the business of theater

“There Is No ‘Surplus’ in Nonprofit”: How Off Broadway Is Coping With Closure

NYTW is digging deep and continuing to pay its staff, but it’s not going to be easy. Photo: D Dipasupil/Getty Images

When Governor Cuomo’s office announced that Broadway would shut down on Thursday, March 12, in the face of COVID-19, the emails started to come in. Uptown, the state had made the call. But downtown, that decision had to happen artistic director by artistic director — tiny spaces, seating sometimes as few as 40 people, choosing to close. There are a handful still open, some to finish a run or get in one last show, and at Radio City Music Hall, Riverdance still stomped last night. (So did Stomp, 26 years into its run at the Orpheum.) But the dominoes were falling all over the city yesterday — shows, seasons, festivals, rehearsals, auditions, designer meetings, rental business, the works.

The decisions radiate out from the moment of closure. Many Off Broadway theaters that can afford to do so are paying to the end of the existing contracts for shows that are closing. They include New York Theatre Workshop, Ars Nova, the Transport Group, the Vineyard Theater, Clubbed Thumb, and the Public Theater. Jeremy Blocker, the managing director of New York Theatre Workshop, says that he found the breadth of that commitment a bright spot in a day of rolling catastrophe. He’s on an email list that includes managing directors of many New York theaters (artistic directors have one, too), and on Thursday — when people started to cancel productions en masse — that list was boiling.

The theater leaders shared knowledge, resources and even language for the cancellations to come, and those who could stand the financial hit talked about how to continue paying workers. Quite a few, of course, can’t. “All of us are struggling to zero,” Blocker said. “There is no ‘surplus’ in nonprofit.” But, he adds, “I was really moved by the companies that didn’t even question it. The artists, the actors, the stage managers, our front-of-house crew — these are the people who live closest to the poverty line, so suddenly finding yourself out of work …” Blocker paused to collect himself. “We’re going to have to find a way to support all the freelancers, from top to bottom.”

What’s going to happen? What can happen? What everyone thinks of first — insurance! — is not the answer. According to the broker Bob Middleton of the Arts Insurance Program, only Broadway shows are likely to have policies that will kick in at all, and even those that do pay will probably take a while to come through. (Middleton referred to an arts venue in Houston that suffered major physical damage during Hurricane Harvey and waited six months for its $6 million settlement.) Middleton is absolutely positive that everyone off the Main Stem will have to struggle through without insurance relief. Even setting aside that downtown’s closures were voluntary, he says, business disruption policies typically insist on some physical damage to a venue, and most New York policies held by smaller theaters specifically exclude viral and bacterial events. Of course every venue has its own insurer, but for most, he holds out no hope. “If you’re looking for enlightenment in the insurance industry,” he said, “you’re fooling yourself.”

Off Broadway and Off–Off Broadway companies are not just operating without an insurance backstop — they’re operating close to the brink all the time. Some don’t have cash reserves and all are looking at the market plunge with a frightened eye. Yet they’re also often tied deeply into their community in a way commercial productions are not, and they’re nimbler, small enough that their seasons can adjust. Blocker, at NYTW, grieves for the show Endlings now that it’s been closed, it won’t return, since there are other shows following it in the schedule. One advantage of places like La MaMa or JACK that don’t usually produce in the summertime is that they can do so this year, pushing postponed programming into June and July. Littleness can be a kind of protection; a field mouse can survive a prairie fire.

According to Alec Duffy and Jordana De La Cruz, artistic directors at JACK, they’re already in contact with the congressmen in their district, asking that the legislature keep nonprofit arts in mind for relief and bailouts. Duffy and De La Cruz have spent seven years building those relationships, and you can hear their certainty that their neighborhood knows and values them. In fact, says Duffy, “We’re thinking about offering space for parents to drop off their kids. Though, is that contributing to the problem? Is that another vector?” As he and De La Cruz mull the way forward, they’ve both been impressed with A.R.T./New York, the artists’ services organization, which has been providing daily updates and resources about facing uncertainty, like how to get on the email distribution list for city funding and small businesses.

Theater companies themselves are discovering that they might also already have resources that they can share. Mia Yoo, artistic director of La MaMa, is still reeling, since as recently as Thursday morning she thought she’d be able to keep her small-capacity downstairs space open. She wasn’t, and she’s pivoting to thinking about the ways she can help. In fact, a show in her space is going on — but virtually. In 2009, La MaMa and the Seoul Institute of Arts in Korea dreamed up CultureHub, an art-and-technology services organization, which works on livestreaming, telepresence, and digital performance. Conveniently, they’re in the middle of their annual festival Re-Fest, which has now moved online to HowlRound. According to Yoo, those 11 years of thinking through these issues have also put them in a position to possibly offer aid.

“We’re working with CultureHub,” she said, “And we’re wondering, is there a way we can create a network space where we can explore online engagement? I talked to Linda [Chapman] at New York Theater Workshop — maybe CultureHub could be a resource not just for La MaMa but for other arts organizations in the neighborhood?” They already have a broadcast studio; the theater has been experimenting with ways to link audiences in remote locations; they have the equipment and the people with the expertise. Yoo has already got dreams of play readings on the network, and as we spoke, her wheels were spinning faster and faster.

Maria Striar of Clubbed Thumb closed her production of Tumacho ten performances before the end of its run, the period when many small shows make a lot of their money. (If you want to support them, you can go give the amount of money you would have spent on a ticket and then, say, eat a cookie instead.) She also had to postpone till September the Thumb’s spring gala, the benefit when many nonprofits pull in a good chunk of their annual budget. But Striar sounds calm, and the foundation of her company is healthy. She seems measured about the way government spending will probably change — any recession always damages giving. (“We’re making a lot of grim assumptions,” she says.) But it’s the concatenating schedules that worry her — the Summerworks festival should be starting rehearsals in five weeks. Will it?

Still, Striar’s doors will stay open. There are other places that are truly on the cusp. The priority voiced by everyone I spoke to, from Off Broadway managing director to Off-Off artistic director to insurance broker, is that it’ll take a lot to ensure that the places that close will someday reopen. Meghan Finn and Danielle King are the artistic director and managing producer of The Tank, a complex of theaters and freewheeling community space, and they are existentially frightened — for themselves, for the art that’s being plowed under the soil, for the artists who are losing a central gathering place. During our conversation, one or other of the three of us was almost always choking up. That’s because today, in just a few hours, Finn canceled 109 shows with 37 artists. And “unlike a lot of spaces,” Finn said, “a lot of our income does come from box office. This is a hit. It’s a huge hit.” Finn and King estimate that $50,000 evaporated on the coronavirus breeze, so if you’re able to give, give often.

You might also want to dig deep for the Brick, where artistic director Theresa Buchheister is trying to lift an institution on her back. As she dashed between jobs (she works two of them in addition to running the space), she texted me updates. “I’ve never felt like I was holding a dream until now,” she wrote, worried she could feel it slipping. The miniature space is staying open until the 22nd, since its show The Million Underscores is ready to go and willing to run, and the space seats fewer people than a corner booth. She’s torn, though, since canceling might actually open a few moments for fundraising, and that desperately needs to happen as well. “To stay open we need $10,000,” she says, “and then we could figure it out after that.” She paused and reflected on a box office employee she’s worried about, someone whose little income from the gate has been putting her through college. “Twenty thousand dollars would let us not be terrified.”

So if you’ve donated, after you’ve bought a phantom ticket to a show you can’t see, what do you do? Everyone I spoke to eventually turned to the way this crisis is showing up systemic problems in the safety net. Blocker is a managing director, which means that he always sounds relaxed. But his voice was really angry when he asked, “Why should somebody have to work a certain number of Equity weeks just to get health insurance? If we as a society were better at taking care of each other, it wouldn’t fall to small business to keep paying people! To keeping them alive!” He was already thinking about the next crisis. “Maybe,” he said, “we need a $10 million emergency relief fund,” so we can make the next decision like this without having to think about the economics. He’s saying that everything’s wrecked and the storm is still here. But as we look around at all these broken pieces of wood on the water, we do at least have the chance to build a better ark.

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“There Is No ‘Surplus’”: How Off Broadway Theater Is Coping