BWW Feature: THE SHOW MUST GO ON: Austin's Theater Community Faces This Uncertain Time With Resolve and Creativity
Thanks to the media, a tailored lexicon always emerges during an alarming national event. The coronavirus pandemic is no different. "Unprecedented is the word that always gets batted around. But it's really the most appropriate: an unprecedented situation. Nobody really has all the answers." asserts Lara Toner, Artistic Director of Austin Playhouse. "The mantra I'm using right now is: Everyone knows something. No one knows everything. Together, we all know a lot. We're trying to get as many perspectives as possible so we have all the best ideas to move forward."
Add "essential" to the 2020 pandemic dictionary. Every business sits in 1 of 2 camps: essential or non-essential. Though theaters and performance spaces are deemed non-essential, "It's important to remember that thousands of jobs come from the theater," stresses Nat Miller, Associate Artistic Director of ZACH Theatre, the oldest continuously active professional theater company in Texas. "It's not an industry that's just a luxury. People make their living off it too. We're the same as any other industry in that sense. The biggest difference is that as the world opens back up, we're going to be one of the last businesses to be able to do so because our patron and subscriber base tends to be older."
While each theater faces its own unique challenges, all agree they've never faced anything like this before. Hyde Park Theatre's Artistic Director Ken Webster remembers the longest stretch they had gone without doing a play was one canceled performance of FronteraFest because of icy roads back in the early 2000s. "We now haven't had a live performance in the theater since March 21st," he reflects.
Zero performances result in historically low utility bills, but bills nonetheless. Hyde Park Theatre still faces paying fixed costs such as rent, staff payroll, utilities, and insurance with a finite amount of income. Thankfully, it finds itself securely weathering the storm for now due to Webster's preparedness. "I'm kind of a nervous Nellie. Over the years, I've been building up our savings, not because I thought there would be a pandemic, but just in case there was any kind of catastrophe. This turned out to be a good thing considering the events that have transpired this year."
Faithful patrons and partners show their love through generous donations and support of the digital content Hyde Park has churned out. "I've been really happy with the amount of donations we got from all of this online programing. I didn't expect so many people to donate or for it to be so successful" Webster says.When the city shut down in late March, people clung to the word "temporary." Many assumed the closures would last for a few weeks and then, boom, back to normal. But weeks stretched into months as the sobering reality of the protective measures set in. "We've had to furlough 75% of our staff," says Miller, "We don't know if we're going to have to do more. Any financial pressures we've had in the past pale in comparison to what this is doing. We're looking at operating at a loss for the first time in 20 years, which is difficult for us."
The city-wide forced closures to prevent the virus's spread prove an extraordinary challenge for all theaters. As "temporary" closures morph into "indefinitely", theaters rush to produce quality, revenue-generating content. "As is always the case historically, theatres are being called on to be incredibly creative with how they keep going," Toner explains. "And the difficulty is that we're trying to do this lightning fast evolution and adapt to some stressful, crazy circumstances with something that would normally take much more time and thought."
For now, they must stay nimble and agile-more popular vocabulary-which means mastering the medium of digital media. They post daily videos of past performances, interviews, stories, and songs to stay relevant, keep patrons engaged, and generate revenue. The Austin Playhouse produced a small monologue series called Today's Gratitude while Hyde Park Theatre's YouTube channel streams a video premiere of a past show every weekend. At the ZACH, they're highlighting the students in their education program who didn't get a Senior Showcase. Miller reveals, "we're also doing mini-documentary about our production of A Christmas Carol last year. We'll have our production team talk about what they do so audiences get more insight into what happens backstage. There's a lot of creative things happening."
But many theaters, including the ZACH, find adapting to a solely digital platform a necessary difficulty. "That's just not what we do," Miller remarks truthfully. "We're not digital. But right now, we need digital content to stay connected to our patrons online and to stay present. There's so much content out there now, so how do you stay relevant, but true to your mission and identity? It's honestly not about growing our artistic vision, but about maintaining our brand. The goal is not to replace theatre with some kind of digital media, but to keep a digital presence so people know to come back. We're keeping a hopeful presence and being creative in how we solve these problems. This is all getting us to a place where we can have live gatherings again, because that is the crux of what we do."
But with unprecedented challenges come unexpected delights. These joys-overwhelming generosity, unforeseen connectedness, and surprising creativity-preserve hope for the future and perseverance in the present. Miller describes the bonding that's happened across departments at ZACH. "Everyone is now wearing many hats of different departments, which has been a great experience. In the administrative and production teams, there's always been a divide. This time has broken down the separation. That's a nice surprise and a way to bring us all together as a staff and as a group of artists."Two theater companies, Street Corner Arts and Capital T Theatre, paid their rent to Hyde Park Theatre for their cancelled shows in what Webster describes as a "selfless" act. "I can't begin to tell you how important it is to the survival of the theater to have rental revenue we thought was going to be lost. It's really heartwarming."
The younger members of Austin's theater community also stay positive despite unknown future in their majors of choice. Joshua Denning, Head of Theatre at McCallum Fine Arts Academy, paints a picture of resilient students eager for the future. "What I see in my classes is that my students are excited to have a new start. I haven't seen a lot of apprehension or despondency. This is the hand they were dealt. This is how their senior year ended and how their freshman year of college started. But they've worked so hard and are just getting in there and playing the game, no matter what."
Resilience, along with uncertainty, best describes the vision of the future. "After the Spanish flu of 1918, it was the Roaring Twenties," Miller says. "People came out, new art and culture bloomed. People wanted to be around each other. I'm hopeful that this is the next chapter after this pandemic. And I hope that people can stay afloat and keep their organizations alive to thrive after this is over."
Hope also permeates the folds of Austin as Texas begins a phased reopening. Bouncing back from the economic downturn won't be quick or easy, but "cultural recovery is really key to economic recovery," Toner states. "You want the city to be a place where people want to live and visit when we're out of this. I don't believe that it's an "either or" thing. We can protect culture and still protect people."
Whatever the future holds, this is just an intermission. It may be longer than 15 minutes, but the theater has always been a place anchored in resilience. It may look different when it comes back, but you can bet your bottom dollar it will survive. Webster concludes, "It's going to be a great day for Austin where we're able to have live theater again." As for now, the show must go on.