Without more federal money, what will regional theaters do?


Rodgers and Hammerstein. Mickey and Judy. Cornyn and Klobuchar?

In one of the big surprises of the pandemic, the “let’s set on a show!” the spirit of Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, likely saved hundreds of regional theaters across the country from closing in the wake of the pandemic shutdowns.

Their partnership has generated $16 billion for theaters, concert halls and other cultural institutions under the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program, administered by the Small Business Administration.

“The federal government has been a huge partner in this,” said Jeffrey Woodward, executive director of the Dallas Theater Center. “There were a multitude of government programs – I call them alphabet soup.” Woodward listed them: “The Payroll Safeguard Plan or PPP. Employee Retention Tax Credit, ERTC. Operating Grant for Shutter Sites, S-VOG.”

Without that federal money, nonprofit theater as we know it would be dead, said Teresa Eyering of Theater Communications Group.

Theaters have also helped each other during this time, creating innovative virtual performances and other programs that have kept audiences engaged in their work. But this injection of government cash was essential and linked to the worst days of the pandemic; theaters know they can no longer rely on this type of funding. Eyering said to keep the doors open now, theaters must continue to innovate on their stages and as part of their business model.

/JerSean Golatt for NPR

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Jer Sean Golatt for NPR

Rehearsal of “Trouble in Mind” at the Dallas Theater Center on October 4, 2022.

Theaters will also need to be much more savvy about their long-term growth, Eyering said, which doesn’t necessarily mean just repeating the same old classics. “When audiences go down, [there’s a] temptation to try to produce much more popular shows, which may prevent us from producing some of the new work.”

It’s important that theaters stay open not just for the sake of the arts, but because they have a profound effect on their local economies, helping to support local restaurants, tourism and other businesses. It was reality that brought Klobuchar and Cornyn together.

Klobuchar said that in many ways it was the love of the late artist Prince that awakened her to the importance of supporting local venues. A phone call from Dayna Frank — the owner of First Avenue, one of the Minneapolis concert halls where Prince began his career — spurred Klobuchar into action. Frank explained that she couldn’t do virtual gigs, which meant they had no income and might have to close. “I trust him,” Klobuchar told NPR via Zoom. And she got involved.

Meaning.  Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and John Cornyn, R-Texas

Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Imag

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CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Imag

Meaning. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and John Cornyn, R-Texas

Klobuchar laughed when asked about his unlikely association with Cornyn. “Well, we’ve actually worked pretty well together. We’ve drafted other patent bills together and things a lot less sexy than this.”

Cornyn has touted his role in saving theaters as one of his major legislative accomplishments. And Klobuchar said, at the gut level, what brought together and held together a Democrat from Minnesota and a Republican from Texas was “nobody wanted to let music die. Nobody wanted to let live theater die.”

Rehearsal at the Dallas Theater Center on October 4, 2022.

/JerSean Golatt for NPR

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Jer Sean Golatt for NPR

Rehearsal at the Dallas Theater Center on October 4, 2022.

Interestingly, if there’s one place that epitomizes the growth of regional theater, that place is in Cornyn’s Texas — specifically Dallas. In recent years, the city has seen an influx of major corporate headquarters and nearly one million new residents in less than a decade, according to the 2020 census. The city’s draws don’t just include jobs, the Cowboys or the barbecue, but also its dynamic and growing cultural scene.

Dallas is credited with starting the American Regional Theater movement 75 years ago, when Margo Jones opened the first modern residence theater in 1947. Today, the Dallas Theater Center is the anchor of the Dallas Arts District , which includes more than 20 square blocks of museums, sculpture gardens, a symphony, an opera; it bills itself as the largest contiguous urban arts center in the United States. Dallas Theater Center’s two theaters in separate locations played to audiences of 100,000 Texans each year before the pandemic, and the center won a regional Tony Award in 2017.

Despite this story and generous donors in the area, Woodward, the head of DTC, said subscriptions are now down more than 60%. Theaters around the world are also facing increased competition for the dollar from art consumers. There’s sports, games and streaming TV, plus 22 Broadway shows that spin to regional theaters across the country.

“‘Hamilton’ comes along and it sucks up, like, millions of dollars in ticket-buying audiences,” Woodward said. He said $200 spent on the “Hamilton” musical might mean customers aren’t spending the extra money to see something more experimental.

The game

/JerSean Golatt for NPR

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Jer Sean Golatt for NPR

The play “Trouble in Mind”, written by Alice Childress, premiered on Broadway in 1955 – and on Broadway in 2021. Here it is repeated at the Dallas Theater Center.

All of this forced his team to familiarize themselves with almost every aspect of the business. The center has done a web redesign. They got serious about the merchandise. Woodward said theaters need to look beyond normal annual subscriptions or big donors and seek out every dollar they can. Currently, Woodward said, theaters receive very little government money for education programs and workforce development programs, even though most theaters do both.

Woodward says that to survive now, theaters need to gear their programming toward younger, more diverse audiences as the nation’s demographics continue to shift. Part of the new economics of theater is diversity, equity and inclusion.

“Regional theater was more exclusive than it should have been and really served, essentially, a white, middle-class audience,” he said. He added that the model is simply not sustainable.

Tiana Kaye Blair, artist-in-residence at the center and current production director of Trouble in Mind, by Alice Childress, said that to attract the new audiences needed, theaters must continue to ask themselves: What is the purpose of a particular piece they want to put on their stages? Is it about expanding audiences? Pushing creative boundaries? Developing empathy? Or make money?

It’s part of the push-pull dynamic between economics and art, she said.

Director Tiana Kaye Blair in rehearsal

/JerSean Golatt for NPR

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Jer Sean Golatt for NPR

Director Tiana Kaye Blair rehearses “Trouble in Mind” at the Dallas Theater Center on October 4, 2022.

“Sometimes the intention is, ‘We need to make more money on the back-end,’ and sometimes the intention is, ‘Do you want to change something? ‘” Blair said. She added that as an artist, she constantly has to find that balance. The same goes for theaters, which means they can struggle to get by.

Be entertaining, challenging and enduring — all of these are difficult, if not impossible, in normal times, Blair said. And these times are anything but normal.

Kristie Taiwo-Makanjuola contributed to this story.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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