As the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic has widened its reach, most of the world’s populace is getting used to the reality that new health mandates could change in the matter of a few hours.
Earlier this month, Washington state officials most commonly recommended people be diligent about washing their hands, stay home if they feel sick and other doable adjustments to everyday routines. But soon schools statewide saw closures through April. Movie theaters, bars and other public spaces were closed in the short term. Gatherings constituting more than 250 people were barred. Then that number shrunk to 50.
Restaurants, if not having to temporarily close, have had to readjust their practices, focusing exclusively on car-side and to-go alternatives and encouraging prospective patrons to opt for gift-card purchases (a measure that could change by the time this article is published). The workforce, and the stock market, have taken major hits. It’s an especially worrisome period for industries that rely on public events to stay afloat such as arts and entertainment communities.
In a series of interviews, representatives from local arts institutions on the Eastside discussed what they’ve been doing amid coronavirus concerns, what they’ve been struggling with and how they’re looking at the future.
“I’ve never seen this in my life, and I’ve been playing in the Seattle scene my entire life,” Jeff Lockhart, executive director of the Kirkland Performance Center (KPC), who also works as a musician, said. “I’ve never seen a time where there is no music, there is no clubs.”
‘The unknown makes it very, very difficult to plan’
Many community arts staples, with all organization representatives interviewed following state guidelines closely, have seen their future plans canceled and/or postponed.
The KPC, for instance, postponed all performances through April 30. Bothell-based Northshore Performing Arts Foundation’s (NPAF) two major upcoming shows — performances from “Hamilton” tribute act Rise Up and ABBA cover band ABBAFab — have been deferred, respectively, to May 31 and to the next season.
Programming for Issaquah’s Village Theatre is canceled through March 31 but, according to executive producer Robert Hunt, will likely see the cancellation period last longer than that.
The Meydenbauer Center has seen significant cancellations and postponements from clients building-wide. Redmond’s SecondStory Repertory was three performances into its latest show, “The Fantasticks,” before canceling remaining dates (a subsequent production, “Runaway Bunny,” is being rescheduled).
Notably, Mercer Island’s Stroum Jewish Community Center (the J) postponed its annual Seattle Jewish Film Festival. This year is the event’s 25th anniversary.
Although these institutions are working sedulously to ensure that things can be delayed when possible, the precariousness of the situation has complicated switching gears lastingly.
“The unknown makes it very, very difficult to plan,” Hunt said. “Our planning is usually a year in advance, and so this creates a lot of difficulty in figuring out what we can and cannot do.”
Coronavirus response has put many arts institutions into new, less-secure financial circumstances. KPC, which is a nonprofit, relies on three sources of revenue: donations from supporters, ticket sales and space rental. The latter two options are now on shaky ground. Lockhart said that in his six years with the center, the facility has only postponed a show twice. It on average sees some 40 performances a year.
Leslie Foley said that while the NPAF is “in the black,” it is not currently at the financial point at which it would typically be.
“I think everyone’s got a positive attitude,” Foley said. “Of course, [we], like everyone else, were gearing up for fundraisers to get the sponsors for their next shows and now all these fundraisers have to be rethought.”
Jeff Vaughan of the Meydenbauer Center highlighted how the venue’s clients and other arts organizations in the Seattle area who rely on the revenues from its programs are impacted.
“Everybody that produces is in a super tough spot, not having the revenue from ticket sales fund their next productions and things like that,” Vaughan said. “This is a snowball effect.”
He added that center staff who depend on events haven’t been able to work as often as they usually would. Employees have been encouraged to use accrued sick leave starting March 16 and can apply for personal time off using sick hours. Vaughan said that while he’s proud of his organization for its measures to address worker needs, it can be challenging to navigate.
“We’re not Amazon. We’re not Starbucks. We have much smaller budgets,” Vaughan said.
Hunt said the Village Theatre, which has a location in Everett as well, has had to adjust the salaries of some, and that it’s likely the organization sees between an $800,000 and $2.5 million loss in revenue — something that cannot be made up easily with donations.
“And donations are very difficult right now, of course, because the stock market has gone down…people are not feeling very flush right now with their money,” Hunt added. “So donations for online profits are going to be difficult for a while. The combination of all of these things and the government’s approach to everything is really difficult for a nonprofit organization.”
For an institution like SecondStory Repertory, which almost entirely encompasses volunteers, artistic director Mark Chenovick noted the effects the coronavirus has had on the theater through the performers who dedicate their free time to it.
“Most of them have day jobs that are meeting their financial needs,” Chenovick said of the repertory’s volunteers. “Most of them have been extensively trained in theater and want to utilize those theater skills. So with a theater like ours that works in the evenings and weekends, those are the types of actors that we are engaged with in these projects. And, of course, you know, [with people] losing jobs, there’s a lot of concern in the theater, in the community, about those who are less fortunate because a lot of the actors we work with are less fortunate, living paycheck to paycheck sometimes.”
Chenovick said it can be hard to talk about the struggles being faced by arts organizations because he’s aware of other pressing needs, like circumstances faced by the un-housed and for the prison population, for example.
“It’s a little bit hard for us to say, ‘Oh, woe is us’ when there are people who are dying, when there are people who are of in immediate need of assistance,” he said.
Chenovick said that many actors are donating their stipends back to SecondStory as well.
Alternate programming considerations
Some organizations have been able to or are looking to offer alternate programming amid the rampant scheduling changes. Before the outbreak, the J, for instance, had been serendipitously developing SJCCTV, a new online resource on the organization’s website that allows people to re-watch past performances.
Throughout the year, the center has been capturing author and chef talks on video as well as a few live performances. Pamela Lavitt, the J’s director of Arts + Ideas & Festivals, said that the service was initially tipped most toward people who live with ambulatory challenges or couldn’t afford to buy tickets for events they were interested in attending.
“We have this wealth that we’ve built on our SJCC on-demand page, so we’re really excited about now pushing it further to the community,” Lavitt said.
The arts side of the J is also working to coordinate a library/story time initiative for children and curate upcoming things like free concerts for audiences “so that we can continue to be caretakers of the human spirit, even if it’s virtually,” Lavitt said.
Lockhart said that in the days ahead, KPC is looking to hunker down and try to use streaming services for a creative program.
“Our culture at KPC exists outside of the real estate that we occupy,” he said.
How the community can help
While donating to these organizations through their respective websites is one way to lend a hand, many are encouraging their patrons to convert a ticket for a canceled or postponed show into a donation rather than asking for a refund. The success of this so far has varied. The NPAF, for instance, hasn’t seen it become a trend as of late, while places like the J and KPC have seen its patrons more responsive to the suggestion.
“I’m not really seeing that happen,” Foley said. “Everyone’s concerned about their own finances, and [the question of] how long is this going to be?”
From Chenovick’s perspective, what’s important right now is not necessarily focusing on fundraising but instead imploring the community to come out and support its favorite arts institutions once they can operate normally again.
“When the government says you can reopen, that’s when we’re really going to need help,” he said, noting that the repertory is still planning for a May show.
Chenovick added, “Right now, focus on building capacities in the hospitals, taking care of those essential employees and workers that are out there that are keeping our systems moving that we need. But then in a couple of months, when we are able to come back, don’t forget that we are in the same crisis, just a couple of months delayed.”
Despite the uncertainty, many organization representatives are trying to be optimistic.
“We are going to persevere and keep on producing for Mercer Island and for the Eastside and the community at large,” Lavitt said. “Everyone is telling us to keep doing it.”
Lockhart emphasized the importance of maintaining the sense of community KPC fosters.
“KPC is just really proud to be a gathering space to come together and be connected by culture, whether we gather in the theater or not,” he said. “We really believe we’re a community within the community here. That exists no matter the circumstances, whether we can be together or not.”