Three times a week, performers and staff at Maryland’s Olney Theater Center head to the “COVID Testing Center,” a small room on the theater’s large campus that was hastily converted for that use when the omicron variant appeared last month. The tests are distributed by a theater associate whose job description now includes coordinating COVID tests.
It’s a routine that has become commonplace in theaters across the region as the omicron variant soars, dashing hopes of a return to normalcy in an industry that only recently reopened after an unprecedented shutdown. 18 months, leaving theater professionals without jobs, without money, and uncertain of what the future holds.
The cost of omicron – both financial and emotional – is high for theaters in the region. For Olney, who had two wildly successful musicals when omicron surged last month, the costs were abysmal. COVID testing alone — a service all professional theaters are now required to provide under Actors’ Equity Association guidelines — currently costs Olney an average of $30,000 a month.
But the biggest cost came when breakthrough casting cases — detected through vigorous testing — forced Olney and several other area theaters to cancel performances at the most lucrative time of the year, the season of busy vacation. Due to groundbreaking COVID cases, Olney was forced to cancel a week of Hedwig and the Angry Thumb and the last 12 performances of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, a production that played to sold-out houses and garnered national press attention.
“On December 22, we were almost $100,000 above our target for The beauty and the Beast,“Olney chief executive Debbie Ellinghaus said in a Zoom interview this week. “On December 23, we had to cancel the rest of the race. Christmas week. The biggest week of our entire season. Within a week, we had lost $300,000.
Large professional theaters must honor contracts and pay performers whether or not a performance takes place. So when a show is cancelled, not only does a theater have to refund patrons for tickets already purchased; he must also pay all those who have been hired to work on this performance.
In addition to these costs, Olney is home to 16 theater apprentices and several actors who do not live in the area. When some of these professionals contracted COVID, Olney put them up in a hotel while they had to self-quarantine. “We had almost a dozen people that we put up in a hotel for five to 14 days,” says Ellinghaus.
In total, these unforeseen expenses cost the Olney Theater Center more than $500,000 in the month of December alone.
The story is the same throughout the region. In Shirlington, Virginia, the Signature Theater suffered similar losses when 15 mostly sold-out performances of To rent had to be canceled due to breakthrough COVID cases in the company. In Washington, DC, the Anacostia Playhouse has canceled the final two weeks of A snowy night at the Dew Drop Inn when COVID hit her cast.
Anacostia Playhouse Artistic Director Stephawn Stephens Calls For Closing dew drop “a major financial loss” for the Anacostia-based venue. The theater ran into an additional problem: when a member of the dew drop the cast tested positive for COVID, none of the people qualified to act as understudy had been vaccinated. Actor equity guidelines currently require all performers to be vaccinated against COVID. So the show ended.
And omicron isn’t done with DC theaters yet. More than a third of productions originally scheduled for January have been canceled or postponed. Round House Theater postpones US premiere of UK hit nine night after COVID was detected during rehearsals for the show. General manager Ed Zakreski notes that Round House has already spent more than 75% of its budgeted expenses on the show, calling the postponement a “significant financial blow” for the theater.
Omicron is also causing some theaters to rethink their programming going forward. The calendar of a theatrical year obliges the rooms to determine their programming and their budget up to one year before the performance of the shows. So a splashy musical with a big cast might sound great when COVID numbers are low, but what happens when a new twist comes along six months later, when it’s time to play that show? “Does it make sense to set up another large-scale production in this atmosphere?” Stephane wonders.
Finding replacements for cast or crew members who test positive or contract COVID is not easy for theaters. Many regional theaters don’t have the pockets deep enough to hold stunt doubles or swings (performers who can play any role at any time). And it’s even harder to find replacements for people doing highly specialized work behind the scenes. “If an audio engineer comes down with COVID,” Ellinghaus notes, “it’s not easy to put another person in that position.”
While the financial cost is devastating in itself, quantifying the emotional toll the continued COVID disruptions are taking on theater workers is harder to quantify. Hospitality workers (those who interact with customers at the ticket office, in the lobby and in the auditorium) now face staff shortages when workers are absent with COVID and customer service emergencies when tickets must be repaid quickly. Additionally, employees are now tasked with responsibilities such as verifying vaccination cards and enforcing mask requirements. “The problem is that we’re asking people who have taken this job because they love theater to make public health calls and it’s just incredibly stressful,” the marketing director said. Olney, Joshua Ford.
Erin Murillas, the Signature Theatre’s longtime box office manager, notes that her staff had to refund or replace 4,200 individual tickets for To rent between Christmas and New Year’s Eve while facing staff shortages. “Audiences see when an actor tests positive and needs to be absent, but staff members who test positive have the same impact. It was a mad scramble to find cover and refund tickets.
Patrons of theaters in December likely saw senior employees stepping in as ticket takers, ushers or vaccine card checkers. Ellinghaus was checking vaccination cards at Olney one day, covering an employee who had been out with COVID, when an elderly customer told him he had forgotten his vaccination card. During a conversation, Ellinghaus discovered that they were both using the same healthcare provider. She was able to download the app to the client’s phone and help them find proof of vaccination. “The show started ten minutes late that day,” Ellinghaus recalls, “but we do everything we can to make it work.”
Since COVID first closed theaters in March 2020, various county, state, and federal grants have been made available to theaters. These grants allowed theaters to retain staff and pay for infrastructure costs such as mortgages and utilities throughout the 18-month shutdown. But these grants come with stipulations that the funds must be used by specific dates, most of which have already passed.
When omicron arrived, the only remaining source of funding was the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, a federal grant from the US Small Business Administration. Funds from this grant have helped theaters like Olney and Signature meet unforeseen expenses over the past month. But there is absolutely no room for maneuver in the future.
Ellinghaus hopes that government institutions will restore some of the subsidies that have enabled theaters to survive the pandemic to date. “We now live in an endemic,” she says. “It’s not going to end anytime soon, and the costs of testing, cancellations, social distancing and easing isolation will continue. Where will theaters find the money to help keep the community safe? »
Raising ticket prices is not an option, says Ellinghaus. Both Olney and Signature point to their patrons as their biggest supporters and note that patron donations have steadily increased since the onset of COVID.
And that’s what’s worth it, says Jennifer Buzzell, Chief Marketing Officer at Signature. “We have a staff meeting today and we are going to celebrate all our successes. It was really difficult, but the joy of the audience during the live performances is undeniable.
Ellinghaus agrees. “For all the challenges, there are no regrets. I am so proud of what our community has done. Artists, staff and audience. The messages we have received regarding The beauty and the Beast and Hedwig were some of the best feedback we’ve ever received about the difference these shows make for people. It really reminded us that what we do matters. It’s as vital as anything else, and without it, our community suffers.