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10/07/2020 07:00 AM

What Will Theater Look Like in 2021?

Marc Deaton of Madison Lyric Stage is among those who are continuing to create and produce works of art, including his recent work, Memory of Truth, which was presented to a small audience in an open barn. Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source

As the pandemic tightened its grip on Connecticut earlier this year, many of the rest of us took the time at home to hone our bread baking skills, kill time on social media, or catch up on that Netflix series we had been hearing about.

Not Marc Deaton, of Madison Lyric Stage.

Instead, he sat down and wrote a searing memoir, which he then presented to a group of friends and supporters at a barn in his backyard in early fall. Deaton performed the play with three other performers to an appreciative and enthusiastic audience and has plans to present his work, A Memory of Truth?, as part of Madison Lyric Stage’s season 2021 season.

The question is this for Madison Lyric Stage and other Connecticut theaters and theater companies: What will theater look like in 2021? There are more questions. Will all of Connecticut’s professional theaters survive? Will audiences be comfortable attending performances? Will the economics of smaller audiences, all spaced out to stay safe, work? What new ways will emerge of presenting theater? And, what will happen to Broadway? Off-Broadway?

A Small Bit of Good News

Connecticut theaters received a bit of good news in late September, when Governor Ned Lamont that, as part of moving to Phase 3 of the state reopening plan, theaters in the state could start to offer works to audiences at 50 percent capacity, with all mask and social distancing requirements required.

Even so, it’s not clear whether that will allow theaters to survive and thrive.

For most theaters, financially, a 50 percent house is not economically feasible. Also, some theaters don’t have the configurations to effectively facilitate social distancing.

So some theaters, including The Bushnell, says it will focus on smaller events with more local talent. Connecticut’s producing houses also may combine a limited in-house audience with streaming available by ticket purchase only. This is what Music Theatre of Connecticut in Norwalk has done. But that will require an approval from the Actors’ Equity Association. So, it’s complicated.

At the same time, the artists and theater administrators alike are determined to find answers, and to continue creating art.

“I am an optimist,” says Deaton.

That view is shared by most.

Deaton and Rob Ruggiero at TheaterWorks, along with Greg Nobile and Carly Callahan of Seaview Productions, all say that, while it has been a challenge, they are confident theater will resume, though perhaps in different ways.

“We may look back on this as a welcome pause,” says Madison resident Callahan, managing director of Seaview, which is based in Branford and produces Broadway productions. “It forced us to take the time to consider who we are, how we make theater, who make it with, and who we make it for.”

She says that, in 5 or 10 years, we may look back and consider this a reckoning.

A Societal Reckoning, An Economic Crisis

She’s referring, of course, not only to the pandemic but also to the societal reckoning that has most theaters, along with the rest of the world, considering how to increase diversity in all aspects.

If there’s one major concern for all theaters, it’s money. Even in the best of times, for Connecticut’s theaters, tickets sales cover only a portion of the costs. Still, the loss of these funds can be devastating. Hartford Stage laid off all but a handful of staff and the top artistic team took a cut in salary. Most other theaters have taken similar actions.

This economic crisis has led to two campaigns, both centered on the proposed federal legislation Save Our Stages.

One group comprises the main theaters that present Broadway tours and other performances, including comics, singers, dancers, or orchestras such as the Bushnell, the Palace in Waterbury, and the Shubert.

The other group, called Connecticut Flagship Producing Theaters, represents the major theaters in Connecticut that produce their own shows. The group includes Long Wharf, Goodspeed, Yale Rep, Hartford Stage, Westport, and the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. These two groups are each asking for government assistance through the various programs designed to help protect the economy and jobs during the pandemic.

Both groups point to the jobs created by these theaters as well as the other economic benefits to suppliers and indirect benefits to stores and restaurants from audience members.

The presenting houses, such as the Bushnell, are dependent on national tours of shows to start again.

Bushnell Director of Marketing Paul Marte says, “The entire country will have to be reopened for large gatherings; patrons will have to feel comfortable gathering in crowds of thousands; and producers will have to be confident they can route a show without fear of a shutdown due to a regional or local outbreak.”

He sees that happening months after an effective vaccine becomes available, perhaps late spring or early summer 2021 at best.

With no ticket sales, the theaters are totally reliant upon contributions, with most of these coming from individuals. Some theaters have reserve funds or endowments that provide help, but the funds are limited.

Most theaters plan annual fundraising events; these have been canceled or moved online, but even when there is a charge for the online event, revenues are down.

Darlene Zoller and Tracy Flater of Playhouse on Park in West Hartford say they desperately want to bring their staffing levels back to pre-COVID levels, but to do so, they have to solve the puzzle of how to continue to create great theater and keeping audiences happy and safe during these times.

Ensuring that the theaters will be safe when staff, performers, and audience return has added costs. Artistic and managing directors need to become expert in air exchange, particle dispersion, and more. Jacqui Hubbard, artistic director at Ivoryton Playhouse, called in Yale School of Public Health Dean Sten Vermund, MD, PhD.

For Keely Baisden of the new Legacy Theatre in Branford, the fact that the theater was in the middle of being renovated/constructed was a blessing. First, construction was able to continue throughout the pandemic, plus the theater could review plans for the HVAC to reconsider what’s best to get the proper air flow levels. Like most theaters, it depended on experts.

Will Audiences Return?

Economic viability will depend on when audiences can return and how many will do so.

Michael Baker, managing director of Westport Country Playhouse, said that about 20 percent of his audience is ready to return now.

“That means 80 percent of our audience or more needs some indication that either the world has changed (i.e. treatment or a vaccine is available) or that we can keep them safe from infection while they’re enjoying a playhouse production,” he says.

While the Phase 3 audience size of 50 percent is better than Phase 2’s 25 percent, he is among those who say even 50 percent is not financially viable.

“We cannot produce theater in the usual way in a financially sustainable way while the pandemic is raging on—nor would we want to try. We understand that avoiding close indoor contact in crowds is one of the best ways to tamp down the viral spread, and we support the scientists and public officials who have put forward regulations that enforce that positive behavior,” Barker says. 

Deaton recently traveled to the Berkshires to see two AEA-approved outdoor productions, Berkshire Theatre Group’s Godspell and Barrington Stage’s concert of music by Rodgers & Hammerstein.

“We wanted to support these theaters, but we also wanted to see firsthand how they had prepared to keep their audiences and performers safe, and how those guidelines were implemented,” he says.

Moving audiences outdoors in good weather is one option. To build the communal experience for the audience, Playhouse on Park will stream its productions at an outdoor venue. Other theaters are considering tents while weather permits. Connecticut currently requires that tents are open, without sides.

Supplementing with Online

With the financial limitations that come along with be able to book audiences at 50 percent, many theaters are exploring online revenue as well to reach out to larger audiences.

The most popular option is to use digital means, usually streaming. Theaters are obviously concerned that people may abuse the streaming privilege by sharing the link with others. Livestreaming for many theaters also has multiple complications centering around the unions and the rights to shows.

Rethinking the Model

Nobile and Callahan of Seaview Productions say the pandemic may cause a rethinking of the Broadway business model.

In the last season, Seaview was the lead producer for the highly praised Slave Play, which may easily get multiple Tony Award nominations later this fall.

Nobile says there are three separate groups with an economic stake in Broadway: the theater owners who depend on rent, the performers and behind-scenes staff and their unions, and the producers who find the material and finance it with hopes of a profit.

While all are dependent on the theater returning, each has individual interests that sometimes conflict. He does believe that as Broadway reopens, it will be more dependent on local residents.

“It’ll be theater for New Yorkers,” he says.

That might bode well for plays rather than musicals, And it might also mean that those long—running musicals that are dependent on tourists will not return.

One show he’s keeping an eye on, as a barometer of sorts, is the highly anticipated revival of The Music Man starring Hugh Jackman. The show was supposed to open last spring and had a tremendous advance ticket sales. Now it’s scheduled to open spring 2021.

Will all those ticket buyers still want to see it? If it doesn’t do well, it may hint at even larger problems for Broadway.

He’s also looking at the exciting experiment that producers of the musical Diana are doing. The show was previews when Broadway shut down. Now the cast is in a bubble filming the show. The film will be released on Netflix just before the planned Broadway reopening, a year from now. Nobile said producers will learn from it whether it’s a hit or a flop.

Seaview productions, Nobile said, has four shows that are ready to go; each needs to find a Broadway theater, but there’s not much to do until the plan for reopening is known. So Nobile is thinking and working on a longer lead time, four to five years out.

Producers are going to consider scale and costs when considering new works. By that, Nobile said he meant not just the operational costs, but also what measures are needed for safe working conditions for all and safe conditions for the audience.

It doesn’t necessarily mean just small shows will be produced, but that each must be produced as efficiently as possible.

Theater owners and managers are having to tackle the science of how to keep the air safe in reopened theaters while at the same time coming up with creative ways to raise money. Ivoryton Playhouse consulted with experts about air exchange and particle dispersion. And they sold T-shirts. Shown here are Ivoryton Playhouse Executive/Artistic Director Jacqui Hubbard and Al Jaffe, chairman of the Ivoryton Playhouse Board of Trustees. Photo courtesy of the Ivoryton Playhouse
The Bushnell may be focusing on smaller events with more local talent, for the time being. Photo courtesy of The Bushnell
Theaters are exploring a wide variety of options to raise revenue, including streaming options. This is from the current streaming production of Kennedy, Bobby’s Last Crusade by David Arrow, who wrote and starred in the piece at Playhouse on the Park. Photo courtesy of Playhouse on the Park