The stages went dark before almost anyplace else.
In early March 2020, few people knew what to think about the looming COVID-19 pandemic. Few had any idea of the radical changes the coronavirus was about to impose on us all — or for how long those changes would stick.
Among the first to get a true sense of how difficult things might get were entertainment venues: theaters, movie houses, live music stages. By the time Gov. Phil Murphy issued Executive Order 107 closing all venues on March 16, many had already made the decision to shutter temporarily.
They closed because they were concerned about their ability to keep employees and performers safe in cozy indoor spaces. But they were also faced with the fact that people were unsure about how they might catch the virus, how deadly it was, and what was and was not safe to do. Because of that, patrons were already staying away.
Now it’s 2021, and in New Jersey, as in many places around the country, those patrons still haven’t been back. Nine months and counting since theaters and other entertainment spaces have been able to book musicians, movies and plays, or pack the house with happy crowds.
Yet many are still in business, with hopes to reopen in the not too distant future. How have they done it?
It hasn’t been easy. Rent and mortgages are still due every month, even without revenue coming in. To get by, some have relied on grants, others on donations and crowdfunding campaigns. Thousands of staff members have been laid off to the point where many venues today operate with mere skeleton crews. The lights are dim. The heat is set to low.
But there is hope. Not just hope, but optimism. Because as bad as the pandemic has been for business, it has been good for innovation. Venues and artists alike have gotten creative looking for new ways to entertain and to make money.
And some of the ideas they have come up with are good ones. Like live-streamed concerts that will be recorded on equipment that makes remote audiences feel like they are there. Like apps that could revolutionize the way digitally recorded performances are viewed. Like art appreciation and music classes taught by industry professionals, and Zoom Q&As with respected artists and content creators.
Some of the ideas have been so good, in fact, that venues hope that their best pandemic-driven innovations will remain a part of their business plans even after audiences and performers are able to safely return for live shows.
“I tend to look at things the way my father did,” says local musician Alex Otey. “My father was a very celebrated musician, and he had an old Mexican saying: No hay mal que por bien no venga. ‘Nothing bad happens without something good coming out of it.’ This particular situation, the good that has come out of it is, at least it has made us think a lot about new ways to do things.”
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In the days after the pandemic struck the U.S., a new organization quickly formed called NIVA: the National Independent Venue Association. NIVA began as a loose consortium of 75 music venues from across the country that wanted to start the discussion of how to keep the industry from collapsing after losing most of their streams of revenue.
Within months, NIVA had more than 2,000 members, including both music venues and music promoters. One was McCarter Theatre Center, in Princeton. Another was Hopewell Theater, in Hopewell Borough, which since 2017 has been a venue known for its live music performances and film screenings.
Hopewell Theater announced its decision to shut things down on March 12, days before Murphy locked the state down with Executive Order 107. “None of us knew how long this would last, so we canceled shows in stages,” says Sara Scully, Hopewell Theater’s executive director. “We thought we’d be shut down for like two weeks to a month or something.”
In May, NIVA released the results of a survey it had sent out to its membership. Ninety percent of respondents indicated that they expected to close for good within a matter of months, if the federal government did not intervene.
In June, NIVA began the #SaveOurStages movement with a letter from to Congress requesting federal assistance for the industry. By July, senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) had co-sponsored a bill known as the Save Our Stages Act, which would provide six months of financial support to help keep theaters and other venues afloat.
“We knew about NIVA, and once they got the Save Our Stages campaign underway, that’s when they really got on our radar,” Scully says. “We wanted to do everything we could to support the Save Our Stages legislation.”
At first Scully, her business partner Mitchel Skolnick, and the rest of the theater’s professional staff kept busy. “There was quite a bit of work to do at first, with canceling shows, business management decisions, contracting our budget,” Scully says. “We had to keep everyone safe, figure out where everyone should work, how everything should operate, how we should stage our layoffs, if we should even have layoffs, and when. For several months, no one knew what the future would hold.”
As the pandemic wore on and more shows had to be canceled, layoffs became inevitable for Hopewell Theater and many other venues. Which is to say that the only way most NIVA members were able to avoid the survey’s dire prediction of mass permanent closure was by letting go of the majority of their employees.
McCarter, which announced on March 23 that it was canceling all shows through June 30, laid off 70% of its staff on May 10. Hopewell Theater had several rounds of layoffs, until the only employees left were Scully and three others, two of whom work part time.
“These are people some of whom had been with us even before we opened, people who brought Hopewell Theater to life, and I value them all equally,” Scully says. “It was very hard to lose them, to dismantle the business. We had to do it, because there was no end in sight. There was no work to do. But it was very hard.”
Scully says that when it became clear that they wouldn’t be hosting any live events for a long time, they had no choice but to come up with ways to pivot the business. They entered what she calls an R&D phase, to try to figure out what would be the best thing they could do to enable the business to survive long term. Even in a pandemic.
The best idea they came up with — one that they are working on right now — is something she calls the Sanctuary System: a system that would allow venues like Hopewell Theater to live stream and do prerecorded live presentations of broadcast quality.
“We’re talking about how to creatively reimagine how you’re filming a theater and a performance, really in three dimensions,” Scully says. “Thinking creatively about building the camera equipment into the theater. That’s what we’ve been doing.”
The system will be designed to be mobile, so other venues could use it, and to work with an app that would enable them to get on board. You can think of it, Scully says, as an independent channel for venues. They could prerecord performances, build a library of content, then push it into the world on a multi-tenant platform that would enable them to monetize the content.
“It’s kind of going beyond how live streams are presented creatively and how they’re shot,” Scully says. “I’m hoping it will allow for technology sharing with other venues, to empower them to [participate] in a way such that the barriers to entry are lower.”
Live streaming is not new of course. And many venues already put shows online. But Scully says there are also many technical issues that hold venues back: which platform do you stream on? How do you sell tickets? How do you safely store content digitally? What about video and audio quality?
“I want to be able to present theater anywhere, live stream or prerecorded, and I want to be able to press a button and record and say, this goes into a library. I want the box office experience for people to be integrated. If we could make this work, it could liberate theaters,” Scully says.
To make this happen, Hopewell Theater has partnered with a couple other technical and theater companies that have experience in this area.
“We’re hoping that by the time it’s built, we will be able to keep an audience in the theater and an audience online,” Scully says. “Even when we’re back open, digital’s not going to go away. The cat’s out of the bag. You have to be able to have digital content as a companion to in-person content.”
Besides developing the Sanctuary system, Scully says her main priority has been supporting NIVA in its push for the Save Our Stages bill. She has also been busy launching a group similar to NIVA, but for New Jersey-based venues, called NJIVA.
“The entire ecosystem of the creative industry has been affected by this,” Scully says. “We were the first places to close, and we’ll be the last to reopen. It’s affected promoters, musicians, technical people, venues — if one goes down it affects all of us. These musicians need venues to play at. That’s why we’ve been so passionate in advocating for Save Our Stages. The entire ecosystem needs to get through this.”
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Other area venues have found their own creative ways to cope with the pandemic. Just three weeks after the statewide lockdown began, McCarter Theatre launched McCarter@Home, described as “an online platform for archival footage, new content, and opportunities to engage through classes, readings, and virtual programming.”
One of the first McCarter@Home events was a virtual conversation between decorated actor Mary McDonnell and outgoing long-time artistic director Emily Mann. Other sessions soon followed, including one with actor Michael Shannon. In December, McCarter@Home featured singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin and an ongoing virtual festival dedicated to the work of Black playwright Adrienne Kennedy.
Sarah Rasmussen succeeded Mann as artistic director in August. One of the first pandemic-related challenges she faced was figuring out what McCarter could do regarding its annual holiday favorite, an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novella “A Christmas Carol,” which it would not be able to produce on stage this year.
The solution they came up with was A Christmas Carol@Home: a box filled with scene readings, conversation prompts and postcards that would enable groups to enact their own versions of the play in the safety of their homes. The $40 boxes were a hit, and sold out quickly.
“It’s very old fashioned,” Rasmussen says. “I think it’s reminding people that storytelling, at the end of the day, requires imagination and sharing a story together in what’s been a very challenging winter.”
Also successful for McCarter has been its online classes for all ages. Topics range from “Mystery Theatre Drama” whodunits for kids to improv classes for adults.
“We’re serving about the same number of students online now that we would have in person,” Rasmussen says. “That’s exciting because this online forum provides access that people wouldn’t have had otherwise had. People have said, ‘This is great, my parent wouldn’t be able to drive me to this class normally.’ When we come back to the theater, we’ll be glad to get together in person again. But I hope it’s really the best of both worlds, and I could definitely see us continuing to offer classes online.”
The 1867 Sanctuary in Ewing, also a NIVA member, has dealt with many of the same challenges that Hopewell Theater and McCarter Theatre have gone through, only it’s been a little different. For one thing, the Sanctuary is a nonprofit organization, with a volunteer-driven staff and limited tax liabilities.
For another, the preserved and former First Presbyterian Church of Ewing building has relatively low overhead. The Sanctuary is administered by Preservation NJ, and shares services like bookkeeping with that organization, and has been able to reach out to donors who have supported the venue over the 10 years since the initiative began to save the historic site.
“We have support from people that are historic preservationists, that appreciate and celebrate the legacy of the building,” says Bob Kull, event manager for the Sanctuary and a Preservation NJ board member.
Audiences have been good donors, and a ‘Save Our Sanctuary” GoFundMe campaign raised more than $2000 to help cover expenses like the oil bill. “We’re not rolling in money, but I think we have enough support that we can anticipate that when the pandemic finally releases its grip on us, we hope by April or May, we’ll still be able to be standing, and be able to have public events again,” Kull says.
One of the Sanctuary’s innovations to try to make some money during the pandemic has been to actually live stream performances from within its walls, like the Alex Otey Trio’s “Jingle Jazz” online performance on Dec. 12. Kull says the Sanctuary upgraded its internet to minimize the risk of freezes and other glitches during the show.
But as Kull points out, live streaming is not as simple a thing to do as it might sound, and one of the reasons for that is copyright law.
ASCAP, or the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, is an organization that works to protect the copyright of the creators of modern music. It does this primarily through licensing agreements with artists who perform songs created by ASCAP members, and venues that host and broadcast the performances.
The 1867 Sanctuary is an ASCAP-licensed venue, but for live performances only. While the Sanctuary is permitted through its license to live stream a performance, it would need a different, costlier license from ASCAP to be able to record and rebroadcast the performance or make money from the recording.
Another complication with live streaming is the challenge of charging virtual attendees ahead of time for access. For the Alex Otey Trio concert, for example, viewers could donate money which would be split between venue and performer, but if they wanted, they could watch the whole thing for free.
These are just more technicalities, and more reasons that Sara Scully is working on a system that could potentially help venues and artists deal with music licensing and ticketing issues.
In terms of welcoming patrons back into the Sanctuary, Kull doesn’t think it will all happen at once. “I think we will be able to become active again later in the spring, but the bigger question is whether audiences will be comfortable in coming, whether there will still be limits on the number of people that can be in a space,” Kull says. “I think as we have the community of donors that continue to support us, we’ll make sure we’re a safe place to be and to enjoy arts and culture. But we do have a lot of older people in our audiences, so we hope to be able to continue doing webcasting as well.”
Kull also notes that a lot of musicians have used the abundant downtime to work on their craft. “It should be quite eventful next year when we start having concerts again, not just getting back into the swing of performing, but also there will be a lot of new music out there,” he says.
Speaking as a musician, Alex Otey says the venues’ efforts to develop new business pathways online are good news for him and his fellow performers.
“The industry is kind of realizing that for now we have to do this, but once the stages do open up again, this whole online thing will continue,” says the Ewing resident. “I don’t think it’s going to stop. The growth in online activity has been a shot in the arm. In the long term artists will have more outlets, and that’s a good thing.”
This article originally appeared in print in Six09, Community News’ arts and entertainment publication. Subsequent to the publication of this story, the Save Our Stages bill was passed as part of Congress’ Heroes Act.
A previous version of this article asserted that the 1867 Sanctuary’s electricity bill was covered by an in-kind donation from PSE&G. That is not the case.