We now know that the show can’t go on. Concerns over the coronavirus epidemic necessitated the abrupt closure of the region’s entire cultural sector. Museums, theaters, and concert halls are all closed. The Boston Lyric Opera’s production of “Norma,” a show three years in the making and the first time the opera was to be staged in Boston in some 40 years, never got to see the light of day. SpeakEasy Stage Company ended the critically lauded run of its play “The Children” (which eerily evoked a doomsday scenario) mid-run. Arts schools, dance companies and movie houses all sent their employees home with no idea when they’d return. “It’s a scary and dangerous place to be,” said Summer Williams, the Associate Artistic Director and Co-Founder of Company One Theatre.
There are a sizable number of theater artists, working in all aspects of the craft from performance to design to engineering, who are independent contractors working on as many as three productions at a time. With the sudden mass cancelation of shows over the last week, an untold number of artists who often work paycheck to paycheck, saw their jobs and anticipated income evaporate overnight.
“Even if you’re a Broadway actor, right now you’re unemployed,” said Maurice Parent an actor, director and co-founder of the theater company, Front Porch Arts Collective. “People are scrambling, not sure where they’re going to go and what they’re going to do.”
Because so many theater artists work independently, they don’t have access to unemployment benefits. And without any income, or even income prospects, many are already concerned about how they’ll pay next month’s rent. What’s more many theater worker’s so-called “survival jobs” are at restaurants, stores and in tourism—all sectors now also shut down.
Last week, actor Nile Hawver was just settling into his dream role in Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins” at The Gamm Theatre in Warwick, Rhode Island when it suddenly closed. And so did his survival job as a photographer whose bread and butter is headshots and production stills of area shows.
“I saw 90-percent of my booked gigs for the next two months just disappear,” he said. "Stage managers and costume designers and lighting board ops and ushers and box office managers — everything that goes into running and producing live theater is going to see a serious downturn.”
To the extent they can, theaters are endeavoring to pay workers’ salaries. But since theaters already operate on thin margins, it’s not a sustainable prospect.
"There's no money coming in. We are having to refund tickets that have already been sold,” said Ilyse Robbins, Associate Artistic Director of Stoneham’s Greater Boston Stage Company which has canceled two productions so far.
What’s more, Robbins says she has no idea if the theater can even begin, amid social distancing guidelines and limits to gatherings, to rehearse its upcoming production of “Matilda,” a musical with a sizable cast.
“You can imagine, with no money in, and money that still has to go out, we're in pretty bad shape right now."
Currently there are two immediate sources of relief. The City of Boston, in partnership with the Boston Center for the Arts, has announced the creation of theBoston Artist Relief Fund “to support artists living in Boston who have lost or anticipate losing income due to COVID-19.” Also available to theater artists in particular is theTheatre Community Benevolent Fund on whose board Robbins sits.
"We have a lot of freelance artists who all of their work has dried up…so people literally don’t have money to buy groceries, pay their rent, pay their utility bills. So we are trying to help individuals who are seeing no income stream," Robbins said.
She and other theaters are also asking patrons to consider not asking for ticket refunds for canceled shows, but to consider it a donation allowing theaters to hold on to much-needed revenue. Patrons can also help, she says, by buying subscriptions to next season’s slate of shows now.
The expectation, for now anyway, is by then the show will go on.