Ordinarily, Sunday would have been a matinee day for Jaime Maseda, who plays Will Shakespeare in the People’s Light production of Shakespeare in Love, and for the rest of the cast and crew. But is anything ordinary now?
Not at People’s Light and other area theaters, where shows like Shakespeare in Love have been ended mid-run, postponed, or canceled outright in response to the coronavirus.
No audience came to the Malvern playhouse on Sunday. But the cast showed up, fully costumed, swords drawn for the fight scenes, instruments in hand, all playing to a video crew hired to recreate the production for an online performance to be shown later.
“We will be able to offer ticket-holders that option” for canceled performances, said Zak Berkman, the theater’s producing director. Other options include a refund or a credit.
But if Berkman and People’s other top executives had their druthers, they’d ask ticket-holders to instead convert their ticket refunds into a donation.
"That’s the only way the theater companies will stay afloat,” said Katherine Clark, marketing manager for Theatre Philadelphia, the umbrella marketing organization for regional theater companies.
Their losses are already sobering.
On Friday afternoon, Theatre Philadelphia launched a membership survey. “We wanted to find out how much impact there has been, how much revenue has been lost,” Clark said.
By Sunday afternoon, 29 theaters had responded with 78% already reporting financial losses. Not everyone provided a dollar figure, but the total from those who did adds up to $1.2 million.
“A significant number of respondents said they are still working on the numbers,” Clark said. “I wouldn’t hesitate to double that amount, based on the responses.”
Patrons rise to the occasion
Theaters across the Philadelphia region are taking the same approach as People’s Light and asking patrons to donate when they can’t attend a performance, including — among many others — the Media Theatre (which closed Baby), Theatre Horizon in Norristown (which ended The Agitators), and McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton (which curtained Sleuth).
And theater patrons are rising to the occasion.
“People have been incredibly generous,” said Nell Bang-Jensen, who in her first year as artistic director of Theater Horizon had to face the decision to close The Agitators and ask ticket-holders to consider donating the value of their tickets.
“Times of crisis can bring out the best of people. We’ve been pleasantly surprised, and some people have even made a donation on top of it. We’ve really been amazed,” said Bang-Jensen.
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Bang-Jensen had also been set to direct The Wolves, originally scheduled to open April 10 at the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre. Rehearsals had been primed to start March 16, but now the show is postponed. Until when? It’s totally up in the air.
“Planning’s a nightmare,” said Paige Price, PTC’s artistic director. “It reminds me, in fast motion, of the financial crisis of 2008, except bigger and faster.”
Price’s husband, sound designer Nevin Steinberg, created sound for Bucks County Playhouse’s Other World, which held one performance before postponing the rest of the run. Last week, 12 of his shows — mostly in New York — were either closed, cancelled, or postponed.
Beyond losses, she said, there have also been unexpected expenses, including extra cleaning and, in the case of People’s Light, videotaping.
One theater runs the numbers
People’s Light has already run the numbers on closing Shakespeare in Love (through March 29) and canceling Hold These Truths, (March 18-April 19). If all current ticket-holders were to seek refunds, it would cost the theater $160,000. People’s Light also expected to sell another $320,000 worth of tickets to the two shows.
Meanwhile, the theater will compensate all 14 of Shakespeare In Love’s actors and crew as well as cast and crew of Hold These Truths through the end of their runs. Hold These Truths will be videotaped on March 20 to be shown later.
Typically, according to People’s Light leaders, close to 90% of a production’s costs have been spent before the show opens, including about 15% as far as a year out. Those are all dollars outlaid without a dime in ticket revenues. What’s left at the end are salaries for actors and house staff.
Up front, performance rights must be secured, at a cost. Directors and set designers receive two-thirds of their compensation in advance. Closer to opening, the stage set must be built and costumes procured. Actors are paid for rehearsal time.
People’s Light is particularly worried about whether it will be able to stage the world premiere of Bayard Rustin: Inside Ashland, the story of Rustin, a national leader in civil rights and gay rights who was born in West Chester.
Set to open May 13, the musical was commissioned and developed at the Malvern theater, representing an investment of many thousands of dollars. If it can’t open, it won’t be able to be staged at People’s Light until the 2021-2022 season, Berkman said.
People’s Light also runs a for-profit restaurant, also closed, which contributes $300,000 annually to the theater’s bottom line. Hours coincide with performances, so management is anticipating $20,000 in losses. The venue also hosts events, including weddings, which are being cancelled or postponed. “We’re not sure what the end result will be,” said Erica Ezold, director of finance.
Also worrisome is the impact the virus will have on future subscription sales and philanthropy as the stock market drops. Will subscribers who might re-up in the spring decide to sit out next year's season? Or will current ticket-holders use their credits for this season's missed performances next year, cutting into next season's revenues?
Compounding the problem, “this is gala season, when most theaters have their major fundraising events,” said Abigail Adams, executive artistic director at People’s Light.
So far, several theater companies have postponed or cancelled events, among them People’s Light. The company had expected its 45th anniversary gala on April 3 to net $160,000.
“Fundraising is at an absolute standstill,” Adams said. “It’s a huge question.”
Meanwhile, she said People’s Light wants to makes its facilities available “if they can be useful for other purposes. We have a lot of big spaces. We have a big kitchen,” she said.
“The well-being of people should be front and center, and that’s really guiding our decision-making,” Adams said. “We also want to be the best possible neighbor.”
Want to help theaters cope?
Theatre Philadelphia is providing links at its website to a go-fund-me campaign by three well-known Philadelphia cabaret artists raising money to help performance artists weather the crisis.
News about the coronavirus is changing quickly. Go to inquirer.com/coronavirus for the latest information.
Show tunes for hygiene
Yes, Les Misérables performances at the Academy of Music, (March 17-29) have been COVID-19 cancelled, but you can feel a little less miserable about that while washing your hands.
Try singing this verse of On My Own, Éponine’s haunting ballad of unrequited love. It runs about 20 seconds, the equivalent of two rounds of Happy Birthday.
I love him, but when the night is over
He is gone, the river’s just a river
Without him, the world around me changes
The trees are bare and everywhere
The streets are full of strangers.
The Les Mis suggestion comes courtesy of the Charles R. Wood Theatre in Glens Falls, N.Y., whose song sheet of this and other hand-washing show tunes — from Chicago, Cats, Funny Girl, and Hairspray — is making the rounds among theater nerds nationally,
Please wash your hands. Please stay well.