How one theater company is coping with coronavirus : The Indicator from Planet Money How a theater company in Philadelphia is reacting to the existential threat posed by the coronavirus.
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An Artful Pivot

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An Artful Pivot

An Artful Pivot

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The Wilma Theater in Philadelphia has about 300 seats. It normally runs three to five plays a year. Back in March, the Wilma was forced to shut down because of coronavirus about six weeks before starting rehearsals for its next play, a play called "Is God Is."


And so suddenly, the theatre company had to figure out if there was any way to still produce the play, even though its actual theater had closed its doors and then how to sell that new production so that it could keep paying its workers and keep operating. Leigh Goldenberg, the managing director of the Wilma Theater, was determined to find out.

LEIGH GOLDENBERG: We didn't just say, oh, OK, it has to be canceled. Sorry. Let's figure out how that will work. We then went through at least four different iterations of what the production could be so that we could still tell the story, share the art and employ the folks involved.


VANEK SMITH: And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. The entire performing arts industry, an industry worth tens of billions of dollars, has been hit harder than almost any other part of the economy. Their business model requires live audiences, people to be packed into theaters and concert halls and opera houses. And it will be a while before that is possible again.

GARCIA: So today on show, how one theater, the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, is responding to this existential threat and how its story reflects the struggles of performing arts organizations all across the country.

When the Wilma Theater shut down back in March, it had been planning an upcoming run of its next play, "Is God Is," which was going to be the final play of the season for the theater.

VANEK SMITH: "Is God Is" is, like, the greatest title. So, Cardiff, what is this play about?

GARCIA: Yeah. So without giving away too much, the play is about twin sisters who reunite with their estranged mother and then go on a kind of rampage of revenge against their father for this, like, horrible crime that he committed years ago. It is a very, like, emotional and violent play. And when the theater was shut down, its managing director, Leigh Goldenberg, had to figure out what to do. And she did recognize that there was this one, like, tiny, tiny, tiny silver lining.

GOLDENBERG: We were a bit fortunate in the timing. Many of our colleagues around the country and the city were in the midst of a run. We were about six weeks out from starting rehearsals from "Is God Is," so we had time to punt and plan what we would want to do next.

VANEK SMITH: So Leigh and the cast and crew of the play got to work. First, they thought about maybe just postponing the play, putting it on later. But they realized that that probably was not going to work because coronavirus looked like it was going to be around for a while.

GARCIA: So then second, they thought about just filming the play in an empty theater and releasing the video, selling the video. But that would not have worked because it might have been unsafe for the actors. So then third, they figured, well, why not just do the play from home and film it using cameras at home? Some TV shows have done this.

VANEK SMITH: But crucial parts of the play include violence, people hitting each other savagely, blood everywhere. So they decided that couldn't work either.

GARCIA: And so, finally, the set and lighting designer said, hey, how about just a radio play? And the director of "Is God Is," James Ijames, remembers thinking, yeah, that could work, though he also remembers thinking it's going to require altering the play artistically.

JAMES IJAMES: The very first thing I thought about when we were like, let's do it as a radio play, I was like, well, how do we do the violence so it doesn't sound corny or doesn't that - you know, how do we create that sense of, oh, this is brutal without it sounding like a cartoon?

VANEK SMITH: But as he was working on it, James also realized that changing the play for radio might actually have some advantages.

IJAMES: There's one moment when a character is hit, and she gasps when she's hit. And I was like, that's so real to me that, like, I imagine - I've never been hit in the head with a rock, but, like, I imagine I would be shocked first, and then the pain would come. And so we got to do this really detailed work about the violence. Like, the breath is something that you don't always hear, especially in a theater the size of the Wilma.

GARCIA: So the Wilma settled on a radio play that you could listen to during a limited window of a few days. So if you bought a ticket, let's say, you could then listen to it via streaming online during those days. But while the theater was making these artistic adjustments, Leigh says it also had to solve new logistical problems that it had not faced before.

GOLDENBERG: We were testing different equipment. Our production manager was dropping things off at people's houses and helping them build little soundproof spaces and getting them the right microphones and adjusting Internet speeds and all of that fun stuff. So it was a mix of exploring the play itself but also what would this style of creating look like.

VANEK SMITH: The Wilma Theater also needed a new commercial strategy for "Is God Is."

GARCIA: The theater hosts an annual fundraising gala. And this year, they had to do it online on their website back in May. And it raised 25% less than they'd expected to before the pandemic. But still, at least it was something. The theater also got a loan from the government as part of the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses, a program that had been authorized by the big stimulus and aid bill passed back in March.

VANEK SMITH: As for the cast and crew, the Wilma Theater paid its actors for three weeks out of the seven weeks that they had expected to be paid. For the other weeks, the actors collected unemployment benefits, which had been expanded under the stimulus bill. The theater also honored its contracts with the play's designers, but it did not hire the usual crew to build the set, hang the lights, run the production, all that kind of thing.

GARCIA: So once the play had been produced and recorded, the Wilma Theater needed a way to sell it, to reach an audience that would actually tune in to hear it. So the theater decided to ask for a minimum donation of $10 to be able to hear the play any day between July 23 and July 26. Plus, people who had purchased subscriptions to the theater's season of plays could donate the cost of that subscription back to the theater instead of getting a refund. So all in all, the theater raised $57,000 in revenue for "Is God Is," Leigh says. That's a big loss from the money that the Wilma would have made by showing the play in the theater, but Leigh's focused on what the theater did make.

GOLDENBERG: Dollar for dollar, no, we did not bring in as much revenue as if this had sold out for four weeks in the theater. We had budgeted $114,000 in ticket revenue, so we didn't come close to that. But in terms of artistic fulfillment and what we're learning about creating work in this way and having revenue to offset some of those expenses, it does feel like a win for us.

GARCIA: The Wilma Theater is just one example, but adapting to survive is something that theaters and live performing arts organizations are struggling with everywhere now.

VANEK SMITH: Sunil Iyengar is director of research and analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts, the NEA.

SUNIL IYENGAR: Even at the very start of the pandemic in the U.S., between March and April, we found that performing arts employment dropped by - I can't believe this - 48%, about 50% cut in employment for workers in the performing arts industries. That's about 62,000 workers.

VANEK SMITH: As for the Wilma Theater, Leigh Goldenberg says that the experience of adapting a show at least means they will know how to do it again.

GOLDENBERG: Now we've shown that we are doing it. We are delivering what we said we would do. We didn't think it was possible. We went through all these different variations, but we did. We're closing out our season with the art that we intended.

GARCIA: Truth, of course, is that it's still unclear what comes next for the Wilma and for other theatre companies and for other performing arts organizations everywhere because just how much these adaptations really end up helping, especially if the coronavirus shutdowns last a while, is kind of an open question. But what else is there to do? The cast and crew of the Wilma, just like so many other people and businesses who are struggling right now, are doing what they can.

VANEK SMITH: But, you know, Cardiff, artists are tough people. There's a lot of adversity when you're trying to make art.


VANEK SMITH: And, you know, in theatre, they have that saying - the show must go on. And for now, the show is going on.

GARCIA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Brittany Cronin. THE INDICATOR's editor is Paddy Hirsch, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.


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