Recent research published by the Brookings Institution reports that the performing arts have been the most at risk and the hardest hit by COVID-19 of all the creative arts industries. It was estimated that, nationwide, almost 1.4 million jobs and $42.5 billion in sales have been lost to date. Locally, Cleveland’s Playhouse Square expects to lose nearly $4 million and layoff or furlough nearly 200 employees between March, when its theaters were closed, and the end of the calendar year. In theaters, concert halls and arenas across the region, thousands of live performances have been canceled or indefinitely postponed.
And yet, creative retooling and forward-thinking has recently taken place, as many arts organizations seek an audience among those in isolation and find virtue in going virtual. They are profiled in CANVAS magazine and in a reprint of the piece in the CJN, which can be found here:
The Brookings Institution recently reported that the performing arts have been the most at risk and the hardest hit by the COVID-19 crisis of all the creative arts industries. It was estimated that, nationwide, almost 1.4 million jobs and $42.5 billion in sales have been lost to date.
Like so many other theaters, the Ohio Shakespeare Festival closed its doors in March. Says company member Tess Burgler, “we were smackdab in the middle of our run of ‘Saint Joan,’ were about to start rehearsals for ‘Miss Holmes’ and had just announced our next indoor season at Greystone Hall. And then it was gone.” Also cancelled was the company’s summer outdoor season productions of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Othello.”
But rather than wait out COVID-19 or venture into virtual productions to be seen online, the OSF staged 16 live performances of Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield‘s comedy “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) [revised].” The show, which parodies bits and pieces of all of the Bard’s 37 plays in just 97 mad-cap minutes, ran from July 17 – Aug. 9 to sold-out audiences.
How was this accomplished?
They chose a play with a small cast (Ryan Zarecki, James Rankin and Natalie Steen) and already in their back pocket, having staged “The Complete Works…” four times over the past three years.
“Abridged” and “revised” appear in the play’s title in acknowledgement of the show’s treatment of the source material, but the authors allowed the OSF to also cut out the intermission so to limit audience interaction and eliminate most of the sound and lighting elements so to minimize the size of the production crew (Burgler served as director and stage manager).
The show was performed outdoors on secured private property – the Lagoon area of Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens – with the approval of the Summit County Health Commissioner and the taking of every imaginable safety precaution. “We needed a large outdoor space,” says artistic director Nancy Cates, “so that we could create 6-foot squares around every seat” and there needed to be enough seats to make the enterprise financially feasible. Sales were limited to 70 patrons, which was 25 percent of a typical house under normal circumstances.
And following the National Basketball Association’s protocol, the cast and crew lived together in a quarantined “bubble” during the weeks prior to rehearsal and until the final performance.
While hardly a sustainable or replicable formula, live theater has returned – at least for a short time – to Northeast Ohio.
On Thursday, March 12, director Scott Spence and his four-member cast for Steve Martin’s comedy “Meteor Showers” were two and a half weeks into rehearsals with two and a half weeks to go before opening. The set was 80% built and other facets of the show’s design were rapidly moving forward.
The Beck Center for the Arts’ next big mainstage musical, the Tony Award-winning “Something Rotten,” was fully cast and open calls for its next production in the small Studio Theatre, Ayad Akhtar's Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Disgraced,” had just been completed.
“That was when Ohio Governor Mike DeWine announced limitations on public gatherings,” says Spence, who is also Beck’s artistic director,” and everyone had a sense that things would get worse before they got better.” So it was decided among the actors, designers and administrators that “Meteor Showers” would be postponed. “And though we are seriously looking at recapturing titles from this season for next season,” adds Spence, “until we hear more from the Governor and better understand what else is going on in the near future, we will sit tight and lick our wounds.”
Sitting tight is not really in Spence’s nature, so he is busy figuring out the prospect of social distancing in his mainstage theater and devising seating charts that factor in 6-foot separation among patrons and the staggering of rows.
“The best case scenario is that we have 125-130 seats, about 25% occupancy, when people hungry for theater are ready to come back.”
So the question becomes how does a theater whose brand and business model revolves around sizable musicals pare down costs and still maintain its standard of quality and new guidelines for safety? “We just don’t know yet,” says Spence, who is also balancing the arts education arm of the Beck Center, “but it is certainly something we are constantly working on.”
Photo: Nick Drake (from left), Greg Violand, Charles Mayhew Miller and the ensemble in the 2020 production of “The Scottsboro Boys”
Photo / Roger Mastrioanni
“We were going into the second week of Love’s Labour’s Lost when we had to cancel,” recalls Dane CT Leasure, artistic director at Rubber City Theatre – formerly the Rubber City Shakespeare Company – in Akron. “Before we shut down, we thought to offer a final live performance on Facebook by way of a phone at the back of the theater.
There were 12 friends and crew members in the house and Terry Teachout, the drama critic for the Wall Street Journal, happened to be watching on Facebook. Here is what he had to say on his arts journal blog “About Last Night:”
“How does a New York drama critic spend his Friday nights when Broadway’s theaters are closed up tight? I don’t know about my colleagues, but I curled up on the couch with my laptop last week and watched a live performance in Akron, Ohio, of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost.
Like most of America’s theater companies, Rubber City Theatre has since been shut down in the hope of containing the spread of the coronavirus, so it decided to live-stream via Facebook the final performance of its current production as a gesture of solidarity with everyone who knows how vital great art is in times of trial….
To be sure, the technical quality of the one-camera webcast was primitive—the picture was fuzzy and there was no ‘camerawork’ whatsoever. But that didn’t matter in the least: The play came through clearly, and that was all that mattered. Kelly Elliott’s modern- dress staging was satisfyingly simple and lively, and the handful of loyal audience members sprinkled throughout the company’s small auditorium were audibly pleased by the results. So was I, and I found myself asking as I watched: What am I getting out of this experience? Why am I so moved? Exactly what do masterpieces have to say to us at moments like these?
In Shakespeare’s case, the answer is easy enough. Even in a self-consciously artificial comedy like Love’s Labour’s Lost, there are moments of immediacy that reach across the centuries (and through the screen of your viewing device, whatever it may be) and make you sit bolt upright, stunned by their prescience. In my case, it was these lines spoken by Lord Berowne, one of King Ferdinand’s noble companions, that rang the bell of recognition: ‘To move wild laughter in the throat of death?/It cannot be; it is impossible:/Mirth cannot move a soul in agony.’ For of course it is possible, which explains why we most need the balm of comedy when the roof of the world seems to be crumbling over our heads.”
Not a bad way for Rubber City Theatre to go into hiatus.
Since 2015 – upon taking over as president and CEO of Karamu House, Inc., America’s oldest African American producing theater – Tony F. Sias has turned obstacles into opportunities.
But in light of the current pandemic, some tough decisions had to be made first. immediately cancelled what remained of its 2019-20 mainstage season, which included the regional premiere of Katori Hall’s Hoodoo Love and its production of Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s Next to Normal. Forty-eight freelance artist contracts were annulled, though artists received compensation for the work that had been done to date. All educational programming on site was suspended and participants were notified. The popular and successful annual summer fundraiser, the Second Line Parade and Sneaker Ball, was cancelled as well.
On to the opportunities.
While seasonal and part-time employees were placed on furlough, Tony was able to retain 12 full-time employees to keep Karamu afloat by applying for and receiving a forgivable loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, which was established under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
Karamu also used the inability to offer its arts education programs at its facility as a chance to develop and start up online programs that are sustainable and will be integrated into the curriculum once the crisis has passed.
Karamu had already named its “Room in the House” recipients for spring 2020. This artist-in-residency program is funded through a Cuyahoga Arts & Culture grant and is designed to help artists be more empowered and independent by offering a stipend, technical support, professional development and a physical workspace within the Karamu House facility. Rather than cancel the program, Tony and his staff arranged for the residency to proceed in a remote, virtual environment so that Karamu still has an opportunity to work with these talented individuals – Kaylene Abernathy, a digital illustration artist; Moises Borges De Freitas, a native of Salvador, Brazil, who celebrates his African heritage and culture through music and movement; Jacoby DuBose, a film, music and stage artist; and Gary Galbreath, a piano professional with a passion for educating youth – even during this unprecedented COVID19 pandemic.
“We are a celebrated, historical, legendary organization,” adds Tony. “As such, we have always asked ourselves ‘how do we not just survive but thrive?’ And the answer has always been and continues to be innovation and resourcefulness.”
For a message from Tony Sias, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QzxO4URne0&feature=youtu.be
Charlie Fee holds a unique position in the American theater scene. He is the producing artistic director of three independently operated, professional theater companies – Great Lakes Theater in Cleveland, Idaho Shakespeare Festival in Boise, Idaho, and Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival in Lake Tahoe, Nevada – that have created an innovative production-sharing alliance.
“Unlike co-producing models, our collaboration creates year-round opportunities for our artists and our production staffs by extending contracts across all three cities,” says Charlie. “In other words, we create all of the work seen in our three cities.”
And then came the pandemic. “We were in the second week of rehearsal for Much Ado About Nothing,” which was to open in Cleveland in March, move to Boise in May and then on to Tahoe in July, “and, early on, it was a continuously changing environment with constantly evolving information about the virus and compliance guidelines.”
When the directive came from Ohio Governor Mike DeWine to shut down operations, the acting company was on a mid-day rehearsal break and Charlie was in a production meeting with the various heads of production, stage management and design. “We went back to rehearsal knowing that it was over, that the show was done, but we couldn’t just leave each other. We decided to run the show, invite the whole company to watch it, and capture it on an iPhone for an archival record.” And then he cancelled the show in Boise and then in Tahoe as the possibility of a production kept evaporating. “It’s tough telling the same group of people, three times, that we are shutting down their show.”
The remainder of the Great Lakes 2019-2020 season, which ends in May, has been cancelled, but there is still the prospect of opening shows in Boise and Tahoe in the summer even though timelines are constantly shifting. “It is a long shot,” admits Charlie. “The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a neighbor, has shut down entirely. But the Utah Shakespeare Festival, another neighbor, has announced that it is opening in July, but to do so they are planning on rehearsing in an isolated, quarantined location. We’ll see how that goes.”
And if theaters are allowed to open under new protocols, asks Charlie, what will their new productions look like? “Are musicals more dangerous than straight plays because singers project two or three times the distance as speakers? How far apart must musicians be in an orchestra pit? What will be the required distancing in rehearsal and on stage? Can actors kiss? Fight? And we live on ticket sales. Will people show up?”
With the added complexity of managing three theaters comes added opportunities. “I don’t see smaller union theaters opening anytime soon. Fortunately, we are in a stronger position to sit and wait and see.”
“Dear Dobama Artists, I’ve been wanting to write you all.”
So begins artistic director Nathan Motta’s mid-May letter to those who have and were about to make art in the Dobama Theatre performance space. His words are personal but so eloquently express the shared sentiments of a loving, caring Cleveland arts community. They are excerpted here, with permission.
“I wanted to direct these sentiments to you because so many of my thoughts these past few weeks have been about you and how uniquely difficult it must be for each of you, my colleagues and friends.
Clearly the most important thing at this moment is taking care of each other - putting our healthcare and essential workers in the best possible position to be safe and to help those directly affected by the virus. But it’s natural to also be thinking of what this moment means for the future of our industry and community. I hope one positive thing that has emerged through all of this is the importance of the work of artists like you in our world.
During the first Saturday night performance of Dance Nation a few weeks ago, a light that was rigged to fall from the grid in the opening scene did not fall. In a freak occurrence, the pull cord that releases the light had bounced upwards and gotten hung up in the grid. The instrument was now dangling precariously over upstage center, an area where actors would gather in the next scene. We had rehearsed this light falling moment over two dozen times and had never had a problem like this happen before - yet here we were.
Within moments everyone knew what had to be done. I stepped on stage and called “hold,” asking the actors to stop in place and listen for further instructions. I asked the cast to clear the playing space and explained the situation to the audience. While I was speaking, the assistant stage manager and crew, without hesitation, brought a ladder on stage to manually remove the light instrument. Our wonderful production stage manager then announced on the god-mic for the company to reset for the start of the scene. Within 60 seconds from hold being called, the performance had continued. The problem was unforeseen and unprecedented but we had put safety first.
Today we find ourselves in another such moment - unforeseen and unprecedented. If ‘All the world’s a stage’ then this is a moment in time when it has been of the utmost importance that we players hold in place and clear the stage for the safety of all.
When we take care of each other, we are living up to the ideas we explore in our storytelling onstage. By making artists feel safe, everyone is able to take artistic risks and do their best work. Now, at a moment when we are unable to do that work, we have an opportunity to demonstrate the empathy, compassion, and awareness we have learned and shared as theatre artists. This is an uncertain, challenging and frightening time for so many.
Dobama will also take this moment to step back and examine our core values, mission, business model, operations, and future vision. We will do all we can to emerge from this difficult situation a more focused and centered arts organization.
I wanted to let you all know that we are thinking about you and that we are here for you in all the ways we are able. Please stay home, be safe, and let’s take care of each other.”
When Raymond Bobgan took over as executive artistic director at Cleveland Public Theatre in 2006, he inherited an organization rooted in the urban revitalization vision and social justice mission of James Levin. Levin, who returned to Cleveland from New York City in 1981, was determined to form an experimental, risk-taking, community-rooted theater group similar to Off-Broadway’s Cafe La MaMa, where he worked as an actor and director.
Raymond was also a passionate artist who has been pushing the boundaries of conventional theater for decades. He told his colleagues, “Let’s stop trying to compete with the LORT [League of Resident Theatres] houses in town – the Cleveland Play House, Great Lakes Theater – and let’s be good at what we do… work that nobody else in Cleveland is going to try. I want to create an environment for artists, for creators, that feels safe and challenging at the same time.” And, says Raymond, “A critical component of what we do facilitates a sense of community gathering."
It is this mission that is getting the CPT through the pandemic.
Cancelled are two plays in production – an all-Spanish language production of José Rivera’s Marisol and the world premiere of Nikkole Salter’s Breakout Session – as well as the upcoming production of India Nicole Burton’s Panther Women, which has been in development for over a year.
Also cancelled is a showcase of world premiere works by Northeast Ohio dance companies and choreographers called DanceWorks, Nina Domingue’s solo piece, The Absolutely Amazing and True Adventures of Ms. Joan Southgate, and Raymond’s own Candlelight Hypothesis.
Cancelled is Station Hope, the annual community event that celebrates through theater, music, storytelling, and dance Cleveland's social justice history and explores contemporary struggles for freedom and equity. The theater’s educational partnership with Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) at community centers for youth and families who live in public housing has been cancelled as well.
But moving forward, the CPT is trying to figure out how to navigate in the internet world and still create that sense of audience intimacy and make work that continues to be experimental, risk-taking and community-rooted.
“And we are adamant,” adds Raymond, “about keeping everything live rather than recorded.”
Among the new initiatives is a virtual sharing of the pieces and parts of Candlelight Hypothesis, which is being performed by Raymond and fellow artists Holly Holsinger and Faye Hargate. These performances are raw and are being showcased on Zoom so audience members are able to see each other’s reactions and discuss the work after it is completed. “And a silver lining in all of this is that it is forcing me to revisit the work in a new platform and, perhaps, discover what this piece was really meant to be.”
Another silver lining is that “now more than ever there is a need for what we do, which is to gather people and share an experience that will provoke and engage. And there is a greater sense of gratitude from audiences who appreciate what we do as well as from artists who appreciate that their work is being chosen from the many online alternatives available during this difficult time.”
A more personal silver lining, admits Raymond, is that his parents – who are in their 80s and have not been able to watch him perform in years – can now see his work and interact with other appreciative audience members online.
“While we can't be together physically,” states a posting on the CPT website, “we're excited to connect with you in new ways and look forward to seeing you soon.”
Forty seats and a miniscule performance space. Limited cast size and few production bells and whistles. Little overhead and a full-time staff of only three.
This is business as usual for convergence-continuum in Tremont under the supervision of founder and artistic director Clyde Simon.
So with the realization that smaller theater venues may very well be the first to re-open under a new set of guidelines for social distancing, downsizing will hardly be noticed.
Going from 40 seats to 27 and truncating an already small playing space to accommodate an already modest production, says Clyde, “is not that much of a hardship. Small is pretty much our business model.”
Since con-con also dances to a different production schedule than most other theaters – it had not yet started its new season when the pandemic hit – things have been delayed but not necessarily dismantled. Plans are moving forward to produce Robert O'Hara's Insurrection: Holding History in July and the theater might circle back and revisit planned but never staged productions of Johnna Adams’ Gidion's Knot and Topher Payne’s Angry Fags.
“When we started out so many years ago, we never announced a season because we could not plan that far ahead. We announced a show, performed it and, at the end of the run, we announced the next show. That may be the new reality. We have a feeling that audiences will be forgiving.”
Being affiliated with Kent State University's School of Theatre and Dance – one of the Top 30 musical theater programs in the country, according to On Stage Blog – is both a blessing and a curse for Porthouse Theatre during these trying times.
Though a professional theater that taps talent from New York and elsewhere, Porthouse is also a summer training ground for KSU’s full-time students and members of its summer musical theater academies. Unlike other theaters, where the season is hopefully just delayed or detoured, KSU’s April announcement of the cancellation of the academies put an end to the Porthouse season, which was to include youth-heavy productions of Little Shop of Horrors, Bklyn the Musical and West Side Story.
“All but a couple of roles were cast and the design process was just about complete,” recalls Terri Kent, the producing artistic director at Porthouse and head of the Musical Theatre program at KSU. “Having to tell all those designers and actors that there was no work this season was really, really difficult.”
Ever the optimist, Terri is more inclined to talk about the blessings, like how Porthouse’s affiliation with an academic institution guarantees funding for the next season – “an umbrella of protection” – on top of the theater’s sizable and remarkably loyal subscriber base that she calls “family.”
She has already secured the rights to these three musicals for next season and has informed her cast – even the graduating seniors – that they have the right to first refusal to coming back to their roles, “though it is very likely they will have moved on to better and bigger jobs.”
“Much of the work has already been done on these shows and they will be so worth waiting for.”
Just got off the phone with Celeste Cosentino, who is Executive Artistic Director of Ensemble Theatre and has served in nearly every capacity ever since her mother, Lucia Colombi, founded the company in the 1980s. Productions in the theater’s 96-seat main stage and 65-seat black box performance space draw from the canon of modern American classics as well as other significant contemporary plays.
Ensemble shuttered its doors going into the second week of Diane Samuels’ Kindertransport. “We are in the business of people gathering and were among the first to close,” she notes, “and theater will probably be the last business to open” when this pandemic is over.
In the meantime, Celeste has been working with the Cleveland Hts. city council to put together an Arts Council to help coordinate recovery efforts for all the local non-profit arts organizations. She believes that her theater’s small size and non-profit mission should expedite recovery if limited gatherings are part of the nation’s strategy going forward.
Looking ahead, Ensemble is planning a 2020-2021 line up to include Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, Charles Smith’s Objects in the Mirror as well as the Cleveland premiere of Rajiv Joseph’s Describe the Night. “We also hope to schedule shows that we’ve cancelled for this season that people have been looking forward to,” adds Celeste, including the musical Fun Home and, perhaps, a staged reading of Kindertransport.
“This, of course, is subject to change given all the many, many unknowns.”
And it’s pretty much these unknowns that keep every theater guessing at this point.
Production photo: Craig Joseph and Kimberly L. Brown in Ensemble Theatre’s 2020 production of Intimate Apparel
Photo / Shawn Christopher
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