An Alice in Wonderland-themed cabaret seems fitting as Cafe Nordo’s first show since early 2020 — an evening of lighthearted escapism as a welcome back from an ill-humored time. It was also a fitting show for a new business model, Nordo decided.

Nordo, a dinner theater in Pioneer Square, has switched from running six or so short shows a year, mostly for a subscriber base, to fewer shows that run longer, hoping to attract a larger audience. The cabaret show, “Down the Rabbit Hole,” opened in September 2021 and will run through Nov. 19, meaning more tickets can be sold for each show, and if a ticket buyer gets sick, they’ll likely have a better chance of rescheduling, said Terry Podgorski, Nordo’s co-executive artistic director. With fewer breaks between shows, employees aren’t out of work multiple times a year, and fewer shows mean less sets to build, lowering costs.

The idea for this new structure came before the pandemic, but the need for arts organizations to pivot has only grown stronger as multiple forces are striking the arts all at once. Coronavirus cases remain unpredictable, forcing more contingency planning. Budgets are stretched tighter by rising costs, while revenue, generally, is not increasing to keep up. Supply chain issues are causing headaches. To top it off, there’s a high level of attrition, particularly in critical behind-the-scenes roles like set and stage building, leading to staff and crew shortages. 

With pandemic fallout all around them, and ticket buyers at the door, how are Seattle’s arts organizations finding their “new normal”?

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Now hiring: backbone of the arts

Staff shortages are not specific to the arts, but they are prevalent. In two years, with no consistent income, “a lot of people kind of gave up on their dreams,” said Karen Lund, Taproot Theatre’s producing artistic director. This has proven to be especially true for those in behind-the-scenes roles, like technical crew, stage management and wardrobe.

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Seattle Shakespeare Company used to be a place where young stage managers could gain experience before moving on to a larger theater, said Artistic Director George Mount. Now, he’s competing with the larger theaters for the few stage managers that are left.

“The really good ones are taken up, and the ones that we might be employing and help to become really, really good ones are above our pay grade at this point,” he said.

Cafe Nordo, Podgorski said, is having similar trouble. Many industry veterans retired or changed careers during the pandemic, and younger workers are choosing larger, unionized theaters instead. Ultimately, there just aren’t enough technical hires to go around.

“All the houses are trying to open up at the same time, and they all need the same people,” Podgorski said, noting that they have great actors, but they’re lacking people in “the infrastructure, the management and the tech.”

Unlike its theater peers, Nordo also has a food-service component, and “the stories are all true about food service,” Podgorski said. “It’s hard to provide high enough wages or incentives for people to stay there.”

Seattle Times arts recovery coverage

Seattle’s thriving and vital arts-and-culture community has been rocked by the coronavirus pandemic and the only thing certain about the future is change. The Seattle Times takes an in-depth look at the sector’s recovery in 2022 with support from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. We will explore how both individuals and institutions are doing in the wake of the pandemic; track where relief money is going; and look at promising solutions to challenges facing our arts community. We invite you to join the conversation. Send your stories, comments, tips and suggestions to artsrecovery@seattletimes.com.

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Music festival organizers, like Kevin Sur of Timber!, are also dealing with a shrinking pool of essential workers.

“A lot of people that were kind of the backbone of the stages getting built, the electricity being turned on, the sound engineers, etc., a good portion of them walked and chose other career paths,” he said.

While some organizations are waiting for the talent pool to refill, Tasveer, a social justice-focused South Asian arts nonprofit, is hiring long-distance employees, like a development manager in Bellingham and a program manager in Virginia. Rita Meher, co-founder and executive director, said she also hired a marketing firm in Los Angeles after not finding a local expert that suited Tasveer’s needs. Its South Asian Film Festival in November will be its first event offered both online and in-person, so Tasveer is marketing to a much larger audience, she said.

After a lack of applicants for security guard positions, Frye Art Museum is now contracting with a security company. The museum, whose cafe has been closed since initial pandemic closures, is also on the lookout for a new food-service company to operate the cafe after the previous one went out of business.

While there’s been some trouble filling positions in the hair, makeup and wardrobe departments, Seattle Opera has had decent luck with incoming applications, said Jane Repensek, chief financial officer and chief operations officer. The real issue is turnover; last year, she said, turnover in the staff alone was about 22%, up from pre-pandemic rates in the single digits.

“Fortunately we’ve been able to keep up, but I don’t know how tenable that is,” Repensek said. “That remains to be seen.”

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The show must go on, when it can

Before 2020, canceling or postponing an event wasn’t common for theaters, concerts and the like. But with staff shortages, the continued presence of COVID-19, and shipping issues, the arts are learning that sometimes, the show cannot go on.

Taproot Theatre, for example, lost the last seven performances of Agatha Christie’s “Black Coffee” in August after an actor got COVID, exposing the other cast members. After an exposure event, the Actors’ Equity Association requires closing for five days; in that time, two more cast members got sick. It was very disappointing, Lund said, since the show had unexpectedly high ticket sales, but she’s proud of Taproot’s contingency planning and ability to contain the virus.

At Seattle Opera, sometimes roles are double cast, Repensek said, but not always; luck and continued strict COVID protocols play a part in their no-cancellations streak. Depending on how close someone is to the performance, they may be tested daily or a few times a week. Repensek is one of the opera’s three designated monitors who check vaccination records, administer coronavirus tests and are the first point of contact if someone may have COVID.

The opera is also being more proactive in its planning due to other factors as well. In addition to planning further out to combat long shipping times, especially when sets are shipped internationally from another venue, the opera is looking for productions that are sourced domestically when possible and creating new works in-house.

“[LA Opera’s] set was in a ship that they could see from the harbor, but they couldn’t get it into port,” Repensek said. “We’re learning the lessons from our colleagues in the industry and making adjustments so that we are not having to think about opening an opera when the set is sitting on a ship that I can see but can’t get to.”

The Museum of History & Industry has had a large downtick in traveling history exhibits, MOHAI’s Executive Director Leonard Garfield said, after shipping restrictions and delays either made it physically impossible or too complicated to ship them. Shipping is getting better, but Garfield says the progress is slow, especially for 3D exhibits that have to be built, as opposed to 2D shows like the current “Ansel Adams: Masterworks” photography exhibit.

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In the meantime, MOHAI is updating its longstanding core exhibits and pulling pop-up displays from its own collection.

“The pipeline challenges of traveling exhibits is somewhat being made up for by our intention to really dive deep into our own rich resources here locally,” he said.

In theater, local companies are forming backup plans, too. Last month, Pork Filled Productions produced its first in-person production since the pandemic, “She Devil of the China Seas,” with a few bumps in the road. Both stage managers got COVID right in time for technical rehearsal, and a technical associate ended up running the show, according to Roger Tang, Pork Filled Productions’ executive director.

“We were very fortunate to have somebody who was actually technically proficient, even though inexperienced,” Tang said. “But it’s like the highest possible ultimate test … Six months ago, she was stage manager on a college level, and now she got booted up into a mid-five-figure[-budget] production.”

Tang has also hired some understudies, taking advantage of grants and other funding, but he’s concerned about next year, when those opportunities are more limited.

“I think it’s going to be a little bit harder to [have understudies], but … I think that’s still a good idea, to reduce the pressure on everybody,” he said.

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Several Seattle performing arts organizations are instituting understudy programs to avoid cancellation when a cast member is sick. Lund said Taproot has hired understudies for a few shows now, and needed the understudies for one. But, regardless of performance, hiring understudies isn’t cheap.

“You have to pay them whether they go on or don’t,” she said. “It’s thousands of dollars that were not expected when we created the budget.”

Seattle Shakespeare Company has hired some understudies, but backup for every role is not feasible since each of its shows has a cast of 15 to 20 people, Mount said. In desperate times, Mount himself will be an understudy, if he’s not already in the show, but typically that means performing script-in-hand, which he said audiences don’t appreciate.

“We need to find more money to find artists available to cover roles and be understudy ready,” he said. “None of that comes with a guaranteed income. So we can spend a lot more money, but how do we make more money to cover that cost?”

“How expensive it is to be a Seattleite”

How to make more money is the looming question. Ticket prices at several organizations are going up as arts organizations struggle to afford increased prices on things like materials, equipment and shipping due to inflation. Ticket prices also go up so employers can increase wages and their employees can afford to live in Seattle. 

Not increasing wages worsens an organization’s staffing problem, “just because of how expensive it is to be a Seattleite,” Mount said. “If you’re the classic starving artist in Seattle, you’re really starving.”

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Seattle’s minimum wage has increased yearly since 2015 and is now $17.27 for most workers, up from $15.75 in 2020, when pandemic shutdowns began. At Taproot Theatre, Lund said, increases in wages are weighing heavy after pandemic revenue lows.

“Normally, you’re growing your business along to get ready for that. It easily adds $100,000 every time [minimum wage] goes up $1,” she said, adding that, when the minimum wage goes up, Taproot increases pay for those making more than minimum wage as well. 

In planning Timber!, Sur felt the costly effects of supply chain issues as well. High demand coupled with low supply means high prices.

“Everything from gear that we use to merchandise that we get to sell at our event, which is a big part of our revenue — things that were typically available for us … just weren’t,” he said. “We had to get inventive and do different things. And pay more.”

Getting inventive, Sur said, meant searching farther and wider for staging and other equipment, since companies he previously used went out of business.

In the theater world, most groups are paying a great deal to either build a set or have one shipped, depending on the show. Tang said prices for lumber have been at least 20% higher than what Pork Filled planned for when starting the production process for “She Devil of the China Seas.” 

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Cafe Nordo has raised prices and will likely have to again; otherwise, the staff can’t afford to live here, Podgorski said.

“We really upped all of our salaries by a lot over the last year of what we were paying pre-COVID, but it looks like we need to do it again,” he said. “You just have to pass it onto the ticket price and hope people will pay it.”

Hoping is a regular practice in the new normal for Seattle arts organizations, as leaders remain cautiously optimistic — happy the doors are open again, but concerned about what could come through them next.

“Predictions for the ‘end of the pandemic’ have been almost universally wrong,” said Seattle Opera’s Repensek. “The best we can do is to remain as nimble and agile as possible, so that we can respond quickly to the circumstances that unfold in front of us.”

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This coverage is partially underwritten by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over this and all its coverage.