Performance spaces rally amidst threat of unknown

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The new procedures and guidelines in the wake of COVID-19 have caused local theaters and performance spaces to temporarily shut down. 

“When a show doesn’t go on, many people’s initial reactions tend to be ‘ah, too bad for the band’ or ‘I want my money back’ or ‘are you rescheduling the band?!’ but the actual economic ramifications of public arts events are far more complicated,” said Deborah Justice, the concert manager of Cornell Concert Series, in her essay, “When the Show Doesn’t Go On” from 2020.

Before the shutdown, many businesses were enjoying success leading up to the summer months that are normally filled with events that thrive off of crowds like summer movie releases, summer stock seasons and outdoor concerts. 

“Business was great prior to all of this, between the holidays and Oscar season,” said Brett Bossard, executive director of Cinemapolis. “In the two weeks prior to us closing, when the fears were out in our community, there was some awareness of the virus, and I think that was probably keeping some people away at least on weeknights.”

But now that these performance spaces are effectively put on hold until further notice, they are facing an uncertain future that seems to contradict “business as usual.”

“We’re in the business of drawing people in,” said Doug Levine, executive director of The State Theatre. “And now, we’re just telling people to stay away. It’s definitely like a paradigm shift.”

Levine said that lingering fears of gathering in crowded spaces could heavily impact his revenue stream in the long term.

“I do fear that people are going to be less apt to go out to places where there are a lot of people, like for example the State Theatre, where you’re sitting next to strangers and in tight quarters and watching an artist,” Levine said. “I just really fear that we’re going to suffer for a lot longer than two to three months.”

The people behind the scenes who make these performances happen and don’t always share in the spotlight are certainly sharing in the suffering. 

“We’re different than most I would say because when the restaurants are open again they start seeing income day one,” said Dan Smalls of DSP Shows. “And when we’re told we can do shows again, it’s months down the road before any revenue comes in, so it was a really hard time for us to keep some of our staff on right now.”

Businesses have had to make choices about their staff, with many choosing to put their employees on furlough with hopes of seeing them again when the restrictions are lifted in the future. Other businesses have found ways to work around the closures and retain their staff.

“We’ve committed to keeping our entire staff on the payroll during the closure,” Bossard said. “So, that’s an ongoing expense that we’re going to have to deal with and be creative to find ways to make sure that we’ll be able to support the staff … while we’re maintaining the stability of the business.”

While many people are actively looking to the future, there is a mix of emotions concerning the future of performance in Ithaca and on a broad scale, too. Many operators are concerned about not only getting to the date when they can leave their houses but also whatever time in the future where the public feels safe enough to gather in a space with strangers. 

“It’s just an unprecedented situation. After 9/11, we knew it would be challenging, but we knew that it would come back around,” Smalls said. “But that being said, this is different in that we don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel and we don’t have our communities to get behind while we go through it. We’re just watching the same terrible Netflix series.”

Bevin O’Gara, producing artistic director of the Kitchen Theatre Company, echoed the concerns of other arts businesses that in this absence of community, in the past, people have turned to music and public gatherings as a way to feel human in times of crises, and now that this crucial aspect of life is missing, the void is looking to be filled.

“We feel deeply that we need to be here after this is all over,” O’Gara said. “That connection that people feel in a theater, that the conversations that we start, that ability to be together as human beings, …  is essentially one of the greatest aspects of live theatrical performance.”

In the meantime, these organizations are finding ways to forge this sense of community through online ventures. Many theatres are turning to online readings of plays, as well as livestream performances of “living room concerts” from the artists’ homes—some that go even further to highlight the truly intimate and bare-bones approach by accidentally featuring guest appearances of family members and pets.

“We have done virtual auditions remotely, [have hosted] our first live streamed Annual Meeting and plan to offer online classes this spring,” said Thena Gitlin, marketing director of the Hangar Theatre. “We are so pleased to see that other theaters are also offering virtual programming, contests and creative solutions to support their communities and the arts in general.”

The Ithaca community has shown its dedication and love for these businesses. Cinemapolis reported a spike in new members totaling to 50 in the first week, while the Hangar is encouraging early fulfillment of annual gift pledges as well as the purchase of summer season subscriptions.

“As a nonprofit, we rely heavily on the support of donors, corporate sponsors and state funding in addition to our ticket sales,” Gitlin said. “We are asking for the support of our community members to sustain the Hangar Theatre until we know what our summer holds.”

No matter what sector these players fall into, art as a medium and artists as a practice may face long term effects in the coming months.

“Artists are really struggling right now, and it’s going to result in a lot of people leaving the industry,” O’Gara said. “I’m really concerned about the fact of, will we exist? Will we be able to survive during this time in a way that allows us to still be here when this is all said and done?”

Within this pandemic, everyone is affected within different capacities and layers, and while losing the music and the performance is emotionally taxing, losing the arts scene as a whole may have economic consequences. 

“When a show gets canceled, the marquee goes dark. Then suddenly, across multiple economic sectors, the lights are out, and no one is home,” Justice said in her essay. “Interconnected layers of people don’t get paid, and then, in turn, they can’t pay their bills. In a pandemic time of social distancing and quarantine, suspending large gatherings makes sense. But, once the crisis is over, the show needs to go on.”

 

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