‘The fu­ture’s un­cer­tain.’ That’s es­sen­tially the re­sponse you get when you ask Chicago theater com­pany ad­min­is­tra­tors when they’ll be able to wel­come back au­di­ences to their “houses.”

For some the­aters, dig­i­tal con­tent has been a means of keep­ing au­di­ences en­gaged in lieu of COVID-19-can­celed shows. But no mat­ter how many views these streams get, they don’t come close to mak­ing up for lost rev­enue gen­er­ated by tra­di­tional runs. And while Illi­nois en­tered Phase 4 re-open­ing on June 26 — al­low­ing for gath­er­ings of 50 peo­ple or less — it’s a pyrrhic vic­tory for Chicago’s the­aters.

“Ev­ery­body knows 2020 is over as far as live per­for­mances go. The real fear is what’s go­ing to hap­pen in 2021,” said Ellen PlaceyWade­y, se­nior pro­gram direc­tor for arts and col­lec­tions at the Gay­lord and Dorothy Don­nel­ley Foun­da­tion, an arts fun­der.

Some the­aters al­ready know: So far, COVID-19 ca­su­al­ties in­clude the per­ma­nent clo­sure of the Mer­cury Theatre, the com­edy pow­er­house iO and Lou Conte Dance Stu­dio. For those still stand­ing, all planned live 2020 pro­duc­tions are can­celed. With loans from the eight-week Pay­roll Pro­tec­tion Pro­gram (PPP) dwin­dling, and no shows on the hori­zon be­fore 2021, ev­ery­one is on shift­ing sand. Stream­ing, theater op­er­a­tors say, doesn’t much im­prove the ter­rain.

Con­sider Theater Wit, where “Teenage Dick” went live on­line in April, the same week it was slated to open. The stream brought in about $27,000, ac­cord­ing to artis­tic direc­tor Jeremy Wech­sler. But tra­di­tional show runs gen­er­ate about $55,000, he added, and once the shut­down started, Theater Wit started los­ing about $7,500 a week. He said he stopped pay­ing rent in May on the com­pany’s Lake­view space. His PPP loan only cov­ered staff through June 30.

“Even af­ter we fur­lough the en­tire staff,” he said, “pro­jected rev­enue from stream­ing and do­na­tions do not make up the fixed costs of rent, util­i­ties and in­sur­ance.”

Phase 4 pro­vides lit­tle re­lief, Wech­sler said: He’d have to limit au­di­ences to 25 peo­ple and ad­di­tional costs — virus test­ing costs, PPE equip­ment, clean­ing — would make open­ing pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive.

Theater Wit isn’t alone in try­ing to rise above the fi­nan­cial wreck­age.

The House Theatre of Chicago earned $36,000 in one night by stream­ing its 2002 hit “The Ter­ri­ble Tragedy of Peter Pan,” said artis­tic direc­tor Nathan Allen. He’s not cel­e­brat­ing, how­ever. “That suc­cess is in con­text of a roughly $300,000 - $400,000 loss in pro­gram­ming in­come,” Allen said. That loss rep­re­sents 14% to 18% of the House’s $2.2 mil­lion 2020 bud­get.

The House and Theater Wit pro­vide a snap­shot of a bleak na­tion­wide pic­ture. Na­tion­ally, 12% of small arts busi­nesses (less than 500 em­ploy­ees) don’t think they’ll ever re­cover to “nor­mal,” pre-COVID-19 levels, ac­cord­ing to a re­port from the Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Arts. An­other 57% say it will be at least six months be­fore they’re pro­duc­ing at pre-COVID-19 levels.

The smaller, itin­er­ant the­aters might have nom­i­nally bet­ter sur­vival odds. Sideshow Theatre doesn’t rent or own a space or pay union rates since it’s a non-Equity house. It has only one full-time staffer. The com­pany raised just over $11,000 stream­ing Kris­tiana Rae Colon’s “Ti­likum,” and about $2,200 stream­ing Philip Dawkins’ “The Hap­pi­est Place on Earth.” (It do­nated the “Ti­likum” pro­ceeds to the #LetUsBreat­he col­lec­tive.)

“We feel con­fi­dent we’ll be able to sur­vive the rest of the year,” said Sideshow artis­tic direc­tor Jonathan L. Green. “We will need to beef up our fundrais­ing ef­forts this fall so we can keep the lights on, but be­cause we’re not pay­ing rent, mort­gage or fa­cil­i­ties costs, it will be easier for us.”

The Neo-Fu­tur­ists might be the only com­pany in the coun­try mak­ing as much stream­ing as it did with live pro­duc­tions On March 22, the com­pany launched “The In­fi­nite Wrench Goes Vi­ral,” avail­able on Pa­treon start­ing at $3 a ticket. Live “Wrench” made about $2,200 weekly, and “Wrench Goes Vi­ral” makes the same, said artis­tic direc­tor Kirsten Ri­iber.

“Are we at risk of los­ing a whole gen­er­a­tion of artists? It’s an ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis,” said Greg Reiner, the NEA’s theater and mu­si­cal theater direc­tor/per­form­ing arts. “Chicago might be in bet­ter shape than most be­cause there are so many small, nim­ble, itin­er­ant the­aters there, and it could be easier for them to nav­i­gate this than the larger houses with rent and real es­tate.”


Mac­Gre­gor Ar­ney plays Richard and Court­ney Rikki Green plays Anne in “Teenage Dick” at Theater Wit. Fol­low­ing the COVID-19 shut­down of all the­aters, the April stream of the pro­duc­tion gen­er­ated $27,000 in rev­enue.


Porch­light Theatre’s “Sond­heim @ 90” stream fea­tured David Cromer (clock­wise from top row, left), Michael We­ber, Jessie Mueller and Sean Al­lan Krill.

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