CHICAGO’S THEATERS FINDING LITTLE LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL AMID COVID-19
‘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.