“Beware the Ides of March.” -William Shakespeare (1599)
Who would have imagined that Bill got it right 421 years ago as the soothsayer warned Julius Caesar? It was this past mid-March when the pandemic arrived, forcing performing arts venues across the country into total lockdown with the date of any return to normalcy unknown.
The importance of the arts can’t be understated, especially in Rhode Island. Our late Senator Claiborne Pell authored the legislation creating the National Endowment for the Arts, and according to NEA research, today people spend more money on the arts than on sports events. But suddenly the bottom has fallen out of industry. And it’s difficult to underestimate the impact this has had on our society.
The arts in general aren’t the easiest way to earn a living. Under ordinary conditions, earned income from ticket sales, concessions, etc. typically accounts for between 40 and 60 percent of revenue. Historically, about 40 percent of artistic nonprofits operate at the break-even point at the best of times.
But this time, with so many venues shuttered, the financial hit taken by the arts industry is unprecedented and extends far beyond the obvious frontline employees: performers, writers, musicians, directors, and the like. There are probably over 100 direct or indirect jobs and supporting vendors who derive all, or a significant part, of their income from the arts. To make matters worse, many of the institutions depend on fundraising galas and public events to close their revenue gaps and, since they have been postponed or forced to go virtual, that income is lost or dramatically cut.
We spoke to the leaders of Providence’s most popular arts organizations and asked them how they are coping with this daunting financial reality, new creative efforts to deal with it, and what changes they anticipate in their operations going forward – and, in the spirit of end-of-year giving, links to where you can stream, learn more, and give back to these linchpins of the Creative Capital.
Curt Columbus, Trinity Rep’s artistic director, likes being with people – face-to-face you can hear and feel his heartache when he talks about the pandemic and effect it has had on his theater and on his people. The most pressing issue to him was what to do about A Christmas Carol, which produces about a third of Trinity’s annual revenue. Given the closing of the theater, “one thing for sure, I was not going to let this 43-year tradition die on my watch,” Columbus laughs. ”The result will be a virtual version of the iconic classic which is only 50 minutes long, with one scene shot in the theater and the rest in other locations, professionally filmed and edited, and which we will be streaming for free! There is a bonus cut at the end with actors singing Christmas carols,” he adds.
“I don’t anticipate being back in the theater with a cast and audience until next fall – only when it’s safe. In the meantime, we are producing monthly half-hour calls where we offer a ‘behind-the-production’ window into our process reading new plays and planning production.
“We will also be producing ‘America Too’ which is a Trinity Rep initiative that reflects on the times in which we live and catalyzes community conversations with actors acting out real people’s stories.”
Executive Director Tom Parish now oversees a virtually empty house. “It’s been devastating. We’ve had to furlough 80 percent of our staff, shrinking from 120 to 28,” he explains. “But, the community’s continued support has been heart-warming. We’ve had to adapt and change everything we do.”
Forget thinking outside of the box,” begins Executive Director David Beauchesne, “we threw out the box and have to create a new one! Initially we had to furlough the paid orchestra, but they’re back and we’ve created a Relief Fund to help all of our artists who are truly struggling. At the Music School, in just two weeks we pivoted to virtual classrooms, which we will maintain as it’s actually made things easier for a lot of our students and their families.”
Recently, The Philharmonic pulled off an inspired virtual gala with rave reviews. “It took a lot of cleaning, testing, and logistics, especially of the brass and wind instruments,” Beauchesne explains. The orchestra has been pared down to 32 from a normal 70-100 musicians, and if there was a big singing group, there might have been over 200 on stage. The Philharmonic is used to performing for just under 2,000 people at The Vets; now, they’re looking at audiences of 125 along with streaming until there is a vaccine and patrons feel comfortable enough to return.
“We’re going full speed ahead with a different model because people want our music,” says Beauchesne. “It gives them comfort.”
Kathleen Breen Combes, Executive Director of Festival Ballet, is a retired ballerina, and can now add circus star to her resume with all of the juggling and magic that she’s used to keep the lights on. (Unfortunately, she has had to furlough 26 professional dancers, but they’re coming back!)
Under her leadership, the company has employed some particularly innovative efforts. They ventured off the East Side recently to present an event at a drive-in theater in New Bedford. Imagine the happy cacophony when their audience of dance aficionados in 200 cars (socially distanced, of course) all honked for an extended period of approval for the performance! Call it “NASCAR goes to the Ballet” but it proved to be a great success.
Perhaps their most significant recent success was winning a $100,000 Take it Outside grant from the state. “It will allow us to bring many of our employees back to construct a new modular stage complete with a tent and heaters,” Combes explains. “We’re scheduled for 15 shows with attendance at just under 100 to meet the social distancing requirements.” Her hope is to be able to perform in many outdoor venues with their new stage.
With its haunting music and over 100 crackling caldrons tended by an army of mostly unpaid community volunteers, there’s probably no arts venue as synonymous with Providence as WaterFire – nor, it could be argued, more important to the city, given both the revenue and hundreds of thousands of visitors it has brought into the city for the past 25 years. But WaterFire does not charge its viewers, relying instead on a complex array of subsidies, corporate support, and donations from the public to create its magic. And, with the return of big crowds to downtown Providence unlikely in the near term, this model is certainly at risk.
But Artistic Director Barnaby Evans and General Manager Peter Mello, the two driving forces of the operation, are a long way from giving up. Says Evans, “We’re not just an arts organization that lights fires. More importantly, we’re one that specializes in creative problem-solving on a wide range of levels. We’re unique in that we are committed to delivering a world-class creative project free to an audience that reflects the entirety of society.”
The future of WaterFire will depend on the success of two current initiatives. First is the WaterFire Relief Fund, designed to replenish the organization and help maintain its volunteer base until a more realistic model is created to control the numbers and access to this important Providence resource.
Second is a rapidly expanding pivot to expand the activities at its state-of-the-art, well-ventilated and spacious arts center in the Valley neighborhood, which has held a number of events even during the pandemic, like nightly “Flame of Hope” lightings in memory of those lost to COVID-19. The Arts Center also has hosted weekend Art Marts, the Fringe Festival and, in conjunction with the Wilbury Theatre, produced a series of indoor-outdoor plays which were featured on the front page of The New York Times.
Evans’ thinking is forward-thinking: “The overarching goal is to make sure Providence remains a destination city again by ‘Building Community through Art.’”
Our stage is certainly different,” explains Kathleen Pletcher, Executive Director of FirstWorks Providence. “We’ve been in constant motion for the last seven months. Sometimes it’s a Zoom audience of 27 and other times we reach 5,000 in a week!”
FirstWorks has evolved from First Night and PVDFest into now filling The Vets on a regular basis with first-class national and international talent. “The arts are more resilient than ever and reflective of people’s lives in this strange environment. We’re looking at broad strokes and new ways to innovate and collaborate with artists and audiences.”
This summer, along with the Roger Williams Park Conservancy, FirstWorks produced eight outdoor pop-up shows that often drew over 125 people and over 8,000 on Facebook Live. And rather than being tied into a limited set schedule, the pandemic has allowed them to stream a wider range of global acts from different parts of the world. Notably, the Kennedy Center reached out to FirstWorks to coordinate with Rhode Island for their social justice initiative, Arts across America, which allowed them to work with local icons Rose Weaver and Sokeo Ros.
For the holidays, they are bringing “Taylor Mac’s ‘Holiday Sauce… Pandemic!’ a blend of music, film, burlesque and random acts of fabulousness to reframe the songs you love and the holidays you hate.”
By now, PPAC should have seen almost 400,000 people pass through their doors delivering $25 million in revenue and generating an economic impact to downtown Providence in excess of $40 million. “We’re at $0,” says J. Lynn Singleton, Executive Director of PPAC and President of PFM, which manages about a dozen venues around the country. “It’s the worst situation that I’ve seen in 39 years. Our staff of 50 is down to 20 and the 250+ outside people who work each of the shows are not working.”
But PPAC is moving forward. They are repairing and replacing its terracotta facade, installing hands-free faucets and ticket scanners, UV lights, and getting GPAC-certified for when patrons return. “We are streaming our Introduction to Theater programs to schools and getting ready for what we hope will be a late spring return, assuming that the vaccine is in play.”
“People are eager to return,” Singleton adds. “Some 80-85 percent of our Broadway Series ticket holders have already renewed for the next season. They want to come back!”
Founded in 1753, The Providence Athenaeum, on the corner of Benefit and College Streets, has only had one prior closing – and that was for three months during World War I due to a coal shortage. Matt Burriesci, the executive director of the library, has scrambled and adapted to the pandemic. “Our doors are reopened, everyone is masked, and there’s a lot of plexiglass,” he explains, “but the response from our patrons to the way we’ve had to change our programming has been extremely enthusiastic.”
Over 700 people joined their last special event via Zoom and an upcoming one in spring, with acclaimed American author Ann Patchett, will likely have a larger audience. So, between virtual programming (including a “Virtual Little Pumpkins Program” and Hoopla, which is like Zoom for libraries), curbside pick-up, and additional “book boxes”, and generating ongoing in-stock book suggestions compiled by staff, they’re adapting, innovating, and making it work. “Our biggest revenue hit has been the inability to host weddings,” Burriesci notes.
Thought-provoking conversation is at the heart of The Wilbury Theatre, a group that is idealistic, ambitious, and stubborn in their resolve to create theater that entertains, enlightens, and inspires. Josh Short and Max Ponticelli never imagined that their mantra would include programming and performing in a pandemic. “We started streaming early,” explains Ponticelli, “and we did it for free because there was so much hurt out there, from artists and performers to audiences, and the response was tremendous,” adds Short.
Fortunately, they have a very lean organization, so they didn’t have furloughs, but they immediately started working on ways to keep all of their freelance artists and performers working. It took some time in the beginning of the pandemic, but they’ve been charging forward.
“People have been very supportive. We’ve continued our community engagement and new work development. We have five performance venues including a main stage, an outdoor venue where we can project images and video on a wall, a loading dock, and even from a canoe on the Woonasquatucket River,” they add.
Their perspective is philosophical: “Art is always happening, so there is no rush. We have to be flexible in the moment and we’re going to come out stronger.”
AS220 is a multifaceted ecosystem that supports and develops a wide variety of arts and performing arts through an expanded portfolio that includes a restaurant and live/work studios spread out over three buildings in downtown Providence. “It’s challenging since 70 percent of our income is from earned revenue, but we’re hanging on,” explains Ruth Harvey, Director of Development. “It’s really a struggle. We’ve taken advantage of the State’s workshare program so we could keep almost everyone employed, but it means reduced hours but not a reduced workload so everyone is working harder than ever.”
Harvey adds, “We’ve been operating outdoors as much as we can, which has been great for our youth programs, and our studios are open by appointment. Various parts of the organization have been open and more will follow as long as they can meet the guidelines.” Admittedly, there have been ventilation issues limiting a few of their smaller support businesses, but their restaurant has been opened for takeout.
“With all that has happened in the country, the downtime has allowed us to increase our focus and dialogue with a racial justice initiative,” Harvey explains, despite the fact that to most of us outsiders, AS220 might appear to be a model for racial justice. “We understand that this is in our DNA, but we believe that there is more to be done.”
Harvey is amazed and overwhelmed by the continued support of individual donors and the grassroots support that has emerged.
When the pandemic broke, Olneyville-based MAP closed their neighborhood clubhouse and immediately focused on directly helping students and their families by delivering masks and groceries for those impacted by COVID-19 or unemployment.
“Ten of our fourth-grade playwrights had just finished short plays about staying positive during life’s challenges and were all excited about their upcoming play festival,” recalls Meg Sullivan, the executive artistic director. “Rather than cancel the event, a cohort of actors stepped up to help create a Zoom version that was streamed live on YouTube to a live audience.”
“Despite our small size, we are determined to keep making theater. We need it more than ever. We have our own YouTube Channel and have added a Young Woman’s Group and a Sixth Grade Playwriting Group in addition to our Teen Voices Internships, Playmaking, Play-it-again, Tag Team, and Dialogue programs for Olneyville youth. Admittedly we face technological challenges as many of our students don’t have iPads, Chromebooks, or even WiFi.”
The Wilbury Theater offered the use of their large theater this summer, while MAP continues its remote programming and works on getting better air filters, air purifiers, and ventilation to ensure a safe and healthy space for a return to rehearsals at their clubhouse.
Best known for their building-sized murals, The Avenue Concept used the shutdown to create an impressive variety of outreach programs to increase public awareness of what they do. They produced a self-guided public art tour that mapped out their work, which has already been seen by over 16,000 people. They partnered with What Cheer Writers Club to create an online writing project and virtual event that explored “public art through writers’ eyes.” They sent packages of postcards with some of their most notable work to friends and supporters, encouraging them to mail the cards and share images on social media. And finally, they asked people to #MakeYourArtPublic by displaying their own homemade works of art in their windows as a show of solidarity and community.
This energetic group continues to address ongoing social issues, like artist AGONZA’s depiction of Miss Rhode Island on the plywood covering a broken window at Queen of Hearts, and most prominently, they engaged four local BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People Of Color) artists to create the VOTE mural across from the Point225 innovation center.