‘We are resilient’: What will coronavirus mean for Austin theater?
Austin is sheltering in place. Going to catch a play from a local theater isn’t in the cards for now.
Arts venues around town have already shut down — for a couple of weeks now, residents have been prohibited from gatherings of more than 10 people, and Austin Mayor Steve Adler on Tuesday ordered people to stay in their homes except for essential needs until April 13. These measures are part of officials’ plans to stem the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Several theater companies told the American-Statesman that their primary concern is weathering the economic fallout of having to shuffle or cancel productions. Lara Toner Haddock, co-producing artistic director of Austin Playhouse on Airport Boulevard, says that “it's inevitable that next season, in whatever form it takes, will include a period of recovery. Our immediate economic hit is around $40,000, and that will grow monthly.”
“We will still be paying rent on our venue and not producing any revenue,” says Lisa Scheps, founder and co-artistic director of Ground Floor Theatre on Springdale Road. “But we are dedicated to keeping our doors open. We have been through hard times before, and we are resilient. It is important that the Austin theater community stay strong and band together, because together we will make it.”
Zach Theatre, one of the city’s most prominent community theater organizations, is cutting all nonessential expenses, says Drew Nebrig, director of marketing and communication. That includes a hiring freeze on open positions, cutting marketing budgets for canceled shows, cutting nonessential campus maintenance and paring down production expenses for future shows at the South Lamar Boulevard theater.
But local theater companies seem to be making things work as best they can during the pandemic, with streamed productions and other content to fill the artistic void. Here are a few examples.
• Zach canceled all performances previously planned for March and April, with hopes to reschedule them for the future. Though they currently plan to return to the stage with “Reunion '85,” which is scheduled to open May 27. They are putting their production of “Every Brilliant Thing” online with ticketed viewing. They also hope to put shows like “Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch” (a production for young audiences) online.
“Every Brilliant Thing” is “such a display of hope and the power of human connection that it's precisely what our neighbors need right now, and we're doing everything we can to bring it to them while they can't come to us,” says Nebrig. In addition, Zach’s classes for kids ages 1-18 will move to an online platform starting April 1.
Go to zachtheatre.org for more information on the theater’s plans.
• The Vortex theater has canceled two upcoming productions that they hope to move to August or September. In the meantime, the company plans a slate of virtual programming, including rebroadcasts of past productions and livestreamed content on Fridays and Saturdays. Go to vortexrep.org for more information on the theater’s plans.
• Austin Playhouse is taking a similar approach to creating online content. While postponing their production of Paula Vogel’s “Indecent,” originally planned for April, the company will create an online workshop to help develop company member Cyndi Williams’ popular “Today’s Gratitude” Facebook posts into a performance piece.
Haddock says, “As theaters and artists around the world pause their activities, we're discovering new means to connect. In this spirit, we've decided that the first phase of the workshop will be held online. Members of our artistic community will be recording posts and we'll share them on our website and social accounts.”
The company also plans to post online content like tutorials and a video of last year’s production for young audiences, “Summer and Bird.” Go to austinplayhouse.com for more information on the theater’s plans.
• Austin Shakespeare — which does not have its own physical venue — will postpone three upcoming productions with hopes of putting them up as soon as realistically possible. In the meantime, artistic director Ann Ciccolella will be facilitating an online "Artist's Way" creatives group on the Zoom conferencing app.
Go to austinshakespeare.org for more information on the company’s plans.
• Round Rock-based Penfold Theatre is postponing its spring production and annual fundraising gala until August, as well as canceling its annual Penfold in the Park summer show. Instead, managing director Grace Riehl says, “To keep our patrons connected during the social distancing period, we are launching a video series that will run through April and May. It will include short featurettes from past and upcoming productions as well as snippets from new works to be featured in our summer play-reading series.”
Go to penfoldtheatre.org for more information on the theater’s plans.
Even with these improvisations, the biggest effect of the city’s shutdown will be felt by artists and theater company employees, says Melissa Vogt, managing director of the Vortex. Beyond the lost artistic opportunities and ticket revenue, she says the Vortex is most concerned about their more than 30 employees, most of whom are currently unable to work.
“We are calling on those who are still financially stable in our community to donate, if possible, to help us get through this unprecedented shutdown,” she says.