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Updated: April 6, 2020 Arts Biz

Theaters plot survival strategies as coronavirus plagues their finances

Photo | HBJ File TheaterWorks’ Producing Artistic Director Rob Ruggiero is developing creative, “virtual” ways to engage his audience and donors amid the coronavirus shutdown.
Photos | HBJ File Theaters in Hartford are sitting empty as Gov. Ned Lamont has banned even small crowds from gathering to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Frank Rizzo

“Getting Sauced with Rob” Ruggiero and “Scene and Heard” with Melia Bensussen are two virtual ways TheaterWorks Hartford and Hartford Stage are staying engaged with audiences via their artistic leaders — and are just the latest online activities these not-for-profit theaters hope will generate support during the uncertain weeks, and perhaps months, ahead.

With the initial shock subsiding of having to cancel springtime programming and fundraising events because of the coronavirus pandemic, Hartford’s theater executives, many of whom have had to make dramatic staff and payroll cuts in recent weeks, are now looking ahead and devising multiple plans for survival.

This includes engaging with audiences in new ways in the hopes it will bolster financial support in what is sure to be a challenging economic and social landscape.

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

Among the planned offerings are virtual personal and/or playful interactions with theater personalities.

For example, Ruggiero, TheaterWorks’ producing artistic director, will make his family’s tomato sauce recipe while talking with other theater pals online. Other plans include online silent auctions, acting and educational classes, and presentations of excerpts from past productions.

TheaterWorks is working to get online its hit production of the musical “Next To Normal,” along with a conversation with its Tony Award-winning composer Tom Kitt. It wouldn’t be a pay-for-play event but rather a fundraising effort.

Cynthia Rider, Managing Director, Hartford Stage

“We’re going to find out what works online in ways that could be really creative, imaginative and really engaging for our audiences to participate,” says Cynthia Rider, Hartford Stage’s managing director. “We’ve been talking about more participatory programming, so what does that mean in ways that feel really fun? I think we’re going to find some [programming] that works and some that doesn’t, but that’s OK, too. We’re experimenting.”

The shutdown of live productions is forcing theaters to think in different ways to connect with audiences — and each other. Conversations among theater leaders are now more frequent.

“We’ve always had a lovely partnership with Hartford Stage but now it’s elevated because of what’s happening,” says Ruggiero. “We are now looking at ways our two institutions can support each other more; for instance, in actor housing or in scenery building, stuff like that. We’re learning lessons from this that will actually be helpful when we’re on the other side of things.”

All about cash flow

But the uncertainty of when that other side will emerge is what makes this unlike other financial crises theaters have faced, including 9/11 or Hurricane Sandy.

The decline in ticket revenues from the sudden production stoppage also exposed not-for-profit arts groups’ tenuous cash-flow positions.

Without those expected revenues it only takes a matter of weeks before they can’t meet payroll.

“Most of the theaters our size live very close to the edge all the time,” says Rider. “There’s not a lot of saving for a rainy day. You’re just trying to get by. In an emergency you’re very thin.”

On March 20, Hartford Stage slashed its staff of more than 80 people by 70 percent, cutting 50 jobs with furloughs and eliminating eight positions entirely. It expects to take a $1.2 million loss from the premature end of its current season, which was supposed to run until May 31, Rider said.

Also imperiled is the theater’s summer education programs involving hundreds of students of all ages — and which is a revenue generator.

Hartford Stage has also put on hold its major fundraising campaign based around the new leadership vision of Bensussen, who was named artistic director in Jan. 2019.

“How soon we can get back to producing is so uncertain,” says Rider. “We’re working on different financial scenarios.”

For TheaterWorks, its 19 full-time and three part-time staff members are fully employed,” says Ruggiero, who reports the theater lost more than $300,000 in anticipated revenue from the cancellation of shows so far. “But we’re preparing for all levels of action, including some voluntary furloughs and pay reductions.”

With little or no capital reserves or endowments, theaters are pursuing emergency support from donors, foundations, arts councils and the state and federal governments. But it’s going to be a long line of arts leaders asking for assistance.

For smaller arts groups, the pain will likely be worse.

West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park furloughed its entire staff and temporarily halted operations, including its education programs. A handful of staff — comprising six full-time and 15 part-time workers — are volunteering to keep the company open virtually with daily dance classes and upcoming play readings, even as its doors are closed temporarily.

The theater leadership is continuing without salaries.

“Even as funding opportunities become available, we feel small or mid-sized professional arts will be hurt the most,” says Executive Director Tracy Flater. “This could kill an arts organization.”

Flater is concerned that because the company, which has just under 1,000 subscribers and a $1.3-million budget, rents its space, it doesn’t have the collateral other larger institutions possess to qualify for a bridge loan.

“We don’t know what opportunities will exist for the little guys,” Flater said.

New season boost

With closed shows sapping ticket income, theaters are trying to focus on selling their fall seasons now to bring in much needed revenue.

“We want people to know we’re still planning exciting things for next year,” says Rider, noting Hartford Stage just announced four shows for its fall season. “One of the ways they can support us is by renewing their subscription or buying a new one — and even add on to that with a donation, which would be a big help to us, too.”

Because TheaterWorks’ season goes into late summer, Ruggiero says he is considering moving shows around and smaller-scale productions as alternatives.

He also says even when theaters reopen it’s not clear how eager audiences will be to return to crowded spaces so his staff is discussing different open-space seating plans.

“We’re not just sitting here thinking we’re just getting through this and then it’s back to business,” he says. “The economy is going to be struggling and that landscape will be very vulnerable. We might have to take a few steps back but there are ways to go forward in that journey as well.”

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