Can Indie Theater Survive a Pandemic?

"Let me embrace thee, sour adversity, for wise men say it is the wisest course." Shakespeare

THROUGH THE DARKNESS by Alan Breindel, THE WORKSHOP THEATER. Alex Dmitriev, Jed Dickson, Emily Zacharias, Tracy Newirth, Robert Meksin. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
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When the nationwide lockdown occurred in March of 2020 pretty much every industry in America was shaken. Restaurants and small businesses shuttered their doors, too many of them destined to never return. Gyms and WeWorks went dark. School kids all too quickly became familiar with something called ‘remote learning’ which in truth had been around for a while but was suddenly thrust into the forefront of kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms of anyone trying to learn. The entertainment industry was affected as well. Sports were delayed, concerts were cancelled, movies and television shows put on hold. Museums and art galleries and opera all went on hiatus. The Broadway hit “Hamilton”, which threatened to break all box office records, had to retreat along with everyone else and wait for the day when people felt comfortable again sitting next to strangers. It’s now September and while the country shows signs of opening up again (albeit slowly and cautiously) one of the questions not talked about on national television or written about in too many publications is what happens to theater? Not Broadway, we know they will be fine eventually. A handful of shows closed prematurely (“Hangmen” by Martin McDonagh and the revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” head that list while many others will be postponed. But most Broadway shows will return and new ones will take the place of those which departed. It may take a while, at least into 2021, but eventually they’ll be fine. Likewise Off Broadway. They may not have the deep pockets of Broadway but they also don’t have the crippling expense. No, a far more urgent question is what will happen to the rest of theater in New York which, as it happens, is also the largest slice of the pie, at least in terms of sheer numbers. Most Indie Theater productions can survive a bad review but can they survive a pandemic?

Amber Bogdewiecz, Bob Wasinger, Patrina Caruana. Photographer Susane Lee
ANIMAL FARM by George Orwell, adapted by Brandon Walker. Erin Cronican

Off off Broadway, or Indie Theater, is a tough thing to wrap your head around in that it comes in a variety of forms and you don’t have to actually register it with anyone. You can gather a group of friends together, read a few scripts, perform it in front of an audience (or not) and voila! You’re a theater company. The first company I belonged to here in New York was located on the fourth floor of an abandoned Korean massage parlor, and we used old bus seats for the audience. At any given time an off off Broadway theater company can materialize or, just as likely, cease to exist, without much fanfare. The result is that no one really knows how many companies there are at any given time. Certainly more than a hundred; quite possibly a hundred and fifty. Membership can range from as little as 2 to as many as 180, or even more. You can have actors, writers, directors, stage managers, designers, tech crew and more all working for these companies. Their individual numbers may be relatively small compared to Broadway but combined they make up an army. The focus of Indie Theater can be anything under the stars. One company may develop all original work while another does nothing but Shakespeare. One may solely produce works by women while another chooses to embrace gay and lesbian scripts. Equity (the actor’s union) limits off off Broadway companies in terms of how many hours you can rehearse, how much you can charge, how long you can run, the amount of audience you can have per performance (under 100) and so on. This is meant to protect actors from working too long for too little money but the end result is that very few off off Broadway shows break even, much less make money. Real estate is expensive in Manhattan and quite often the total box office runs short of the space you are renting. All of this translates into most off off Broadway companies living by the skin of their teeth, with way too much time spent in fundraising and attempts to procure grants. In the best of times a company is constantly looking over its shoulder. And these are not the best of times.

Book by Allan Knee, Music and lyrics by Andre Catrini. Jeff Paul.
Photo by Gerry Goldstein. THE WORKSHOP THEATER

One well kept secret (at least to the public) is that while Broadway has the stars and the costumes and the props and the scenery and the money – God knows the money – that doesn’t necessarily translate into a better theatrical experience. I have paid $120 a ticket for a show which I subsequently slept through, and $10 a ticket for a show I remember vividly thirty years later. There are some great writers off off Broadway and they are often supported by great actors and great directors. Getting to Broadway is a definite sign of success but the truth is that Broadway is a numbers game. There are only so many theaters and most of them do musicals. Nothing wrong with that, I personally love Broadway musicals, but there is a rich treasure trove of heart wrenching stories presented each year in Indie Theater; stories which often deserves a longer life than they’re given. The writers may not be as well known (yet) but some will be and many should be. Their message won’t reach 1200 people a night but it might reach the one person who gets inspired and changes the world. I approached a number of artistic directors and managers and asked them to give me their unique perspective on the current situation. They include Susane Lee and Nicholas Martin-Smith from Hudson Warehouse, Thomas Cote of The Workshop Theater, Cat Parker from Articulate Theatre Company, Kirk Gostkowski from Chain Theatre, Heather E. Cunningham from Retro Productions, Erin Cronican from The Seeing Place Theater, Bruce A! Kraemer from Ego Actus and Susanna Frazer of Morningside Players. I asked each of them a few basic questions on how they felt the pandemic impacted theater in New York and their own theaters specifically. I wanted to know how they were faring without their audiences or performance spaces, what methods they were using to cope and most importantly, how they planned to survive.

THE BUTTER AND EGG MAN by George S. Kaufman. Pictured – the full cast.
Photo by Kyle Connolly. RETRO PRODUCTIONS
FENCES by August Wilson. Carol Carter, Bridget Leicester, Susanna Frazer,
Douglas Wade, Sean C. Turner, Craig Anthony Bannister,
Nicholas Miles Newton, Cecelia Riddett, Zachary Weg and Morgan Hallums
photo by Lewis Papier MORNINGSIDE PLAYERS.

Q: How has COVID affected your company?  Have you received any government funding to help you get through the crisis?

Parker, Articulate Theatre: COVID, and the resulting shut down of the theatre industry has led Articulate to dissolve it’s ensemble, and to “mothball” the company until such time as it can be resurrected. This has been frustrating especially because this season was one of great progress for Articulate. We had a show, DOCTOR FRANKENSTEIN, that several major producers came to see, and had our first production in an Off-Broadway venue, (MR. TOOLE) at 59E59 Theatres. Articulate, being an “indie” theatre, is way too far down the pipeline to have received anything from the government.

Cunningham, Retro Productions: We watched closely in March and April as everything began shutting down.  Retro Productions has mostly been a one show a season company in the last five years due to rising production costs, so we were mainly concerned with our 15th Anniversary production that was scheduled for May 2020.  It was to be our first musical,  YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN.  We postponed the show several times until it became clear that it would not be safe in this calendar year to rehearse, let alone perform.  In July we finally officially cancelled our production.  I can assure you – there were tears and, of course, financial losses. Because Retro Productions is technically a sole proprietorship and everyone who works for Retro does so as a volunteer (stipends are paid to creatives and actors – but producers make nothing, and, at present, I am the sole producer), we were not eligible for government funding. 

Cote, Workshop Theater: We did apply for and receive gov’t funding which definitely helped us.

Cronican, The Seeing Place: COVID has shut down all of our live offerings for 2020. Luckily, we had just finished a sold-out run of our world premiere adaptation of ANIMAL FARM, so we at least had one production under our belts for the year. We have not received any government funding, because at this moment we are volunteer driven. We, of course, pay our artists but our 2-person staff (myself, and my Producing Artistic Director) do not currently take a salary. This means we did not qualify for PPP loans/grants.

Lee/Martin-Smith, Hudson Warehouse: We received a grant for the summer from the LLMC (Lower Manhattan Cultural Council) to help produce our Summer 2020 season of three shows. They have been gracious enough to extend the grant into next year.

Gostkowski, Chain Theatre: We’ve been lucky to receive a few small grants but nothing can sustain 6 months with no income.

ANIMAL FARM by George Orwell, adapted by Brandon Walker.
Laura Clare Browne, Erin Cronican, William Ketter, Brandon Walker
SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER by Oliver Goldsmith. John Racioppo, Roxann Kramer.
Photo by Susane Lee. HUDSON WAREHOUSE

Q: When do you plan to re-open productions and/or readings?

Frazer, Morningside Players: We hope that we can get back into our space by later fall or winter – though that is still unclear and based  on NYC reopening phases.

Kraemer, Ego Actus: We will proceed with A Black and White Cookie when we can book spaces in a rehearsal site and theater. I can’t imagine that being earlier than Spring 2021.

Gostkowski, Chain Theatre: We will reopen when the government mandated shutdown is lifted.

Cronican, Seeing Place: We are keeping an eye on the news coming out from Broadway and from the regional theater community to determine the safest course forward. We do not anticipate having any live presentations until March 2021 at the earliest (but we would love to be wrong about that!)

Parker, Articulate Theatre: Articulate typically does two productions a year, 3 readings, and a semi-monthly “salon” where member playwrights have their new work read.  Our one production this year was cut short by the virus. We have continued to have readings virtually, along with a semi-weekly “cocktail zoom” just to keep in touch with each other. We plan to continue to do readings virtually as long as the COVID restrictions are in place.

Lee/Martin-Smith, Hudson Warehouse: The arts program has temporary been on hold at Goddard, due to the Coronavirus, but we are holding out on our March show.  We have been a part of Goddard’s Women History Artist Month (W.H.A.M.), a month long festival in March about women, by women.  Our Jane Austen original adaptations have been very popular so we’d hope to continue producing another Austen original in March 2021.  So let’s get our COVID-19 numbers down and keep them down so we can all enjoy theater.

CHASING THE RIVER by Jean Dobie Giebel
Christina Perry and David Rey. Photo by Matt Wells. CHAIN THEATRE COMPANY
THE NAVIGATOR by Eddie Antar. Photo by Gerry Goldstein.
Kelly Anne Burns, Joseph Franchini, Nicole Taylor and Michael Gnat
ALL MY SONS by Arthur Miller. Stephen Bradbury and Tess Frazer
Photo by Patrick Mahaney. MORNINGSIDE PLAYERS.

Q: Have you been utilizing apps such as Zoom to continue doing readings or productions?  What are the challenges/advantages to this as opposed to a live audience?

THREE SHORT PLAYS by Scott C. Sickles
(Millennium Waltz, Where We Dead Awaken, Done and Done)

Parker, Articulate Theatre: Zoom has been a god-send during this time, albeit a poor substitute for real life interactions. The advantages to Zoom lie in its ease of use and accessibility. We can utilize artists from anywhere around the world. Playwrights from outside the city can now join in on rehearsals and performances of their work; actors from around the nation and world can be invited to take part in these performances. And our audience size is no longer limited to those who live/visit NYC.

Cunningham, Retro Productions: I have not done any Zoom performance for Retro Productions.  I personally do not want to produce anything that I can’t produce well – and I’m simply not confident in the quality of “virtual” as an experience.  I’m also of the opinion that if it isn’t live in the same space as I am that it’s not theater.  It’s live TV even if it’s on the internet.  And that’s not the same (this is my opinion, of course).

Gostkowski, Chain Theatre: We will be moving forward with a Zoom version of our play lab in the upcoming months. I’ve seen some inventive and exciting ideas from our colleagues about how to use technology for performance. We’ve kicked around many ideas ourselves but I’ve been hesitant to move forward with ideas I feel need to be performed in person.

Frazer, Morningside Players: Yes!  First, our Board of Advisors and smaller steering committee have been doing Zoom meetings to plan the upcoming season. We are trying to get the new plays from our playwrights onto Zoom.  

Cote, Workshop Theatre: We have used and will continue to use Zoom for the foreseeable future.  The two main advantages are reduced costs of real estate, and greater access to talent and audience.  We don’t have to rent rehearsal space or performance space, and although there are some production costs (editing, etc.), we can spend the money we save on talent.  We’ve been able to work with artists based anywhere in the country; our spring writer’s intensive had playwrights in Arkansas, Georgia, LA, Colorado and NYC. Our first public reading had audience views from literally around the world.

Kraemer, Ego Actus: We have participated in a wide variety of events on Zoom and other platforms, including readings, seminars, symposia, company meetings, webinars and cocktail parties. The inherent time delays online are very frustrating and often kill dramatic moments, even in cocktail parties. There is no adequate substitute for being in the same room with performers in realtime.

SIX CORNERS by Keith Huff- Lenny Thomas, Amanda Martinez and Kirk Gostkowski
Heather E. Cunningham, Amanda Jones, and Sara Thigpen.  RETRO PRODUCTIONS
CYBER QUEEN OF QAMARA by Fengar Gael. Sandra Bargman. Photo by Al Foote III.

Q: Is there anything your company can do to mitigate concerns of the public with regards to attending live performances again?

Lee/Martin-Smith, Hudson Warehouse: Yes, absolutely!  Everyone just needs to wear masks that cover your nose and mouth, social distancing, sanitizing stations, and ventilation.  We will provide the masks, space you 6 feet apart from one another, supply sanitation stations, and make sure the location is well ventilated, whether indoors or out. 

Cunningham, Retro: Retro won’t gather an audience until there is a reliable vaccine.  But we may consider additional precautions even at that time – such as providing masks and hand sanitizers at the theater, requiring the audience to wear a mask in the theater during the performance, and possibly social distancing the seating.  However we can not afford to produce at a very reduced capacity – the math doesn’t work out at full capacity, let alone 50%

Parker, Articulate Theatre: No, not really. Most indie/OOB theatre productions are done in rented spaces, so the bulk of the burden of safety is placed on the shoulders of the venue management. Of course, producers have to work hand in hand with venue folks to do all we can to keep everyone safe, but the venues really are the ones in the crosshairs of that dilemma. Theatre producers need to put their focus on keeping their collaborators safe, and that we have more ability to influence via play choice, venue choice, testing, physical staging, and a plan to decrease cross-transmission as much as possible.

Cronican, Seeing Place: Absolutely. I think first and foremost we can serve as educators about what is happening in the theater community related to COVID, and help audiences to know what to expect in the coming months/years. Secondly, we are focused on transparency. Audiences need to know that everyone’s safety (audiences, artists, staff) are being taken seriously, and they need to know exactly how we’re going about making that happen.

Frazer, Morningside Players: We have enough space that we can easily move seats far apart, also have masks  and hand sanitizer available. We also have windows we can leave open.  For now, we have been exploring plays that can have actors placed far apart on stage.

Cote, Workshop Theater: For us, we’re just following the state and city (and AEA) guidelines on gatherings. We’ll just have to see how it all plays out.

The Articulate Theatre Company, Cat Parker Artistic Director
ANIMAL FARM by George Orwell, adapted by Brandon Walker.
Laure Clare Browne, William Ketter. Photo by Russ Rowland. THE SEEING PLACE THEATER

Q: How confident are you for the overall recovery of theater in New York City? 

Cote, Workshop Theater: I don’t think anyone can predict at this point about recovery.  We’re still very much in the middle of this, and there are so many moving parts.  How soon can we comfortably gather?  What will have been the financial impact on the city?  How many artists will have left for other locales? 

Parker, Articulate Theatre: I am completely confident that theater will be a vibrant part of the NYC landscape again. I’m not sure WHEN that will happen, but I’m betting it will be about 2 more years before things get back to any resemblance to life in “The Before Times.” What I have less confidence in is the ability of the indie theatre artist to survive until such time as theatre recovers. Not only is our industry shut down, but the places for our “survival” jobs (restaurants, retail stores) aren’t able to keep everyone employed, so paying rent, groceries, bills gets very difficult.

Kraemer, Ego Actus: Theatre in New York City is resilient and leads in what everybody else does. We are confident that it will completely come back eventually. We suspect that Broadway will look to independent theatre as the canary-in-the-coal-mine. When we have been doing shows without a surge in new infections, they will re-open.

Cunningham, Retro Productions: Overall? Not very confident.  I think we will lose a lot of venues and companies by the time this is over.  Will theater come back?  Yes, eventually, but in smaller numbers.  Broadway will come back – there’s a lot of money in Broadway.  But off-off and indie theater – that’s a very different ball game.  In some ways we are lean and mean and can maneuver on a dime – which makes us super flexible for reinventing ourselves.  In other ways we have it harder because there is less funding and smaller capacities so it’s harder to reduce ticket sales from their already small numbers.

Frazer, Morningside Players: I DO feel live theater will return! We crave the shared experience and humanity – plus the fun and excitement of it. Perhaps there will be even more of a need after so much isolation! 

Gostkowski, Chain Theatre: I think the public will come back on their own time. I think the schools reopening is the big test here. If children are attending school and the rate stays the same in a month, we will have a chance to come back.

Cronican, Seeing Place: We are 100% confident that theater will recover in New York City. It will be different, but a new normal will soon be created that will make it better than ever. So many things are conspiring to make that possible, not the least of which are the important conversations about race and agency/equity in the theater, as well as accessibility for disabled artists and audiences, and equity when it comes to funding. We’re at a huge turning point, and I’m excited to see what comes from it.

Lee/Martin-Smith, Hudson Warehouse: We believe New Yorkers want to resume their lives and embrace theater. We hope everyone does their part to keep our numbers down.  We are in Phase 4 and our numbers are great!  New Yorkers are resilient and we will come back! 

Denise Pence, Kylie Kelder, Zo Tipp & Darius Baker. Photography by Emily Hewitt. ARTICULATE THEATRE COMPANY


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