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Regional Theaters Are Forced To Be Creative To Stay Afloat

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The pandemic has been brutal for music and theater. Broadway recently announced that all its productions will stay closed at least through June of next year. So what are regional theaters doing to try to stay afloat? Here's David C. Barnett from member station WCPN Ideastream in Cleveland.

DAVID BARNETT, BYLINE: A little less than a month after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, Cleveland's Karamu Theater presented a performance in remembrance of the victims of police violence. The program included a poem titled "George Floyd's Mama."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DARELLE HILL: Mama is an African word. When I heard George Floyd shout, it took me all the way back to how we got here, back to most of our first words, how we learned to speak, walk, hold hands, cry.

BARNETT: Speaking to topical issues is nothing new to Karamu, the country's oldest continuously operating African American theater company. But Karamu CEO Tony Sias says the livestreamed event brought in the largest audience his 105-year-old organization has ever had.

TONY SIAS: We've reached over 50,000 people worldwide on multiple platforms. Comments from artist, from patrons and new patrons exceeded all of our expectations.

BARNETT: Karamu reports the production brought $60,000 in contributions, more than it usually gets in an entire year, and several hundred new memberships. But success in the virtual world doesn't necessarily translate to the operation of a physical theater. Sias had to furlough half his staff and cancel contracts for freelance musicians, dancers and arts educators.

SIAS: Any given time or any given season, we have anywhere between 100 and 125 artists moving through our space in support of production and events.

BARNETT: Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre had to furlough or lay off two-thirds of its staff after canceling the remainder of its season in mid-March. But it quickly crafted a way to keep fans engaged.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) We gather together to...

BARNETT: Season subscribers were offered an exclusive perk. If they didn't ask for a refund for canceled shows, they got a new production.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE AMERICAN CLOCK")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Arthur A. Robertson) Til then, probably most people didn't think of it as a system.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Henry Taylor) It was more like nature.

LAURIE METCALF: (As Mrs. Taylor) Like weather - had to expect bad weather, but it always got good again if you waited. So we waited.

BARNETT: An audio version of Arthur Miller's "An American Clock," stuffed with three dozen popular ensemble members, including Joan Allen, John Malkovich and Laurie Metcalf. Artistic director Anna Shapiro says it was a low-tech production, created by geographically distanced actors recording with their iPhones.

ANNA SHAPIRO: It was fast. I mean, we're commissioning projects for the virtual platform and we started right away. I've never been in a more kind of fertile conversation about what's possible than I have during this process.

BARNETT: The ability to create new work on a dime and experiment with unusual techniques was a hallmark of the new regional theater movement of the 1960s, which was born out of a desire to move the country's theatrical spotlight away from New York. Not long after, the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities were created, providing federal dollars for cultural activities.

Today, that kind of government support has been drastically reduced. The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis was forced to slash its budget to stay afloat, says artistic director Joe Haj.

JOE HAJ: Prior to COVID, we had 262 total staff members; 207 have been laid off or their positions have been eliminated.

BARNETT: The Guthrie's nine-play season, set to launch this fall, was scaled back to three shows starting next March. Living and working in the city where George Floyd was killed, Haj says he's actively looking to commission a new work in response. But a fully scripted production can take time and money he may not have.

HAJ: Half of our season this year was thrown out that we had invested mightily in. So there are millions of dollars in deficit this year and more millions of dollars next year in projected deficit, assuming that we can prosecute this three-play campaign in spring and summer of 2021. So it's terrible, and it's brutal.

BARNETT: In Ohio, the pandemic's impact may permanently drop the curtain for some performing arts groups. A survey issued last month by Ohio Citizens for the Arts reported that 76% of respondents said they would close within 12 months without additional support.

The Cleveland Play House took a $2 million hit when it shut down production because of the pandemic. Artistic director Laura Kepley says her organization has turned to free online programming as a community service.

LAURA KEPLEY: People are getting theater classes and directing classes, but they're also - we are doing meditation classes. We're doing stress management classes. We're doing self-care during a pandemic. There's also a drumming class. You know, you just need to get it out.

BARNETT: Especially, she says, when you can't be in the same room with a bunch of strangers breathing the same invigorating theatrical air. For NPR News, I'm David C. Barnett in Cleveland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.