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September 9, 2020

Theaters seek state relief: Shut down by virus, six companies apply for $12M in aid

Photo | Hartford Stage Hartford Stage is one of many theaters in Connecticut’s vibrant arts-and-culture industry.

Connecticut’s Flagship Producing Theaters have petitioned Gov. Ned Lamont for a $12 million relief package that would help alleviate the massive loss of revenue professional regional theaters are suffering due to being shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Formed in 2014, Connecticut’s Flagship Producing Theaters, or CFPT, consists of six professional theaters across the state: Hartford Stage, Long Wharf Theatre, Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, Goodspeed Musicals, Yale Repertory Theatre, and the Westport Country Playhouse.

According to a statement released by the organization, the $12 million would come from federal funding given to Connecticut through the CARES Act, a $2.2 trillion stimulus bill that was passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in March, from which Connecticut received $1.2 billion. The $12 million requested by the CFPT would be divided evenly between the six theater companies.

“The dire situation that arts and culture is in in the state cannot be overstated,” said Cynthia Rider, managing director of Hartford Stage. “As the state looks to invest money…arts and culture was being overlooked.”

In a statement, the CFPT said that in a typical year when all the theaters are in full operation, they bring in a total of $26 million in taxable payrolls from 1,700 jobs, including administration, theater technicians, front-of-house staff, and artists who live and work in Connecticut.

Approximately $1.3 million is spent annually on hotel rooms and apartment fees to house visiting artists, and more than $14.6 million is invested annually for building sets, producing shows, and advertising to their communities, entertaining more than 330,000 patrons a year.

Michael Barker, managing director of the Westport Country Playhouse, described the CFPT as “a loose organization of theaters that produce their own original productions of plays and musicals.

“There was a move at that time in Hartford to go away from competitive grant making,” Barker said.

He said the theaters found a common bond and came up with the idea of hiring a lobbyist for the theaters and to request a line item in the budget for these six theaters.

“The line item was reasonably large, about $800,000,” he said. “Over time it has been reduced, over half less.”

The financial reality for theaters now, Barker said, is that they were one of the first businesses to close because of the pandemic and will be the last to come back due to their indoor confined seating spaces.

Even then, he said, when Lamont does give permission to reopen, it’ll take three to six months before a production opens for an audience.

“Each of our organizations will have approximately a $1 million deficit because of the pandemic and a $1 million deficit next year,” he said. “Some number of us are really in existential danger.”

The financial needs of the theaters are not all equal, though.

Rider said that Hartford Stage will require $4 million by next fall to be able to reopen and start producing again and sustain all the various programs, including educational and family programs it currently has to offer.

She said she hopes they’ll be able to start their next season in the fall of 2021, but there are two factors to consider, health and audience willingness to attend, and to be able to raise the $4 million in time to pay for expenses like rent of spaces and health insurance for their employees.

“We went from 80 full-time and part-time staff members…to 20 and we usually hire between 150 and 200 designers. We won’t be hiring any of those people in the coming year. We scaled way back to sustain ourselves through this time.”

Hartford Stage has three major facilities.

“We have three different places. The production building (where sets are built and props are stored) is rented, the offices (inside the Residence Inn building on Main Street) is rented. The theater, we own the inside, but not the land that it’s on. We need to maintain them and pay rent.”

Rider said that the state has “been very positive in its level of understanding of what we’re facing.

“They’re really trying to balance and make a decision in the next few weeks,” Rider said.

Barker recognized that there is funding coming in from patrons and donors but noted that some of the large financial gifts are one-time donations and are not sustainable.

“Some of these gifts that our patrons have given us, some of that stuff is one time and these are people who care deeply about us. It’s not sustainable,” he said.

Barker said that the CFPT met with David Lehman, the commissioner for economic and community development, and that the members in attendance left feeling like they had been heard. He hopes that further meetings will be productive.

A key element is the impending HEROES Act — a $3 trillion stimulus package proposal that has been passed by the House and is awaiting Senate approval — and what ultimately gets allocated to the state by the federal government.

In a statement made to the Journal Inquirer, Lehman said, “We recognize the positive impact theaters have on the state’s economy, the health of our municipalities and our overall quality of life here in Connecticut. The department is in dialogue with the theaters. The next step is to see what funding, if any, will be made available as part of the next round of federal stimulus.”

“Some additional relief is coming from the federal government for municipalities,” Barker said. “It’s slow coming.”

Barker said that Lamont has been smart about how the money from the CARES Act has been allocated.

“The approach our governor is taking is rational,” he said. “It’s just a matter of resources.”

Michael Gennaro, executive director of Goodspeed Musicals, said that the first thing the CFPT wanted to do was make its presence known to the state legislature and ensure that the theaters weren’t forgotten.

“The state has been very helpful and responsive in understanding that we are a different industry than a lot of others,” he said. “What we do, we can’t do right now. So, we don’t have any revenue.

“We’re continuing to fundraise, and our donors have been very generous,” Gennaro continued. “We’re making a minimal amount of money on the lawn concerts. It’s not that we’re looking for a bailout, we’re looking for redevelopment funds that allow us to invest in what we do and find ways to continue doing what we can do to keep operations going.”

He said that the state, so far, has been helpful and understanding and applauds Lamont’s handling of the pandemic thus far, but added that currently theaters can’t perform indoors for more than 25 people.

“That’s not a financially viable option,” he said. “If there’s anything going forward that can help, great, that at least gives us options.”

Though continued financial assistance is encouraged, Rider also asks for people to help politically.

“I would love for people who care for the arts and culture sector to reach out to their local officials…and that they’re watching to see what they’re doing for arts and culture,” she said.

She also suggested helping by donating the value of whatever tickets and memberships that have been purchased over the past season back to the theaters.

“If they can donate that back to the theater, that’s a huge help,” she said. “If they can add on a cash donation and be as generous as they can, any combination of all or any one of those things and participate in the things we are doing — virtual events, outdoor events. It means a lot when people show up and participate. That gives us a lot of strength at this time.”

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