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Raising the curtain on theater employment

Sabri Ben-Achour and Erika Soderstrom Feb 16, 2023
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A stage production of Cinderella plays at the Minnesota-based Children's Theatre Company. Kimberly Motes, head of the theater, says it is still recovering from pandemic shutdowns that saw many employees furloughed. (David Rubene/Children's Theatre Company)

Raising the curtain on theater employment

Sabri Ben-Achour and Erika Soderstrom Feb 16, 2023
Heard on:
A stage production of Cinderella plays at the Minnesota-based Children's Theatre Company. Kimberly Motes, head of the theater, says it is still recovering from pandemic shutdowns that saw many employees furloughed. (David Rubene/Children's Theatre Company)
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One industry that came to a standstill during the pandemic was arts and entertainment. Shows are roaring back, but the employment numbers still aren’t where they were pre-pandemic.

We thought we’d check in with one of the largest theater companies in the U.S. that serves audiences of multiple generations – the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Marketplace’s Sabri Ben-Achour spoke with Kimberly Motes, the theater’s managing director.

Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Sabri Ben-Achour: So you reopened about just a year and a half ago. How are things going?

Kimberly Motes: You know, we opened our doors to live performance in November of 2021. And we have seen a continuation of audiences coming back to CTC, certainly for our holiday programming and our spring programming. What we’re finding is that if there is something known — a title that audiences can recognize — we’re seeing higher levels of participation than some of the newer work that maybe isn’t as title-known in the marketplace.

Ben-Achour: What’s been the most popular thing you’ve done so far?

Motes: So the most popular show has been this holiday season’s “Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” It broke box office records for us, and 58,000 people spent the holidays with us this season, which was just thrilling to see — children and parents and grandparents and families coming back to theater as part of a holiday tradition.

Ben-Achour: What changes have you noticed in the theater business since reopening?

Motes: Well, certainly we are all in what we call recovery mode. Coming out of the pandemic, it was an 18-month shutdown. For most of us in the industry, we are not back to the same budget size, we’ve got a smaller staff, certainly we have been very careful about hiring. So for example, pre-pandemic for us, we had 72 full-time staff. We are now at 63 full-time staff. Our part-time worker hours are down about 13%. And, you know, in terms of that payroll, we’re down a bit in terms of the overall numbers of people that we have had on our payroll.

Ben-Achour: You mentioned budgets are down. But also I wonder if when you reopened, was everyone you had employed, were they still there? I mean, had people kind of moved on to other careers in the meantime?

Motes: We were a theater that had to make really tough decisions with the shutdown. And we furloughed the majority of our staff. What was remarkable for us was, I think, 90% of our staff came back 18 months later. We did a lot of communication with our staff during the shutdown so that everyone knew what we were thinking about. We knew that it was going to be a while before we were able to return and that we would need the vaccine and other mitigation strategies in place. I will say that we’ve seen some staff in our field, we’ve seen a number of theatremakers leave the industry, we have shortages of positions like stage managers, and at times run crew. And we’re talking a lot about eliminating six-day rehearsal weeks, which has been standard in our business and a number of things that have been standard in our business that we’re now looking at differently to make sure that this is a profession that people can both live and work and have that balance.

Ben-Achour: You know, this year is — economically speaking — so uncertain. How are you looking at this year?

Motes: I think we’re thinking that it’s going to be a multiple-year recovery. We’re feeling the wage pressure for sure. We’re seeing inflation costs and materials. We’re right now looking at a five-year, we’re developing a five-year financial projection so that we can begin to really understand at what point can we get ourselves into a more financially-healthy approach. So, you know, we’re investing in some of the revenue areas for us. So how can we make sure that we’re attracting audiences, keeping audiences, you know, there are changes going on in philanthropy, and we’re very dependent on the generosity of institutional and individual contributed revenue and philanthropy. That’s about 38% of our overall budget. So really looking at sort of the revenue side, and then what that means in terms of what we can do on an expense side, we’re really interested in what the back half of the season looks like for us. So I think we’re going to know a lot more in July. And that’s going to inform how we move forward into the future.

Ben-Achour: Alongside the pandemic, one of the things that this country has grappled with over the past few years has been a national conversation about diversity, inclusion, anti-racism. Have you as an organization felt the need to engage with that in your programming?

Motes: We have, and in fact, our focus on equity, diversity, inclusion, and justice predates the pandemic. And the work we were doing over really the last 10-15 years prior to the shutdown. One of the things that really has benefited us and caused us to even deepen our discussions and our actions was an effort by 300 BIPOC artists called “We See White American Theatre,” which really they put forward a set of — they call it demands, but really a set of ideas — about how to make theater more equitable, more inclusive, more just. And we saw that as a gift and really spent time in the pandemic unpacking those, and have made a series of adjustments to our theater practices. We’ve set a goal of ourselves that half of the work on our stage will center by BIPOC perspectives. And I’m really proud that that has been the case since we’ve reopened. We’ve always been focused on representation on our stages, especially because for young people we know that matters so much. And so 50% of the actors on our stage have been from BIPOC communities. And that was pre-pandemic. There’s a whole host of efforts of that I could spend a lot of time talking about led by our associate artistic director and director of Equity and Community Partnerships, Michael Winn, that we’ve [implemented]. You know, everything from our hiring practices and our interview questions. We asked about potential employees’ experience in equity, diversity and inclusion to our performance reflections on an annual basis. We asked the question about “How have you helped further our core value around inclusion?”

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