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A Plague Upon Our Houses

Blackfriars Cancels Season,
Other Pandemic Updates

The news yesterday that the American Shakespeare Center is closing its Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, until at least June illustrates the many facets the coronavirus pandemic has had on economies in general and the theater community in particular. It’s more than a matter of social distancing.

Staunton has not been directly impacted by COVID-19, but the small Appalachian Valley town does rely heavily on regional tourism largely driven by the Blackfriars Playhouse, the world’s only re-creation of William Shakespeare’s indoor theater. The American Shakespeare Center’s box office receipts accounts for almost 80 percent of its annual operating budget, and the company’s primary income in the spring comes from its education programs. High school student matinees and colleges participating in the “SHXcademy,” attending a repertory of shows while studying with teaching artists, make up the bulk of ticket sales. Meanwhile, the company’s touring troupe is visiting communities and colleges around the country.

With schools and colleges closings, the theater lost more than a dozen fully subscribed matinees, and the tour company lost the last two weeks of its bookings. “All told, we’ve watched that all-important weekly box office revenue drop from $60,000 to $49,000 to $22,000, and falling,” Artistic Director Ethan McSweeny wrote in a letter to patrons. With an eye out not only for the institution but also for the Blackfriars’ role as the sparkplug for Staunton’s economy, the company’s leadership decided to shutter completely, suspending the current Actors’ Renaissance Season of four shows and canceling the entire spring season in which the touring company was to add a world premiere, Emma Whipday’s The Defamation of Cicely Lee, to its three-play repertory. All actors have been released from their contracts, and the staff furloughed.

“We’ve looked at the problem from every angle, and this is the only path to save our organization and position us to return and help rebuild and rejuvenate our local economy with the Marquee Summer season that we hope will begin performances in June,” McSweeny wrote. His using the word hope is a nell being rung throughout the industry, and in his letter the artistic director says the company needs to raise $350,000 to survive into June. “This figure will allow us to employ a part-time, skeletal staff for essential operations, make payments on the mortgage for the Blackfriars Playhouse, continue to cover health insurance for all furloughed staff and artists, and keep our actors safely housed until we begin again.”

Similar pleas are being issued by artistic directors around the country, including the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., which has established the Phoenix Fund. “Inspired by the mythical bird that is born from the ashes of adversity, this campaign will ensure the future of STC,” Artistic Director Simon Godwin wrote in his letter to patrons. In Seattle, Washington, Green Stage Shakespeare in the Park sent a “Beware the Ides of March” email informing its patrons that it plans to carry out its summer season as planned and included its typical “Donate Here” button. It supplemented this appeal with direct links to the donation pages of “sister theater companies in our community,” including Seattle Shakespeare Company and Seattle Public Theater. “Many of our beloved institutions are in financial crisis because they have had to cancel their performances and programs due to the outbreak of COVID-19,” the Green Stage email said. “Let's rally around each other and lift each other up in these strange, uncertain times.”

Meanwhile, more theater companies are joining the ranks of the closed.

Yesterday, Major League Baseball announced it was pushing the 2020 season Opening Day further back from the original two-week postponement to mid-May, following the Center for Disease Control’s guidance to suspend gatherings of more than 50 people for at least another eight weeks. For us baseball fans, that news was a disappointment and inconvenience.

For many theaters, such a postponement threatens their very survival.

March 17, 2020

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