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Learning from the Pandemic to Build a Resilient US Theatre

What can theatre and the performing arts learn from the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, and how might those lessons help make the sector more resilient in the future? These are some of the key questions animating the recent Pandemic Preparedness Performing Arts research project, conducted by an international team of scholars and funded by the British Academy. It asks what worked, where, and why, in order to recommend new measures that might pave the way to long-term stability and resilience within the sector.

The pandemic was not a localized challenge but instead a global phenomenon, with different solutions attempted in different contexts. To take advantage of this “natural experiment,” a team of researchers from the United States of America, United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, France, Italy, and Japan worked together between April 2023 and January 2024 to examine responses to COVID-19 in their countries. The resulting comparative and transnational perspective, focused on the nonprofit theatre sector, affords unique insights into the relative successes and failures of different responses to the pandemic, whether in funding, support, or organizational models.

Each country faced its own set of challenges and responded in distinctive ways, affording opportunities to learn from each other. The overall study aims to support the nonprofit theatre’s preparedness for future crises—pandemics, climate-related disasters, demographic changes, economic pressures or the impacts on the live performing arts of national and international politics. While the challenges and solutions in each national context are different, the transnational study offers some sense of the possibilities. It also starkly reveals how different the starting points were for each country, based on how much public support culture had been receiving (perhaps unsurprisingly, Germany and France shine here), and whether the precarity of theatre workers had been contemplated in designing an unemployment safety net (again, France offered an extraordinary model for how this might work).

A theatre marquis reading The World is Temporarily Closed.

Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash.

For the United States, my research assistant Rhonda Sharrah and I reviewed the available studies and held subsequent interviews with stakeholders across the country, with a particular focus on California and New York City. Given relatively little formal research on the sector in the United States, we collected available studies from government agencies and service organizations, as well as from SMU’s DataArts program. Much of the data available during our research window covered 2021 and 2022, with less information thus far on how theatremakers are faring since the end of the public health emergency and the exceptional government support afforded during that period. We also had two lived-experience panelists—Jesse Berger of Red Bull Theater in New York and Jon Rivera of Playwrights’ Arena in Los Angeles, as we wanted to hear directly from practitioners on their experience of this period. All of the resulting information went into the report, “For a Resilient US Theater, Post-Pandemic.”

While the general study was very focused on the pandemic and its aftermath, as we began our work on the United States we found there were many long-term trends to consider. The state of theatre in the United States post-COVID is not just a factor of COVID, but of much longer histories. Consequently, much of what we recommend as possible solutions builds and expands on existing work, which we hope to uplift and make visible.

So, what did we find? In short, an incredibly rich and varied landscape, with relatively few spaces for sharing knowledge about it: companies thinking about their place in a local ecosystem in exciting ways—not just their relation to a community, which many theatres foreground, but to an ecosystem of artists and arts organizations; organizations like Detroit Public Theatre, or Cannonball Festival in Philadelphia, sharing space and expertise, offering alternatives to the purely transactional, imagining creative ways to make resources go further; companies striving to address the urgent calls for racial and social justice that, with the murder of George Floyd and the We See You, White American Theater manifesto, were also a key part of the pandemic moment; service organizations making powerful arguments for the arts; and funders who had bent over backwards to address the challenges of the pandemic. We found ourselves wishing that there were more ways for the field to find out about all of these and learn from them, through more arts journalism, more research, and more thinking as a sector.

We found that the pandemic was both a unique cataclysm and that it exacerbated long-term challenges and trends, including, crucially, an erosion of the subscription system that was decades in the making, and an increasing shortfall between ticket income and expenses. Although companies have been trying all kinds of creative ways to address this shortfall, with a “sea-change” in the frequency of co-productions and slighter production schedules, fewer productions is fewer productions, meaning less work for theatremakers and a reduced experience of the arts for audiences.

We also found widespread support in the sector for improved conditions (higher salaries, reduced rehearsal time, fewer performances per week, supporting a “burnt-out” workforce, full-time employment instead of gig work), yet a simultaneous recognition that this has hugely increased costs for companies. Rising labor costs are now a primary challenge for companies, who nonetheless want to do right by their people.

Participants of the For a Resilient US Theater, Post-Pandemic seminar.

Barbara Fuchs speaks at the For a Resilient US Theater, Post-Pandemic seminar on HowlRound.

Although the pandemic remains perhaps the most significant challenge to the sector in the history of US theatre, we found that it presented a remarkable opportunity, in that lobbying worked. As the federal government began rolling out programs to address the acute economic crisis, theatres grappled with the complexities of applying for support imagined primarily for businesses. The Performing Arts Alliance (a coalition of performing arts advocates) worked tirelessly to ensure that nonprofits could apply for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans offered by the Small Business Administration (SBA)—loans that would be forgiven if organizations could prove that they had been used on payroll costs. The most important legislation to prop up the sector was the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, operated by the SBA, which offered an unprecedented $16 billion, but focused on businesses rather than artists. Crucially, securing the extension of this urgent legislation to the nonprofit sector and its eventual passage required leaders to come together and pursue specific lobbying. This raises the question of whether, after the decades-long retreat in the aftermath of the culture wars of the nineties, theatre and the arts more broadly can now effectively make an argument for government support, in the wake of the pandemic.

We found that the challenges of the theatre sector in the United States are those of the society more generally: individualism and a dearth of collective endeavor; precarization of workers; decreased investment in the commons; political polarization; social isolation.

In short, we found that the challenges of the theatre sector in the United States are those of the society more generally: individualism and a dearth of collective endeavor; precarization of workers; decreased investment in the commons; political polarization; social isolation. We thus find it ever more urgent and important for the sector to think and operate as a sector, in a shared ecosystem. But this is no easy matter, given how varied that ecosystem is across an enormous national landscape.

We also see an opportunity now to make the case for theatre in relation to other post-pandemic revitalization efforts, including movements for social and racial justice, mental health, and the revitalization of urban cores. In fact, federal, state, and local arts service organizations are already making those arguments. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is actively developing promising partnerships with other government agencies, including Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency. There have even been calls for reconceptualizing culture as infrastructure in order better to support it. A key question, then, is how these various efforts might be aggregated or multiplied for greater effectiveness.

Two key recommendations involve thinking strategically about multiplier effects:

Perhaps most urgent for companies is advocacy: it is key to build coalitions and common messaging to advocate for sustained investments from public and private resources. To expand advocacy and lobbying efforts at all levels, organizations should educate themselves about what activities are permitted to them, instead of assuming that they are not allowed to advocate for themselves. The sector’s unprecedented success in securing government support to weather the pandemic showed the importance of this work; now is the moment to embark on more energetic advocacy and lobbying at the federal, state, and local level.

Funders can also help build the ecosystem. Instead of just funding individual artists and companies, they can help the sector function as a sector by bringing people to the table; helping develop models for public/private partnerships; and funding the “multipliers”: research, service organizations, arts journalism. As conveners, enablers of new thinking, and powerful advocates for theatre, funders are poised to make an enormous difference in the resilience of theatre.

Two linked recommendations may be surprising to theatremakers and those who support their work—they were certainly among the most surprising for us in our research. We find that they are critical for thinking about resilience, for companies as well as for the funders and supporters who could help enable shared solutions:

Theatres must face up to the fact that the climate crisis is here, and impacting their work. 

First, climate resilience: 
We found that most of the thinking to date has been about how theatre can help advocate for climate action, or how companies’ operations might be made more sustainable. Instead, we suggest, theatres must face up to the fact that the climate crisis is here, and impacting their work. Already in this moment we need adaptation as well as advocacy.

Consider how quickly conditions are deteriorating: in summer 2022,  Michael Paulson wrote in the New York Times about raging wildfires in California impeding the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and how climate change was impacting the beloved tradition of summer outdoor performance. By summer 2023, he was writing about how smoke from massive wildfires in Canada had forced Broadway theatres in New York City, some four-hundred miles away, to cancel performances. The saving grace was that some of those theatres had installed air filtration systems during COVID that were making it possible, barely, for the show to go on—assuming patrons were willing to brave the air outside to get there.

In the past year, floods have forced cancellations in Los Angeles, California; New York; Vermont—the list is likely much longer. Unfortunately, companies can rarely call on alternate forms of delivery to salvage the performances.

Our strong recommendation is that theatres confront the fact that the climate catastrophe will lead to canceled performances and other disruptions to business as usual. Companies need to build climate resilience and decarbonization into their current organizational models and future goals. The time to prepare is now, whether by making contingency plans or purchasing a generator. 

Preparation also involves recognizing what we learned from the pandemic: digital platforms and other forms of outreach offer a crucial lifeline, one that would allow theatres to switch modes rather than entirely cancel performances. In addition to enabling performances in the event of a new health emergency, streaming theatre can also preserve vital access to culture and protect companies’ livelihoods amid the climate catastrophe.

This leads directly to our recommendations regarding digital platforms. In 2021, increasing audience accessibility was identified as one of the key ways to reimagine the industry in a survey of theatre’s essential workers. Yet despite frequent claims during the pandemic that the accessibility of digital theatre was a crucial advance, “Zoom fatigue” now rules the day, and most theatremakers emphasize their desire to be back in a room with audiences. There is very little streaming of existing productions now, much less continued experimentation in the digital space. Though unions have worked out limited agreements, at least for the League of Resident Theatres (LORT), other obstacles remain, including worries about diluting the impact of in-person productions.

Yet a commitment to streaming in “normal” times would help build relationships with audiences and access to underserved communities, while developing and maintaining a robust alternative to in-person performance for the next crisis. It would also address ongoing calls to preserve access while caring for those who still face a significant threat from COVID. We see a role here for the NEA, as a federal agency, or for other funders, to work on issues of access, whether geographic or for the disabled. To reiterate, digital delivery systems are a key part of building resilience, not just in the face of another health emergency, but of climate catastrophe and other unknowns.

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