Reno-Sparks performing arts industry reckoning with ‘devastating’ impacts of COVID crisis
It’s the winter of 2020 and you’re seated in a sparsely filled performing arts theater. The lights dim, the audience snaps silent. The curtains part, revealing a downsized orchestra. In that still, anticipatory moment before the string section roars into Beethoven’s 5th, an attendee in the front row hacks an echoing cough.
Six months ago, no one in the theater would bat an eye.
The times, however, have dramatically changed.
In the age of the coronavirus, which has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Nevadans and tens of thousands of people nationwide, a cough could send attendees running for the exits before the crescendo.
“Coughing and sniffling and sneezing has just always been kind of a known part of live entertainment,” Dennyse Sewell, executive director of the Reno-based Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts, said in a video interview with the NNBW. “But, there are a lot of discussions now that it cannot quite be so cavalier in the future. We cannot encourage our patrons to come when they are unwell because they couldn’t get their money back or switch to a different date.”
BILLIONS IN LOST REVENUE
Since mid-March, there have not been audiences anywhere. Concert venues, opera houses, dance halls — all have been shuttered amid the COVID-19 pandemic. As people have stopped gathering in groups of any significant size and adopted social distancing, any business activity that relies on assembly has been crushed.
That’s especially true for the $50 billion live performing arts industry, whose productions have been stopped dead in the water by the coronavirus.
According to nonprofit Americans for the Arts, the arts and culture sector in the U.S. has already taken an economic hit to the tune of $4.98 billion as of May 4, according to a survey the organization conducted that is based on 11,000 responses.
Findings as of May 4 also show that nonprofit arts organizations lost 208 million admissions due to canceled events, resulting in a $6.6 billion loss in event-related spending by audiences (restaurants, lodging, retail) — further, 328,000 jobs are no longer being supported.
“We are just temporarily in complete hibernation,” Sewell said of the 1,500-seat Pioneer Center. “It has completely and totally halted everything about our organization. Our whole purpose is to bring the public together in our theater for shared experiences, and that’s really the one thing you can’t do right now.”
WIPING THE SLATE
As a result, the Pioneer Center was forced to wipe clean its spring calendar, which included 46 events — many of them large touring Broadway productions — from the middle of March to June 30, Sewell said.
“Usually close to half of the audience we reach throughout the entire year happens in the spring,” said Sewell, adding that the Pioneer Center is down 50% of its audience and 50% in revenue.
The Reno Little Theater (RLT) is another local organization seeing its revenue dip while its 150-seat theater stays dark.
“We only made it three shows into our last season when we canceled and lost a whole lot of events,” said executive director Melissa Taylor, who oversees a full-time staff of five people. “I don’t think people think about music and the arts and the theater as a way that people make a living — but people do. People rely on creating and having opportunities to perform for their livelihood.
“So, it’s obviously hitting us really hard that we can’t perform and can’t have people come to us.”
The reality is an especially tough pill to swallow for Taylor, who has helped the RLT grow exponentially since taking over executive director in 2013.
In seven years, RLT’s annual budget has swelled from $38,000 to half a million dollars thanks to year-over-year boosts in ticket sales and new partnerships and programs, she said.
“We’ve grown really rapidly, so for me it’s particularly devastating right now because I’m looking at seven years of work going out the window and having to start over,” Taylor said.
ENTERING THE UNKNOWN
And when organizations like the Pioneer Center and RLT do start over and open their doors, what will a post-pandemic performing arts industry look like?
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Sewell laughed.
She went on to mention that “a lot of ideas” are being tossed around throughout the industry, from checking the temperatures of patrons at the door to offering flexible refund and exchange policies to discourage sick people from attending.
Implementing those types of revenue-impacting changes, however, would have big ripple effects, said Sewell, who offered a hypothetical.
“Let’s say you’re a promoter and you booked a venue to present your show and you thought you had sold 97% of the house?” she said. “And then it turns out you only were able to collect revenue on 70% of the house because a bunch of people showed up sick and were turned away and refunded.
“Who’s responsible for that lost revenue? There are so many questions that are unanswered.”
One question Sewell and Taylor have already accepted as an answer to social distancing guidelines is that venues of all sizes will likely have to slice their seating capacities in half — at least.
“If we have to adhere to social distancing guidelines, you’re talking about maybe getting 50 people in here,” said Taylor, noting that the RLT had just increased its capacity from 100 to 150 prior to the pandemic. “But, that’s better than zero (people), so we’re looking at different ways to reconfigure our space.”
To account for a shrinking capacity, Taylor said the RLT might do longer runs of shows, such as “50 people in the audience for six weeks instead of 150 people in the audience for three (weeks).”
For the Pioneer Center, Sewell said cutting the venue’s capacity for social-distanced seating may force Broadway productions to hike up their ticket prices.
“Let’s say you’re Jersey Boys, and you were going to come to Reno for a week and do your best to sell out the Pioneer,” Sewell explained. “And we say capacity is only 500 — that’s a hypothetical. Could Jersey Boys still make the money on just 500 seats, on just a third of the capacity they otherwise would have? Would they then decide to triple their ticket prices to make up for that?”
Taylor said she’s hopeful the RLT, which produces its own shows, will find creative solutions to avoid raising its ticket prices.
“Maybe we don’t do a 15-person show, maybe we do a one or two-person show so our production costs go down,” she continued. “We pride ourselves on being accessible for the community. But it’s really hard to tell, because it also depends on if we still see support from the community — if people feel safe.”
To that end, Taylor said her team has an array of ideas to cater to audiences — from a virtual theater to a drive-up theater on their lot. Notably, since the state shutdown, the RLT, Good Luck Macbeth Theater and Bruka Theater collaborated on a project called “Ghost Light TV,” a YouTube channel of recorded and live-streamed productions.
“I’m hoping that all of these crazy ideas that we are thinking about will allow us to continue to create in a way that’s accessible for people, but that also protects the organization,” she added. “We’re still trying to create performances. We’re all creative people and we need to keep working, so we’re figuring it out as we go.”
The Reno Philharmonic Orchestra is also in the process of trying to figure out what the new normal will look like — not only in terms of venues and capacities, but also in regards to the size and layout of its musicians.
“The orchestras will be very small and very spread out (in the early phases),” said Tim Young, executive director of the Reno Philharmonic. “The worst part for us is the Reno Phil typically performs with large orchestras and choruses and large audiences. And it seems like that’s going to be the last thing that will be allowed to take place.”
And for the initial concerts coming out of the shutdown, Young said musicians might have to wear masks, limiting the types of players that can perform. He added that the Reno Phil usually hovers around 60 members, but can grow to as many as 250 with a full orchestra and chorus.
“You can’t be a wind player — you can’t play the flute through a mask,” Young said with a laugh. “It just doesn’t work. The very first concerts may have to be strings only or instruments where you can use a mask.
“But, I just don’t know,” he continued. “It’s too soon to say. It’s been incredibly challenging because so many people have had all of their income removed. And there’s so much uncertainty of when we can resume, and what that will look like.”
Heather Ashbridge, who started with Nevada State Development Corporation in 2008, previously served in several roles with the organization, including assistant vice president and loan officer. She is based in NSDC’s Reno office.