Upended by pandemic shutdowns, theaters and artists work toward revival

The Maplewood Barn Theatre in Columbia was in the middle of rehearsals for the musical “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” when it was forced to shut its doors last March. The production was canceled, and decisions for the rest of the summer season happened on the fly. One play was turned into a minimalistic stage reading. Another was called off before it began when the director said they didn’t feel safe.

The big musical of the season was supposed to be “Once Upon a Mattress,” but an in-person performance soon became impossible with a gathering restriction of 10 people in Columbia. When the theater tried to secure rights to stream the show online, it never heard back from the owners. The show was canceled.

“We really only got one show up last year, but I think that was a win, honestly, to have anything happen,” Maplewood Barn President Morgan Dennehy said.

Theater organizations around the country have been met with uncertainty since the COVID-19 pandemic ended in-person events, a crucial element of the performing arts. Broadway has closed its doors until at least June, and actors, designers, crew members and other theatermakers are left without jobs indefinitely. According to a report from the National Endowment for the Arts, more than 52% of actors were unemployed in the third quarter of 2020, compared to just under 25% in 2019. Dancers and choreographers were unemployed at a rate of more than 54% for the third quarter, compared to just under 11% in 2019.

Missouri’s theaters face their 2021 seasons with inevitable changes in order to get by, but their survival could depend on the public’s willingness to return to the theater — a shift no one is taking for granted.

How theaters stayed afloat

While canceled performances brought down key revenue from ticket sales and seasonal costs that come with putting on productions, performing arts spaces have operating expenses that they still need to pay. Arrow Rock Lyceum Theatre cut its nearly $2.5 million budget in half with small changes, like reducing the number of phone lines to the theater, along with the lack of productions. The theater owns its space, giving it the advantage of not having to pay rent or a mortgage. Even so, Quin Gresham, the theater’s producing artistic director, hesitates to be too optimistic.

“I don’t really know of any theaters that don’t exist on some level of razor’s edge, regardless of budget size,” he said.

Gresham attributes the Lyceum Theatre’s survival to its small yearlong staff, its access to private and government funding and its total lack of productions — it hadn’t yet started its season by the time the pandemic began.

The Maplewood Barn, on the other hand, saw most of its 2020 losses with the cancellation of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” since the production was in progress when it was canceled. The theater doesn’t own its own space, but it only pays a small amount to the city to use the venue from April through December. Because of the adaptations it made throughout the season, it was able to keep its costs low while bringing in donations from the community.

“It’s almost like 2020 didn’t exist for us,” Dennehy said.

For larger theaters like the St. Louis Municipal Opera Theatre, more commonly known as the Muny, operating costs are still cut drastically when productions don’t take place, demonstrating where much of the burden truly lies when theaters are shut down: on workers. Actors, designers, stage managers, set builders, costumers, and countless other seasonal workers have been put out of work.

The Muny operates with just 35 full-time workers, a fraction of the 700 seasonal workers it hires for its nine-week performance season between June and August. The theater itself has been able to secure some revenue through donations and government grants — the federal Save Our Stages Act, part of the most recent COVID-19 relief package, set aside $15 billion in grants for music venues, movie theaters and other cultural institutions shut down during the pandemic — but individual theatermakers don’t have access to those resources.

“They are affected the heaviest,” Muny Managing Director Kwofe Coleman said. “There’s not a mechanism for how they can apply for CARES Act funds.”

The Lyceum’s Gresham is concerned that the pandemic will cause many to leave the theater industry and not look back. Seasonal performers and workers often have other jobs that help pay their bills — typically restaurant jobs or others that have been similarly decimated during shutdowns around the country.

“We have found ways to support organizations,” Gresham said. “I don’t know that we’ve done a very good job of finding ways to support individual artists.”

Virtual offerings increase access

Amid canceled and postponed productions, theaters have been able to raise funding, or at least stay engaged with their community, through virtual performances. The Muny put together five variety-style shows last summer, using a live host on site. The other elements of the shows were submitted by performers from all over the country and world.

“It’s about accessibility as well,” Coleman said. “A person has access to this product that may not physically, or economically, typically be able to absorb it.”

Coleman said all of the Muny’s digital content was offered for free, and reached audiences in 22 countries.

The Arrow Rock Lyceum presented a virtual adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” in December. | Courtesy of the Arrow Rock Lyceum

After running into problems trying to get streaming rights for “Once Upon a Mattress,” the Maplewood Barn decided to prioritize securing streaming rights ahead of the 2021 season, just in case.

“Even if it is not necessary, it’s a nice thing to offer for those people that can’t get out to the barn, like anyone who has a disability, anyone who can’t stand extreme heat,” Dennehy said. “It’s a nice side option that I’m hoping we can do from now on anyway, depending on the cost of the show.”

What will 2021 hold?

The Maplewood Barn has both shortened its 2021 production season and prioritized securing streaming rights for its shows, so no matter what happens this summer in terms of the virus, the theater will be prepared. Its season, which typically starts in April, will instead start in June, and the big final musical, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” has already been canceled due to anticipated problems securing streaming rights.

Navigating health guidance from labor unions could complicate the return for some theaters. Unions like the Actors’ Equity Association have safety standards their associated theaters must meet before opening again.

The Lyceum Theater plans to open what was supposed to be its 2020 season this coming June. Since it is associated with the Actors’ Equity Association, the theater would have to satisfy union rules before it reopens. But Gresham said his management team doesn’t plan to open until it feels it is safe to do so, and until the theater can afford it.

“Our business … is reliant on a large room full of a lot of people,” Gresham said. “I can’t do what we do here at a reduced capacity. We would have to come up with completely different productions in order for that to be financially feasible.”

The Muny is associated with nine labor unions, and it must meet all of their requirements before raising the curtain on its 2021 season in June.

But Coleman said the biggest variable in the success of theaters will be the willingness of audience members to return to the theater. As Gresham said, theaters typically cannot make a profit with the kind of reduced capacity COVID-19 necessitates. Still, after extended closures for many theaters, Coleman has hope for the coming season.

“Human beings miss being together,” he said. “It’s part of existing.”

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