As Broadway begins to roll, smaller theaters cling to life

Catherine Russell (inset) and a photographic illustration of Governor Andrew Cuomo (Getty, iStock)

For 33 years and more than 13,500 shows, Catherine Russell played a psychiatrist and suspected cold-blooded killer in an off-Broadway show, taking just four days of illness and setting a Guinness World Record for most stage performances as a character. And if it was necessary to fix the boiler in her theater or if the ticket office did not appear, she could do it too.

Only a global pandemic could have stopped it.

Covid closed the Theater Center, the place Russell rents on West 50th Street and Broadway, for 13 months. It reopened in April with limited capacity, but it could be a while before she can play Margaret Thorne Brent in front of a packed house. Governor Andrew Cuomo still requires theatergoers to maintain social distance, limiting Russell’s occupancy to about 50 percent.

Audience watches a play at the Anne Bernstein Theater at The Theater Center (Getty)

Audiences watch a play at the Anne Bernstein Theater at the Theater Center (Getty)

“It is not economically viable at all,” Russell said. She has sued the state and the city over the restrictions.

As Broadway gears up for its September launch, smaller theater owners and companies are trying to hang on, if they haven’t given up yet. They claim the government hasn’t provided enough support for an industry that adds about $ 1.3 billion to New York City’s economy, according to a 2019 city study.

While many theaters qualified for the federal government’s Closed Venue Operation Grant program, implementation of the aid has been delayed, leaving theater owners and owners under a pile of unpaid bills.

“Small theaters have to pay rent, theater owners still have to pay property taxes,” Russell said.

The day that Broadway closed

On March 12, 2020, with the coronavirus spreading uncontrollably through the city, Broadway closed all 41 cinemas. The producers postponed their shows. Thousands of actors, machinists and engineers were out of work.

It was a great success for the city.

Broadway attracted 14.6 million people and sold $ 1.8 billion in tickets in 2019, according to its trade organization, The Broadway League. Broadway is largely owned by three owners: the Nederlander Organization, the Shubert Organization, and By Jordan Roth Jujamcyn Theaters. (The three companies did not respond to requests for comment.)

The smaller theaters are a different story. Few theater companies own their space and have less negotiating power with their owners. If they lose their rent, the landlord may not forgive you. The state has frozen commercial evictions and foreclosures since the start of the pandemic, but protection could end this summer.

“The places we support are living on the edge financially in a good year,” said Randi Berry, CEO of IndieSpace. “So even a month or two months [without income] it is enough to kill them completely. “

Berry’s organization helps independent theaters structure leases and find venues. While some were able to secure federal PPP money, many theaters were lost because they often rely on volunteers or part-time workers, according to Berry.

“Small venues may not have full-time employees that make them eligible for some of the support,” he said.

Broadway and small theater owners rely heavily on the $ 16 billion Shuttered Venue program, established by the Small Business Administration with federal pandemic funds to assist music venues, live event venues, theaters and museums. The money was supposed to be delivered in April, but has yet to arrive.

Some theater owners claim that the application process was too cumbersome for a small organization.

“It was crazy,” said Edmund Gaynes, an off-Broadway producer who runs the Actors Temple Theater. Gaynes decided not to apply for a grant.

A view of the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater and the Jacobs Theater on June 29, 2020 (Getty)

A view of the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater and the Jacobs Theater in June 2020 (Getty)

The League of Independent Theaters, a nonprofit organization, lists 14 theaters on its website that have closed due to Covid.

One of those companies belonged to Eric Krebs, who had been producing shows in and around New York City since 1969. Unable to pay the rent at his 62-seat Playroom Theater at 151 West 46th Street near Times Square, he canceled his lease and shut it down shortly after the pandemic started.

Krebs, 76, said his main focus now is producing a musical version of Romeo and Juliet set in 1960s Brooklyn. But it will not be in the place that it left. That has become a physical therapy and acupuncture clinic.

Meghan Finn, artistic director of Tank, an off-Broadway production location, said her nonprofit quickly switched to virtual performances. It was delinquent in the first two months, but was able to pay the rent for a 56-seat space and a 98-seat space at 312 West 36th Street.

Finn said he tried to pay the rent as soon as he could to get the landlord to continue the lease.

Even with virtual programs, such as “Prometheus Bound” or “Islands of Contentment,” and grants from private foundations, it has been a challenge.

“We still have to get rabbits out of hats for it to work,” Finn said.

Waiting for Cuomo

Some theater owners seek more clarity before opening.

Ciaran O’Reilly, the production manager of the 150-seat Irish Repertory Theater at 132 West 22nd Street in Chelsea, awaits guidance from the unions before opening up to a live audience. He said his theater is lucky in that he owns his space (a commercial condominium) and was able to get by with virtual shows, which expanded the theater’s audience.

But putting on a new show is expensive. You also have to pay to make sure your HVAC system is up to the state’s pandemic standard, with filters and levels of air circulation that are believed to reduce transmission of the virus.

Cuomo may have stated that New York is fully open in May, but that is not practical for the Irish representative.

“It’s not real to us,” O’Reilly said.

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