Commentary

Our theatres have gone dark and our souls are poorer for it. But don’t forget: The artists are literally poorer.

November 25, 2020 6:02 am

The writer, left, in Guys and Dolls at the Old Log Theatre in Excelsior. “We don’t do it for the money. If we were after the money, we wouldn’t be working in regional theatre houses.”

It was the first week of March, and I had just gotten back to Minneapolis after a long day flying back from D.C. where I was covering the Super Tuesday election night returns. I did not really think much of it at the time — government guidance was still to not wear a mask, and there was no recommendation on social distancing. Once I got home, I grabbed a quick dinner and drove downtown to the Orpheum Theatre. I had a ticket to that evening’s touring performance of My Fair Lady. I moved through the security line to the lobby waiting with several hundred other guests — all sans mask — until I was able to proceed through the crowd to my usual seat at the front of the orchestra section. 

I distinctly remember one of the actors was quite the expectorator while he was annunciating. I enjoy being up close so I can feel like I am immersed in the action on stage. That’s just part of what makes the live theatre experience so special. Had I known what we all know now…

Although the old mantra that the Twin Cities has more theatre seats per capita than any other area outside of New York is probably not true, we do have a robust theatre scene. Many of which are non-profit and rely upon ticket sales, grants and donations to keep the lights on. Beyond the national touring productions that come through town at a steady clip, we also have a deep bench of artists in our community who have spent their lives working and living right here in the Twin Cities; I count myself as one of them. 

Minnesota is enduring another COVID-19 spike and another round of restrictions on business and government services after they were loosened over the summer. But there was one industry in Minnesota and around the country that never reopened and won’t be any time soon: Theatre. 

A couple weeks after I saw My Fair Lady, theatres went dark. Although it took a bit longer, I finally got emails about auditions I had lined up saying that the companies were suspending their production schedule until further notice. Within weeks, the theatre job board Minnesota Playlist went empty.  

Actors, directors, stagehands, stage directors, artisans, designers, musicians and anyone else in the industry often goes through regular bouts of unemployment and underemployment. We all supplement our incomes with odd jobs in the “gig economy” or with a part time job. Here in Minnesota, most productions translate into a couple months of work. Generally, four weeks of rehearsal and then a run of a show that lasts anywhere from a week to a couple months. There are two theatres in the suburbs, The Old Log and Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, which often support runs of three months or more. 

With COVID shutdowns, both our theatre jobs and many of our side jobs began to dry up. While some in the community are able to live off of their non-theatre jobs and savings, others are solely on unemployment and whatever meager savings they managed while living as artists. Some in the theatre community may be out of work for a year; the current unemployment system was never intended for that circumstance.

I am fortunate enough to have work to pay the bills, but I have logged on to social media over the past few months to see several of my friends and former castmates asking for help and advice about everything from COBRA coverage to unemployment to emotional support. Enhanced unemployment payments have expired and those on unemployment will see smaller checks. 

According to state data, 18,500 Minnesotans in the entertainment, sports, art and design sector have filed for unemployment benefits since March 16. 

What happens in a theatre in front of an audience only happens once. Photo courtesy of Aaron Booth.

Union actors rely upon the union for their health insurance.  For stage actors and managers that’s the Actor’s Equity Association. To qualify for health insurance for a particular year, you need to work 20 weeks. With theatres dark this year, most actors will not qualify for union insurance, though they may qualify for expensive COBRA coverage or coverage under the Affordable Care Act. And now we learn union insurance premiums are rising, too. 

And, getting back to work will require more than flipping a switch. Staging a production involves months of planning and work like set building, costume design, casting and rehearsals. The biggest production expenses are front-loaded before a single audience member takes a seat. Even with a vaccine, any large-scale productions would take at minimum a couple months to open. 

Even if we can keep the audience safe, performers would be at risk from projecting on stage and sharing small spaces backstage. 

Put together a scenario where you have a dozen or more cast members and stagehands backstage in that space who are sweating and exerting themselves physically and you have a situation where a virus could spread easily.  In normal times, it is not uncommon for a cold to go around the cast. In times like these, it could be just as easy for a deadly virus to quickly circulate among a cast and crew. 

The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis announced in May that it would cut the budget for its 2020-2021 season by 60%, reducing the number of productions from 11 to three beginning in March of next year. Among the productions cut was the annual production of A Christmas Carol. The last year the Guthrie did not produce A Christmas Carol was 1975. More than any of the other cancellations and closings in the Minnesota theatre world, the Christmas Carol is the one that hits home with many in the community. Most of us in the theatre world have been involved in some way or another in at least one production of A Christmas Carol at the Guthrie Theater over the years. (The Guthrie has since announced that it recorded a special pared down version of A Christmas Carol that audiences will be able to purchase tickets to stream this holiday season.)

A friend messaged me after the Christmas Carol news was announced and said it was finally hitting home. Indeed, in the coming months, some in the industry will decide to pursue other careers, leaving our theatre community smaller and less vibrant and diverse than it was before the pandemic. 

The experience of live theatre is totally unlike TV or film. What happens in a theatre in front of an audience only happens once. There is a special connection that an audience and cast share during a live performance. In a way, it is like a secret that what happens within the walls of that theatre only happens once in front of that one audience and is never seen again. Everyone — from the actors to the crew to the audience — come to the theatre with things happening in their lives. The goal is always to have a consistently good performance from night to night to ensure every audience member gets their money’s worth. But sometimes an actor reads a line a slightly different way or a musical phrase gets jumbled but there’s beauty in the variation, even the imperfection. 

One night my pants ripped, and I performed a couple scenes of Guys and Dolls with a fairly substantial hole in my trousers. During A Christmas Carol I accidentally kicked off one of my shoes into the audience, dumped the other shoe backstage and finished a scene change and a waltz like shoeless Aaron.

A show can also grow over the course of a run. A fan regularly traveled from Savage to see Guys and Dolls in Excelsior over our three and a half month run. The show he saw over that period included a couple casting changes, a blocking change or two, a couple understudies and a performance that had evolved from the first time we moved from the rehearsal room to the stage.   

Film work requires long days of multiple takes, cast members you may not ever see on set and little to no immediate response to your work. But on stage, you have a live audience to feed off. In live theatre, you get an immediate reaction to your work, whether through applause or laughter or tears. 

Theater allows us to witness — to live and inhabit — distant times and places. It allows us to escape from reality, to learn something about ourselves and to experience great works of literature in a vibrant way that you can’t with the printed word alone. 

We don’t do it for the money. If we were after the money, we wouldn’t be working in regional theatre houses. We do what we do because we love it. It gives us purpose to give some of ourselves to an audience. The excitement of knowing there is a house full of patrons waiting to see a production for the first time — and likely the last time for most of the audience — is something that cannot be matched. 

What can you do to help? Consider supporting the Actor’s Fund, which helps actors, behind the scenes technicians and artisans as well as musicians. Even beyond the COVID-19 crisis, they provide critical support services for the community like finding affordable housing and health insurance, senior care, career counseling and employment training. 

Beyond helping artists and technicians, there are non-profit theatre companies you can help directly. Consider purchasing a gift certificate for companies such as The Ordway in St. Paul. Buying the gift certificate now will help the company weather the next several months, and you will be able use that gift certificate when the theatre is able to reopen. While not a complete list, other non-profit theatre organizations include Theatre Latte Da, Park Square Theatre, The Hennepin Theatre Trust, The Guthrie, The Penumbra, The History Theatre and the Pillsbury House Theatre, which is just a couple blocks north of where George Floyd lost his life. 

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Aaron Booth
Aaron Booth

Aaron Booth is a Twin Cities actor and elections reporter and analyst for Decision Desk HQ who is a regular contributor to the Reformer.

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