Playwright Robert Anderson, who was a regular on Broadway and in Hollywood during the years from Eisenhower to Nixon, once wisely noted that “you can make a killing in the theater, but not a living.”
“Hamilton” is recent proof of his wisdom.
Despite that hurdle, the ritual of theater draws hoards of talented artists and technicians into the fray. The urge to create runs deep. And once exposed to the spark of live performance, audiences are hooked. Aristotle teaches that the emotional release an audience experiences during a dramatic catharsis can lead to a profound sense of renewal.
Editor's note: The idea of reviewing takeout seemed cruel given the circumstances, so Creative Loafing Tampa Bay's food critic Jon Palmer Claridge is interviewing local theater members and restaurateurs in the interim.
So what happens during a pandemic, when gathering as a group means risking life and lung, when the emotional need for catharsis is at its greatest? Even a TV the size of a golf cart doesn’t replace the shared experience. There’s something magical about breathing the same air (now frowned upon) and being in the moment with live performers. Movies or TV, no matter how compelling, lack the spark of a live show, which is evanescent. Each night is slightly different depending on the audience, which fuels the performers’ energy.
And Forbes magazine reminds us that “If you’re quarantine-bingeing This Is Us, Shameless, Friday Night Lights, The Affair, House of Cards, Orange Is The New Black, Glow, or Six Feet Under (to name a few), chances are the episode you just saw was developed by someone who got their start in theatre.”
But it’s exactly the not-for-profit professional theaters that are most at risk. Even American Stage, the region’s largest local theater relies upon earned income (ticket sales and concessions) for 60% of its total budget. The other 40% comes from individual donors and grants funds from corporations, foundations, and the paltry dollars allotted from all layers of government support. Now, there’s zero earned income and their lease agreement with St. Pete College continues despite lack of use.
Luckily, CEO and Producing Artistic Director Stephanie Gularte (pictured), along with the crackerjack team of managers and artists she assembled, are 90% intact for now. Jumping on the CARE Act’s PPP funds coupled with a two-week full staff furlough provided some certainty. American Stage was able to make partial payments with health benefits to its contracted artists.
Like a good stage director, Gularte is also sensitive to details as a manager. She confesses “trying to be very individualized in her conversations with people.” She’s a strong and disciplined woman, who prioritizes fitness and nutrition to help her make it through. But, I can hear the emotion in her voice.
“The staff is the core of what we do. The first weeks were heart wrenching . . . knowing how much they care. There’s a lot of activity around our operations . . . reinventing our business model. It’s almost like starting from scratch,” Gularte told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. “A lot of people underestimate the savvy of people in the arts and how much they can make happen with limited resources. Scrappy is an understatement.”
As part of the D.C. arts’ mafia for over two decades, I got to know some amazing minds. Tops among them was choreographer Liz Lerman. We mostly bonded by babysitting for each other’s dogs, but Lerman is a profound thinker and a 2002 MacArthur “genius” fellow. After the 2008 economic meltdown, she penned a provocative piece suggesting that maybe the solution to our fiscal woes was for scrappy artists and Wall Street mavens to swap places. It’s definitely worth a look. Gularte reminds me of the smart, indefatigable artists Lerman extols; she’s nothing if not nimble.
“I’m extremely grateful that we went into this with a strong board of directors who are really engaged and care a lot. And a great staff. We’ve got some good brains and tremendous hearts in the mix.” Board member, Elizabeth Brincklow, whom I’ve known almost since I was a wee lad, is as saavy an arts professional as I know. American Stage, she confides, is in such good shape “because of Stephanie’s ability to have a foot in both worlds.”
In the face of an unknown future, American Stage is launching a digital season. It’s not an easy task, Gularte confesses, convincing unions and licensing companies, getting the technology platforms and “figuring out what makes sense for us.” This week the company unveils two components: Virtual Stage, a combination of live and audio/video performances plus artist-community conversations, plus Virtual Academy classes and summer camps (all the details are at americanstage.com).
“We’ve got a really great plan now for at least what the next three months will look like digitally—some creative work that we think, while it’s not going to do much for us financially, it’s going to confirm for us our reason for being here and to keep us connected,” Gularte said. “Everything we do is for the benefit of the community; we are part of the overall ecosystem that serves more than just us.”
“It can be exhausting and trying—the fact that you always have to be making the case for the arts even when it’s not critical needs time. But I feel differently now about it. There is a shift that does need to happen that’s going to come out of this and I don’t mean at all to sound ‘Pollyanna’ about it because it is unquestionably . . .” she hesitates to choose her words carefully, “ . . . a crisis for our medium right now.”
Gularte thinks that there’s a real opportunity for theater to have a particularly significant pivot in a direction that brings the arts into peoples lives in a much more accessible way.
“We do still struggle with people thinking of the arts as being for a particular part of the population and a luxury,” she explained. “Part of our responsibility now more than ever is to understand why that is and what we need to do to deepen how people think of the arts.”
I raise the question about when audiences will feel comfortable again gathering en masse. Don’t we have to wait for a vaccine?
“It is scary, I’m not going to pretend it’s not. I’m thinking about it all the time—creating different scenarios,” she admitted, adding that American Stage has enough of a base of support, a way forward, so that it can reopen at some point. She then takes a deep breath and stares into the Zoom camera and emphatically proclaims: “What will not happen is we won’t close down and never reopen; I just don’t think that that’s possible.”
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