2020 | News

Pandemic pummels local arts institutions

Community theaters struggle to stay afloat

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Silver Spring Stage's theater has been closed during the pandemic.

Photo by Matt McDonald

The coronavirus pandemic is wreaking havoc on arts organizations of every size in Montgomery County.

Venues and classrooms have been shuttered for the foreseeable future. Arts organizations are struggling to make up a fraction of lost income. Institutions are furloughing or laying off artists and production teams.

Montgomery County arts leaders said the current outbreak is a dire threat to an industry that ties the community together. Without help, many creative organizations — especially smaller ones — might not survive.

‘Everyone’s drowning’

Suzan Jenkins is the CEO of the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County, a nonprofit organization with which Montgomery County has partnered to administer county funding through grants. It also provides technical assistance and professional development to hundreds of county arts and humanities organizations and thousands of individual artists and scholars.

Jenkins said the pandemic has inflicted “vast and deep financial woes” on the industry.

“We’re expecting losses in our sector [nationally] to be about $5 billion — that’s with a ‘B’ — and Montgomery County mirrors that,” Jenkins said.

A survey of county arts organizations conducted by the Arts and Humanities Council in March found that respondents were bleeding money fast. A 90-day projection — including revenue loss, expenses and rising debt — put COVID-19’s impact at more than $15 million by mid-June.

All of the organizations that responded to the survey reported having “cancelled, suspended, or delayed” their contracts with “independent artists, scholars, and educators” they could no longer afford to employ. That amounted to 712 contracts affected early in the pandemic.

“The devastation will continue — even after phase one, two and three [of the county’s reopening] — because the reality is that we are a sector that relies heavily on interpersonal connection and communication,” Jenkins said.

She said larger area institutions will likely find it easier to survive the crisis since smaller organizations tend to have less robust funding streams and little money to spare.

But large arts institutions are suffering, too, she said. Many have furloughed a large percentage of their staff. The devastation has touched everyone, she said: “all organizations, all artists, all scholars.”

“If someone’s drowning, the person next to them isn’t drowning more or less. Everyone’s drowning,” Jenkins said.

An ‘existential threat’ to a small theater

Silver Spring Stage is an all-volunteer theater tucked into a shopping center between a Bank of America and a Chipotle Mexican Grill.

The theater has become known for its renditions of contemporary plays since its founding in 1967. It has garnered numerous awards and nominations while running under the tagline “Little Theatre. Big Ideas.”

In February, Silver Spring Stage hosted its second play of 2020 — a production of Topher Payne’s “Perfect Arrangement,” a comedy set during the U.S. government’s McCarthy-era purge of gay employees from its ranks in what came to be known as the “Lavender Scare.”

Then the viral outbreak hit. On March 13, Silver Spring Stage canceled its final two performances of the play. The theater has been closed since.

Bill Hurlbut, who recently became chair of the theater’s board, was blunt about the danger the pandemic posed. “It’s an existential threat. There’s no nice way to put that,” he said.

The theater normally operates year-round, with seven productions every season, plus a summertime festival of original one-act plays and a Christmas show. The three plays scheduled to take place after “Perfect Arrangement” have been canceled or indefinitely postponed due to the pandemic.

Bill Hurlbut is chairman of its board at Silver Spring Stage. The theater has been closed during the pandemic. (Photo by Matt McDonald)

Without shows, the theater’s ticket revenue has evaporated while expenses add up. Silver Spring Stage has rented and occupied its theater for decades. Now the space sits empty, costing the theater $8,000 a month, including maintenance costs, Hurlbut said.

He said there are several ways the theater could make money during the pandemic. Simply livestreaming a production of a play and asking for donations probably would not work, because it’s unlikely to cover the licensing fees.

Silver Spring Stage, like some other community theaters, is exploring how it could get around that issue by charging admission for performances that would be viewed online, Hurlbut said. But figuring out a way to sell tickets is difficult, and so is convincing people to watch a play on a screen.

“If you’re putting a price on it, you have to make it worth buying. And a lot of the things that people are doing are, frankly, not worth buying,” he said.

The theater’s board has been meeting weekly trying to figure out how to “stay alive,” Hurlbut said.

Silver Spring Stage is looking at drastic cost-cutting measures — including giving up on its longtime home on Colesville Road. But, he added, it isn’t clear that the theater could find a cheaper location somewhere else.

And he worried that that if the theater remains inactive and unseen for too long, its lifeblood — volunteers who dedicate their time and a community that supports their work — might slowly drain away.

“If we lose the physical location, it’s conceivable that if we can’t come back in some way, in some shape within, say, 18 months, Silver Spring Stage will effectively be dead,” Hurlbut said.

He said that the theater has a lot going for it, including dedicated followers and a group of people who like to make art together.

“Silver Spring Stage, I think, will continue to exist,” Hurlbut said. “Those communities are people that we need to bring along with us in whatever form we find ourselves in after we can find a way through this mess.”

A ripple effect from large institutions

Some larger arts institutions in the area, with annual revenue measured in the millions instead of thousands, are in a better shape, but far from unscathed.

These organizations employ the people who create the region’s music, art and theater, and provide arts education to thousands of Montgomery students. Because of this, the outbreak’s impact here is far-reaching.

After Round House Theatre in Bethesda closed, it paid its actors and other for two more weeks, then laid them off, said Ryan Rilette, the artistic director. He said Round House will likely need to furlough the production staff — such as employees who build sets and hang lights — as the fall approaches.

Imagination Stage, a performing arts theater in Bethesda with a focus on educating young people, closed in mid-March and canceled all of its in-person shows and programs. At the end of May, the organization announced on its website that the closure would be extended indefinitely.

In an emailed response to questions, Bonnie Fogel, Imagination Stage’s founder and executive director, estimated that by the end of this theatrical season — from Fall 2019 to Summer 2020 — Imagination Stage will have taken in about $1.43 million from sources like ticket revenue and summer camps, compared to $2.57 million for the prior season.

Those losses drove the organization to furlough 65% of its staff in March. Some were brought back temporarily with the help of a $662,951 loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Payment Protection Program, which can be forgiven if it is used in adherence with government guidelines.

That loan money will run out by the first or second week of August, Fogel wrote, and the theater is employing significantly fewer people than it did last year — about 43 full-time employees now, compared to 63 in fiscal year 2019.

The Lerner Family Theatre at Imagination Stage in Bethesda. A production of “Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Rock Experience” was scheduled to run at the theater through Aug. 9, but it had to be canceled. (Photo from Imagination Stage)

Fogel said in an interview that Imagination Stage recently made the call to go non-equity, meaning the theater will no longer hire actors represented by a labor union. The change will last through at least next year but perhaps longer — into “the foreseeable future,” she said.

Actors unions negotiate agreements with theaters, ensuring those organizations provide performers with a minimum salary and benefits like contributions to a retirement account, according to the website of the Actors’ Equity Association, a union that represents more than 50,000 theatrical actors and stage managers in the U.S.

Asked if the decision to go non-equity might affect the stability of the arts industry in the long term, Fogel said the decision was necessary “to protect the organization, so that it can survive to continue to serve the community.”

“This is a huge, huge decision for a professional theater,” she said. “These are professional actors whose entire career is given over to acting as opposed to someone who does it perhaps on the side, and they are governed by union rules and regulations.”

“It’s one of the largest expenses,” she added. “We can’t justify paying equity actors when we can’t pay our own staff.”

Even with those cost-cutting measures, Fogel said Imagination Stage and organizations like it are months away from having to freeze their operations until they can start up again — whenever that might be.

“You can’t exist without earned income and we have had none for the last three months,” Fogel said. “Some [arts organizations] are better resourced, have better capital capitalization than others, but we’re all in the same boat.”

From the start of the outbreak, the coronavirus has thrown organizations that offer educational programming into chaos as they have attempted to determine what translates well enough online and what does not.

Imagination Stage canceled after-school programs and summer camps for kids and young adults in subjects like acting, dance and filmmaking. It now offers some of its classes digitally.

A production based on the classic fairy tale “The Snow Queen” is in the works. Fogel said it will hopefully be ready later this year for schools whose students would normally attend an in-person show in the fall or winter.

Strathmore in North Bethesda also offers arts education for students, on top of its broader offerings such as art exhibitions and performances by the National Philharmonic orchestra.

The organization normally produces free concerts for thousands of Montgomery students and offers summer camps and professional music instruction — in some cases tuition-free, as well.

One such program is East County Strings, an after-school program that provides middle school students in eastern Montgomery County with string instrument coaching from professional musicians.

Strathmore President and CEO Monica Hazangeles said the multidisciplinary arts organization contacted Montgomery County Public Schools to determine what teachers in the arts needed for their classes to function online.

“They were really specific and helpful in guiding us to put together an online library of instructional guides and videos of performances by our artists in residence and small education sessions,” she said.

In addition, Strathmore recently launched five online classes for MCPS students through its online catalog, spokeswoman Amy Killion wrote in an email. A virtual version of its Strathmore Student Concerts, normally attended by thousands of second- and fifth-grade students in person, is in the works, she said.

Killion wrote that Strathmore is talking to schools and other partners on how to offer programs like East County Strings in the future.

While the organization is navigating how best to serve students, Strathmore, too, has taken a massive hit to its revenue.

Strathmore’s three venues that host productions and events have been closed since mid-March, resulting in 130 events being canceled or postponed, Killion wrote.

“We don’t yet have a clear picture of when we’ll be fully operational again,” Hazangeles said. “As you can imagine, with such a full and varied menu — we’re pretty complex and it’s a bit of a puzzle.”

Without money from its operating its venues, fiscal year revenue at the arts organization had declined more than 35% as of late July, she wrote.

Strathmore recently reduced its workforce by about a third. The organization furloughed all its production staff and employees who work with customers at the beginning of the pandemic.

The path ahead

Jenkins, with the Arts and Humanities Council, is sure organizations can adjust to the radically changed landscape. The sudden impact of the pandemic made adapting difficult, she said.

She said there are alternative revenue sources in crowdfunding platforms like Patreon. There are even creative ways to resurrect live presentations, for example with drive-in performances, just like someone would go to a drive-in movie.

Direct financial assistance is on its way from the county.

The County Council has approved a $3.25 million Arts COVID-19 Relief Fund for struggling arts and humanities organizations and individual creative professionals. The fund is expected to launch this month, according to a press release by the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County.

Hurlbut, the board chair of Silver Spring Stage, is worried that only arts organizations with employees will qualify for the grant — and not community theaters, like his, that rely solely on volunteers.

“We kind of don’t fit that model, so it’s been very difficult for us to find [grants],” he said.

A spokeswoman for the county Arts and Humanities Council did not have an answer on whether all-volunteer arts organizations would qualify for the relief funds.

“County grants staff [were] available from July 17 to 31 for one-to-one Zoom meetings to hear about the specific needs, concerns and experiences of residents and organizations. Guidelines for access to this funding will be released in early August,” Brittney Dubose, marketing and communications manager, wrote in an email.

Silver Spring Stage was one of 14 all-volunteer theaters in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area that participated in a two-day telethon-style fundraiser called “Community Theatre Thrives.” The fundraiser was started by the Virginia-based Reston Community Players.

As of July 19, the theaters had raised nearly $24,000, a representative for the Reston theater wrote in an email. The money raised will be split evenly among each of the 14 participants.

Rilette, the artistic director at Round House, warned that arts organizations have a “long and difficult slog” ahead of them.

“If you think the arts should be a part of your community, don’t forget about us,” he said.