Big Trouble for the Performing Arts

26 Mar 2020 | Wall Street Journal | by Terry Teachout.

Of all the bad tidings brought by the coronavirus, here's the scariest piece of news for lovers of the performing arts: The Metropolitan Opera is canceling the rest of its current season—and furloughing its orchestra members, choristers, dancers and stagehands. That reportedly comes to more than 500 people. What's more, the unions aren't protesting. As Leonard Egert, national executive director of the American Guild of Musical Artists, told the New York Times: "We're disappointed, we're upset, but we understand."

You don't have to be an opera buff to grasp the wider implications of this development. The Met is America's largest performing arts organization. While it's weathered severe budgetary problems in recent seasons, it's successfully dealt with all of them—until now. As a result of the social-distancing lockdown in New York caused by Covid-19, the Met is staring down losses of up to $60 million. That's a hit the company can't survive without drastic measures in response. Hence the furloughs—and the absence of squawking. Everybody can count.

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What's happening at the Met is happening at every performing-arts organization I know of, large and small alike. Opera, orchestras, dance companies, theater troupes, nightclubs: All have seen their revenues collapse overnight. And unlike the Met, which has a $300 million endowment, most of them have next to nothing in the bank to see them through the crisis. The results are alarmingly self-evident. As I write these words, the producers of two Broadway plays already in previews, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "Hangmen," have announced that neither show will go on, even after Broadway's theaters reopen. More such announcements are inevitable.

I'm hearing much the same thing from coast to coast, though the institutional damage done by the coronavirus looks at first glance to be especially devastating to theater. Even the biggest regional theaters have either laid off staff or are days away from doing so. Few artistic directors feel comfortable speaking on the record, but the boss of one of the country's top regional houses, who just furloughed three-quarters of his employees, told me that "I have never had to do anything this drastic in my entire professional career. It's horrible."

Imagine, then, the plight of the smaller companies, the no-budget storefront and off-Broadway houses whose risk-taking productions supply the artistic fertilizer for America's theatrical culture. Many of these groups—perhaps most of the smaller ones—simply won't reopen when the crisis abates. As for the actors, directors, playwrights, designers and other professionals who make sure there's a show onstage when the curtain goes up…well, they're in can't-pay-the-rent trouble. As one of them, the writer and director Daniel Goldstein, told the New Yorker, "All theater people, except the ones who have institutional jobs—we're gig people. We're no different than a handyman. When the theaters closed, we were literally all unemployed. Everyone I know is unemployed."

For now, charitable contributions are helping to ease the bite. One online company, Goldstar Events, which sells half-price tickets to big-city live performances, has just retrofitted its website, www.goldstar.com , as a platform through which you can make direct donations to performing-arts organizations of all kinds. Those donations will make a difference. Says Michael Halberstam, artistic director of Chicago's Writers Theatre, the best regional theater in America: "We need your support now more than ever in the history of theater in this country. Without ticket sales, we're almost entirely dependent on individuals, corporations and foundations for our very survival."

Nothing, of course, can kill off the performing arts. By bringing audiences together to participate in collective acts of truth and beauty, they provide us with a communion of souls that speaks to something fundamental in the human heart. But the challenge posed by Covid-19 is far greater than anything else they have faced in my lifetime, and the story of the havoc that it will wreak is one I dread to tell.


last updated 9 weeks ago