LOS ANGELES – The day before the Independent Shakespeare Co. premiere of “The Tempest”, vandals sneaked onto the Griffith Park set and destroyed it. They smashed the lights and cut all the cables, causing approximately $ 15,000 in damage.
Artistic Director David Melville got a call from the city the next morning and rushed to the site of the Griffith Park Free Shakespeare Festival. With the help of volunteers, the set was revived and the show took place that night – the first live performance the company has put on in 18 months.
To riff on a viral meme on this new perilous phase of the pandemic: 19 infections fell, then the vandals of the park represented the delta variant.
Taking this analogy further: Melville’s endurance in the face of the disaster, and the dozens of patrons who donated money to cover the losses from the incident, exemplify the stubborn mindset of nonprofit theaters vulnerable as the delta rampages across the country.
And so the questions arise: how long can these companies stay afloat financially? With funding for the pandemic drying up, 99-seat theaters are scrambling to stay on track with reopens that were slated for better days.
Rising infections in LA have forced Independent Shakespeare Co. to work in tandem with the city to cap the park’s audience at 250.
Normally, the company would run two festivals over 10 or 11 weeks, often attracting over 1,000 people a night and earning around $ 150,000 in donations. In the Delta Summer, ISC is hosting a show for five weeks, and Melville estimates the effort will generate around $ 40,000 to $ 45,000 in donations.
Melville says if the company can stage a few more productions by the end of the year, including its annual “Christmas Carol”, that should be fine. Otherwise, things could get tough.
“The PPP loans from last year and this year were crucial, and without them we couldn’t have continued – so it’s a bit worrying because they won’t be there next year,” said Melville. .
Similar concerns plague Tim Wright, artistic director of Circle X Theater Co., which operates four theaters in the Atwater Village Theater complex. Wright says the company hasn’t paid rent for the space in 18 months. He points out that his landlord wants to keep the complex for the theater and has been incredibly understanding about the missed rent. Circle X has stayed afloat thanks to an array of relief grants, including money from the LA County Arts Commission through the CARES Act, a Shuttered Venue Operators grant, and a grant from the California Relief Fund.
As far as Wright is aware, only one additional relief grant is coming up – courtesy of the National Endowment for the Arts. Normally, Circle X derives about one-third of its revenue from grants, one-third from ticket sales, and one-third from individual contributions. Wright’s goal is to raise enough money for his owner to be unharmed again, but what if Delta made live performances impossible?
“If we get to December [without shows] I think we’ll eventually give back the space, “Wright says.” At one point it seems irresponsible to ignore the others who are taking a huge loss on this. “
For now, Wright is testing the waters alongside Johnny Clark, art director of VS. Theater Company, with a co-production of a one-man show called “Stand Up if You’re Here Tonight”. The show takes place indoors with masks and compulsory vaccination documents.
“The theater has over 60 seats, I think we’re at around 40 in terms of capacity. It’s a 60-minute show with no concessions or intermission,” Clark said, adding that he thought the show would be part of it. of a happy wave of reopening, rather than a canary in a coal mine. “It’s a horrible time to produce theater, but for people who feel comfortable introducing themselves, I think it will open their hearts a bit.”
Other groups with larger distributions have taken a different approach. Ron Sossi, artistic director of the Odyssey Theater Ensemble, recently pushed back the reopening of “The Serpent” on September 18 because several cast members felt uncomfortable rehearsing during the delta surge. The show initially opened a week before the March 2020 shutdown, and the company had long anticipated the resurrection of “The Serpent” to be the center of a triumphant return.
Sossi says he now hopes to start rehearsals in late September and open the show in mid-October.
“If the delta variant continues to be strong or growing, it doesn’t make much sense for us to open much later than mid-October because of the holidays, so there is a chance that we “The Serpent” indefinitely, “Sossi said. “I don’t want to move forward unless I really feel safe – so we’re in this waiting pattern.”
Many 99-seat theater companies don’t rely on ticket sales for their funding, but Sossi says the Odyssey is an exception.
“We rely on ticket sales more than most people,” Stossi said, adding that most of the additional funding the company gets depends on active productions. “We have the money in our coffers and we are waiting to produce. We could hold out until the middle of the year, but we have to do things to justify the subsidies.”
Jon Lawrence Rivera, artistic director of Playwrights Arena, a major supporter of the original work of LA writers, said two months ago he was planning a reopening in October, but now it looks increasingly unlikely. It’s not safe to cram 99 people into a theater, and he estimates that he will be able to squeeze about half of it if it reopens.
“If we’re running at 50% of our capacity, I’m prepared to say that for the next two or three shows we’ll lose $ 25,000 per show,” Rivera said. “I don’t know how we’re going to survive this. We’re counting on miracles.”
Like most small theater leaders, Rivera campaigned for SB 805, a state bill that, if passed, would provide funding to nonprofit performing arts organizations that earn less. of $ 1.4 million per year.
A recent state law requiring small theaters to pay actors minimum wage, along with an actor equity mandate to have a COVID-19 agent present at all shows, more than doubled the cost with a typical production of around $ 20,000 to nearly $ 50,000, Rivera said. Add Delta to the mix and the expense begins to get unmanageable.
“I don’t know how we’re going to continue to do what we’re doing with these variations and the instability of the audience members,” Rivera said. “I think we could only keep it six months, maybe a year.”
With the disappearance of pandemic funding, many businesses have to fall back on traditional forms of fundraising, and it is common for city and state grants to require a number of activities to unlock money. This poses a lot of uncertainty for Theater West, which receives the bulk of its grants for an annual program for young audiences called Storybook Theater.
Will newly reopened schools send buses full of students to the theater, as they did in pre-pandemic times, wonders Michael Van Duzer, chairman of the artistic council of Theater West. And if they do, how will the company – which relied on interactivity to make the program fun – keep unvaccinated children under 12 safe and entertained?
“Everything is a question mark,” says Van Duzer.
One thing is almost certain: On September 24, the company will open its world premiere production of “Our Man in Santiago,” initially scheduled for March 13, 2020.
“We have made a vow to reopen with this production, and unless there is an absolute stop, we will run these five weeks,” said Van Duzer.
Elisa Bocanegra, founder of BIPOC Hero Theater, is also set to move forward with a long-scheduled read on Saturday, even if only 10 people show up, she said. The show, “Flex” by Candrice Jones, is about a black southern women’s basketball team.
“It’s so much of a celebration of southern black women and joy,” Bocanegra says, adding that she originally wanted to fully stage the play.
“We just needed something to show us we were still alive,” Bocanegra says. “It might be crazy reading this now, but we needed to be together.”
Hero is celebrating his 10th birthday under a delta cloud made darker by the fact that Bocanegra’s brother is a COVID-19 long-haul and has been hospitalized since last summer after a stroke caused by the disease.
“It affects so many communities of color at a disproportionate rate,” Bocanegra said. “Trying to keep a theater company afloat in the midst of what so many families are going through is so difficult.”
By force of will, Bocanegra and his management team have weathered the past 18 months. Many members of the company were unemployed and Bocanegra booked a Chevy ad in Spanish. She says she invested every last penny in the business and devoted her waking hours to fundraising, including a recent campaign with a goal of $ 100,000.
“If we still have to go through two more years of just fundraising and applying for emergency grants, we just won’t make it – I won’t,” Bocanegra said.
Then, like most small theater leaders, she quickly corrects the course.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Bocanegra said, adding that she came from a strong-willed Puerto Rican family. “We will continue to do this. There is no way we will let COVID get us down.”