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Life & Style
Iconic Theater Venues Forge Ahead, Hoping For Support
Jacqui Hubbard, the executive director of the Ivoryton Playhouse; Donna Lynn Hilton, artistic director of Goodspeed Musicals; and Brett Elliott, executive director of The Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center following a press conference about a new federal grant program for shuttered arts venues. All three plan to apply and say the funds are critically important for a timely recovery for the arts organizations. (Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source)
Eric Dillner, CEO of the Shoreline Arts Alliance, talks with Michael Price, the former executive director of the Goodspeed Opera House, who helped build it into the nationally renowned arts venue it was prior to the pandemic. Dillner also is founder and chair of the Reopen CT’s Arts Venues Task Force, which helps venues apply science-based practices while reopening, to help keep people safe. (Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source)
The Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam is an economic pillar for the entire region. (Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source)
Jacqueline Hubbard, executive/artistic director of the Ivoryton Playhouse, here on the front steps of the playhouse with her dog Lulu, says, “Right now, everybody is feeling a little shell shocked from the past year and if they are going to come out of their homes and be in a space with other people then I think they will want to laugh and cry, to feel love and shared humanity. To feel connected. To feel grateful.” (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source)
When The Kate holds an event, it has a ripple effect up and down Old Saybrook’s main street. Restaurants nearby are grateful to have a crowd that comes early and then leaves early to catch a show, providing the restaurants with a chance for another seating. (Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source)
The Gelston House, owned by the Goodspeed Foundation and right next door to the Goodspeed Opera House in the banks of the Connecticut River, has like many other restaurants had to shift to takeout and more outdoor seating to get by during the pandemic. (Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source)
The Gelston House has a dedicated local clientele and has cultivated a takeout and outdoor business, but during a Goodspeed Opera House event, it might draw crowds from all over the state and beyond. Shown here, the reservation book on a slow weekday. (Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source)
After a long tough year, the folks at Liv’s Oyster Bar on Main Street in Old Saybrook were happy on a recent weekend night in late March to see a steady stream of customers come in early, and then leave early enough to allow for another round of customers the same night.
Rob Marcarelli, Liv’s director of operations, turned to Nadine Piovanetti, the restaurant manager who was working front of house, and asked her what was going on.
“They’re going to The Kate,” she told him.
He was so happy to hear The Kate’s doors were open again.
“We hadn’t seen them for a year, but The Kate always helped us get those early diners,” Marcarelli said.
That same night, down the street at The Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center, Brett Elliott, the executive director, watched the small crowd, limited by state-mandate space constraints, file inside.
It had been 379 days since the last one.
The year before the pandemic, The Kate held 275 events, many of them with patrons packed shoulder to shoulder. By keeping people safe and playing by the rules, The Kate is incurring additional costs and bringing in reduced revenues, which have plummeted 99.5 percent. And he knows it’s going to take some time before everyone feels safe enough to walk through those doors again.
So opening the doors after a year of being starved of revenues feels like a financial risk, but one The Kate is willing to take.
“Financially, it’s a unique thing,” he says. “But, starting in May, we have something nearly every weekend. It’s important to reconnect with our patrons and stage live events. You do things at a loss because you want to see people come through the doors.”
The Kate is not alone. Over in Essex, the Ivoryton Playhouse’s Jacqueline Hubbard and in East Haddam, the Goodspeed Opera House’s Donna Lynn Hilton know they carry on their shoulders responsibility not only for the entertainment, edification, and delight their patrons, but also for the health of their own historic institutions, for the people who work there, and for the local economies in the small towns the theaters call home.
All three venues are moving ahead, slowly, cautiously, ready to shift again if needed, with the help of science-based safety measures, loyal patrons, generous donors, and, they hope, federal, state, and local government.
‘It’s More Than Just a Building’
At a recent press conference on the steps of the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam to announce a new federal program designed to help shuttered arts venues, Rob Smith, the first selectman of East Haddam, stepped up to the microphone.
“I’m standing in front of a building that is 150 years old. Sixty years ago, it was ready to be destroyed,” he says.
Standing in the crowd in front of Smith that day was Michael Price, the former executive director, who helped build the Goodspeed from about three employees to more than 60, starting in the late 1960s, building its national reputation for musicals at the same time. The Goodspeed Foundation now owns dozens of buildings in three towns, including the Gelston House next door to the theater and the Norma Terris Theatre in Chester. The Goodspeed is one of East Haddam’s biggest taxpayers.
“It is now the iconic center of East Haddam and the village here,” Smith said. “And it’s more than just a building. It’s all the people who work here, too. It’s also the hundreds and thousands of people who come for shows here and at the Norma Terris. The same is true for The Kate and the Ivoryton Playhouse. They are all iconic and part of the fabric of every town.”
The program being announced that day, the federal Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG), was established by the Economic Aid to Hard-Hit Small Businesses, Nonprofits, and Venues Act, and amended by the recently passed American Rescue Plan Act.
The SVOG program includes more than $16 billion in grants to shuttered venues, to be administered by SBA’s Office of Disaster Assistance, according to the Catherine Marx, district director of the U.S. Small Business Association. Eligible applicants may qualify for grants equal to 45 percent of their gross earned revenue, with the maximum amount available for a single grant award of $10 million, and $2 billion is reserved for eligible applications with up to 50 full-time employees.
U.S. Congressman Joe Courtney, at the press conference, said the SVOG program is important in terms of nurturing the arts and to support their role as an economic pillar in the communities they serve. He said the legislation enabling the grant program would not have passed without the “external pressure” created by those in attendance at the press conference, which included representatives from the SBA, The Southeastern Connecticut Cultural Coalition, the Shoreline Arts Alliance, Goodspeed Musicals, The Kate, the Ivoryton Playhouse, along with state and local officials.
He said the goal of the grants is to expedite the recovery of the shuttered theaters, a process that otherwise might take “years and years.”
Federal, State, Local Support Needed
Wendy Bury, executive director of the Southeastern Connecticut Cultural Coalition, at the press conference provided statistics showing that the arts and the related hospitality sector are huge drivers of economic activity significantly affected by the pandemic. Nationwide, she said there was about $150 billion in lost revenue from those sectors during the pandemic, along with 2.7 million people unemployed in the arts and cultural sector.
In Connecticut alone, she said, $2.4 billion in revenue was lost from the “creative economy” during the pandemic, just in 2020, and 61 percent of creative businesses were severely affected. More than 33,000 creative workers became unemployed in Connecticut due the pandemic. Employment in the arts, entertainment, and recreation sectors in Connecticut dropped to its lowest level in three decades.
She said the SVOG is a critical resource, along with continued support from the state government. She added that the goal is to get local governments to support the arts as well, requesting that municipalities donate one percent of funds they get from the American Rescue Plan Act to support arts and culture in their local communities. She added that organizations can contact her organization for help applying for funds, as needed.
Eligible organizations include live venue operators or promoters, theatrical producers, live performing arts organization operators, motion picture theater operators, and talent representatives, along with museum operators, zoos, and aquariums that meet specific criteria.
“So we have federal dollars, state dollars, and we need local dollars as well,” she said. “This is going to be a long haul.”
Staying Safe, Restoring Confidence
Eric Dillner, the chief executive officer of the Shoreline Arts Alliance, said further support in the form of advice and consulting is available to arts organizations through the Reopening Connecticut Arts Venues: Science-Based Safety program (www.shorelinearts.org/reopening-ct-arts-venues-science-ba).
Dillner, who also is the founder and chair of the Reopen CT Arts Venues Task Force, said that the practical scientific advice will not only help venues reopen, but also help rebuild the confidence of the audience, visitors, staff, artists, and students.
“We help [venues] understand the essential elements needed for a plan, and how this will best protect themselves, their employees, and their audience,” he said, adding that the webinars have been viewed by more than 12,000 people, in more than 15 states, and four countries.
He said he and members of his team are available for site consultations as well, “So [venues] can be extraordinarily effective with the dollars that are coming into our state.”
The Human Toll
Hilton, the artistic director of Goodspeed Musicals, says the economic impact of the Goodspeed on the area is about $17.4 million annually, and that the renowned venue suffered a revenue loss of more than $11 million during the pandemic.
“And that doesn’t begin to address the human toll of the pandemic on our theater,” she says. “Nearly 70 percent of our staff have been laid off or furloughed since last April. In addition, nearly 300 artists, artisans, and technicians lost job, and lost contracts” during that time.
Two rounds of the Paycheck Protection Program to the Goodspeed Opera House Foundation, of about $1.2 million each, did help the Goodspeed maintain a skeleton staff, health benefits for furloughed employees, and the buildings and campuses in East Haddam and Chester. She says generous support from donors helped as well.
She says the SVOG program will allow the Goodspeed to resume more normal operations in the fall of 2021, as audiences navigate the complexities of gathering in public spaces. She says the grant will help ensure the safety of staff, audiences, and artists. That’s assuming the Goodspeed qualifies for funding.
It will be a while before they know. When the SBA opened the portal for the grants on April 8, technical difficulties prompted a shutdown several hours later.
“No applications were accepted; no funding was granted and all the venue operators are once again waiting for word on when the portal may re-open,” Hilton says.
Still, she remains hopeful about both the grant program and the future, saying there was never a question that her shuttered venue would reopen.
“We plan to continue to offer our audience the very best musical theater programming in our region. That may, for the near term, require smaller casts or slightly reduced production value…but the Goodspeed brand is well known and well recognized,” she says. “We understand what our audience wants and expects from us and we are working hard to restore the Goodspeed we all know and love.”
‘To Feel Love and Shared Humanity’
Likewise, over in Ivoryton, Hubbard, the executive director and artistic director, says she feels the same responsibility for her 90-year-old venue and the village of Ivoryton. She says the only other time The Ivoryton Playhouse had closed was during World War II.
“So this was a real shock to our system,” she says. “Like the Goodspeed in microcosm, we are the economic driver for the village of Ivoryton—the restaurants, the gallery, the pubs. And so we have all suffered.”
Still, she says she has much to be grateful for, including generous donors who stepped up even as they themselves were struggling, and the support from the state of Connecticut. She remembers that, during the worse days of the pandemic, the Ivoryton held an outdoor concert and, at the time, she wondered if it might be unseemly to seek support for the arts “when there was so much death, and illnesses, and hospitalizations.”
“But I sat and did what I always do whenever there’s a show. I sit and watch the audience, and I watch the tears, and I watched the smiles and I saw people’s spirits just lift. And each and every one of them when they left, said, ‘Thank you. Thank you, we miss this so much. We need the music, we need the stories badly, to help give our lives some meaning,’” she says.
She has fingers crossed that the Ivoryton will be able to open its doors soon. Like the Goodspeed, the Ivoryton foundation also was a the recipient of PPP in the amount of about $81,000, which went to cover paychecks. The SVOG program, if the Ivoryton is a successful application, will help kickstart the season and allow the venue to adjust its HVAC system to increase its efficiency.
“Obviously, our programming will be hugely affected by the necessity of socially distanced seating. While this is still in effect, we will not be producing any large-scale musicals as it’s not financially viable. For this year, we are looking at small-cast shows because our ticket revenue will be considerably less,” she says.
Still, she is already looking ahead with anticipation.
“I think this past year has had a profound effect on all of us and I think that this will affect the kinds of shows that we will be looking to produce. Right now, everybody is feeling a little shellshocked from the past year and if they are going to come out of their homes and be in a space with other people then I think they will want to laugh and cry, to feel love and shared humanity. To feel connected. To feel grateful,” she says. “We are looking at comedies and human interest stories and also music, some new and some that is familiar. I hope that whatever we are able to produce will be something that makes us all feel glad we’re still here.”
Allowing for a Safe Return
Elliott, the executive director at The Kate, says the SVOG program would allow The Kate to proceed with a safe return and allow it to make bold financial decisions after a year of just the basics.
“The grant will allow us to fully fulfill our mission again. This excitement and activity will not only be felt within the four walls of The Kate, but with significant residual impact on our community, as the return of The Kate, means the return of shops, restaurants, hotels, and other attractions in Saybrook,” he says. “For The Kate, SVOG is a lifeline that allows us to move forward. It allows us to navigate the interim between this current slow reopening to a return to capacity.”
The Kate’s PPP funds, of more than $134,00 in the first round, plus a second round of funding, went to cover payroll. The SVOG, if The Kate is successful in its application, could be used to subsidize artist payments until normal operations resume. That could help The Kate as it moves forward with crowds of about 70 people, versus the 270 patron maximum in normal times.
He says patrons can expect programming similar to what was offered pre-pandemic, but that The Kate also might continue with some virtual programming. He notes a recent gala for Cher saw 250 people participate in the immediate virtual live ceremony, and that, since then, more than 8,000 people worldwide have attended virtually. During the pandemic, the museum created a virtual exhibit that established connections with Katharine Hepburn fans all over the world.
Still, for all of that success, he says, there’s nothing like welcoming people into the theater.
“We’re so keenly aware of The Kate’s impact on restaurants, lodging, shops, and activities in Old Saybrook on show nights. That’s great to hear about Liv’s. I often hear the same from other restaurants,” he says. “I was in the building for all three shows, and it was a really wonderful feeling. Yes, there were empty seats, required for distancing, but patrons were so appreciative, happy, and excited to be there. We also saw both regular patrons and new patrons at those shows.
“For what would have been typically regarded as a small audience felt like a sold out, high energy, really excited and appreciative crowd,” he says. “And most importantly, I believe everyone felt safe.”