By Cindy Mizaku
Students in Timothy Ryan Olson’s Mask and Mime class begin with a physical warm-up, moving their bodies to act out speechless stories. Only this time, rather than performing in the black box theatre, they are doing it in front of their computer screens.
New York City’s theatre community — Off-Broadway theatre companies, freelance actors and lovers of theatre — is staying connected online as the performing arts are put on hold after the city shut down on March 20. The Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York, an arts organization that supports over 400 nonprofit theatres, anticipated an impact of about $47 million through the middle of April in a town hall meeting on March 27. Though the theatre community is experiencing revenue cuts, members are adapting alternative approaches to reach audiences.
“Some theatre organizations have begun doing some great things already: creating online education that they have made available to the public for free or low cost, offering recordings of past theatrical productions for free on streaming services,” Olson, Theatre Professor at Bard High School Early College, said.
A.R.T./New York created a survey on March 12 to learn about the financial impact the COVID-19 outbreak has had on theatre companies. Since the non-profit theatre community has not been getting as much attention as Broadway theatre, Nathalie Thomas, Media and Outreach Coordinator at A.R.T./ New York, said that the impact survey was a way to advocate for small performing arts businesses.
“We need to quantify what this looks like because people don’t fully understand the gravity of the impact that this is going to have on smaller theatre companies closing their shows,” she said, “so that we can advocate for funding.”
A.R.T./ New York is working on making resources like information sessions on how to respond to the crisis available for theatre companies and freelance artists whose revenues and incomes have dropped. Among the resources provided, a webinar was held on Friday, April 3, to discuss how the CARES Act, a $2 trillion stimulus package, applies to theatres. Of the total $75 million going towards the National Education Association, $19 million is allocated for arts grants.
“It’s a terrifying time,” Corinne Woods, Director of Programs at A.R.T./New York, said. “We’re getting bad news stories every day. Theatre artists are really well positioned to be able to respond to those because theatre is a medium that can respond quickly.”
Artists, who want to continue their work while sharing their content, are reaching out to student actors and theatre enthusiasts on social media platforms. Actor and Manager of Raised Spirits Theater Company, Alexander D Carney, created a Facebook group to connect with others and provide acting coaching at “pay what you can” prices.
“Our focus has to be on surviving physically and mentally,” Carney said. “As artists, we must connect, or we will die emotionally, creatively, and spiritually.”
Theatre classes, events, live-streamed and pre-recorded performances are put together on A.R.T./New York’s catalog.
“I hope that, maybe through this period of time, we learn some ways to engage in the digital world that will help us to better promote theater, raise awareness of the importance of theater,” David Shane, Programs Manager at A.R.T./ New York, said.