U.S. theater never recovered after COVID — now change is a must With ticket sales way down and government relief mostly at an end, business as usual is not an option for nonprofit performing arts groups.

Theater never recovered from COVID — and now change is no longer a choice

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After taking a huge hit during the pandemic, theaters are working to recover. Ticket sales are way down. Government relief is mostly at an end, so theatres can no longer ignore long-standing issues. NPR's Chloe Veltman reports that performing arts groups around the country are finding they have no choice but to try something new.

CHLOE VELTMAN, BYLINE: Many of the problems facing the nonprofit theater industry in the U.S. right now have been around for ages.

RANDI BERRY: We were all living on the margins with the slightest - like, the tiniest margin for error.

PATRICK MUELLER: And we built it to speak to middle-class mainstream, frankly. We simply don't yet have the relationships to have an audience from marginalized neighborhoods.

NATAKI GARRETT: Our systems have really stopped working for us. All of that stuff is antiquated and based on an old paradigm.

VELTMAN: That's IndieSpace's Randi Berry, Control Group Productions' Patrick Mueller and Nataki Garrett of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. They say the arrival of the pandemic exacerbated these issues, but it has also been a kick in the pants.


VELTMAN: At Oregon Shakespeare Festival, securing a future means focusing on the stuff that most of us, as audience members, don't see, much less think about - namely overhauling systems behind the scenes at the nearly 90-year-old institution.

ISABEL WALKER: There are a couple edges that I might file down with our zippy.


VELTMAN: Props artisan Isabel Walker is building supports for shelves. The plan is to reorganize the storage of costumes and props.


VELTMAN: That's just a tiny piece of the monumental revamp happening at Oregon Shakespeare right now.

GARRETT: I have to actually change the way that we do development, the way that we market, the way that we do finance. I have to shift the way that IT function instead of sort of plugging in the holes and filling in the gaps, which is what we've been doing.

VELTMAN: That's interim executive artistic director Nataki Garrett. She was explaining in a recent staff meeting how Oregon Shakespeare planned to correct years of deficits and declines in revenue.

GARRETT: We didn't want to disturb the art. We have to disturb the art now.

VELTMAN: But the kind of ambitious reset Garrett imagines actually takes more money. The company hopes to launch an $80 million fundraising campaign and received over $4 million from its endowment to cover emergency operating costs. Garrett now says she wants millions more unlocked from this fund. Eric Johnson is chair of the endowment board. He says for legal reasons, his hands are tied for now.

ERIC JOHNSON: Additional distributions at this time of any substantial magnitude become extraordinarily difficult, if they're even possible.

VELTMAN: Garrett says she plans to do whatever she can to save her institution.


VELTMAN: For another performing arts group in the middle of the country, securing a future is about promoting diversity. As part of this drive, the Denver-based physical theatre company Control Group Productions recently acquired an old school bus.

MUELLER: I actually bought it on Craigslist from a guy in Ontario, Calif., flew out and drove it home.


VELTMAN: Artistic director Patrick Mueller says his nomadic company previously produced shows in warehouses, theaters and even an old slaughterhouse. But the social justice reckoning of the past few years has propelled Control Group to try to make more of an impact. And that means reaching new, more diverse audiences.

MUELLER: We are a small, grassroots organization. It is hard to sort of get beyond our friends of friends of friends.

VELTMAN: Staging plays on buses or trains or horse-drawn carts is nothing new. But associate director Caroline Sharkey says, in Control Group's productions, the bus isn't just a novelty. It is fully integrated into the action. Much of the group's recent immersive production about climate change unfolds on the bus.

CAROLINE SHARKEY: We're taking people to places that they know, and we're shifting their expectations for those places.

VELTMAN: The bus passes by some of Denver's most toxic hot spots, like the Suncor oil refinery and a polluted part of the Platte River on its way to a fictional safe harbor known as The Refuge.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) The Refuge, a thriving community where you'll be safe no matter what happens in the world outside.

VELTMAN: Control Group wants to engage people who live in places like Commerce City, where the oil refinery is located. Recently, it enlisted local environmental activist Harmony Cummings to help with outreach. But Cummings says the people who live in the shadow of the refinery often don't have the bandwidth to think about attending an experimental physical theater show on a bus.

HARMONY CUMMINGS: The problems in these communities - where am I going to live? do I have enough food? - are so large that it's hard to even talk to people about any of the environmental injustices.

VELTMAN: Artistic director Patrick Mueller gets this. He says they're currently developing partnerships with theater makers in underrepresented communities. But diversifying audience will take time.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (Imitating conga line song) Doot, doot, doot, ah. Doot, doot, doot, doot, doot, doot. Put more of it in there.

VELTMAN: Over in New York City, securing a future is all about sharing resources. The members of Rising Sun Performance Company are rehearsing a party scene in a new cooperative rehearsal space.

BERRY: As we saw during the pandemic, arts organizations that were working on their own were struggling on their own. When we have an amazing resource for the community, the more people that can get their hands in it, the better.

VELTMAN: That's Randi Berry. She's the executive director of IndieSpace, a nonprofit that provides support to New York City's sprawling indie theater community. It's one of the main forces behind the West Village Rehearsal Co-Op.

BERRY: A 99-year lease for arts and culture space in a new development in the Meatpacking District.

VELTMAN: The co-op is the result of a partnership between IndieSpace and several theater companies, as well as the local community board, politicians and property owners. In a city where it's not unusual to pay $50 or $60 an hour for rehearsal space, the co-op costs just $10 an hour. And selected Black and Indigenous theater makers have access for free.

NEDRA MARIE TAYLOR: Not a cent, which is great because we have not a cent right now.

VELTMAN: Nedra Marie Taylor is the co-founder of the Grove Theatre, a new endeavor using the co-op for community events, with the goal of eventually building a center for Black theater artists. She says the new shared rehearsal studio is vital to that effort. IndieSpace's Randi Berry says brokering the real estate deal for the West Village Co-Op took years, and there's already a waiting list of theaters that want to use it. So she wants to see the model replicated throughout New York City.

BERRY: We have to commit to doing this over and over and over again. That's when the real impact is felt.

VELTMAN: Big impact will come from making big changes. And this is now essential for securing the future of the industry. So says Teresa Eyring. She's executive director and CEO of Theatre Communications Group.

TERESA EYRING: When we get there, our theater ecology - it'll be in a place of vibrancy, where people are excited to be working in it.

VELTMAN: Eyring says theater companies are going to have to get used to thinking about their long-term future instead of only about tomorrow.

Chloe Veltman, NPR News.


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