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Can any entity or type of business be said to be more susceptible to damage by the pandemic than that of live theater? Because if so, it would be difficult to think of anything comparable. Even restaurants, so terribly hard hit by the crisis, have been able to generate revenue despite bans on indoor dining and constantly fluctuating guidelines.
By its very nature, theater can be seen as being among the most high-risk entities in terms of contending with a highly contagious virus: Groups of anywhere from 20 or 30 to upwards of 3,000 people congregate indoors, sitting side-by-side for two or more hours – not to mention the actors onstage and technicians backstage in close, enclosed quarters. So much for social distancing.
Nor is every theater company in a position to engineer possible remedies that include having productions outdoors and surrounding audience members with a few feet of empty space.
Many an Orange County theater company has adjusted to the pandemic’s restrictions by delivering virtual productions that are either live-streamed or previously recorded – yet almost anyone will tell you that being isolated from others while seeing a show on a screen is a vastly different experience from watching a live performance as it unfolds in real time with an audience.
For nearly a year now, Orange County’s theater companies have been forced to adjust to the realities and restrictions imposed upon them by COVID-19. For some, having to shut down operations for an indeterminate period has been a death knell. Lacking the resources to be in a state of limbo, they’ve been forced out of business.
Not every O.C. theater has the resources to hunker down and wait out the crisis. Many of the smaller companies are just hanging on by their fingernails. For at least two Orange County theaters, the pandemic has forced them out of business – the most traumatic consequence imaginable.
The pandemic proved so damaging and destructive that when in spring 2020, the OC Theatre Guild (OCTG) created and organized an ongoing series of live-streamed online roundtables, the first one, held two months into the lockdown, covered the topic on everyone’s minds: “How are brick-and-mortar theaters managing with the challenges of COVID-19?”
The subject was of such import that even large, non-Guild companies like SCR and Laguna Playhouse took part in the discussion. Last June, OCTG held two more COVID-triggered roundtables and is planning still more for this year, asking theaters how they’ve been coping and which digital technologies have been useful
The Large Companies Are Not Immune
When you say “Orange County theater” to most theaterphiles beyond our borders, three names come to mind: South Coast Repertory, Segerstrom Center for the Arts and Laguna Playhouse.
The events of the past year have thrown even these “big three” for a loop or two, and despite considerable resources, each has had to devise ways to avoid tumbling into a COVID abyss.
South Coast Repertory Adjusts, and Readjusts
Paula Tomei, SCR’s managing director, said that when the company closed in March, “we had no idea how long it would last. We researched and discussed every possible way to reopen, constantly adjusting plans and budgets throughout the spring, summer and fall. New models, new opening dates, new conditions for work, rehearsal and performance – every aspect had to be carefully examined.”
Having “a drastic impact,” she said, is “the scope and scale of what we have not been able to do. Because we cannot safely produce plays, many of our artisans and staff lost their jobs, with the production department most affected. The operating budget we adopted for the 2020-21 season reflects a 45% cut from our pre-pandemic budget. Coming out of COVID, we will be a smaller organization, and we are already approaching season planning very differently.”
Artistic director David Ivers said SCR “is managing like every organization that depends on people gathering for it to thrive. Most of us are in theater because we have a deep and dear passion for the arts – and right now, we don’t have the arts available to us in a form that helps us contextualize the sorrow of the pandemic and the injustices of the world.
“The pandemic has required us to slow down and to be more thoughtful, efficient and precise in our communications with our community and with each other on staff. This has helped me to confront for myself, as a leader and as a dad, the benefits of patience and a real keen thoughtfulness and reactivation of listening.”
How much of what SCR has been forced to do might wind up becoming part of the normal standard operating procedure once they’re again able to go live? Tomei singled out three priorities: “Being a smaller organization than before, how we serve the audience, and how we rebuild from here.”
“Initially, that means carrying safety and health protocols into the future and considering the possibilities of digital offerings,” she said.
Ivers believes the virus’ impact is felt not just in attempts to react to it, but to the sense of what is lost due to the absence of live performances: “On an artistic and emotional level, I keenly feel the not having a gathering space for us to hear the stories that bind us together. Try as we may, I don’t think that anything can replace the live experience of theater.”
Tania Thompson, SCR’s public relations director, notes that in a survey SCR sent to its subscribers and single ticket buyers in fall 2020, two-thirds “expressed they either loved, liked or were open to online programming. A significant number of them also commented that, although they feel that streaming just doesn’t compare to the live theater experience, they understand that it is the only safe alternative until the vaccine is widely distributed.”
Segerstrom Center Uses the Opportunity to Reimagine Technology and Safety
The largest professional Orange County theater, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, converted dozens of scheduled 2020 performance events to virtual events audiences could view at home on their computers and digital devices. A “Virtual Spring Carnival” was held in May and National Dance Day in September.
Live virtual performances during the summer and fall included a “Women of Broadway” series featuring Patti LuPone, Laura Benanti and Vanessa Williams, and SCFTA’s “Live on the Julianne and George Argyros Plaza” series featured Louie Anderson, Megan Hilty, Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Septet, and Steve Tyrell rescheduled following the post-holiday COVID spike and restrictions. American Ballet Theater is offering virtual master classes, and numerous musical theater training programs are slated for this coming spring along with the new “Center at Home” program delivered via SCFTA’s website.
Yet behind what the public sees in these events are the human costs in terms of livelihoods and careers disrupted by COVID.
Casey Reitz, SCFTA’s president, identified staff furloughs and pay cuts as “the most significant and difficult change we had to make” in response to the end to live theater. “The second-greatest impact has been the loss of revenue due to the loss of ticket and rental income.” Patrons and donors, Reitz said, have sent in “generous gifts” as well as “many gestures and expressions of encouragement.”
Reitz said because the state of California has failed to provide safe practice guidelines for theaters and arts centers, he and others at SCFTA, including its board of directors, developed a collaboration with theater peers across the U.S. to create what he calls “a massive, detailed set of protocols that will enable all of us to reopen in the safest way possible.”
Reitz expects the venue’s Broadway national tour series and other special events to return in some form in October. “Presenting international artists companies may take more time,” he said, alluding to ever-shifting travel guidelines between nations.
Among the biggest challenges? “The thorough review of our facilities and making changes or upgrades where needed. We worked with show producers, artists and performing arts organizations, creative unions, medical experts and consultants that specialize in industrial hygiene, air handling, and hands-free or touchless restroom facilities, ticketing and patron check-in.”
As with nearly every theater contacted for this article, Segerstrom Center has seen an explosion in the use of technology as a means of delivering performances. Reitz and staff are examining “how streaming and virtual performances and events may become part of how we reach audiences, provide lower-cost, affordable entertainment options, and expand our education and community engagement efforts.”
Laguna Playhouse to Downsize for Now
The storied venue was preparing a huge centennial celebration in conjunction with an exciting season and the continued prosperity that comes with a well-oiled theatrical machine.
Now, every aspect of life at Laguna Playhouse has been put on hold and is effectively in limbo, Richard noting with refreshing candor that although a devoted coterie of actors, directors, designers and playwrights having been “doing whatever they can” in terms of virtual productions, “it doesn’t replace working on a full production” – and although Laguna has been mindful to pay for all this work, “it doesn’t come close to what people were making” prior to the shutdown.
Adding insult to injury, “a huge portion of our staff has been unemployed since last March,” with a total of 27 of 39 staffers being let go. In August, with the harsh reality that theater was now on some kind of indefinite hold, the playhouse celebrated its 100th birthday through virtual means, as a “Centennial in Quarantine.”
Richard credits actor Dan Lauria for superhuman work in forging the #theatre5alliance between Laguna Playhouse and four other U.S. theater companies to keep actors and other theater professionals productive during the shutdown and underscored the importance of keeping local theater alive and well.
The barrage of new health and safety rules to come out of Actors Equity will, Richard said, force Laguna Playhouse (as with all such regional theaters carrying equity contracts) to spend considerably more once theaters begin to reopen – as much as $300,000 to $500,000 more for each seven-play year (a typical season for Laguna).
She said she and management are “going to have to rethink which shows we program in terms of cast sizes,” with an eye toward shows utilizing casts of small size and perhaps even more one-person shows than the venue has seen of late.
As with other theater companies interviewed for this article, Laguna Playhouse is being taken to task by ethnic minorities for racial inequities they say are inherent in the art form itself. Richard said such demands for a more-inclusive theater universe “need to be taken seriously.”
Even something as innocuous as use of understudies must now be considered for every lead role in every production. Richard notes that if a lead performer tests positive for COVID and no one else is ready to go on in their place, “you’d have to cancel the show for two or three weeks.” That bleak outcome can only be avoided by “having every cast fully understudied.”
Small Theaters May Be More Nimble, but Suffer from Fewer Resources
While smaller theater companies that make up the bulk of Orange County live performance may not have huge employee rosters to worry about, their more-scant resources make them more vulnerable when a crisis hits.
Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble (BOFLTE) and The Wayward Artist don’t maintain brick-and-mortar spaces of their own, a savvy way to avoid the burdens of all costs involved in doing so. Both have held performances at the Grand Central Art Center run by Cal State University, Fullerton, in downtown Santa Ana, paying rent for use of the space. But the GCAC’s closing its doors in March left both companies scrambling. Chance Theater has been able to lean on tech-savvy initiatives which were already in place – and still others are in a holding pattern, waiting to hopefully reopen.
Breath of Fire’s Pivot ‘Easy but Challenging’
Sara Guerrero, founding artistic director of Breath of Fire, said the company’s core constituency, based within O.C.’s Latino community, has been especially hard hit by the impact of the pandemic. When GCAC shut down, “we were shut down.”
So all BOFLTE programming moved from live to online – a scenario Guerrero said she was only scantly cognizant of when looking back at the company’s online ventures from 2015 to the start of the shutdown. It was uncharted territory for the Santa Ana-based company, devoted to works about and by Latina women and their lives, culture and heritage.
“Eventually, making the switch was easy but challenging – and despite our ability to still be accessible, not all of our participants have had access” to be able to continue to participate online in these shows.
Breath of Fire’s board president Angela Estela listed the challenges troupe members faced in moving from the real world to the digital one: “Everyone had to become their own tech and backstage crew. We had to figure out our own lighting, sound and set. We had to figure out this new platform and how to make sure our laptops, phones, earbuds and headphones were up to speed.”
BOFLTE’s board treasurer Yolanda Mendivelies said the move to online shows “was effective in that we didn’t lose time, community, or our audience. We had to learn a whole new set of skills around using Zoom and to sharpen and deepen our skills with these new tools.”
The troupe’s 2020 online content has included “The Covid Monologues,” led by literary director Diana Burbano; “Staged Stories,” an original seven-part series co-produced by ensemble members Victoria Yveette Zepeda and Santí Samano; “Playwright Meet-Up”; and “Holding Space,” a series of 12 readings of full-length new works. Guerrero reports that BOFLTE has also partnered with numerous local organizations to produce joint online programming.
And while technology can be considered a godsend to theater companies struggling to reach out, it carries downsides, too. Estela said she found “we had to be way more organized to not let communications fall through the cracks or get miscommunicated.”
With Minimal Expenses, The Wayward Artist Can Hibernate
Craig Tyrl, The Wayward Artist’s artistic director, summarizes the scenario facing the troupe at the moment of the shutdown: “Our entire season was canceled. We were in rehearsals for our season opener ‘Feliz – An American Play’ when the pandemic hit in March.”
Fortunately, Tyrl said, the season was just starting so expenditures were minimal. “We quickly transitioned into survival mode. Tyrl said costs like insurance and the website were mostly covered by grant funding from the Arts Relief Fund Cares Act Economic Support Program. Two pending grant applications will cover the coming year’s costs.
Tyrl said patrons have been supportive and they have not seen a decrease in donations between last year and pre-pandemic levels. 2021, he said, is “the tricky year. (It is) going to have its challenges. We’re producing art this year with its concomitant expenses but don’t expect ticket sales to be a significant source of funding.”
Top revenue streams will be grant funding and audience development, with an eye toward “making impactful art without live audiences at a cost which keeps us solvent.”
Chance Theater’s Online Offerings Keep Their Audience Engaged
Oanh Nguyen, founding artistic director of Anaheim Hills’ Chance Theater, said the shutdown forced cancellation of an entire season’s worth of activity, including six full-length shows, the theater’s annual fundraiser, and numerous readings, workshops and community events.
Fortunately, the ever-growing, resourceful Anaheim Hills company was well-positioned to weather the storm. Among the most tech-savvy of O.C. theater companies, it was able to pivot from live shows to those produced online for a home audience.
Live Chance events like the “Speak Up” programs for teens, veterans and members of the autism spectrum have made a fairly seamless transition to being conducted online and are accessible free-of-charge at the company’s website. The company offers “Virtual Intensive Classes” on acting, directing, designing and playwriting. Also online are community gatherings (e.g. “Broadway Chance Style”) where, Nguyen said, “artists and theater lovers can come together to chat and unwind;” and resident artists have taken it upon themselves to launch multiple online series, he said.
Many Chance staffers had to be furloughed for much of 2020, but Nguyen said funds from an NEA grant plus the first round of the federal Paycheck Protection Program helped reunite them with their jobs. These funds were depleted as of Jan. 31, triggering more furloughs as Nguyen and company await expected federal and state support.
Despite the ever-present uncertainties surrounding all things theater, Chance has committed to a 2021-22 season of five full-length productions and six staged readings of new works. All 11 shows, Nguyen said, “can be produced either online or in-person, depending on safety conditions.”
A ‘Maverick’ in More Than Name Only
Only one theater contacted for this story has produced a live show since the statewide shutdown, making Maverick Theater a true “maverick” in a lot more than name only.
Brian Newell, the Fullerton company’s founding artistic director, said that by September, with half a year lost and no end in sight, he was willing to gamble on creating a live show with cast and audiences in real time – adhering, of course, to CDC and state health protocols.
Up until that point, Maverick had applied for and gotten a state grant that covered the rent for three months, and he continues to apply for whatever state and federal grants he’s eligible.
Newell has also made good use of the prolonged downtime, completing the editing of “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.” Back in 2008, he filmed his annual Christmastime stage version of the now-cult classic 1964 movie – but was always too swamped to complete it. You can watch the finished film at Maverick’s website at $30 a pop – an influx of funds that will help keep Maverick afloat.
But in mounting a new show in October, Newell did something no other O.C. theater has yet to do: he created an all-new production and sold tickets to patrons who saw the show live and in real-time.
Instead of 40 or 50 patrons at a time being packed in and seated, shoulder-to-shoulder, Newell re-engineered his annual Halloween show “Night of the Living Dead,” using a nearby warehouse and its parking area to create an immersive, interactive theater experience. Audience members moved from one scene to the next as the performers enacted each scene – and everyone involved, from cast and crew to patrons, wore face coverings and were at least six feet apart.
Newell triple-cast the show, rotating the casts multiple times each night, which allowed him to pull 100 audience members in each night over a four-hour span, with dozens and dozens of micro-groups of four or six patrons per performance.
Newell said ticket sales from the production covered five months’ rent and utilities – but, he noted, most shows don’t lend themselves so easily to this sort of staging. “So,” Newell notes, “until O.C. goes back down into the substantial tier again, my hands are tied from doing any sort of live productions.”
Costa Mesa Playhouse and Stage Door Sit Tight
Costa Mesa Playhouse’s Mike Brown said the March shutdown occurred two weeks before “Silent Sky” was set to open. The company has been in limbo ever since.
“The set still stands there, and we expect to start up again with the same play whenever we do open again, which we do not expect to be until the fall at the earliest. Fortunately, due to low rent from our landlords, the Newport Mesa School District, and a handful of very generous donations – particularly a $35,000 bequest from a long-time patron who passed away – we have enough to pay the bills.”
Two storage units have been cleared out and their contents are being stored on the CMP stage, while the lobby is being used to store items belonging to The Attic.
Brown said artistic director Michael Serna and others in charge “have held off doing specific planning about how we’ll open again, waiting to see what other theaters do.”
Nick Charles, Stage Door Repertory’s founding artistic director, reports a scenario similar to that described by Brown.
“Not much is really happening here. We’ve just been doing a whole lot of cleaning, discarding and reorganizing our backstage area. We’ve had a couple of fundraisers in the last five months and we have been applying for every grant available. We are considering doing some outdoor concerts once the weather warms up again – late March, early April? Hopefully with the vaccine out, the numbers will be down enough and we can reopen by summer – fingers crossed.”
STAGESTheatre and The Attic ‘Wait Out The Storm’
For Amanda DeMaio, executive director of STAGEStheatre, the writing was on the wall – and what it said wasn’t what anyone wanted to hear. A year that started like any other for the Fullerton venue ended, six months later, with the decision to close up shop and wait out the COVID storm, hopeful that future conditions will be conducive to starting over in a new space.
“The plan,” DeMaio said, “is simple: See where the state of live theater is when it’s allowed to operate again, and where we may fit into that landscape.”
“The Paper Hangers” and “Deanna and Paul,” two new one-act plays, opened March 7, just a week before the lockdown, running in conjunction, in alternating timeslots, with the full-length play “She Kills Monsters.” All three were originally scheduled to close March 21; instead, the final performances were on March 15.
The next day, DeMaio and the troupe’s co-managers notified the casts of all three shows plus the casts of two more shows in rehearsals “that the appropriate thing to do was to close the theater and halt all productions and rehearsals for upcoming productions until further notice.”
As spring dragged into summer and with no end to the pandemic in sight, what little hope of reopening the theater’s doors existed began to fade. She said the board ultimately “came to the difficult decision that it would be best to leave the space the company had moved to, renovated into a theater, and rented since 2001.”
“We’d been shut down since March, looking at mounting rent and bills still being accrued, with no relief in sight, no income coming in and no idea when live theater would re-open. By August, it became clear the closures for live theater were not going to allow us to re-open in 2020. Once the board came to agree on that, we moved forward with vacating the space by November 1.”
By late October, she said, “we were exhausted. Vacating a theater sucks, doing it during a pandemic meant we only had a handful of other people to help out. That super-sucked. You have no idea how much just ‘stuff’ the theater had amassed over 20 years! It was physically and emotionally overwhelming for every one of us.
“When live theater is allowed to re-open, assess where we are then, and how we want to proceed.
“Right now, almost everything for STAGEStheatre is just on hold. We have some rent we still need to pay the landlord, but the organization is still in good standing as a 501c3 non-profit, and we are taking this time to think about how we want to move forward. We aren’t doing any online or “virtual” productions.”
About the only activity, DeMaio said, is revamping the company’s website and making plans to do some fundraising later this year.
The company’s 30-year anniversary in 2023 was just around the corner, and with several hundred productions in its history, many of which were originals or written with the venue in mind, STAGES had become the envy of many of its peers throughout the county. In DeMaio’s words, it was “arguably one of the top theaters in just the amount of work produced each year” (several seasons featured 15 or more productions).
The theater company rode an incredible wave of success built upon canny programming and patron loyalty that translated into steady ticket sales year in and year out and enough in the way of donations to grease the tracks.
DeMaio said she can see both sides of the closure. On one side, it’s “such a hard decision”; on the other, “the peace of mind” she deemed as “overwhelming.” Closing down, she said, allowed the company to avoid accruing debt, plus the unpalatable prospect of “having to do non-stop fundraising or work on projects that we weren’t passionate about.”
The transition while waiting for things to shake out will be difficult. For nearly three decades, those running STAGEStheatre were in the driver’s seat – but “that will have to change now: Our productions will likely become less frequent, and we’ll probably look to work in other theaters or rent spaces for productions when that time comes.”
The Attic Community Theater, much younger and more compact than STAGES, gives the company’s founder, president and owner, Jim Huffman, reason for optimism.
As fate would have it, “The Full Monty” reached the end of its run on Sunday, March 15 – just four days before California shut down. The show wound up being Attic’s final production in the Santa Ana industrial park space it had called home since January 2010.
Huffman said “the hardest part was shutting down shows that were in production, telling directors and cast members that had put in so much time and had so much anticipation that we were on hold.”
Nor did Huffman share the optimism of fellow theater operators who predicted the crisis would end in just a few weeks. His back-channel was his brother Jared Huffman, a U.S. congressman who perused CDC and NIH reports before telling Huffman “you are done” – and warning him “that the pandemic would last at least a year and the worst was yet to come.”
“We decided as a theater company that in order for us to survive and be in a position to come back we need to plan now,” Huffman said. “I watched other companies burning through reserves hoping for circumstances to change. In hindsight, we look omniscient, but I think we were just realists.”
Huffman said that Attic board members held a few meetings throughout the year, channeling their creativity by doing videos from past shows under the name “Look Back, Talk Back.” Segments included scenes from the shows, interviews with cast members and discussions with directors and designers about what went into making an Attic production.
The Attic’s lighting and technical equipment, seats and miscellaneous items are in long-term storage, and Huffman said the company donated “countless” props and backdrops and thousands of costumes to other O.C. theater companies “we thought could weather this storm” – those whose endowments, large donor bases or the support of cities are providing cushions in an uncertain climate.
Attic’s board has decided to hold off on fundraising “until we know for sure we can safely start planning our return in a new building.”
STAGEStheatre’s wait-and-see stance is sensible in comparison with The Attic, which Huffman said is intent upon reopening. That eventuality, he said, will hinge upon however soon live theater is a reality and whatever sums it can drum up: “Once we start to fundraise, (donations) will go exclusively to reopening in a new space.”
What Does the Post-COVID Theater Landscape Look Like?
Paula Tomei said that at South Coast Repertory, “resilience and innovation have always been a part of our ongoing work. That will be even more important as we look to the future. For example, since last March, our Theater Conservatory has been able to serve nearly 900 kids, teens and adults through online classes.”
Breath of Fire’s Mendivelies said the company “will continue with its new online format even when we are able to have live theater,” and for good reason: “It enables us to have actors, actresses, directors and producers from all over nationally to participate without having to incur traveling or housing costs.”
Speaking on behalf of The Wayward Artist, Chris Henrriquez said he has been able to see the past year’s harsh realities in a positive light. When the shutdown hit last March, “closing our doors and canceling our season was an unthinkable change in our plans.” As of the start of a new year, “this time away is a way for us to refresh our approach to theater, storytelling, and our relationship with our community.” One such area has been the creation of various committees “to help push us forward through the pandemic.”
“I believe that this situation has been a blessing in disguise,” Henrriquez said. “One fantastic thing that has come out of the pandemic is access to the arts. Many pre-recorded productions have been shared online along with virtual productions currently being produced. I believe that virtual theater is here to stay. It has expanded audiences and increased the importance of diverse storytelling.”
Attic founder Huffman said the pandemic “has shown just how fragile the arts are without community support. Our goal is to work hard to reopen with city support – not just financially but with an agreed affiliation like having city representation, community members and community business owners on our board.”
SCR’s Ivers astutely assigns the pandemic to “part of our collective consciousness,” with the art form of theater providing “a valuable lens through which we can process the important issues of our time.”
“Artistically, we are already seeing work that reflects the challenges, loss and isolation of the past 10 months, but we’re also seeing messages of renewed hope and great rebirth.”
Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at email@example.com.