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Updated: July 14, 2020 Focus: Nonprofits

Nonprofit theaters see revenues evaporate as they wait for reopening guidance

Photos | HBJ File West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park was co-founded by (from left to right) Sean Harris, Tracy Flater and Darlene Zoller. The nonprofit theater has received federal stimulus loans and is producing digital content to stay afloat and remain relevant during the pandemic.

It could have been worse for Playhouse on Park.

The West Hartford theater nonprofit whose performance space holds 163 seats had just finished its production of “Pride and Prejudice” in mid-March, when the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly shut down plays, concerts and all other performances in front of tightly packed crowds

When the theater closed, Executive Director Tracy Flater said she was thankful Playhouse didn’t have a show in mid-run, and figured it’d be for only two weeks or so.

Playhouse on Park in West Hartford has been dark since mid-March.

That wasn’t the case. Playhouse has now gone dark for four months and has canceled more than 100 individual performances, losing at least $378,000 in revenue from ticket sales, summer programs and other factors, Flater said. Playhouse’s annual budget is about $1.3 million.

“We’re only 11 years old, so we don’t have all these amazing endowments and reserves as the bigger [theater nonprofits],” Flater said.

But the small nonprofit is trying.

Playhouse has been running content online for free to remain relevant, and last month held its first online fundraiser, Flater said. It also runs summer education programs for children online and outdoors in parks, and has enlisted the services of Indian IT company Digital Stead to increase the volume and quality of Playhouse’s online streaming content.

“We’ve remained pretty stable,” said Flater, whose theater received just over $98,000 through the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, and about $150,000 through the Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, but has still had to furlough about three-quarters of its 24-person staff. “Our biggest hurdle now is not knowing the future.”

The pandemic has hit pretty much all nonprofits in the state, but arts organizations are in a particularly precarious position, said Gian-Carl Casa, president and CEO of the CT Community Nonprofit Alliance. That’s because in addition to not being able to hold — or sell tickets for — in-person events, state funding for many of these groups comes from hotel tax revenue, which is likely to shrink significantly as hotels are on pace to lose more than 57% of revenue per room in 2020, according to STE and Tourism Economics, which track the industry.

A Greater Hartford Arts Council survey taken in March found that Hartford’s “Big Four” arts groups — The Bushnell, Hartford Stage, TheaterWorks and Hartford Symphony Orchestra — stood to lose a combined $6.6 million if the coronavirus shut down production for three months.

We are in month four.

For now, Greater Hartford theater nonprofits are leaning on donors, pumping up their online content and waiting on solid reopening guidelines.

Some indoor businesses, including movie theaters, have been allowed to reopen but it’s not clear yet when performance houses will be given a greenlight, and what restrictions they may need to enforce.

Gov. Ned Lamont recently said he is pulling back on a planned phase three reopening in mid-July — which would have expanded indoor gatherings and allowed bars to reopen — because of the spike in coronavirus cases being seen around the country.

Meantime, many arts venues like Playhouse on Park have stayed afloat by getting money through the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program. New data issued by the U.S. Small Business Administration shows major Hartford arts venues took advantage of the program, which provided potentially forgivable loans to cover payroll and other costs, including The Bushnell (it received between $1 million and $2 million), Hartford Stage ($350,000 to $1 million) TheaterWorks ($150,000 to $350,000) and Hartford Symphony Orchestra ($350,000 to $1 million).

Donor support

Hartford Stage received a $542,200 state grant through the COVID Relief Fund for the Arts.

Donors and patrons at Hartford Stage, which has a nearly 500-seat performance space, have been generous through the shutdown, said Cynthia Rider, the nonprofit’s managing director. Hartford Stage had to cancel an ongoing production of “Jane Eyre” when the pandemic hit, and canceled scheduled runs of “The King’s Speech” and “Ah Wilderness!,” but most patrons didn’t seek refunds, allowing the organization to keep money as donations.

“What’s been interesting, I would say, is that donations have been steady,” Rider said.

However, there’s no telling how long donations will remain largely unaffected, Rider said, and while such gifts make up between $3 million and $4 million of Hartford Stage’s approximately $9-million annual budget, revenue from ticket sales and season subscriptions usually account for about $4.5 million per year.

Hartford Stage is doing as much as it can online, like an internet version of summer education programs, Rider said. But while everyone is searching for possible new revenue streams that could offset lost ticket sales, Rider said theatre nonprofits will likely have to depend on donor support to ride out the pandemic, which has cost Hartford Stage about $1.4 million in lost revenue so far.

“I think [the question] for all of us is how do we really keep fulfilling our mission to the community when we can’t perform live?” Rider said. “I think it’s going to take a lot of philanthropic support.”

Photo | HBJ File
The Bushnell received between $1 million and $2 million in Paycheck Protection Program funds.

Hartford’s largest nonprofit theater, The Bushnell, doesn’t produce its own plays, but presents shows, often Broadway productions like 2018’s “Hamilton” run. So with Broadway closed for at least the rest of the year, The Bushnell postponed all shows scheduled for the spring and summer, said Paul Marte, The Bushnell’s director of marketing.

The Bushnell furloughed about 50 employees, Marte said. For now, staffers are trying to figure out how they can put on school education programs this fall, either online or in-person.

Additionally, state officials and Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin’s administration have been working with them and other arts organizations to keep them afloat, Marte said.

“The arts are really this lynchpin in the redevelopment of these downtown areas, and we do not want that to backslide,” said Marte.

The Bushnell will use public health guidelines and member polling to decide when to start holding live performances again, and what kind of social distancing measures to enact when they do, Marte said. But with a $25-million endowment, The Bushnell isn’t in danger of shuttering before performances resume, Marte added.

Rise of digital content

TheaterWorks, which usually operates on a $2.5-million annual budget has upped its engagement with patrons, Marketing Director Freddie McInerney said. It has aired a weekly music series online for the past 15 weeks, and started an Instagram series called “Get Sauced,” featuring Artistic Director Rob Ruggiero and cast members from past performances, McInerney said.

The effort appears to be paying off, McInerney said, as TheaterWorks, which has a 188-seat venue, has sold about 1,200 subscriptions for its to-be-announced 2020-2021 season. Right now, staffers still working — about half of TheaterWorks’ 22 employees are on furlough — are looking at different possibilities for how to host live performances, and will announce plans in mid-August, McInerney said.

McInerney is confident TheaterWorks will survive the downturn, she said. She also sees a possible longer-term benefit in figuring out how to offer content online, which would allow patrons unable to physically go to any given show to stream it.

“Theatergoers are typically a little bit of an older demographic,” McInerney said. “We want them to be able to access the programming.”

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