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Theater and What We'll Do Next Year

In the midst of a lot of anxiety, I wanted to talk to a fellow Artistic Director about how the national crisis is going to affect their theater next year.

Here's the interview:

ME:  Hey, how are you doing?

THEM:  I'm--what the person in your last interview say?

ME:  I've been better.

THEM:  I've been better.

ME:  I'm going to rename this series--I've Been Better.

THEM:  I hope it's a short series.

ME:  Can you tell me where your theater is at right now?

THEM:  Right now, we had one show left in the season that we were in rehearsals for, and it looks like it's not going to happen.

ME:  I'm sorry.

THEM:  It's very sad.

ME:  I know you and I talked about the problem with bringing certain shows back--as in delaying them.  Can you talk a little about that?

THEM:  Yes.  When all of this is over, and I hope it's soon, we are going to have to return to some of the business models we had before.  One of those models--and this may change--is that audiences get excited to hear about new shows, new projects.  We use that excitement to sell season tickets.  As much as an audience might be excited to see a show right now, if we say to them 'Half of next season is going to be what we cancelled this season' you can see that excitement waning.  You can see them, uh, wanting to put all of this behind them including any plans they might have had.  I think a lot of people might want a clean slate.

ME:  But how do you rectify that with just telling artists roles they looked forward to or projects they looked forward to are just--over?

THEM:  My plan is to integrate this show we were planning on doing this season as a special presentation next summer so that the season we already planned on can go on as we had intended.  We already have teams in place for all of next season's shows, so it's not as simple--even if we wanted it to be--to say 'We're just going to cancel one thing and do another.'  It's not that simple.

ME:  It's hard to plan anything right now.

THEM:  Theater--so much of theater--is about control.  We have no control.  This is out of our control.  I'm hearing people go 'This can't go into summer.'  We have no control over that.  We have no control over anything.  We need to start figuring out a way to accept that, because right now we can't make any smart decisions, because we're in a state of denial.  We have to get rid of this denial as soon as possible, but we have some time, because there's no point deciding anything right now other than, sadly, to cancel things.

ME:  What was the discussion like to cancel?

THEM:  It was a no-brainer.  I--I think--I would think--and I know you have shows left in your season too--

ME:  Yes.

THEM:  I would think the logical thing is that this season--the remainder of it--is going to be a wash for almost everybody.  It might not be for you, because you have a smaller space, but I think for bigger places--my theater seats about four hundred.  There was no question we had to cancel the last show.

ME:  Will you be able to come back from this?

THEM:  Well, you know, I've seen some shaming going on about what people or businesses or whatever needed to set aside to weather this storm, and I gotta tell you, you'd need to be Walmart or Target to make enough  money to set aside enough to weather something of this magnitude.  Unless your approach to it is keeping costs low, like you talked on the phone with me a few days ago about overhead--

ME:  Yes.

THEM:  You asked about it--about overhead.  We keep overhead low.  We keep costs low.  That's why I'll still have a theater in a few months.  If you're a theater that hasn't been smart with your finances, my heart goes out to you, because I don't know how you're going to have a theater when all this is over.  Not just because the money won't be there, but because this is going to reveal how people do business.  It's going to reveal what shape everybody was in.  If we all need to be bailed out, people are going to have to be--donors and people--are going to have to be very smart about who they bail out, and if you're in a position where you can say--We're a good investment because we only this little bit of help now that this is over versus--We need millions of dollars--I think you're going to be in trouble.

ME:  I know this, but for people reading, you've been running your theater for--

THEM:  Twelve years.

ME:  And there was one before that right?

THEM:  For--almost ten years.

ME:  So you're not just shooting off at the--

THEM:  Oh no.  I came to this theater at the end of 2008.  Everyone told me I was crazy for even accepting this job.  But this was my dream.  I said I would make it work.  We made very--collectively, all of us--made very careful decisions to make sure we'd be here today feeling like we have a shot.  There were decisions that put us behind the eight ball when it came to looking like we were doing well versus DOING well--do you know what I mean?

ME:  Yes.

THEM:  I saw theaters that were spending, spending, spending and people were telling us to do the same because we looked shabby in comparison, and one of those theaters announced they're closing their doors for good today.  I don't take any joy in saying that, but I do hope there can be some learning done from this.

ME:  How is the morale right now?

THEM:  F____ing terrible.

ME:  (Laughing.)  Sorry.  I have to--

THEM:  It's okay.  We have to laugh where we can.

ME:  What's been the hardest thing so far?  The cancellation?

THEM:  Not being able to get my staff in a room together and talk to them face-to-face.  A lot of this has to be done digitally, which I don't like.  If you're going to disappoint people, I think you need to do it in person, but that's not possible right now.  That's hard for me.

ME:  How are you doing personally?

THEM:  If you told me right now that I was going to get sick but get better and that everyone else I know would be fine, I'd be all right.  I'm very scared for everyone else.  I work with people who have compromised immune systems.  I work with--our audience has a lot of older people in it.  People I love.  People I've gotten to know very well over the years.  These are people who are telling us we should stay open.  I--I worry they're not taking this seriously.

ME:  Is this going to affect the kind of stories we tell from this point on?

THEM:  We know how to tell these stories, but I think--It's hard, because right now I'd like to throw out my entire next season and just program comedies.  That's how I feel right now.  I hope that it propels us to tell stories that have a broader worldview.  That reach out even farther than we've been reaching.  That try to get people to think globally, because I think what this is showing us is that we do not look at ourselves as a community.  We are still very focused on the tribe of one.  I'm seeing people who have no regard for the elders in their community.  The sick in their community.  All this time we thought we were helping people--through theater--understand the value of community.  This shows that we're not there yet.

ME:  But are the people who aren't there yet going to theater?  Or were they going to theater to begin with?

THEM:  Then let's talk about how to get them there.

ME:  Are we going to lose audiences for good after this do you think?

THEM:  It's going to be hard to say.  Some people are going to be scared to come back and some people are going to need it more than ever.  After 9/11, the movie theaters were packed.

ME:  That was because people wanted to see Glitter though.

THEM:  (Laughs.)  Kevin.

ME:  Why are you laughing?

THEM:  (Laughs.)  Some people are going to need us more than ever.

ME:  Not to self-aggrandize--

THEM:  No, but we are the last breath of--this is the last place--aside from restaurants, and they're also in the throes of it--where we have the communal experience.  This is an attack on community.  We can't just say--It's over we lost.  We can't give up community.

ME:  Someone said we're all going to become like the people in Wall-E.

THEM:  There's the fight now and the fight later.  The fight now is just to keep everybody safe and help spread the word about that.  Later on we need to point to this and say 'Remember how isolated and alone you felt?  Some of you were feeling that before this all happened?  Theater is the cure.  Art is the cure.  Creating is the cure.'

ME:  What have you been doing to keep yourself mentally well?

THEM:  Eating.

ME:  (Laughs.)  That's good.

THEM:  I'm teaching myself all my mother's recipes.  I've probably given my partner food poisoning.

ME:  Is it helping?

THEM:  The food poisoning?

ME:  (Laughs.)  And the cooking?

THEM:  It works and then it doesn't and then it does.

ME:  Same for me.

THEM:  What are you doing?

ME:  Watching the dumbest content I can find.

THEM:  No Casablanca?

ME:  Not yet.

THEM:  This a long haul.  I keep saying 'Pace yourself.'

ME:  That's true.

THEM:  How are you?

ME:  I've been better.

THEM:  We need t-shirts.

ME:  Can that be a fundraiser?

THEM:  Let's do it.

ME:  Love you, my friend.

THEM:  Love you too.

Them is an Artistic Director.


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