Updated: Jan 16
Art, performing art in particular, is in for the fight of its life. Literally.
I don’t know how many millions tuned in to the Mouse’s streaming of “Hamilton,” but I know millions signed up for Disney+ just to see it. And millions watched the live versions of “Rent,” “Grease,” and “Hairspray” on broadcast television.
For the foreseeable future, theatregoers, this is what we’ve got.
For example, Broadway is preparing and planning on moving forward on production of “Diana,” a musical about Princess Di, which will live stream before it hits any stage with an audience. “Diana” is being filmed with multiple cameras for Netflix. As Broadway producer Ken Davenport (“Kinky Boots”) said, “Now, the question is . . . will other shows follow? Which ones? And will it happen during the pandemic? Or when Broadway comes back? And will “Diana” sell more tickets because of this stream?”
See the anxiety there in those questions? The fact is, we are all anxious to return to “normal.” To get back into the theatre and see a good show. But, no one is more anxious and eager for a return to the boards than regional and local theatres; particularly those organizations that have venues for which they’re trying to pay rent. And insurance. And all the other costs that don’t go away just because there is no current production.
I reached out across the country to a variety of organizations. Most community theatres rent show by show; either a civic-owned property, like libraries, or other space. But there are local and regional theatres struggling to keep a hold on their facilities.
The Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles is one such organization. Founded approximately 30 years ago, it’s a small house (under 100) and a professional company; they pay the actors, directors, stage hands, etc. They do some new and original pieces, and have won many awards over the years in a critically tough market. According to Producing Director Simon Levy, they are working diligently to keep the name out in front of their patrons’ eyes.
Among a variety of Saturday matinee performances by guest artists, and interviews with directors and playwrights, they’re doing readings of plays that cover current issues. “We’re also about to launch our first foray into Pay-Per-View with a fully rehearsed, digitally enhanced, story-boarded, and edited reading of ‘The Ballad of Emmitt Till,’ with the original director and cast of the Fountain’s award-winning production to mark the 65th anniversary of Emmett Till’s murder and the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington.
“Online theatre, and engaging with audiences over the internet is here to stay,” added Levy, “and will become an even more important, permanent part of our future programming to augment the live experience….”
At the other end of the spectrum is Blue Fire Theatre, a fairly new group in Florida, in business for less than a year. While they’re nomadic, they still have incidental bills to pay; insurance, website-related costs. Without a fully-realized and dedicated fan base, they are becoming more active on social media. They tried Facebook Live interviews and workshops. According to founding member Toni D’Amico, even that “quickly became mundane. Now, we try to remain in the public eye by posting something every day or every other day. Relevant articles about Broadway, or reposting things from our community partners.”
Here in Las Vegas, while the ballet and philharmonic worry – along with their host venue The Smith Center – about how to stay alive with the bills racking up, smaller organizations, that are greatly (some might say ‘egregiously’) ignored by the local mainstream media, have it even tougher.
Rent is due along with the incidental necessities of a business. It piles up, and income is at a standstill.
Poor Richard’s Players has been around for a long while now but had only recently rented and renovated a space. Ben Loewy, Artistic Director, says, “Still have it…for now. Hanging on for dear life.”
They tried the streaming thing early, introducing “Playhouse Storytime” in March, featuring entertainers from across the valley reading their favorite stories. “The audience reaction was very positive but the scope of viewership was lower than we had hoped,” Loewy said.
Las Vegas Little Theatre has had the same type of response to its two attempts at streaming, and the royalty fees for the latest seemed not to consider the financial strain community companies are under.
Poor Richard’s will try again in mid-September with a full production of “Three Viewings” by Jeffrey Hatcher. Tickets will be $20 per household. Adding to the enticement this go-round: “Once The Playhouse reopens, the $20 spent on “Three Viewings” can be used toward a ticket for a live event.”
The same stories can be found across the country. What makes all this even more bitter: In times of darkness and political upheaval, society typically turns to entertainment to help weather the storm. The difference is that - especially here in Nevada – even though movie houses are now able to operate, live performances will most likely be the last thing allowed to reopen. Without help, your favorite theatre company may not make it off life-support. Unless…unless we embrace this new medium of entertainment in the short term.
It took more than 30 years for Las Vegas to lose the ‘cultural wasteland’ reputation. We can’t let that character status return. We need to fight against it. While nobody is asking, as one politician is in encouraging people to go without food in order to send her money, I certainly do hope you’ll make a donation to local theatre. Or buy tickets to streaming productions. They may not be as fancy and slick as the Mouse’s, but it will ensure that local theatre is able to greet you when the doors open again.