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Taffety Punk Theatre Company’s spring production of In The Belly of The Whale closed before it could open. The coronavirus pandemic forced the show to shut down, just as it has caused theaters in D.C. and around the world to suspend in-person performances indefinitely.
Now, the company’s artistic director, Marcus Kyd, wonders what’s next. “How long are we going to ride this through?” he asks.
Since March, theaters in the District have been consumed with questions of when and how they should reopen. But recently, many theater administrators have started asking if they should reopen at all. With public health still a concern and with no vaccine currently available, it could be another six months to a year before theaters resume live performances. And a recent poll conducted by Shugoll Research shows a majority of theatergoers would be hesitant to return.
It was early March and Kyd was 1,000 miles away rehearsing for a show in Little Rock, Arkansas, when he heard Taffety Punk was considering suspending its operations and rushed back to D.C. Two days later, it did.
“I just remember the crazy difference that two days made as real data started coming in about how quickly it was spreading,” Kyd says. “I feel like we’ve been in that loop ever since.”
Kyd, like many theater administrators around the country, expected Taffety Punk would probably resume rehearsals and show openings after just a few weeks. But most theater stages remain dark.
“The key thing here is that there is no date for reopening,” says Serge Seiden, the managing director and producer at Mosaic Theater Company. “There is only the safety of all the people involved.”
Several theater companies, including Mosaic, Studio Theatre, and Keegan Theatre, say they won’t consider putting on live performances until 2021 because of the risk to public safety. Even if they could reopen sooner, there is no guarantee that audiences will return.
“There will still be people for whom coming to the theater is not a good idea,” Seiden says. “For their own health, for the health of others, it’s going to be better for them to not do it. It’s too dangerous.”
Mark Shugoll, the CEO of Shugoll Research in Bethesda, has served on the boards of multiple area theaters. He conducted an online survey in July to gauge the willingness of theatergoers to attend live performances in the D.C. area.
“This is a large sample survey of theatergoers that are conclusively saying, for the most part, I’m not ready,” Shugoll says.
The survey sampled 743 theatergoers of all ages in the D.C. area, and 16 percent of theatergoers said they would attend shows right away if theaters were to reopen immediately. But more than 50 percent of theatergoers say they are likely to wait until May or June 2021 to attend in-person performances, and that group increased to 73 percent for performances in September 2021 or later.
Alexandria resident Barbara Bear, 78, estimates she has seen more than 5,000 performances in the D.C. area since the early 1960s, according to DC Theatre Scene. She says she would go to see live performances if theaters reopen, but only if they take the proper precautions, like requiring masks or taking people’s temperature at the door.
“I am anxious to go back,” Bear says. “But I would like to know how it’s going to be set up. I would like to know how they’re going to organize their seats.”
Melanie Adams, 30, lives in Dupont Circle and used to see live performances in D.C. once or twice a month before the pandemic. She says she feels uncomfortable with the idea of watching live theater again, even with safety precautions in place.
“If we were talking about like next week or a month from now, my concern would be how much space is between me and my other theatergoers,” Adams says.
Local theater leaders say they are creating safety protocols so that they will be ready to reopen when the time comes. Apart from health concerns, however, some theater administrators worry that it may not be economically viable to reopen, even with protocols in place.
“Theater, unfortunately, the way it is paid for is very front heavy,” says Beth Amann, the co-founder and managing director at Monumental Theatre Company. “You’re putting in money to supplies, materials, and artists before you see any revenue back.”
Amann says Monumental rents venues for their performances and puts on shows with contract employees. Variable overhead makes them more flexible. Theaters that own their own venues and have full-time staff are in a more precarious position.
“We don’t make money by producing theater, right?” says Rebecca Ende Lichtenberg, the managing director at Studio Theatre. “If we did, we wouldn’t be nonprofits. So we’re already essentially operating at a loss from an earned income.”
Studio Theatre owns its venue, and between the danger the virus poses and the production costs, Lichtenberg says the company doesn’t anticipate beginning live performances until the city institutes Phase Three of its reopening plan, when audiences may be more willing to see live performances.
“We’re really lucky: We own our housing and our main facility outright,” Lichtenberg says. “We’re not having to pay down debt on top of navigating operating costs, which, I think, in this moment, is an advantage to sort of financially trying to weather this.”
But Studio has still had to furlough much of its staff, including Lichtenberg, through July, and several do not have a recall date yet.
“For example, our audience services team, we expect them to be recalled six weeks before we’re able to start producing theater again,” Lichtenberg says. ”It’ll take sort of six weeks for them to prep to welcome audiences back.
Monumental, Studio, Mosaic, Keegan, and Woolly Mammoth Theatre each have plans to generate online content to mitigate some of their financial troubles and keep their staff working.
The Keegan Theatre, for example, has been offering online educational arts programs for children of all ages since March, and recently started livestreaming performances in an effort to bring work to people in the industry and raise money for outside arts organizations.
“As this drags on and as we see theaters across the country having to scale down, the artists’ community is definitely one that we need to make sure we are helping and taking care of in any way that we can,” says Alexis Hartwick, Keegan’s director of education and administration.
Lichtenberg says Studio is hoping to make virtual content, such as audio-plays and streaming theater productions, available to both subscribers and wider audiences if people don’t feel comfortable attending physically.
According to Shugoll Research’s survey, roughly 66 percent of theatergoers have watched online performances during the pandemic, but only 25 percent said they would be likely to pay for that content in the future.
Nonetheless, both Keegan and Studio leaders say they are confident they will survive the pandemic because they have the financial resources—savings and generous donors—to remain afloat in the near term.
Shugoll sees the results of this latest survey as bad news for theaters hoping to begin generating much-needed revenue as soon as possible.
“I have no doubt that some theaters aren’t going to make it,” he says, “and that makes me very sad, but that’s just the fact of the matter.”
Anacostia Playhouse, a venue in Southeast D.C., is in danger of closing down because it lacks the resources that more established theaters possess.
“I mean, you want to talk about the disparity east and west of the river?” says Adele Robey, its executive director. “Don’t get me started.”
Robey does not own the Anacostia Playhouse’s building, and its primary source of income was theater companies booking the venue. But during the last five months, she has relied on donations and grants from the city to pay rent, utilities, and insurance.
“I’m constantly in a state of unrest because I don’t have any idea right now what my future is,” she says.
Because Anacostia Playhouse will remain closed until at least January 2021, Robey is looking into streaming online performances, but she remains unsure if the theater will survive the pandemic.
“We’ll just pray that we make it through,” Robey writes in an email. “There’s no guarantee.”
There are consequences, however, if theater companies don’t reopen and start hiring back artists and creative personnel soon.
“There’s going to be a point very soon that I can’t wait to see whether or not I’m going to work again,” says Kyd, who is also a working actor and musician. “Like, I might have to find something outside of the theater to try and support me and my family.”
Right now, there appears to be broad consensus that theaters should remain closed to protect the public.
“We’re gonna get sick,” Kyd says. “I don’t want to be responsible for that, you know?”
Aaron Posner, a playwright, theater director, and full-time faculty member at American University’s Department of the Performing Arts, says he and his wife, a full-time actress, lost almost all their work because of the pandemic. Yet he supports theater administrators making tough decisions to keep the industry alive.
“If the artistic directors, managing directors, and the leadership of the theaters don’t keep working and if they don’t make themselves their priority, then there will not be a theater to come back to when things are ready,” Posner says.