Without more federal money, what will regional theaters do?
Rodgers and Hammerstein. Mickey and Judy. Cornyn and Klobuchar?
In one of the big surprises of the pandemic, the "let's put on a show!" spirit from Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, likely saved hundreds of regional theaters across the country from closing as a result of the pandemic shutdowns.
Their partnership resulted in $16 billion for theaters, music venues and other cultural institutions as part of the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program, run by the Small Business Administration.
"The federal government has been a huge partner in this,'' said Jeffrey Woodward, managing director of the Dallas Theater Center. "There were a slew of government programs – I call them the alphabet soup." Woodward listed them off: "Payroll Protection Plan or PPP. Employee Retention Tax Credit, ERTC. Shutter Venues Operating Grant, S-VOG."
Without that federal money, non-profit theater as we know it would have died, said Teresa Eyering with the Theater Communications Group
Theaters also helped themselves during that time, creating innovative virtual performances and other programming that kept audiences invested in their work. But that infusion of government money was key, and tied to the worst days of the pandemic; theaters know they can't rely on that sort of funding happening again. Eyering said that in order to keep doors open now, theaters need to keep innovating on their stages and as part of their business model.
Theaters are also going to have to be much savvier about their long-term growth, Eyering said, which doesn't necessarily mean just repeating the same old classics. "When audiences are shrinking, [there's a] temptation to try to produce much more popular shows, which could keep us from producing some of the new work."
It is important for theaters to stay open not just for arts' sake, but because they have a profound effect on their local economies, helping support local restaurants, tourism, and other businesses. That's the reality that brought Klobuchar and Cornyn together.
Klobuchar said that, in many ways, it was a love of the late artist Prince that awakened her to the importance of supporting local venues. A phone call from Dayna Frank – the proprietor of First Avenue, one of the Minneapolis music venues where Prince began his career – made Klobuchar leap into action. Frank explained that she couldn't do virtual concerts which meant they had no revenue and might have to close. " I trust her," Klobuchar told NPR over Zoom. And she got involved.
Klobuchar laughed when asked about her unlikely pairing with Cornyn. "Well, we actually worked together fairly well. We've done other bills together on patents and things that are a lot less sexy than this."
Cornyn has touted his role in saving theaters as one of his top legislative achievements. And Klobuchar said, on a gut level, what brought and kept a Minnesota Democrat and Texas Republican together is "no one wanted to let the music die. No one wanted to let live theater die."
Interestingly, if there's a place that epitomizes the growth of regional theater, that place is in Cornyn's Texas – especially Dallas. In recent years, the city has seen an influx of big corporate headquarters, and nearly a million new residents in less than a decade, according to the 2020 census. The draws to the city don't just include the jobs, the Cowboys or the barbecue – but its growing and vibrant cultural scene.
Dallas is credited with sparking the American Regional Theater movement 75 years ago, when Margo Jones opened the first modern residence theater in 1947. Today, the Dallas Theater Center anchors the Dallas Arts District, which includes more than 20 square blocks of museums, sculpture gardens, a symphony, an opera; it bills itself as the largest contiguous urban arts center in the United States. The Dallas Theater Center's two theaters in separate locations played to an audience of 100,000 Texans annually pre-pandemic, and the center won a regional Tony Award in 2017.
Despite this history and the area's generous donors, Woodward, the head of DTC, said subscriptions are now down over 60%. Theaters everywhere also now face more competition for the arts consumer's dollar. There is sports, gaming and streaming television – plus 22 Broadway shows that tour regional theaters around the country.
"'Hamilton' comes in and that sucks, like, millions of dollars of ticket-buying audience," Woodward said. He said that $200 spent on the musical "Hamilton" may mean patrons don't spend additional money to see something more experimental.
All of this has forced his team to become savvy about nearly every part of the business. The center did a web redesign. They've gotten serious about merchandise. Woodward said theaters need to look beyond the normal annual subscriptions or big money donors and hunt for every dollar they can. Currently, Woodward said, theaters get very little money from the government for education programs and workforce development programs, even though most theaters do some form of both.
Woodward says to survive now, theaters need to gear their programming toward a younger, more diverse audience, as the country's demographics continue to shift. A part of the new economics of the theater is diversity, equity and inclusion.
"The regional theater has been more exclusive than it should have been and has really served, essentially, a white, middle-class audience," he said. He added that the model just isn't sustainable.
Tiana Kaye Blair, an artist-in-residence at the center and the director of the theater's current production of Trouble in Mind, by Alice Childress, said that in order to draw the new, needed audiences in, theaters need to keep asking themselves: What is the purpose of a particular play they want to put on their stages? Is it about broadening audiences? Expanding creative boundaries? Developing empathy? Or making money?
It's part of the push-pull dynamic between economics and art, she said.
"Sometimes the intention is, 'We gotta make more money on the back end,' and sometimes the intention is, 'Do you wanna change something?'" Blair said. She added that, as an artist, she constantly needs to strike that balance. And so do theaters, which means they may have a tough time ahead.
Be entertaining, challenging and sustainable – all that is hard, if not impossible, in normal times, said Blair. And these times are anything but normal.
Audio and digital stories edited by Jennifer Vanasco. Audio produced by Isabella Gomez Sarmiento. Kristie Taiwo-Makanjuola contributed to this story.
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