While Washington state slowly turns toward reopening from lockdowns, it’s still far too early to try and imagine what theater and dance will look and feel like in the coming year — whether actors will wear masks and stand 6 feet apart, or how directors will try to stage fights, kisses and other dramatic stuff.
Instead, Seattle-based artists like Jay O’Leary (associate artistic director of Sound Theatre Company) are thinking about what they can do now, like outdoor microplays performed near restaurants as people wait for their takeout — dinner and a show for the quarantine age.
“When I think about this time of pause, of crisis, it reveals possibility,” she said. “If you are seeking where the aliveness is.”
But for many venues and individuals, just staying alive tops the priority list.
Performing arts organizations were among the first to close their doors in the pandemic shutdown and will likely be among the last to reopen. Even when they are allowed to turn on the lights — by July 13, at the very, very earliest, and still socially distant, according to Gov. Jay Inslee’s four-phase reopening plan — the unknown far outweighs the known. When will it be safe? When will artists and audiences feel safe? Could venues live while selling tickets below capacity? (Typically, even if a show sells out, ticket revenue doesn’t cover the cost of producing anything noncommercial. That revenue usually hovers between 30-60% of an organization’s income — which is why many are nonprofits, depending on donations and grants to survive.)
Nobody knows the answers, and most aren’t even willing to speculate on a big pile of maybes.
John Bradshaw, managing director of Seattle Shakespeare Company, explained the two major factors in determining when they can reopen, neither of which is calculable: the behavior of the virus and the behavior of people.
“I’ve heard some very loyal, longtime subscribers say they’re not coming back until there’s a vaccine,” Bradshaw said. “We’re not anytime soon going to do theater the way it’s been done at Seattle Shakespeare Company for 30 years and Western civilization for 3,000 years.”
The picture — attendance, budget projections, programming decisions — is extraordinarily volatile. “There is no precedent,” said Rachel Cook, artistic director of On the Boards, a contemporary performance venue. “This is massive. I don’t think any person understands what it’s going to feel like. But I think it’s our job as arts leaders to advocate for community and artistic voices to be heard.”
Josh LaBelle, executive director of Seattle Theatre Group (which runs the Paramount, Neptune and Moore theaters) said he was recently approached by public officials, asking how he’d feel about opening at one-third capacity.
“Don’t assume Broadway tours or major concerts or Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater are going to have the ability to earn two-thirds less money,” LaBelle said. “Maybe some comedians could make sense of that. Maybe.”
A steep increase in ticket prices is not under serious discussion.
“I don’t have a big interest in tripling prices as a response to this at all, making the arts truly accessible to only wealthy people,” LaBelle said. “And I think artists care just as much about how much people pay for tickets.”
Still, he argues, staying dark isn’t just bad for the performing arts — it’s bad for economies. According to The Broadway League (a trade association, which also co-produces the Tony Awards), Broadway tours generate economic activity that’s 3.28 times the gross ticket sales to a city’s economy. (That figure roughly matches previous, independent studies.)
But nobody wants to open until it’s safe — even then, until people feel comfortable showing up, there’s no point in opening at all.
“It’s just a mess,” LaBelle said.
Wier Harman, executive director of Town Hall, said it could be among the first to reopen. Many of its events involve authors at lecterns, making the stagecraft less complicated for social distancing, and more easily streamable online, where people can buy tickets and “attend” safely. Town Hall has already begun doing this, though offering its events for free, and has had good turnouts: 300 to 600 for its weekly Earshot Jazz Live at the Forum events (where the musicians are present, but socially distanced) and 2,500 to see economist Robert Reich.
Because of this ability, Town Hall hopes to host live events — with a socially distanced audience and ample safety measures, from masks to a bigger budget for paper towels in the bathrooms — and sell tickets for online viewing as well, helping to soften the economic blow of a sparse live audience.
Because Town Hall can maneuver more nimbly, it feels a civic duty to be the test pancake. “If I believe all the things I’ve been saying about this place for years,” Harman said, “if I believe Town Hall plays a role in helping people and society figure out what they want to be, it’s even more important for us to do that now. It’s worth our trying to crack this code — to show it can be done.”
Even with its relatively flexible streaming/in-person capabilities, Town Hall tentatively projects a 70% reduction in next year’s earned revenue (ticket sales, rentals and concessions, which combine into 36% of its total budget). Any contributed-income estimates would be premature — the economic climate, Harman said, is still too wild to guess what donors will do.
While the local performing-arts conversation is very much about nuts and bolts, Cook, at On the Boards, said the national conversation is much broader, using this enforced pause to ask whether the arts-industrial complex should be rebuilt in its old image. Arts workers and programmers have been holding panels and writing up documents (“Creating New Futures,” which has collected in-the-trenches stories from artists and programmers, is being widely circulated) to think about ethics and equity in the arts world.
“This pandemic has really made clear just how fragile a lot of the systems that artists are working in are,” said Betsey Brock, executive director of On the Boards.
“How do we let artists build the ecosystem they want,” asked Erin Johnson, artistic director of Velocity Dance Center, “as opposed to how we fit artists into this ecosystem of producing and performing around the country, driven by organizations and the need to fill seats?”
Those conversations are still in early stages, but they also free up artists and organizations to consider what they can do right now, working beyond the old template.
Streaming, of course, is one option. OnTheBoards.tv, an archive of high-quality performance recordings, launched in 2014, has seen a 600% jump in viewership since March. Last year, Brock said, the site had six visitors from Istanbul; this year, it’s had 4,000. But OnTheBoards.tv, like Town Hall’s current streaming programs, and the new Northwest Arts Streaming Hub (NASH) is free — will people pay for them?
That’s another unknown.
Cook said she and artists are thinking about what can they can do that’s new, soon and safe: mail art, an evening of dance in a parking lot, “choreographic walks” (which could be following a dancer, or following a map with instructions made by artists, maybe while listening to a soundtrack on headphones), and so on.
The just-stream-it impulse can only take us so far.
“It’s not a substitute,” said O’Leary, the director. “We can’t claim that a Zoom reading has the same effect as being there in person and that talkback and that connection. And the weighted pauses when everybody holds their breath — that’s not there, and that’s a large part of what makes theater theater.”