‘It’s scary, but I know it will come back’: Michigan theaters struggle after going dark during pandemic

By: - August 31, 2020 6:26 am

A production of “Into the Woods” by The Rep | The Rep photo

Performing arts centers all across the nation have had to cancel and postpone scheduled performances since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early March. With little to no revenue coming in from ticket sales, many theaters are struggling financially, and the future of live performances is still unclear.

“We all thought we’d be back in a couple weeks, but it was months and months,” said Michael Lluberes, producing artistic director at the Flint Repertory Theatre. 

Theater is thousands of years old — its origins can be traced back to the 6th century B.C.E. — and it still remains an art that is important in communities across the world. 

There are over 300 performing arts theaters in Michigan, according to the Pure Michigan website. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) says that arts and cultural production in Michigan adds $13.9 billion to the state’s economy annually, and Michigan’s arts and cultural industries employ 121,330 workers. Additionally, 54.3% of adults in Michigan attend live music, theater or dance performances.

Kalamazoo State Theatre photo

Broadway announced in June that it would remain closed until January 2021. 

“In accordance with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and under the continued direction of [New York] Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Broadway shows in New York City have extended the current suspension of all performances through January 3, 2021,” the Playbill website reads. 

It was recently announced that Michigan State University would be returning to remote learning in the fall. In an email, President Samuel Stanley Jr. encouraged students to stay home rather than live on campus if possible.

The Wharton Center for Performing Arts is located on MSU’s campus, but serves the greater Lansing community by bringing in national productions like “Hamilton.” Now it is now trying to navigate what the upcoming season will look like. 

“The health and safety of our patrons, artists, and staff is our top priority,” said Bob Hoffman, Wharton Center public relations manager. “Wharton Center continues to engage in conversations to ensure that we protect all who visit our center. This includes following the direction of Michigan State University, the State of Michigan and the CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control] guidelines.”

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Unexpectedly closing down mid-season

The Flint Repertory Theatre, also known as The Rep, is committed “to provide the city of Flint and surrounding communities with highly imaginative, thought-provoking theatre that is challenging, entertaining and inspiring for all ages,” its website reads. 

The theater had just opened a production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” when the pandemic hit Michigan and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer implemented a stay-home order. 

Some staff members went in to strike the set of the show. The theater hasn’t been open since. The full-time staff began working remotely at home and moved their education program online.

“We’re still working. We’re still trying to stay active,” Lluberes said. 

He said The Rep has been doing weekly private readings of new plays with artists and developing new projects.

The Kalamazoo State Theatre, or the State Theatre, began navigating the pandemic by installing hand sanitizer stations and hiring extra staff to clean. But in less than a week after it implemented these extra safety precautions, the theater was shut down to the public.

Harry Phillips, director of marketing and development at the State Theatre, said it was an abrupt change. The theater hasn’t had an in-person show since March 7. 

Trying to survive, stay active during the pandemic

The pandemic has changed the way the State Theatre has interacted and stayed connected with its patrons. Phillips said the theater was built in 1927 and it has “always been a centerpiece of downtown.” 

The venue wanted to continue supporting local artists even during the pandemic when in-person performances are no longer a possibility. 

The theater started doing weekly livestreams to give artists a platform virtually. Because the livestreams are free, Phillips said they have made an effort to publicize a pay jar for performers.

“We wanted to support local artists,” Phillips said. “We wanted to support local musicians.”

Kalamazoo State Theatre photo

So far, the theater has done 12 livestreams. 

While Phillips says most patrons have kept their tickets for the shows that have been postponed, they have still had to refund tickets. The theater hasn’t made any revenue from ticket sales since it closed to the public in March.

And rent, taxes and various other monthly expenses still have to be paid without any money coming in, Phillips said. 

“Quite honestly, it’s been crippling,” he said. “We have not made any money since March 7. … We’ve had shows canceled and we’ve had to refund tons of tickets.”

With this loss of revenue, Phillips said the State Theatre planned its first paid livestream, which was on Aug. 27. He said they’re also planning on beginning to do livestreams from the theater without an in-person audience.

Phillips said the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act — which included $75 million for the NEA — has helped a little bit, but not enough. 

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The Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs — with support from the NEA through the CARES Act — set up an emergency relief funds program, which will be carried out through one-time grants of up to $5,000 to eligible nonprofit arts and cultural organizations.

As part of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), 662,515 companies and nonprofits — including many theaters — have been approved for loans, according to ProPublica. Up to $659 billion has been approved overall.

NEA announced on July 1 that 855 organizations located in every state, including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, would receive $44.5 million to support staff salaries, fees for artists or contractual personnel and facility costs. There were 23 venues in Michigan that split $1.15 million, including $50,000 apiece for well-known entities like the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), Ann Arbor Film Festival and Michigan Opera Theatre.

“All of us at the National Endowment for the Arts are keenly aware that arts organizations across the country are hurting, struggling, and trying to survive and that our supply of funding does not come close to meeting the demand for assistance,” Arts Endowment Chair Mary Anne Carter said.

The National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) said in a press release that if the COVID-19 shutdown lasts six months or longer and there’s no federal assistance, “90% of its members would be forced to fold forever.”

DIA | Susan J. Demas

NIVA is proposing a bill called the Save Our Stages Act, which would provide support for independent live music venues that have lost nearly all of their revenue since the pandemic began.

“A lot of [people] are saying if we don’t get some help, or we can’t open back up. … They’re thinking that 90% of small theaters like ours will close by February of 2021,” Phillips said.

Phillips said some small, local theaters are being crushed financially.

“I think the irony for me is when you ask people what they did during quarantine, the number one thing people did was they consumed a ton of entertainment,” Phillips said. “So this is the industry that kept … us entertained during the stay-at-home [order], and yet we were the first ones to close, we’ll be the last ones to open.”

The Rep has tried to let its audience know that it’s still active, Lluberes said.

It is an equity theater, and the Actor’s Equity Association — the union for stage professionals — has allowed only a few theaters in the country to resume performances with extra safety precautions.

Remote rehearsals have their challenges, Lluberes said. 

Ann Arbor | iStockphoto

The Rep has recently partnered with the Breath Project, whose mission is to “select, curate and archive work from multidisciplinary theater artists of color who are responding to our current moment in history, and to build relationships between artists of color and producers of live theater in their city, state and/or region.” 

Lluberes also said it is planning a concert on the rooftop of the theater for October. There will be a limited number of socially distanced audience members, he said.

“So, it’s literally outside of the box — outside of the theater,” Lluberes said.

Luckily, the majority of patrons at the Rep have kept its tickets for the shows that were postponed for next season, Lluberes said. The Rep plans to open a new season by March 2021.

“It’s really nice of them [the patrons]. A lot of theaters are in trouble right now and the audiences know that and we rely on our audiences to support us,” he said. “I think a lot of people have tried to help local theaters … even if it might be changed.”

The Fox Theatre in Detroit | Andrew Roth

Moving forward

Phillips said the State Theatre is uncertain about the future, particularly when it comes to the future of live, in-person performances. 

“In the beginning, I think everyone really thought that this was going to be a one to two month thing,” Phillips said. “There’s going to be so many safety precautions now.”

He said he’s not sure when the venue will open to the public, but the goal is to ensure a safe environment for staff, artists and patrons. 

The Rep just announced its upcoming season for March 2021, including a new musical that was supposed to be performed for the first time this past spring. 

Lluberes said those in the theater industry miss connecting with other people, and he said interacting virtually isn’t the same, but the theater has found ways to continue making art.

A production of “Into the Woods” by The Rep | The Rep photo

“Theater people, we solve problems. We solve problems with our imaginations — that’s what we do,” Lluberes said. “Theater people are really practical, even though people kind of think we’re crazy. We’re always creating cool things with shoestring budgets, making lakes out of cardboard.”

It’s more important than ever to tell stories, Lluberes said. And although the theater might be different with socially distant audience members and virtual concerts, he said it will ultimately survive the pandemic.

“Theater’s going to be extra. It’s going to be like technicolor. It’s going to be this thing that everyone is really craving,” he said. “The theater is thousands of years old — it’s survived the plague and horrible things in the past. It’s gone through crazy transformations, but we’ll come back from this.”

Supporting and investing money in local artists, artists of color, new writers and the theater in general, is important for the future of performing arts, Lluberes said. 

“These theaters… we need our audiences now more than ever,” he said. 

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Katie O'Brien Kelley
Katie O'Brien Kelley

Katie O'Brien Kelley is a Michigan State University graduate with degrees in journalism and theatre. She was previously a reporter, editor and podcast coordinator at The State News — Michigan State's award-winning student paper. As a reporter there, she covered the university's administration, including its mishandling of reports against former doctor Larry Nassar's abuse, as well as academics and student experiences. She was also previously an intern at the Lansing City Pulse.