“Theater is essential”: Cleveland venues wrestle with Covid-19 shutdown

By Christopher Johnston

Most Cleveland theaters are not expecting to produce another show until 2021 at the earliest, and the shutdown and loss of ticket sales have led to layoffs and budget cuts. Despite these challenges, they plan to reopen. Right now, they’re taking time to complete renovations and upgrades and plan for reopening safely while trying out new approaches with virtual programming.

By Christopher Johnston

While Ohio businesses are venturing out to reopen, theaters must still remain dark. Unlike sporting events, which will come back sooner, plays don’t work well for television, which negates the purpose and power of a live dramatic performance and audience response.

There’s not a lot of drama or comedy if there’s no one there to gasp or laugh, without the engine of people packed in next to each other poised to react to the acting with cheers or applause. Actors, directors, stage managers and designers who have put in long hours preparing and fine-tuning their show know that proximity and sharing the rollercoaster ride of a play together in real-time are what make live performance compelling.

Unfortunately, they are also the antithesis of what people want to experience during a global pandemic, and no one can be sure when that concern will dissipate.  “We anticipate that some audience members may be slow to come back because of their feeling of comfort and safety and the impact on the economy,” says Nathan Motta, artistic director of Dobama Theatre in Cleveland Heights.

Although plans are still fluid, most Cleveland theaters are not expecting to produce another show until 2021 at the earliest, with the possible exception of outdoor shows this summer. Staff are still working from home. The shutdown and loss of ticket sales that resulted from shows being canceled or postponed indefinitely have also led to layoffs, budget cuts, and loss of income for many theater professionals who are independent contractors.

Theaters have an economic impact on their surrounding neighborhoods, too. When they’re dark, they can’t serve as a driver for restaurants, bars or boutiques.

Despite these challenges, Cleveland’s small theaters do plan to reopen. Right now, they’re taking time to complete renovations and upgrades while also planning the best way to ensure safety for staff, artists and audiences when it’s deemed safe to perform again. The shutdown is also spurring some new approaches, as most stages are now doing virtual programming and exploring and refining their approaches to online productions.

“Obviously, we think theater is essential,” says Cleveland Public Theatre’s Executive Artistic Director Raymond Bobgan, who has stayed in touch with professions in Cleveland, throughout Ohio and the U.S. “Most of my colleagues agree that we cannot stop providing the essential service that we provide to our communities.”

Taking time to adjust

Dobama was one of the hardest hit theaters. In addition to scrubbing the last three shows of the 2019–2020 season, laying off the Managing Director, and implementing a 20 percent salary reduction for Motta and General Manager Colin Anderson, the theater also had to cancel their much-anticipated 60th Anniversary Gala that was scheduled for March.

Dobama is exploring virtual classes and theater programs, web series and possible outdoor events for the fall season, but nothing is confirmed yet. As an Equity theatre, Motta explains, where each mainstage production costs a minimum of $25,000, they can only reopen when they can ensure everyone’s safety and be “confident investing in a production will not threaten Dobama’s long-term fiscal health and sustainability.”

Across town in Tremont, convergence-continuum theatre (con-con) took less of a hit, primarily because it is smaller, and four years ago, the company purchased the building that houses The Liminis theater, so there is no mortgage or rental payment. They did cancel the first three shows of the season in March, but they are anxiously awaiting word if they can produce the final three shows in the fall.

Con-con had already received a grant from Cuyahoga Arts and Culture that will cover at least part of the shortened season now. They also obtained a PPP loan from the Small Business Administration that covers two and a half months of salaries and should be forgivable.

The theater has been leveraging the down time to make improvements to the physical plant, including an unforeseen collapse after the theater closed of the decorative front parapet of the building originally constructed in 1910 as a general store. The theater is also installing some new and updated video projection equipment.

“Financially we’re hanging in there,” says Clyde Simon, artistic director. “That’s the bottom line.”

Reopening safely

“Every institution is scrambling to find out how to meet the safety needs of everybody, both patrons and artists,” says Scott Spence, who has been Artistic Director at Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood since 1992. Spence even took out a measuring tape and calculated the distances throughout Beck’s main auditorium, including the stage.

“I know what we can fit in there safely,” he says. “But getting people in and out of their seats, do you have an intermission, how do you deal with bathrooms, do you sell concessions, are all questions theaters must consider before they can safely reopen.”

In addition to theatrical productions, Beck operates as a popular community center with an art gallery, classes and other types of programming, all of which Spence has to consider. He and his staff are looking at a variety of options such as virtual education programs. Spence has also been producing the “Above the Waist” series of video interviews with alumni who have gone on to “make their mark in the field,” such as actor Michael Chernus (“Orange is the New Black,” Spider-Man).

“This journey is going to be incredibly difficult,” Spence says. “Short-term requires figuring out how to do live performances well because we want to maintain as much quality as possible, and Zoom ain’t theater! It’s just a stop gap for now.”

Con-con has taken things one step further by reconfiguring the theater to enhance safety according to generally accepted COVID-19 guidelines. The new layout reduces seating from 40 to 27 patrons, which puts more distance between audience members and increases the playing space for actors. If they can sell all of those seats consistently, the theater can maintain enough ticket income to match the previous sales figures that averaged about 60 percent of capacity for each show. They may also shuffle the plays planned for the fall to scripts that require smaller casts.

“The idea is to keep monitoring the situation and be nimble in our response,” Simon says.

Creating online experiences

Going virtual has been the fallback choice of theaters to keep present and visible to audiences, but it’s also allowing them to reach some new audiences. The COVID-19 pandemic crisis forced Karamu House in the Fairfax District to cancel the last two shows of its season and lay off or furlough 48 freelance artists and furlough eight seasonal/part-time staff. Now Karamu is staying active and visible through a virtual Summer Arts Intensive program for student in grades 7-12.

The program will include classes in vocal performance, dance and drama, short film and costume design. Currently, there are students enrolled from eight different states as far away as Arizona. Sias and his staff are developing new content and programming that will be streamed online starting in late June. They are also staying present on multiple social media platforms sharing Karamu’s expansive archives and history as well as highlighting staff and performers.

“Karamu is committed to creating, developing and presenting virtual programming to keep our current audiences fully engaged and to reach new audiences,” says President and CEO Tony Sias.

Cleveland Public Theatre also is committed to rescheduling two original works that were scheduled for the spring, Candlelight Hypothesis # 1-12 by Executive Artistic Director Raymond Bobgan and the Cleveland CORE Ensemble, and The Absolutely Amazing and True Adventures of Ms. Joan Southgate written and performed by Nina Domingue, as well as its annual DanceWorks and Test Flight programs.

Although Bobgan wasn’t excited about doing virtual performances at first, he and his team began to reexamine what they could do. After producing several online programs, they began to evolve their approach to virtual showings. “We try to acknowledge and embrace the new format, but focus on keeping it live,” he says. “We try not to produce it as television, but we’re also not trying to approximate a play.”

They limit virtual “seating” to 65 plus cast and crew because less than 75 means Zoom will furnish three screens, keeping the experience more intimate. That also allows people to see each other and interact via the chat function before and after the performance for a post-show discussion. All shows are 30 minutes or less. CPT has continued to provide other online content and some educational programs for youths.

David Todd, artistic director of Cleveland’s youngest theatre, Playwrights Local in the Waterloo Arts District, was forced to postpone three original shows: Hey Siri by Mary E. Weems, Ph.D.; The King of Cage Street by Michael Oatman; and Millwood Outpost by Tom Hayes. They plan to reschedule all three for their 2020-2021 season.

In the meantime, they are producing podcast plays and other virtual projects. “If the shutdown continues, we’ll likely look more in the direction of work that’s not based in performing for a live audience, such as radio plays,” Todd says.

He has no intention of rushing the reopening process before scientists and physicians say it’s safe. “Theaters made it through many plagues, scourges, and even bad governments over the millennia,” he says. “So it will be back. We just have to be patient.”

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