Ordway and Guthrie Theater and the like, there are two dozen smaller theatres. The Ordway for example had to cancel two major touring productions. You might think a large theatre like The Ordway can weather a couple of cancellations, and hopefully it can. But consider that the Ordway is a nonprofit organization and recently had to cancel their summer production Groundhogs Day the Musical because financial partnerships did not come together as they had hoped. Look at Park Square Theatre which had to cancel half of it’s season due to financial shortfalls. Even the seeming Goliath’s of the theatre community struggle financially. Now think of Mixed Blood theatre Company, Illusion Theatre Company, Theatre in the Round Players, The Gremlin Theatre, Nautilus Music Theater, Phoenix Theater, Theatre Elision, etc. I’ve been in theatres that I’m certain seat less than 100 people, a couple I can think of that probably cap at around 50. What does cancelling a show do to one of these smaller companies for whom each tickets sale matters? If they have to refund for every ticket sold how do they pay their rent, utilities, staff, actors, craftspeople? Many that I’ve been in contact with are making every effort to pay the artist, but these are not companies with deep pockets, and it’s hard to imagine that they will all survive this crisis.

We forget sometimes or take for granted how lucky we are to live in the Twin Cities. I find online claims that the Twin Cities has more Theatre seats per capita than any other US city outside of New York. I also find comments disputing that fact. I think the takeaway is that we are one of the top theatre cities in the US. In large part, that’s because we as a state, fund Art. But grants alone cannot keep this theater scene alive. All of these companies rely on ticket sales and donations to meet their bottom lines. As theatres cancel shows these last few days, the weeks ahead you’ll be receiving a lot of emails giving you options to transfer your tickets to a future date or show or receive a refund. Many are also including the option to donate your tickets to the theatre. They are not asking you to consider this because they want something for nothing. The reality is, they’ve already incurred the costs that the ticket sales were meant to cover. Remember all those sets they had to construct, the hours of rehearsal? I know that not everyone can afford to just donate money to theatres, but I encourage those that can, please do so. Every donation that’s made increases the likelihood that our city will remain the thriving center of art that it is today. You will help to make sure that theatres are able to pay those who have already contributed their talents and skills to these projects. That will help to keep them involved in the arts.

Aside from donating your tickets rather than receiving a refund there are other ways you can help financially. Go to your favorite theatre’s website, most will have a button you can click on to make a donation, do so. Here is a link to Springboard to the Arts, they have a Personal Emergency Relief Fund that helps Minnesota Artists, this fund is going to need additional resources to meet the coming needs. If you want to help financially but are not sure which theatre to donate too, this is an excellent option. We’re all going to be facing our own challenges in the weeks, possibly months ahead. I think it’s important as we socially distance ourselves for the immediate future but keep in mind the importance art plays in our world and take a little time to remember those who bring it to us. It may not seem important in this time of global crisis, but we are weathering this storm so that we can return to our world in safety. But that world will be much less fulfilling if we haven’t cared for those communities that make it a richer more satisfying place. As we necessarily turn inward, let us remember to not turn our backs.