The ongoing litany of delays, postponements and cancellations in the US’ not-for-profit theatres is not unique, as venues and countless performing companies have shut their doors in response to coronavirus.
However, the reopening of the institutional theatre companies, which include most Off-Broadway theatres and pretty much all the best-known regional theatres, involves one challenge that’s distinct from its UK and European counterparts.
The US has a governmental funding agency, the National Endowment for the Arts, but its support is minimal compared to the UK arts councils.
Arts Council England funding is often make or break for the companies in its portfolio. However, NEA funds don’t typically make up even 5% of an annual budget for many theatres (and other arts organisations). NEA funding is important, but not life and death.
Even as the US federal government allocated funds to keep businesses afloat in a $2 trillion stimulus package, the NEA was budgeted for just $75 million extra to distribute in total, covering theatre, dance, symphonies, opera and more. Many of those companies are already projecting losses in excess of $1 million as a result of losing spring and summer seasons. That $75 million won’t make much of a dent when one thinks of the sheer number of arts organisations.
‘Have some companies, sadly, closed their doors never to reopen, be it for lack of funding or fatigue?’
Private donations – from individual patrons, corporations, foundations and trusts – collectively represent a much more significant contribution to organisations’ budgets. But with the stock market in decline, a recession likely on its way, and unemployment claims skyrocketing, even when the theatres do reopen, the prospect of an immediate return to pre-virus funding is unlikely.
The same challenge applies to selling tickets, since disposable income will take time to be re-established. Patrons may also be reticent about returning to large gatherings while the spectre of illness looms.
Many organisations are reliant on subscription sales – packages that sell tickets to an entire season at a discount – and these will likely drop. They experienced a marked decline in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, putting greater emphasis on single ticket sales, making income less predictable and more expensive to secure.
Needless to say, these challenges affect artists and staff. Many theatres have announced major layoffs until the crisis has passed, with staff reductions ranging as high as 80%. A few companies have committed to paying their staffs through the end of June, but they are rare; more have provided only two-weeks severance. Without any system comparable to the NHS, most organisations are funding health insurance for another month or two, after which theatre employees and perhaps their spouses and dependents will be forced to fund their own health policies, precisely when they don’t have regular income.
Royalty income has certainly fallen off a cliff. But playwrights, composers, and lyricists working in this sector face a double challenge: many theatres have already announced their seasons will begin in the fall. As a result, shows aren’t easily postponed, because production slots for autumn 2020 and the winter/spring of 2021 are already committed. This leaves a number of projects orphaned, hopefully finding new berths the following season.
If this summary seems unduly pessimistic, that’s only because theatres need to be considering the hard realities they will face as this scourge continues. There is no assurance of when this will end and what theatres will face in an altered world for the live performing arts.
To suggest that many groups are sufficiently deep-pocketed to self-fund their way back to operation is wishful thinking. Some with carefully built endowments, all now with diminished investments, may be able to take from their reserves, but in doing so they will be putting their organisations at ever greater risk should this virus return or another crisis arise.
The result will be a fundamental realignment of the performing arts in the US, no different to elsewhere. Will it serve to make the not-for-profit sphere more commercially minded – that is to say ever more risk averse and in search only of work with mass appeal?
Will it see young and nimble groups, some newly born out of the crisis, establish new models for the future, better able to survive inevitable vagaries, including the ever-looming threat of climate change? Have some companies, sadly, closed their doors never to reopen, be it for lack of funding or fatigue?
With not-for-profit US theatres having just begun a generational change in leadership, perhaps a terrible situation will resolve into a rebirth, yielding more accessible theatres better aligned for, and representative of, our diverse audiences. I hope this becomes a reality and, to the degree I’m able, I won’t just hope, I’ll try to play some part in achieving it, as we all must.
Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. Read his latest column every Friday at thestage.co.uk/author/howard_sherman/