It’s August and Cabaret should be wrapping its summer run at the Guthrie. The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra should be practicing for September performances of Beethoven’s 7th at the Ordway. First Ave’s Mainroom should be welcoming major acts like Ty Segall.
All of those shows, of course, are cancelled or on hold. In real-life 2020, only maintenance and security crews and a handful of executives walk the eerily quiet halls and auditoriums at Twin Cities stages from the Ordway to the Jungle, a single ghost light left flickering on each stage to signal that, someday, there will be a next performance.
These months of closed doors, thanks to COVID-19, have wrought financial devastation and raised questions about future viability. Most nonprofit theaters operate on thin margins in the best of times, and theaters and music venues took instant financial hits when they closed their curtains: Ticket sales can account for a third of a large theater’s revenue.
Still, that doesn’t necessarily spell certain doom. There are so many factors at play, unique to every situation, that it’s impossible to predict which venues will survive, says Ruby Lopez Harper, senior director of local arts advancement for Americans for the Arts. Whether venues can hold on financially depends on a number of factors, including how much government aid they get, the generosity of patrons, the flexibility of landlords, whether they produce their own content, and whether they have a permanent space, Lopez Harper says.
“It really hinges on how an organization went into the experience,” Lopez Harper says. “But the field wasn’t designed for this onslaught. The arts already have thin margins, and the foundational experience is in person. There was no business model that accounted for extended closure. You can probably weather a delayed opening for a flooded basement, but nobody anticipated being closed an entire season without planning.”
Broadway says its theaters will stay dark until at least 2021. Most theaters in Minnesota are also looking for a 2021 reopening, though state mandates and the Actors’ Equity Association and other stage crew unions will play a large role in determining that date.
But most local theaters and music venues are vowing to raise the curtains again, even though they don’t know exactly when that will be. And in the meantime, they’re determined to help the Twin Cities navigate this moment in time after George Floyd’s murder.
“There’s a really strong feeling of, What do we do in response to this moment when Minneapolis is mapped onto the global stage, and how can we respond as artists?” says Sonja Arsham Kuftinec, a professor in the Department of Theatre Arts & Dance at the University of Minnesota. “It doesn’t speak to the issue of sustainability, but the arts and artists are feeling the necessity of responding and finding the way to revamp the medium to speak to the moment, which is what theater needs to do. There’s a way we can respond with nimbleness, where you don’t need a three-year-long development process and a half-million-dollar NEA grant. We can be resilient in terms of how we respond through our craft.”
On March 12, the Jungle Theater in Uptown Minneapolis staged its preview performance of Redwood, a “gorgeous new play by an African American playwright with an all-local cast,” says managing director Robin Gillette. On March 13, instead of staging the press preview, Gillette called the cast together to tell them the show wouldn’t go on.
“Artistically it was frustrating because we had put weeks of work into rehearsals and set designs and it was ready to go—but from a finance standpoint, it was also heartbreaking,” Gillette says. “When you make a play, so many expenses are front-loaded,” she said, including paying designers and union carpenters and directors, buying costumes, and printing programs. “And then you have this beautiful moment when you open the show and all the ticket money comes in.”
Instead of celebrating opening night, the Jungle was figuring out how to refund single and season tickets—after having spent all the upfront money on Redwood and other spring shows.
The Ordway was counting on strong sales for a string of popular spring shows, including Sting starring in The Last Ship, when it shut down just before The Color Purple’s scheduled opening. That meant there was “no revenue to cover the majority of our marketing spend and deposits,” says Chris Sagstetter, the Ordway’s interim president.
Like many local theaters, the Jungle and the Ordway ended up offering options to ticket holders, including donating the value, exchanging the tickets, or requesting a refund. The number of patrons choosing option one surprised and buoyed theater execs.
“The expenses don’t change, and we already have extremely narrow profit margins. You can’t take away 75 percent of revenue—we would lose more money than by not opening.”
Nate Kranz, First Ave GM
“That was fantastic,” says Gillette. “And it made us feel good about our audience’s loyalty and that they trusted us, that they have faith that whatever we do is going to be something else they want to see.”
The Guthrie received over $460,000 in ticket sale donations, an amount that was “heartening” for both the theater’s finances and morale, according to managing director James Haskins.
Many large nonprofit venues rely loosely on 60 percent of income from earned revenue, 30 percent from donations, and 10 percent from government funding, Lopez Harper says. Some smaller companies rely more heavily on earned revenue.
While some expenses could be pared down—the Guthrie reduced staff by 79 percent, the Ordway by 90 percent—closing the curtains doesn’t shut down all expenses. Maintaining the Ordway building without shows costs well over $100,000 per month. Mid- and smaller-sized theaters and music venues may be on the hook for rent.
And opening at quarter or half capacity is not financially or artistically feasible for most. Take the Guthrie’s Wurtele Thrust stage: A heat map drawn up by the production director shows that the 1,100-seat theater could fit just over 300 socially distanced people.
“That’s not economically or practically viable,” Haskins says. “It would be very challenging to produce theater at the Guthrie in any kind of physically distanced model.”
At the Jungle, a limit of 25 percent capacity and social distancing guidelines would mean an audience of 26 people.
It looks even worse in live music venues: Imagine a concert at First Ave with a cap of 250 people—not even a sixth of its capacity, and still no obvious way to maintain social distance.
“You have all the same number of security checkpoints, et cetera, plus increased costs in supplies and janitorial,” says First Ave general manager Nate Kranz. “The expenses don’t change, and we already have extremely narrow profit margins. You can’t take away 75 percent of revenue—we would lose more money than by not opening.”
Will Aid Be Enough?
“Unfortunately, in this situation for our business, it’s about as dire as it gets,” Kranz says. “We’re not able to do what we do. It’s not great for anybody to have reduced capacity, but in the world of concerts, there’s no room for that. Our margins are so miniscule even at full capacity—and what we do, you can’t really do socially distant. There’s no money in livestreaming and we can’t sell enough T-shirts to get through this.”
The future, he says, “largely depends on government help….We need immediate and ongoing help just to keep paying the bills.”
But grants that many venues count on, such as those from the Minnesota State Arts Board, may be less well-funded going forward since Minnesota’s Legacy funding supporting arts will decrease with a decrease in its sales tax base. And the Paycheck Protection Program loans that helped many venues get through the first months are ending.
“Everything is contributing to making the pool of money available to support the arts diminish,” Kuftinec says.
About 90 percent of independent live music and entertainment venue owners, promoters, and bookers said in June that they were at risk of closing without additional financial assistance, according to the National Independent Venue Association.
That led First Ave owner Dayna Frank to lead a group of independent music venues for a Save Our Stages Act, which U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and John Cornyn (R-TX) introduced to Congress in July. The bill would provide six-month grants to small entertainment venues that could be used for most expenses, including payroll, rent, mortgages, PPE, and retrofitting spaces to accommodate social distancing.
“I don’t want to lose music in America,” Klobuchar told Rolling Stone.
Icehouse, the restaurant and live music venue on Nicollet Ave., can’t currently pack attendees indoors for shows—though 65 fans can take in jazz on Monday nights in the socially distanced courtyard. It’s a silver lining, owner Brian Liebeck says, to offer live music that “recaptures a little of the magic.”
The only problem?
“It’s a net gain of zero financially,” Liebeck says. “We’re bringing in some, but overall it’s not offsetting other costs.”
Under the current setup, he says, which includes flexibility from the landlord and the city, Icehouse can get through another three or four months.
Midsize theaters are in a similar spot. Gillette says the Jungle can’t be sustained much into 2021 without shows.
Some large theaters have advantages like deep-pocketed board members willing to help out. The Ordway and the Guthrie report generous nets from fundraising events that shifted online: With lower-than-usual costs and sponsors that allowed the organization to keep 100 percent of donations, the Ordway’s Virtual Spring Fête was its most successful ever.
“I don’t think that’s a long-term strategy; people understood our short-term need,” Sagstetter says. “But it means they want us here. The venue is one of the most coveted venues in Minnesota. We’re not obsolete; we’re not the Metrodome. We have to stand ready.”
For the Guthrie, it’s difficult to estimate how much shutting down will impact the organization for the next several years, a spokesperson said. But next year’s budget is now less than half of the nearly $31 million budget that was originally passed by its board in March.
“At a certain point, you look at the magnitude of the impact, and the reality is there is no amount of money that is going to make the field whole,” Lopez Harper says. “At a certain point, a group won’t make it to the other side.”
What keeps theater execs up at night goes beyond their own organizations’ financial well-being.
“What we’re most worried about is intangibles—the actors, designers, directors, and technicians who may have to leave the industry because their work dried up in an instant,” Gillette says. “Those people are the lifeblood of our work, and the pandemic is doing serious damage to both existing theater professionals and the next generation.”
Actors and directors may be struggling in more ways than just financially.
“If you’re an athlete, you need to keep running, and if you’re an artist, you need to keep sharpening your craft,” Kuftinec says.
As most industries have found ways to pivot with COVID-19, music and theater have shifted in some of the most creative ways: Just in Minnesota, there are drive-up boat concerts on lakes; small, socially distant outdoor concerts; opera on the river. At the end of August, the Jungle Theater’s windows will transform into a multimedia art installation for its new Shine a Light festival. In a survey by Americans for the Arts, 77 percent of performing arts organizations in Minnesota said they were offering some form of artistic content during COVID-19. Many responded to George Floyd’s death. New Dawn Theatre Company, for instance, presented free outdoor screenings of A Breath for George, a collection of songs, interviews, and poems by local artists.
“Arts are a way for us to talk about and confront and raise really important questions in our life,” Mark Nerenhausen, president and CEO of Hennepin Theatre Trust, says. “What does it mean when friends and neighbors fall ill? When George Floyd is murdered? Systemic racism, what does that mean emotionally as a community?”
And people need art in person; livestreaming doesn’t seem to fill the gap. Even when performers have partnered with First Ave to sell tickets to livestream concerts from home studios, with the artist and venue sharing the proceeds, First Ave has brought in 1–2 percent of what an in-person concert would, Kranz says. And the relative unpopularity of livestreamed events points to the collective realization of how much social gathering matters to the arts, Nerenhausen says.
“We talk glibly about how the arts are a shared experience, and now we’re realizing that really does matter!” Nerenhausen says. “There’s a shared feeling, and you need to come together for that.”
The Future May Look Different
The Twin Cities is known as an arts destination, Nerenhausen points out.
“The arts are something that define us to other people as a community,” he says. “That is who we are. It’s not just a business.”
In an uncertain future, one thing seems certain: Someday, stage lights will shine on Minnesota’s arts scene as ghost lights go dim. (Already, 56 percent of Minnesota’s performing arts organizations say they are confident they will survive the crisis.) And the audience will go wild.
But that may look different than 2019.
“When I do allow myself to be hopeful, I think it will be exciting to see how organizations will apply creativity to think of themselves anew, with emphasis on equity and racial justice, in a new, imagined organization,” Lopez Harper says. “This moment is going to change everything about the way we’re going to experience art.”
In short, Nerenhausen says?
Whenever the next season is, it’s going to be absolutely incredible.
This article originally appeared in the September 2020 issue.