Arts & Theater

Learning from the Pandemic to Build a Resilient US Theatre

Although the pandemic remains perhaps the most significant challenge to the sector in the history of US theatre, we found that it presented a remarkable opportunity, in that lobbying worked. As the federal government began rolling out programs to address the acute economic crisis, theatres grappled with the complexities of applying for support imagined primarily for businesses. The Performing Arts Alliance (a coalition of performing arts advocates) worked tirelessly to ensure that nonprofits could apply for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans offered by the Small Business Administration (SBA)—loans that would be forgiven if organizations could prove that they had been used on payroll costs. The most important legislation to prop up the sector was the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, operated by the SBA, which offered an unprecedented $16 billion, but focused on businesses rather than artists. Crucially, securing the extension of this urgent legislation to the nonprofit sector and its eventual passage required leaders to come together and pursue specific lobbying. This raises the question of whether, after the decades-long retreat in the aftermath of the culture wars of the nineties, theatre and the arts more broadly can now effectively make an argument for government support, in the wake of the pandemic.

We found that the challenges of the theatre sector in the United States are those of the society more generally: individualism and a dearth of collective endeavor; precarization of workers; decreased investment in the commons; political polarization; social isolation.

In short, we found that the challenges of the theatre sector in the United States are those of the society more generally: individualism and a dearth of collective endeavor; precarization of workers; decreased investment in the commons; political polarization; social isolation. We thus find it ever more urgent and important for the sector to think and operate as a sector, in a shared ecosystem. But this is no easy matter, given how varied that ecosystem is across an enormous national landscape.

We also see an opportunity now to make the case for theatre in relation to other post-pandemic revitalization efforts, including movements for social and racial justice, mental health, and the revitalization of urban cores. In fact, federal, state, and local arts service organizations are already making those arguments. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is actively developing promising partnerships with other government agencies, including Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency. There have even been calls for reconceptualizing culture as infrastructure in order better to support it. A key question, then, is how these various efforts might be aggregated or multiplied for greater effectiveness.

Two key recommendations involve thinking strategically about multiplier effects:

Perhaps most urgent for companies is advocacy: it is key to build coalitions and common messaging to advocate for sustained investments from public and private resources. To expand advocacy and lobbying efforts at all levels, organizations should educate themselves about what activities are permitted to them, instead of assuming that they are not allowed to advocate for themselves. The sector’s unprecedented success in securing government support to weather the pandemic showed the importance of this work; now is the moment to embark on more energetic advocacy and lobbying at the federal, state, and local level.

Funders can also help build the ecosystem. Instead of just funding individual artists and companies, they can help the sector function as a sector by bringing people to the table; helping develop models for public/private partnerships; and funding the “multipliers”: research, service organizations, arts journalism. As conveners, enablers of new thinking, and powerful advocates for theatre, funders are poised to make an enormous difference in the resilience of theatre.

Two linked recommendations may be surprising to theatremakers and those who support their work—they were certainly among the most surprising for us in our research. We find that they are critical for thinking about resilience, for companies as well as for the funders and supporters who could help enable shared solutions:

Theatres must face up to the fact that the climate crisis is here, and impacting their work. 

First, climate resilience: 
We found that most of the thinking to date has been about how theatre can help advocate for climate action, or how companies’ operations might be made more sustainable. Instead, we suggest, theatres must face up to the fact that the climate crisis is here, and impacting their work. Already in this moment we need adaptation as well as advocacy.

Consider how quickly conditions are deteriorating: in summer 2022,  Michael Paulson wrote in the New York Times about raging wildfires in California impeding the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and how climate change was impacting the beloved tradition of summer outdoor performance. By summer 2023, he was writing about how smoke from massive wildfires in Canada had forced Broadway theatres in New York City, some four-hundred miles away, to cancel performances. The saving grace was that some of those theatres had installed air filtration systems during COVID that were making it possible, barely, for the show to go on—assuming patrons were willing to brave the air outside to get there.

In the past year, floods have forced cancellations in Los Angeles, California; New York; Vermont—the list is likely much longer. Unfortunately, companies can rarely call on alternate forms of delivery to salvage the performances.

Our strong recommendation is that theatres confront the fact that the climate catastrophe will lead to canceled performances and other disruptions to business as usual. Companies need to build climate resilience and decarbonization into their current organizational models and future goals. The time to prepare is now, whether by making contingency plans or purchasing a generator. 

Preparation also involves recognizing what we learned from the pandemic: digital platforms and other forms of outreach offer a crucial lifeline, one that would allow theatres to switch modes rather than entirely cancel performances. In addition to enabling performances in the event of a new health emergency, streaming theatre can also preserve vital access to culture and protect companies’ livelihoods amid the climate catastrophe.

This leads directly to our recommendations regarding digital platforms. In 2021, increasing audience accessibility was identified as one of the key ways to reimagine the industry in a survey of theatre’s essential workers. Yet despite frequent claims during the pandemic that the accessibility of digital theatre was a crucial advance, “Zoom fatigue” now rules the day, and most theatremakers emphasize their desire to be back in a room with audiences. There is very little streaming of existing productions now, much less continued experimentation in the digital space. Though unions have worked out limited agreements, at least for the League of Resident Theatres (LORT), other obstacles remain, including worries about diluting the impact of in-person productions.

Yet a commitment to streaming in “normal” times would help build relationships with audiences and access to underserved communities, while developing and maintaining a robust alternative to in-person performance for the next crisis. It would also address ongoing calls to preserve access while caring for those who still face a significant threat from COVID. We see a role here for the NEA, as a federal agency, or for other funders, to work on issues of access, whether geographic or for the disabled. To reiterate, digital delivery systems are a key part of building resilience, not just in the face of another health emergency, but of climate catastrophe and other unknowns.

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