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Rebuilding a Better Theatre Industry Post-Pandemic

A Punch List

Live theatre by definition is not a socially distant act—large community gatherings are the very foundation of our art and our business. For artists who have invested in a career that is designed to bring people together, being told that we must stay away from each other for the good of the community is especially difficult.

Theatres of all sizes have been forced to keep their doors closed indefinitely, leaving a significant portion of their workforce cut off from their incomes. The theatre community has been left in critical condition. But as makers of art have become makers of masks, retooling their skill sets in other ways to meet the immediate needs, the affirmations that theatre and life will one day return to the way it was permeate media and private conversations. But should it go back?

I think we can do better. As a costume designer whose work and career have been put on hold, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I miss about working full-time... and what I don’t. While this current pandemic is certainly not a gift, the forced pause on our time provides a rare and amazing opportunity to take stock, inventory priorities, and enact positive and lasting change. It is time for the whispers of wage and labor equity to become shouts for transparency. For the tenuous plans of diversity and inclusion to become substantial actions. For the progressive steps toward environmental sustainability to become definitive actions.

two flyers taped to the inside of glass doors

Gordmans by Dan Keck

Cut Costs Strategically

Nobody is denying the need to reduce costs in an emergency situation. However, the pace of the current emergency is such that we can afford the time to be surgical in our economic decisions. Rather than making sacrifices in personnel, we now have the time to adopt forward-thinking strategies that will ensure future growth, sustainability, and success. Production and administration are areas in which change can be especially impactful.

  1. Identify inefficiencies in the production process.
    • Take a look at your theatre’s purchasing history over the last few seasons. Are there materials you commonly order on a per-show basis that can be purchased in bulk at the top of your season instead? Do different departments buy the same products for different uses? What are you throwing away that can be reused?
  2. Make it easier to use your existing resources.
    • Now is a great time to create that inventory spreadsheet you’ve always wanted. A clearly documented inventory of what you have versus what you need helps reduce duplicate purchases and invites your shops and designers to be creative with what is already available.
  3. Examine the scale and frequency of your productions.
    • How often are you filling your house during a long run? Is it cost effective to instead fill more seats with fewer productions? What is your environmental impact over the course of a longer run?
    • Is there a market in your area for scaled-down concerts, cabaret series, or staged readings of new work as opposed to multiple fully realized productions? Can some of these events share stage space with an existing set to utilize mainstage nights off?
  4. Explore alternative uses for existing facilities.
    • Some churches offset their overhead costs by renting out their auditoriums and/or community rooms—you can also rent your black box for small film screenings or as a community meeting space. Plus, hosting other events can introduce your company to new audience members without increasing advertising costs.

It is time for the whispers of wage and labor equity to become shouts for transparency. For the tenuous plans of diversity and inclusion to become substantial actions. For the progressive steps toward environmental sustainability to become definitive actions.

Go Green

The positive environmental impact of this forced pause is undeniable. Making small changes now can help improve the health of the planet and your business.

  1. Go digital.
    • Instead of trying to pry your audience away from their phones, embrace digital literacy as an answer to paper waste. Print a QR code on your poster that links to a digital program on your company’s website, which can be viewed in lieu of a printed program. The increased traffic to your website can also help you sell digital ad space.
  2. Ditch the bottled water.
    • Reduce plastic waste by installing water stations as opposed to selling water in single-use containers. Provide or invite your patrons to purchase reusable cups for water and other beverages. For large houses, hold a fundraiser for the purchase of a dishwasher and money to cover the cost of hook up. Invite patrons to participate so they can be prepared and be proud of the change.
  3. Incentivise ride-sharing and public transportation.
    • Tailor your show start times to the bus schedule. Offer premium or discount carpool parking spaces for patrons and employees.
  4. Utilize and maximize your stock.
    • Use that inventory spreadsheet to increase the use of your existing resources. Rather than throwing out a set, see if there are pieces that can be reused later in the season. Partner with other area theatres to share resources and storage.

Build a New Audience

It is inevitable that many of our older or immunocompromised patrons will be slower to return to large public gatherings. Help mitigate this loss and secure a more stable future by reaching out to new audience demographics.

  1. Help non-traditional audience members afford tickets.
    • Ask existing subscribers to donate their tickets to a new-audience fund or sponsor tickets for low-income community members. Offer incentives for this generosity in the form of preferred seating or free/discounted reusable beverage containers.
  2. Make it easier for parents to attend the theatre.
    • Offer child-friendly evenings with relaxed audience restrictions so that patrons don’t have to spend extra on babysitting. Explore the option of providing a play-care dropoff area with paid childcare professionals at select performances. Partner with popular restaurants and coffee shops to bundle ticket packages with dinner reservations—especially for those tricky Friday evenings.
  3. Attract younger audiences.
    • Hire and pay young and emerging designers and directors. Consider having a youth delegation on your season selection committee to engage with and fund the next generation’s interests.
a person at a sewing machine

A member of the design team uses an overlocker sewing machine to modify a garment in the costume room of a theatre. Photo by Alex Brenner, courtesy of The Theatre Stock Image Project

Invest Current Downtime in Long-Term Strategies for Growth

Theatres that think small stay small. Invest time now to explore the difference between building your business for growth and building it for survival.

  1. Involve your employees in the growth process.
    • Talk to your departments about what they need to succeed now and what they will need to move beyond the status quo in the future. Share your growth strategies with all of your employees. Being transparent about spending and saving priorities gives your workers a goal they can be part of and proud of.
  2. Get creative with alternative revenue options.
    • Plan for long-term emergencies and reduce reliance on government funding—staying in business or paying your employees a living wage should not rely on who is in office. Monetize your space through non-theatrical events, utilize your lobbies as a gallery space to sell local art for commission fees, offer behind-the-scenes audience-access packages, hold corporate improv classes for local businesses, offer door-to-door socially distanced monologues to homebound audience members. Diversifying revenue streams will help your organization to pivot efficiently when times are tough.
  3. Make a plan for attracting (and keeping) diverse top-tier talent.
    • Make it easy to work for you. Compensation is a large part of this, but so is taking the lives and needs of your employees seriously. Consider whether your tech schedule is impossible for single parents and if it really needs to be. Recognize that not all of your workers need the same things and commit to being flexible to get everyone’s goals met.
  4. Commit to transparency.
    • Employees want to know their work is valued and equitably compensated. Donors like to know exactly where their money is going. Make the information transparent. It is important that people know they are supporting an organization that takes all aspects of its operations seriously and treats their employees fairly.

Theatres that think small stay small. Invest time now to explore the difference between building your business for growth and building it for survival.

Invest in Your Commitment to the Community

The community you are building is just as much about your employees as it is your audience. If your employees have to ask themselves how they can afford to work with you, you’re not building a stable (or loyal) workforce.

  1. Recognize that diversity behind the scenes is just as important as diversity in leadership and on stage.
    • How are you encouraging diversity in your employment policies? Do all of the people in your organization feel safe and respected?
  2. Take a closer look at hiring practices and wage growth/equity among departments.
    • Are all entry-level production positions paid the same wage? Why or why not? Don’t make assumptions. Take the time to find out what each job in your organization requires in terms of time, skill, and education.
    • Can your employees expect their wages to keep up with inflation and the added value that their experience adds to their skill set?
    • If you’re a larger organization, are you helping your employees plan for and afford retirement?
    • Classifying workers as employees vs. independent contractors is about more than just who pays the taxes. If your employees aren’t eligible for state unemployment insurance, you need to pay them enough for them to be able to purchase private plans.
  3. Can you afford your internship program?
    • Is your internship program helping your business to grow? Are you training your future workforce effectively? Providing education through experience takes time and energy that your department heads may not have if the expectation is that these “students” will provide the bulk of the labor needed to get a production off the ground.
    • Can you afford the cost and lost productivity associated with legally employing interns? If not, gaining the reputation of having an internship program that offers no or low pay in exchange for negligible/questionable educational benefit is likely something you can afford even less.
a person controlling a theatre's light rail rope system

A theatre technician uses a lift line to fly a bar manually while observing the bar's position. Photo by Alex Brenner, courtesy of The Theatre Stock Image Project

It’s not easy to turn a ship on a dime, but that’s exactly what we’ve been watching theatremakers do during the COVID-19 crisis. Theatre professionals from all walks are using their skills to provide aid to their communities in increasingly brave and creative ways. Costume shops now make masks and surgical gowns. Scene shops are 3D-printing ventilator parts and PPE. There is even a theatrical fog company that is manufacturing hand sanitizer using the same ingredients that used to add atmosphere to Macbeth’s heath.

Theatremakers are showing us every day that they can pivot and make a difference. Now is the time for companies to pivot with them and create a better, stronger, and more equitable industry for them to return to.

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Thank you for this piece! Interesting, thought-provoking, bringing together a lot of questions and ideas that have been circulating lately...

I love this! Thank you so much.

Sharing it with my group The A & E Type, a group focused on ups and the downs of becoming artists and entrepreneurial types.