Closed for the plague

Dear Willow:

We just got some seriously bad news for the performing arts.

Not long ago, an expert panel was brought together by several professional singing associations, to determine the conditions under which it would be safe to sing again in groups. Say, for choirs, or musical theater, or opera.

Their answer was bleak. Until there is a vaccine and a treatment that is 95% effective, there is no safe way for people to sing together in person.

I don’t know if this affects you personally, but it does me. Because on top of working for Willow, I’m also an opera director, many of my friends make at least part of their income from singing, and I have an even greater extended network of musical theatre performers.

All of whom were among the first wave of the unemployed, when large public gatherings were banned back in March. Broadway closed on March 12. The next day, the Lyric Opera of Chicago announced they were canceling their performances of Wagner’s complete Ring Cycle (and if you’re at all familiar with opera, you know what a blow that was). On March 30, the Kennedy Center suddenly furloughed the National Symphony Orchestra, even after they had just received $25M in stimulus money (there was such a backlash that they quickly un-furloughed the musicians).

These are big stories that made a bit of a splash, but—in my mind—the harder stories are much smaller, and you’ve probably not heard of any of them. When you’re trying to make a living in the arts in this country, most of the time you’re piecing together an income through a variety of different gigs, almost all of which have been affected by the pandemic response.

As of last week, more than 33 million Americans had recently filed for unemployment, but, according to recent polls, 77% of those Americans believe that they’ll be able to return to their jobs fairly soon.

Nobody is polling performing artists, specifically, but I can tell you they’re far less certain, especially because there’s already multiple, frightening news stories of whole choirs getting sick with COVID, despite taking sensible precautions. And now we have experts saying that it probably won’t be safe to perform together in person for 18-24 months.

Here’s why this is a problem.

We may lose a whole generation of young performers and music teachers, because they won’t be able to sustain a presence in an industry that was already precarious for them even before everything shut down. When staring down the barrel of two years of unemployment, they will have to find other paths in life, paths that are less rocky and more stable. Many won’t come back. And our cultural lives will be the worse for it.

So, this is the crunch facing performers.

But what about performing arts organizations, many of them institutions in our communities? How will they survive with no performances, no audiences, no ticket sales for two years?

I’m broadening here to include dance companies, theatres, and even orchestras, because the truth is that what applies to singing is going to apply to most of the performing arts. You’ve danced before. You know that you end up breathing harder, that it’s a wonderful, sloppy, sweaty mess. Even straight theatre comes with shouts and tears and slaps and kisses. And whole sections of orchestras require an immense amount of air production and produce a truly foul amount of saliva. (If you’ve ever run a spitrag through a clarinet, you know exactly what I mean.)

But back to the question. How will performing arts organizations survive?

Many won’t.

Minus some of the huge institutions (e.g., The Met), most non-profit performing arts organizations count themselves lucky if they end a fiscal year with enough money in the bank to seed their next show, let alone their next season. Which means there’s no financial cushion if something goes horribly wrong…for example, if the theatres are closed due to plague.

And yes, if there are no productions, your overhead costs do drop considerably, but so does your revenue, and you still have to pay for the building and insurance and staff.

Two months in, and we’re already seeing the first closings, so far—thankfully—few in number and limited to studios and rehearsal spaces. The renowned Lou Conte Dance Studio in Chicago, the school of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, announced in late March that it would no longer be in operation, citing COVID-19 as the reason. The Shetler Studio in New York City, which has provided rehearsal and audition space for more than 30 years, put out a statement recently that they could not longer afford to stay open: “The path to recovery is simply too steep for our small company.”

For-profit shows housed on Broadway are also struggling, with several announcing recently that they will not be coming back, even if the theatres reopen tomorrow.

But the performing arts are nothing if not creative, and organizations are scrambling to find ways to stay present and relevant enough to maintain a steady stream of donations, even if they’re not able to produce live shows; at least enough to keep them afloat.

Here are some of the ways.

Some of the larger institutions are making previously-recorded productions available online: some as ticketed events, some for free but accompanied by a donation request. The Met is putting up a new opera every day, available only for 24 hours. The National Theatre in London offers production videos on YouTube, a new one every week, taken down at the end of the week. (Maybe last week you saw Benedict Cumberbatch as the monster in that stunning production Frankenstein.) The Goodman—a major regional theatre in Chicago—is offering a mix of ticketed access to recent popular shows and free streams of older ones.

I have no hard data that can tell us whether these efforts are working, or if they stand a chance of being effective across a two-year span. I can tell you that Frankenstein was viewed 3.5 million times across the week it was available. So, these are clearly reaching an audience, at the very least.

For companies that may not have that kind of reach or budget or star power (i.e., the overwhelming majority of performing arts organizations), I’ve been seeing all kinds of experiments. Choral groups are using apps like Acapella to record themselves one at a time to create a single collaborative video. I’ve seen funny short videos on TikTok, highlighting the talents of performers and designers. I’ve seen Zoom plays, and readings, and live performances from bedrooms, and socially distanced chamber groups bowing cellos six feet apart.

But these are stopgap measures.

It’s impossible to truly replace experiencing these performances live. A wonderful live performance can transport an audience as a group, and creates connections between audience members that are strong and almost tribal.

And there’s a bit of data to back up this feeling (I know how you love data). In 2017, a very small study of heart rates and electro dermal activity produced some evidence that live theatre can actually synchronize an audience’s individual heartbeats, even among strangers.

That’s powerful stuff.

I spoke with the Executive Director of a popular theatre in the Chicago area about his outlook for the future. He said that his organizations had worked for years, painstakingly building a patron community that feels deeply proud of the company and its productions (and consistently entertained). So, when the pandemic hit and productions had to be canceled, donations actually increased, because their patrons rallied to make sure the beloved company survived.

My takeaway from that conversation: If you’re a more established company, and you’ve created real meaning for your audiences and a strong sense of community among a large-enough base, that may be enough to weather a year or two. And, conversely, if you’re small enough that your staff is mostly volunteer and you have no physical assets to maintain, you just close up shop and ride it out, like prairie dogs hiding in their holes during a storm.

But there’s a segment of great performing companies that may find themselves stuck somewhere in the middle, and I’m worried for those.

I hope that my friend’s company can find new ways to engage his audience and maybe even invite new patrons into the family. I’ve seen his creativity, and I have faith.

I have faith in the performing arts as a whole. We need them. Humanity is hardwired for both art and community.

But I’m still worried.


Yours in concern,


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