A year without (live) theater: A look back -- and ahead -- for suburban stages
A year ago, Paramount Theatre artistic director Jim Corti delivered one of the most heartbreaking announcements of his professional career. Minutes before the house opened for the March 12 performance of "The Secret of My Success," Corti gathered the cast, crew and orchestra onstage and informed them that the night's performance -- of a world premiere musical seven years in the making -- would be their last.
A similar announcement took place in Lincolnshire. After Gov. J.B. Pritzker shuttered large gatherings to combat the spread of COVID-19, Marriott Theatre executive producer Terry James laid off 300 artists and associates, including himself.
The news reached Drury Lane Theatre during a rehearsal for "Evita." Pre-pandemic, Drury Lane employed more than 400 theater artists, restaurant workers and event planners, said President Kyle DeSantis, grandson of founder Tony DeSantis. All but 30 were furloughed.
"It is a family business," said DeSantis, who's known some employees his entire life. "That was the hardest part. The people who work here on a daily basis are part of my family."
Twelve months later, suburban theaters remain shuttered with no reopening date in sight.
"Like the rest of the world, we thought (the shutdown) would be a relatively temporary blip," said Buffalo Theatre Ensemble artistic director Connie Canaday Howard. "It took a little while for it to sink in that this was not a blip."
And while newly unemployed theater artists worried about their health and financial security this past year, First Folio Theatre executive director David Rice voiced what everyone felt: Will we survive?
They answer, say artists, is a resounding yes.
"People have been predicting (theater's) demise for 2,000 years," Rice said. "I don't think it's likely in the next 2,000."
The passion for sharing narratives and helping connect people is all the motivation theater artists need, said Writers Theatre artistic director Michael Halberstam.
"Nothing is going to stop us from telling stories," he said.
But that takes money, and dark stages don't generate income.
Fortunately, many suburban theater subscribers and ticket holders elected to donate the cost rather than accept refunds theaters offered when forced to cancel their seasons. According to James, 95% of Marriott's 30,000 subscribers stood by the for-profit Lincolnshire theater as they have for 45 years.
"Without those subscribers we can't reopen," James said.
Still, lost ticket revenue dealt a devastating blow to large and small theaters alike. Metropolis Performing Arts Centre executive director Joe Keefe reported losses exceeding 70%.
Besides money, subscribers sent "really beautiful, personal notes to us about how they miss us and can't wait for us to come back," said Amelia Barrett, Buffalo Theatre Ensemble associate artistic director. "As much as we need and love them, I think it's returned."
For coronavirus relief, many theaters held fundraisers. Some turned to the Small Business Administration for Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster loans and Shuttered Venue Operators grants. Others received aid from the Illinois Arts Council and private philanthropic foundations.
To generate income and engage audiences, many did what they do best: They put on shows. Some unfolded virtually such as Metropolis' "Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery," filmed by Imagineering Studios using visual effects that made it appear multiple actors were in the same scene when they weren't. BTE did table chats with artists, subscribers and patrons. First Folio streamed an archival film of its 2013 show "Cymbeline: A Folk Tale with Music" along with scenes from Rice's original "The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story."
"We think those are the sweet spots for our audience at least," said Rice, who's considering streaming a pair of short, one-act plays. "It doesn't put us in direct competition with movies and TV shows on Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime but gives the feel of a live performance."
Writers Theatre offered digital versions of Poe tales and a virtual hybrid of Halberstam's one-man adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" as a way of saying to audiences "here's a lifeline to the art you want to support," Halberstam said.
Glenview's Oil Lamp Theater filmed its revival of Theresa Rebeck's one-woman show "Bad Dates" in its empty theater last summer, then held a drive-in premiere. Steel Beam Theatre in St. Charles introduced an online series showcasing female theater artists.
Northlight Theatre artistic director BJ Jones directed Steppenwolf Theatre's Rondi Reed and Francis Guinan in an online reading of Adam Szymkowicz's in-development play "Such Small Hands" that attracted 1,200 viewers. Meanwhile, staffers built bee and bat houses out of old sets. They sold 300.
"This has been a tough pause," said Jones, "but we haven't laid anybody off and in many ways we're working harder than ever."
Elgin's Janus Theatre explored telling stories six feet apart, which meant upending the traditional format and exploring new techniques.
"The plan is to tell these stories in ways that may be more episodic and easily digestible. That would mean more one-on-one experiences, shorter performance times and fragmented pieces that work together to make a whole experience. The audiences will be smaller as well," said founder/artistic director Sean Hargadon.
"Our old motto: 'Get close, no, closer' is out. That kind of intimacy does not exist anymore," he said.
Not in the immediate future -- onstage or off.
Artistic directors say they won't reopen without an OK from the Illinois Department of Public Health, the CDC and unions representing theater artists. And they'll follow safety guidelines including masking and social distancing. Still for many, the cost of staging shows for a limited capacity outweighs potential profits, meaning many theaters likely won't reopen until 2022.
One exception is Metropolis, which plans a socially distanced "Little Shop of Horrors" revival for May outdoors and under a tent.
"My job is to say to patrons we're going to invite you back, maybe at half capacity, but we're going to have fun and embrace this opportunity," Keefe said.
Drury Lane will follow suit. The Oakbrook Terrace theater announced this week it will begin previews of "Forever Plaid" on Sept. 17.
Steel Beam and Oil Lamp have committed to producing shows with small casts. First Folio's Rice thinks that makes sense financially and for safety.
"Theaters are in a difficult financial situation," he said. "Not just from not being able to produce for 18 months, but there will be extra costs going forward" to upgrade air filtration systems and ensure frequent sanitizing for example.
Northlight will trim its budget and pause its Evanston relocation, Jones said. But when construction on the new space commences, it will include options for cameras. While committed to live theater, Jones recognizes that filming live shows and streaming them online makes Northlight more accessible.
"All of this will become new revenue streams and, as theater gets more expensive, the additional revenue streams will become increasingly important," said Jones, referencing such online content as podcasts and interviews. "As audiences return there will be interesting and exciting opportunities that were informed by this moment."
DeSantis, however, says theater demands human interaction.
"I've never been a fan of videotaping," he said, "because it undermines what we do, which is the live performances."
BTE's Barrett disagrees. She says hybrids -- buoyed by newly harnessed energy and a desire to communicate -- are inevitable byproducts of the shutdown.
It's not a permanent substitute, says Halberstam, but virtual theater "allows us to play in a new sandbox."
And there are other benefits. Virtual readings for Paramount's new play development Inception Project attracted nearly 1,000 viewers, said Corti, and were "a huge boom to expanding the audience."
One kind of production doesn't negate another, said James, "they all have their place."
When live theater resumes, it will be stronger than ever, he said, "and we'll have added to that experience by what we've gone through."