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Performing arts innovate in desperate times

Lukas Southard and Nova Safo Jul 2, 2020
Heard on:
A violinist plays to an empty concert hall during a video-recorded concert in Slovakia in May. Performing arts companies are finding innovative ways to stay financially viable in the face of COVID-19. Vladimir Simicek/AFP via Getty Images

Performing arts innovate in desperate times

Lukas Southard and Nova Safo Jul 2, 2020
Heard on:
A violinist plays to an empty concert hall during a video-recorded concert in Slovakia in May. Performing arts companies are finding innovative ways to stay financially viable in the face of COVID-19. Vladimir Simicek/AFP via Getty Images

Six months ago, a reckless evening out on the town did not include a dinner at a restaurant and a Mozart symphony performance. The COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing guidelines have changed the economics of dining out and live performances temporarily and possibly forever.

For the last three months, nearly all live music, theater and dance have suspended shows due to stay-at-home orders. Performance halls are empty as classical music patrons and theatergoers shelter in place. Some performing arts companies have pivoted into digital platforms not only to maintain their donors and patrons, but also to allow artists to produce innovative work and explore the new avenues of digital expression. Yet, how a company approaches these challenges and even the size of the organization could determine if performing art is facing an insurmountable fiscal deficit or an opportunity to embrace a new avenue of reaching audiences.

“We’re not Philadelphia, New York or San Francisco,” said Celia Mann Baehr, president and CEO of the Mobile Symphony Orchestra in Alabama. “The majority of orchestras that are our size are per-service orchestras, meaning that we don’t have a giant payroll of full-time orchestra members because there’s not enough population here.”

Regional symphonies like Mobile and smaller theater companies can focus on how to cut back on expenses and maintain their audiences because they have smaller payrolls and fewer maintenance costs than larger concert halls.

Many patrons have already purchased their season tickets for the 2020-2021 season. At the same time, the patrons have expressed fear about coming back to live performances, Mann Baehr said.

“A lot of people have said, ‘I’m going to still contribute. If I can’t come, I’m giving you the price of my ticket. I don’t want my money back.’”

This provides some stability to the companies’ ledgers, but the musicians are in an especially tough position. Most of Mobile Symphony Orchestra’s musicians rely on teaching private lessons or jobs at local colleges or schools to pay their bills. It’s uncertain when or if those jobs will come back.

Like most things during the COVID-19 pandemic, the uncertainty is what is hurting artists most. Many are on unemployment, but the future of those benefits is in jeopardy. Many organizations we talked to were worried their performers would not be able to return because they already live show to show and juggle multiple jobs in order to survive.

“It’s devastating. The economic model has completely fallen apart for us at this moment,” said Susie Medak, managing director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California. “Managing during this time is like driving on black ice. You think you can manage your way out of it, but really all you can do is to go with the skid.”

Live performances rely on both ticket sales and private contributions to keep producing shows. The economic implications of the pandemic have forced performing arts groups to reevaluate how they will weather the financial storm.

People who go to the theater or listen to opera are people with disposable incomes. In the current economic crisis, there might be a lot less of these people to support live performances. That doesn’t even take into account the contributions from organizations or private donors.

“Everyone in the country was going to be needing the same kind of money that we were needing to sustain themselves,” said Medak. “We are in line with everybody else, every nonprofit all over the country that desperately needs money to be able to exist.”

With states losing millions in income and sales tax revenue, help from the state level remains uncertain. Federal aid is also unlikely. Grants will be harder to come by, and when local governments need to trim the fat, arts programs could lose funding.

Innovation is the key to long-term survival

March is usually when the Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, hosts the Humana Festival. One organizer referred to it as the “Kentucky Derby for the theater industry.” This year, six new plays were forced to cancel their premieres and three other shows were able to have only a couple performances before the festival was suspended. 

Actors Theatre is a mid-sized company with an annual budget of around $9 million. Once the stay-at-home order was announced, the company shifted to what it calls a “transmedia approach” to theater.

Transmedia uses emergent technologies and digital platforms to reach audiences in new ways, said Robert Barry Fleming, executive artistic director. “We have radio plays, we have video-capture plays, and the genres range from classic work that might be even animated to work that includes concert-like musicals.”

Rethinking how performing arts can reimagine storytelling is not a new theme. Finding ways to engage with audiences in new ways is just the evolution of the performing arts, whether it is using augmented reality to alter environments or an interactive performance like “Sleep No More” in New York City.

Managing during this time is like driving on black ice. You think you can manage your way out of it, but really all you can do is to go with the skid.

Susie Medak, managing director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre

In California, the San Francisco Ballet was one of the first major performing arts groups to close due to the state’s shelter-in-place directive. The company had just begun its spring run of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Like many other arts companies, it’s offering archival recordings of past performances that viewers can view online for free. But the ballet needed to recoup some of the multimillion budget hole it projected it would face when performances were canceled.

Performers began recording themselves on phones dancing in their homes. They used the Zoom interface to interact with one another in the little boxes we have become so accustomed to during work meetings. 

“It’s very ephemeral. It’s very temporary. It doesn’t have the same lasting feeling that a performance has,” said Kelly Tweeddale, executive director of the San Francisco Ballet.

The ballet is experimenting with a new project where four choreographers are creating one recorded performance using dancers in different spaces. The new format takes classical dance off of the stage and into a new environment where the artists can manipulate perspective through video.

The question is: How can these innovative performances monetize their content to bring in revenue again?

The future of live performance is in jeopardy

“We’ve noted over time a really strong correlation between those people who engage with the arts digitally and those who actually kind of vote with their feet and go to live events,” said Sunil Iyengar, research and analysis director of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Keeping this engagement with audiences is important to rebuilding the performing arts sector after social distancing guidelines are relaxed. Reaching younger audiences is the key to staying economically solvent, said Iyengar.

A lot of these organizations were struggling with maintaining their budgets even before the pandemic brought live performances to a halt.

“The art sector is not walled off and a special kind of snowflake. They are clearly part of the mainstream economy,” said Iyengar.

The National Endowment for the Arts has put together a tip sheet to help performing arts organizations restart live shows. Yet there are still a lot of unknowns.

Celia Mann Baehr at the Mobile Symphony Orchestra is still waiting for proper guidance on how to safely plan live performances with brass and woodwind — instruments that require blowing a lot of air in and out. She has yet to see any scientific data or protocol for socially distancing an oboist and trumpeter from each other and the audience.

“It’s like working on a jigsaw puzzle. You get the edges and you get a little start on the middle. And then you go home and you come in the next day and there’s a new piece of information. Somebody has taken the jigsaw puzzle and broken it all apart again. So you have to start over.”

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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