BWW Interview: Mark Fields of THE GRAND OPERA HOUSE & THE PLAYHOUSE
This is the 4th of Aisle Say's conversations with arts professionals in Delaware.
Convulsive events happen. Sometimes they turn from considerable to colossal. The implications generally tend to take years to play out and, in worse cases, spiral into unpredictable and unintended consequences.
Who would have thought that a stock market crash in NY in 1929 would contribute to the rise of fascists in Europe? Or the collapse of the sugar cane trade in 1918 Cuba would lead to Communist Revolution? Or President "W"' s pique with Sadaam Hussein, would spawn the first preemptive war (sans evidence) in American history and the rise of the Arab Spring? Or Mia Farrow's marriage to Woody Allen would beget Ronan Farrow (who suspiciously looks a lot like Frank Sinatra), whose subsequent investigative reporting gave core and credence to #MeToo.
The world is interconnected. The Delaware arts community lives in symbiosis with the financial well-being of our state, our cultural heritage, our future and simply who we are.
4:10 pm on March 12 2020 Mark Fields, ED of The Grand and The Playhouse, received a call from the governor's office. The message will live embedded in Mark Field's memory as sure as JFK's assassination or 911. "We had loaded in the set for "The Play That Goes Wrong" that morning. At 7:30pm we were expecting 900 patrons. Then EVERYTHING went wrong, not just the play! The show would not go on".
'All our revenue stopped in a moment's time. We sell merchandise at The Playhouse. We rent rooms in both venues. We have 5 resident companies in The Grand, all of which are viable parts of our economy. And, within a short period of time, donations slowed down".
In this context Aisle Say hates to use the word 'unprecedented' as much as he abhors 'unique'. BUT, what we are living through now is not 911. 2-3 weeks after that horror, the world slowly began to rebuild. Now, due to abysmal federal preparation and planning, the light at the end of the tunnel will be lit and directed by gubernatorial leadership, not the WH. (Historically speaking, Trump's use of the phrase 'light at the end of the tunnel' was an ironic choice. During Vietnam, Gen Westmoreland used that line repeatedly as he lied to the American public about events on the ground half a world away).
Continues Fields, "3 of our Broadway series were lost. We had to postpone "The Color Purple' and "Fiddler'. That was 18 total nights of performance there alone. At The Grand the grand total was 27 shows postponed. After all these postponements, we were looking at a $4million shortfall".
'However, we have every intent to stage the shows and like all other organizations, we have asked our patrons to hold on to their tickets for future productions or donate them back".
Like every arts group The Playhouse/Grand brain trust are creating models and scenarios going forward as intricate as those of the CDC. Says Fields, "it's a different future for we have no idea what the future is...".
Daily Zoom and Skype meetings with the execs are just one of the new norms. Various scenarios are brainstormed. While the subject is serious, the staff also uses the time to stay connected with one another and be human. Fields mentions that they have had Hawaiian shirt day. Knowing that Programming VP Steve Bailey to be quite the self-styled international gourmand and Amy Watson-Bish an award-winning baker, perhaps there are foodie 'time-outs".
There are ongoing conversations with DE Arts Alliance, DE Division of the Arts and even a Zoom Town Hall with John Carney on the local level.
Nationally, for several years The Grand has worked with Target Research Group (TRG) out of Colorado. They teach arts marketers, fundraisers, and executive leaders how to grow sustainable revenue and patronage and have hundreds of similar clients across the globe. As such, they provide insight on updates and scenarios on how colleagues are responding.
The Grand is a member of the Association of Performing Arts Professionals, yet another global organization of presenting organizations. (Aisle Say attended this past January's 4 day NY conference and chatted with The Grand's Matthew Hubner and Wilmington's Cultural Ambassador, Tina Betz).
Aisle Say recalls in 2008 during the banking implosion and resultant recession that reports surfaced that The Grand would shutter. As a native Delawarean with a lifetime of arts involvement, this was absolutely incomprehensible, horrifying. The cultural center of the state would be sucked into a whirlpool of bankruptcy? Aisle Say checked. The rumors weren't far off.
This time, says Fields, it's different. In '08, then ED Steve Bailey, Fields and their board had to 'convince' the state and philanthropists on the necessity that The Grand and The Playhouse remain solvent.
"Now everyone realizes the estimable value of not only those landmark institutions but arts in general. There was no more convincing. Now, all hands on deck. We had a virtual meeting with Mayor Purzycki. He said without The Grand, The Playhouse and The Queen there would be no Wilmington"!
Hesitant decision makers of years past are responding to the exigency. One can add Buccini/Pollin Group to the mix; owing to the tens of millions BPG has invested in the city and New Castle County. Aisle Say made a comment in an article decades ago about BPG being then-Mayor Baker's best friend. The quote remains true today.
Fields reports so far, no furloughs. "We have been told we will be getting some federal PPE (Paycheck Protection Plan) money, but have not seen it yet, but it won't come close to addressing the entire loss".
The Grand's marketing department of Terri Cruz, Andy Truscott, Gaby Indellini and Amy Watson-Bish have come up with ideas to keep the organization in the public's virtual eye. There has been an online competition to 'color' the façade of The Grand.
Years ago, WHYY-tv videoed over 14 Grand performers and interviewed them. These archives have now become quite valuable. There are 'watch' parties on Face Book every Tuesday and Thursday at 7pm. Melissa Ethridge and Chicago are part of those interviews, among others.
In their community engagement efforts, each year 25,000 school kids attend matinees in their halls, many of whom have never seen a stage show before. (Proceeds from The Grand Gala go to that effort). Study guides are now being prepared for these programs to access online. Some of the content involves local artists being videoed.
Aside from the financial impact to Delaware of $150millon, there is equal emotional impact in the arts that enriches our lives.
Fields speaks for this entire arts community when he comments: "We are social animals. Once we are comfortable, there will be a rush of those wishing a live experience. Following this dreadful 'twilight zone' experience, we will all come out of this better for it and with an even greater sense of community".
A final note: In isolation, many of us are lonely. The universal antidote is human connection. In fact, we are hard-wired for connection - as we demonstrate every time we come together around a common purpose or crisis.