Twin Cities Theater Survival During Pandemic – ‘No Script’
Reporting by JT Pinther, Freelance Community Journalist
The set was built, the costumes fitted and ready to go. Everyone knew their lines and all that was left was one tech rehearsal. But the opening night of “Redwood” never took place, as Jungle Theater, like countless other spaces in Minnesota, had to shut its doors in March 2020 due to covid.
Robin Gillette, Managing Director at Jungle Theater, said it was “heartbreaking” to have to close the show, but at that point, it seemed like the cast and crew would be able to come back soon. “We said, ‘everyone can leave your stuff in the dressing room!” Gillette recalled. (It’s a little chilling now, to think about, isn’t it?) “When it became clearer we wouldn’t be back soon, it was really hard…. The process of mentally accepting reality: this is not going away any time soon.”
As of print, the “Redwood” set is still on the Jungle Theater stage, waiting to be used.
Taking theater offstage
Jungle Theater didn’t go completely dark, however. The company was able to produce shows in virtual form, including “Is Edward Snowden Single?”, a performance mixing live actors and animation.
According to Shannon TL Kearn, Founder of Uprising Theatre Company, the theater hosted a number of virtual productions and workshops and found that covid circumstances even broadened their patron and artist participation. This was especially important, Kearn said, because of their work in supporting transgender and nonbinary communities.
“We did a lot of streaming… people all over the country were able to ‘attend’ [who] never would have been able to before,” Kearn said. “If you think about rural Kansas… a trans person could see their experience reflected without driving to an Uprising show.”
Atlese Robinson, Founding Artistic Director of Ambiance Theatre Company, wasn’t too concerned about the loss of an enclosed theater space either. After all, Ambiance Theatre, among many other Twin Cities theater companies, does not have a physical home in the first place.
“‘All the world’s a stage’ is the cheesiest line ever,” Robinson said, “but it’s true.”
Robinson spoke of a concept of a “theater flashmob” or “invisible theater.” “[It’s] where people don’t know they’re watching a show. It’s an instrument for protest. For me, seeing theater outside doesn’t seem too far-fetched.”
Regardless, location and physical space, and whether or not a theater company owned or rented a space, appear to be significant factors concerning a theater’s ability to get through covid.
Although Theatre in the Round Players closed March 18, 2020 and has not ventured too far into virtual or outdoor performances, the theater is doing okay, all things considered. The company is likely among the first in the metro to come back to in-person performances in the fall.
Theatre in the Round Players is considering reopening as soon as September – but a “soft” reopening, explains Interim Executive Director Greg Johnson. “We’re changing the way we do everything,” Johnson said. “We will not be selling season tickets this year. We [normally] do all assigned seating – we will be doing general admission [instead]. Sit where you’re comfortable, playing by ear. No coffee or concessions, paring down.”
Johnson said they have not decided if proof of vaccination will be a prerequisite for attendance, but it’s “up for consideration.”
“…not a lot of theaters are doing a lot,” Johnson said, “so we are feeling like a pioneer at this point.”
Kearn said Uprising Theatre Company recently made the decision to shut down and will have a closing event in late August. “It is a real disappointment,” Kearn said, “but financially it was becoming impossible to run.”
He doesn’t blame covid, however. “It’s a lot of things. Covid didn’t help, but we are NOT considering ourselves a covid casualty.”
The idea of the “covid casualty” came up a few times in interviews. When asked if the interviewees knew of any theaters that needed to shut down in the last 18 months, any who were able to think of examples quickly clarified that covid was not the cause, or the only cause.
There appeared to be shame around the idea of a theater shutting down because of the devastating consequences of a pandemic.
At the end of the day, virus or not, being able to sustain a theater company (or any company) all comes down to the numbers.
“Folks who are not in theater don’t understand,” Kearn said. “Ninety percent of expenses happen before the show even opens… It’s devastating for theaters who spent money on productions that didn’t get to open.”
There are also the artists like Emily Gunyou Halaas, who only have theater productions on their resumes, and who had a lot of emotional grieving to do long after the funds secured by the Actors’ Equity Association union ran out.
Gunyou Halaas tried to find work last year, but was not able to find much. After not getting into college in 1999, Gunyou Halaas joined the Twin Cities theater community and has been part of it ever since. She applied for many jobs in 2020 but didn’t get called for a single interview. “My resume looks bizarre — I wouldn’t want to hire me for anything either!” Gunyou Halaas said. “The things I’m highly trained for aren’t transferable.”
“There’s been a serious cost to these artists, technicians, etc,” Gillette said. “Nobody has done this before. There is no script for how you do any of this.”
This is true for layoffs as well. Theatre in the Round Players made the decision to lay off/furlough almost all of their full time employees, all except Johnson, who remained part time. Jungle Theater kept all seven full time employees on board, justifying the cost saying they want the most stable staff possible when they can reopen. Ambiance Theatre is in a trickier position financially, but when it comes to sending people home without pay, Robinson had one silver lining at least, as the only full time person.
“There’s so many things to juggle,” Robinson said. “Being a small company during the pandemic has its particular challenges. But I didn’t have to lay nobody off!”
Robinson stated another reason that finances weren’t as poor as they could be as a result of covid, and they feel conflicted, to say the least. Foundations in the Twin Cities are abruptly giving large grants to theater companies driven by Black leadership.
“After George Floyd died live on national television, here’s all this guilt money,” Robinson said. “It’s a weird position to be in…. I’m not trying to benefit off of Black death — that’s white supremacy — but I have to eat. It’s a complicated time to be an artist.”
“I don’t think they would have done this if Trump wasn’t in office,” Robinson said. “People are reacting to what’s around them. You’re doing this now, but what’s your longevity? It’s not going to change anything if you want us to do just this one project. Are you going to hire us because you feel bad, or are you going to throw out your systems?”
I’ve been thinking about how [we] freelancers and individual artists live with a scarcity mindset,” Gunyou Halaas said. “We have to say yes and not be a burden. I’ve been thinking about how actual scarcity has dismantled some of that scarcity complex. I can actually say no and ask for what I need and want. It doesn’t mean that I’m not scared to have those conversations or that my scarcity dissolved. I’m not saying I’m cured.”
“For me as a white person, I hope that dismantling that scarcity complex can help me use my privilege to have those hard conversations with those orgs about…deep-seated racism and sexism in this industry. Now as we’re starting to reopen, it’s a big time for accountability. I hope we can hold onto our scrappy bravery that we’ve found over this time.”
And companies, not unlike many of us, have had unavoidable time to reflect in a meaningful way. “Now that we have this forced intermission,” Gillett said. “It’s forced us to evaluate what we do and how we do it. How do we do the work, how do we treat the people who are doing the work?”