Commentary: Chicago’s theaters won’t survive without relief

Commentary: Chicago’s theaters won’t survive without relief

A ghost light illuminates the dormant Nederlander Theatre on June 22, 2020, in Chicago.
A ghost light illuminates the dormant Nederlander Theatre on June 22, 2020, in Chicago. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune)

 


If you walked into a Broadway In Chicago theater right now, you would see a single bulb lit on each of our stages. Referred to in the theatrical world as a ghost light, it barely illuminates sets frozen in time by the COVID‐19 pandemic. Broadway In Chicago’s five theaters are among the city’s roughly 250 theaters that were the first businesses to close and likely will be the last to open during the pandemic.

The Goodman’s executive director, Roche Schulfer, has called Chicago “the Silicon Valley for theater” because we have more startup theater than anywhere in the world. That ability to see more new work on Chicago’s stages than in any other city is deeply woven into the city’s cultural fabric for both residents and tourists.

But, unlike a tech startup that can allow its workers to work from home or a restaurant that can serve a portion of its fare through takeout and outdoor dining, it is actually inside where theater magic happens live — in spaces that connect performers and audiences through irreplaceable shared experience.

Yes, performances can be livestreamed, but that’s not where theater lives. And livestreaming can’t support the city’s theater companies and their actors, musicians, stage crews, theater staff and professionals who rely on presenting magical performances within that special space. Now these creatives and artisans, who have spent their lives developing their craft, are home, powerless to create.

Over the course of a year, Broadway In Chicago alone employs 1,000 people whose livelihood and families depend on theater. We’ve made painful decisions, furloughing staff at the top of their professional careers, many with us for 20 years. The same thing is happening for our treasured theaters throughout the city.

We rightfully feel compassion hearing stories of businesses impacted by COVID-19 and how it affects their world, but nobody is talking about theater.

Not only has there been no revenue, but tens of millions of dollars have been refunded for tickets to canceled or postponed shows. Broadway In Chicago’s 1.7 million theatergoers provide vital support to the city’s economy, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in economic output annually. We should be concerned for all our theaters, not for when they will come back but whether they can come back at all.

Our great city has supported small not‐for‐profit theaters, whose mission is to create art, push the envelope and challenge us to explore stories that need to be told. They often exist with slim annual budgets, heavily relying on donors to supplement their ticket revenues.

Even large institutional icons like the Lyric Opera and the Joffrey Ballet are no different, counting on benevolent donors, especially if they’re dark or not producing for a year or more. They won’t survive if donors and government don’t support theater, even in the midst of a world with unending urgent needs.

People point to the federal government’s financial support, but the Paycheck Protection Program doesn’t support Broadway, or Broadway In Chicago. We’re too big for PPP and too small for any major federal support. For those grateful theaters that received PPP, it ends this month even as theaters remain shut down indefinitely. The city and state are working on guidelines for this sector, but the federal government is silent on support for theater.

Now we spend every day scheduling and rescheduling our performance calendars. Drafting and redrafting protocols with health and clean building professionals. Tackling the realities of budgeting for the next three to five years to find a way that we can all enjoy an evening in the theater again. Leaving us with more questions than answers.

What will the economics look like? Our budgets will swell in our efforts to keep patrons safe. Our marketing dollars will increase to reach a smaller audience getting comfortable with our new normal. How long will it take for our theaters to be allowed to operate, and when will audiences feel comfortable to be together again?

How do we protect the actors and musicians who can’t wear masks? What happens if a touring actor gets sick? Does that show quarantine for two weeks and skip cities? Thinking through these levels of complexity is akin to playing 3D chess — intersecting Chicago with touring Broadway, as well as the development of new work on Broadway and here.

Some theaters will open sooner than others. Some will have reduced capacity, be outdoors or perform online. But whether they’ll exist, much less thrive, is not apparent. For Broadway, Broadway tours and Broadway In Chicago, our economics simply won’t work with social distancing and reduced capacity. We’re counting on science to deliver us therapeutics and vaccines (when?) and technology to offer up contact tracing tied to ticketing.

Theater needs relief, as much if not more than many other industries, and no one is talking about it. We can’t let the bright light of Chicago’s theater community be reduced to a ghost light.

 

 

Lou Raizin is president of Broadway In Chicago.