Updates: July 2020

July, 2020

CHAPTER 1 (Thinking you know more than you do)

Broadway survived shutdowns for September 11, Hurricane Sandy, and multiple city blackouts, but the COVID-19 pandemic is long-term and seemingly impossible to overcome for audiences, theatre owners and producers due to public and industry fears of the extremely tight spaces where audiences, performers, and backstage workers must congregate to experience a Broadway show. The Broadway League (producers and theatre owners) has officially declared 2020 dead in regards to box office income. They announced at the end of June 2020 that all tickets purchased for shows through the end of the year would be refunded. Tens of thousands of industry professionals are without income, even from their backup jobs: hotels, restaurants, out-of-town productions. Broadway has officially lost approximately $1.5 billion dollars while losses from tourism is, at this point, uncountable and non-recoupable. The history of Broadway is being made, but the usual optimism is wavering. New shows are tentatively rescheduling for March or later in 2021. That means no Christmas season. That means no work on stage.

In the midst of uncertainty, is the humbling realization that the “Great White Way” is way too White. Shows like Hamilton with multi-racial casts make Broadway look liberal and inclusive. But the backstage story is dismal. Union backstage positions (all 18 of them!) are notoriously colorless. Management and theatre owners have made at best feeble attempts to bring BLPOC into their work place. Some blame the internship programs which basically mean that only people-of-means can afford to apprentice. Some blame the people in charge of nonprofit arts institutions and producers who aren’t familiar with the talent pool (directors, choreographers, designers) and work with the “tried and true” faces. And it’s generally understood that this is another aspect of the systematic racism in America that has only modestly been addressed in society. 

This is a year to watch. But first we must wait…then watch.

CHAPTER 12 (Surprises: the Pandemic)

Broadway is made up of commercial (for profit) and non-profit producers. Great Britain’s West End Theatres are undergoing the same re-thinking of cultural organizations as mentioned below:

Anne Bonnar and Hilary Keenlyside, Directors of Bonnar Keenlyside write in the British publication “Arts Professional”

Some of the most powerful artistic experiences are created from disruptive ideas and processes, and as a result of Covid-19, arts organisations have been forcefully disrupted. Some previously successful artists and organisations who have enjoyed patronage and popularity may not necessarily be able to deliver in the future. Particularly, in the performing arts, scale and infrastructure have become liabilities instead of assets. 

We know that the arts will thrive and artists will create, so how can we move to a viable future which frees the arts and artists anew? What resources and working practices can we unlock? What barriers to change do we need to break down? Can arts leaders implement change themselves or are the institutional barriers too great?

Breaking free and letting go

Faced with the ongoing financial crisis, groups of arts organisations, and especially infrastructure-heavy organisations, might pool their combined resources – and anticipated budget deficits – and restructure them to meet the needs of audiences, artists, their investors and stakeholders. Looking to the long-term, this is an opportunity to break free from embedded institutional resistance to change. Old arguments that organisations require individual boards, leaders and staff because they are harnessed round a specific mission and vision may perhaps be set aside to facilitate the creation of more resilient organisations fit for the future.

For performing arts venues where a high level of public funding is invested, this may be the time to let go of the myth that somehow, a member of the audience of venue A is exclusive to that organisation and not recognised as being a potential participant in all local performing arts. Letting go of protective control over relationships with single customers and integrating sales and marketing functions – including the box office – could yield several hundreds of thousands of pounds in many areas.

A new model

One size clearly does not fit all. One example: They could recognise that the home has become an auditorium and, as part of their national remit, pledge to make all of their work available digitally, redefining what it means to be a nationwide membership organisation. The experience of the Royal National Theatre (more than 10 million views during lockdown so far) and the model of the Digital Concert Hall in Berlin since 2008, demonstrate that this is attractive to audiences and can, in the case of Berlin, be successfully monetised reaching worldwide audiences.

These suggestions – consolidating the management of infrastructure; moving from multiple managements to fewer focused on delivery and outcomes; freeing education and outreach to a locally bespoke service working with all providers; and mandatory digital engagement of all work by national companies – are just the beginning of a much wider debate for which we have precious little time and space to engage. Everyone knows that letting go of old ways can be both painful and threatening. Given where we now find ourselves, we have few choices but to develop new economic and business structures within which the arts can survive and thrive for the future.