We all know 2020 wreaked havoc upon those who entertain us.
The musicians and actors, the music venues and theater companies. Jobs and gigs were lost. Shows were canceled. Entire seasons were slashed.
But was there some gold in the rubble? For artists, the urge to create can’t be dampened. So people found other ways to perform and present their work, including creating outdoor stages and learning the skills necessary to produce virtual concerts and productions.
Nobody knows the future, or when they might return to pre-pandemic performances on an indoor stage with healthy-sized audiences. It could be well into 2021 and perhaps not even until fall, or 2022.
After shuttering many shows in March, including closing production just on the verge of opening night, theater companies quickly pivoted.
Springs Ensemble Theatre managed to eke out one in-person show, “Strangers on a Train,” in February and March before the pandemic put the kibosh on live events. The company rallied, though, and filmed and released two more shows from their season: “White” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
“We had to cancel two shows, but three out of five during 2020 is not a bad place to land,” says SET president and treasurer Matt Radcliffe. “From a revenue standpoint we’re at about half of what we normally make, which is enough to keep operations going, but not sustainable over the long-term.”
SET’s two digital offerings, which cost more to produce than a regular stage show, unfortunately didn’t attract as many viewers as the latter. For the spring show “White,” about half the number of people watched it online than would have attended in person, says Radcliffe.
The initial onset of the pandemic was hard but not terrible for Theatreworks, says artistic director Caitlin Lowans. Though they were forced to shut down the production “An Iliad” on opening night, everybody who worked on it was paid, even though the company couldn’t honor a single ticket. For their following production, “Passion Play,” two-thirds of designer contracts were honored, as well as one-third of actor contracts. It meant a financial hit, but at the same time audiences chose to donate their tickets back to the company rather than ask for a refund, which helped.
The second half of 2020, or what should have been the beginning of Theatreworks’ 2020/2021 season, has been more challenging. They, too, have ventured into the virtual world, producing the vignette-style “House Arrest” and December’s “Month of Joy,” a live social media project, but neither offering will produce the ticket revenue the company is accustomed to from regular shows.
“I’ve talked to theater friends across the country and people are at various levels of making streaming work,” says Lowans. “No one has been successfully monetizing it. Some are great at making it, some are taking a break, but I haven’t talked to one company that’s good at raising money. It’s more about providing actors with a salary and the audience with an experience.”
Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College’s Theatre Company canceled five main stage productions, four second stage productions, a series of educational-related productions and a series of one-night special events, including a performance by comedian Paula Poundstone.
But in the midst of the chaotic year emerged a new stream of creative offerings by the company, including the radio play series “Of Spacious Skies” and December’s “Holiday Cabaret.”
“It’s been a mixed bag. It’s been horrendous and, strangely, artistically fulfilling at the same time,” says Scott RC Levy, the FAC’s producing artistic director.
Millibo Art Theatre lost more than two dozen shows in 2020, plus special events and improv comedy shows. The loss of December shows was especially impactful, as it’s typically the MAT’s busiest month, much as it is for many theaters, says theater co-founder and executive director Jim Jackson.
“We’ve resigned ourselves to becoming a video and virtual entity for the next few months,” says Jackson. “It’s just so weird. It’s not who we are. We’re trying to make the best of it.”
The nonprofit Academy of Community Theatre (ACT II) also was hit hard. The company lost $50,000 after having to cancel its spring production, “The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley, Jr.,” and return tickets. That was 40% of its annual income, says the organization’s president and founder, Lynn M. Hamilton.
Loss of live music
2020 wasn’t just bad for music venues. Geoff Brent, the owner of The Black Sheep, described it as a “total worst-case scenario.”
Early in the year, it wasn’t clear how bad things would get. As the pandemic started, The Black Sheep took a position that many local venues shared: They canceled shows, planned virtual shows and hoped — and even planned — to be back soon.
“Soon” never came in 2020 for the standing-room-only venue on Platte Avenue. It hasn’t hosted an in-person concert since March 14. The lack of live music there, and everywhere, has weighed heavily on Brent.
“Besides the obvious financial hardship on the business and our staff, we really love what we do and I think going months without seeing each other, seeing bands, seeing our favorite regulars was an even worse impact on all of us,” Brent said. “We live for live music and this year that just wasn’t possible.”
The pandemic waged on, crushing calendars all around town and making for a scheduling nightmare between venues and artists.
In total, Sunshine Studios Live canceled 300 concerts and events in 2020, according to owner Christina Corbitt. Many shows were postponed not once or twice, but three times, a testament to how much the timeline for reopening changed. She says “hundreds of thousands of funds” were lost due to mandates and new regulations “contending against us.”
For Corbitt, though, the “quietness and stillness of this past year has been by far the hardest part.”
Being “essentially” shut down by the government without a solid plan or clue if financial aid was coming proved especially frustrating for Brent. “The timelines seem to always be a moving target,” he said. “It felt like just one setback after another, and in a lot of ways we were powerless to decide our own fate.”
Lulu’s Downstairs, a newcomer to the live music scene, was picking up steam before the pandemic shut the Manitou Springs bar and venue down. After scaling back to just a bar, Lulu’s has been fully closed since late October.
Throughout the year, other midsize venues such as Stargazers Theatre and Boot Barn Hall found creative ways to host shows while following guidelines. But that was the minority.
Concerts have been off the table for Pikes Peak Center and Broadmoor World Arena mostly because of restrictions on large gatherings. That meant canceling huge and sold-out concerts and laying off employees.
“It wears on you,” says general manager Dot Lischick. “I used to be a whole lot taller before this year.”
Against a lot of odds, venues have treated survival like a superpower.
The World Arena held drive-in movie nights. The Black Sheep hosted movie nights, too. “In an industry where thinking on your feet is kind of always the mantra, 2020 was an extreme version of that,” Brent says.
Corbitt agrees, saying, “We have really had to think outside the box and become super creative. Luckily that’s our specialty and what we do. We are always changing, growing and evolving. Challenges spark our ingenuity.”
She leaned on Sunshine Studios’ recording studio to bring in business. She and Brent say the community has shown a lot of love by purchasing merchandise and gift cards to use later.
Lulu’s and The Black Sheep used the time off to renovate their spaces. But each day, there was a sense of heartbreak.
Brent got through that, he said, thanks to something as simple as a positive comment on the venue’s Facebook.
“The mental strain from being kept from what we love was huge,” he said. “Positive feedback from the community kept us going.”
A new year awaits
It’s still too soon to know when, and even if, entertainment venues will be able to mount full, in-person shows in 2021. Broadway is shut down through at least May 30, but some local companies, such as the FAC, MAT and SET, aren’t looking to return to a more normal-looking theater season until fall.
The Broadmoor World Arena doesn’t have a single show listed on its lineup for 2021. While Pikes Peak Center has events scheduled for late March, those could still be up in the air.
“There’s no definite date we can say that we’ll be back,” says Lischick.
Brent, of The Black Sheep, doesn’t have high hopes for a swift return of live music.
“I’m afraid it’s going to be a lot slower than people are hoping,” he said. “Optimistically I hope to see smaller bands and locals playing again by this summer, and a return to the larger national bands being out on the road again by fall, but we still have a long way to go.”
Some theaters are working to put on small shows with one- or two-person casts, such as Funky Little Theater Company, whose last in-person show, the one-woman “Apples in Winter,” was moved from the stage at their new home at Westside Community Center to online when rising COVID-19 numbers forced a more stringent lockdown in November. Funky founder Chris Medina hopes to mount several intimate in-person shows in the next couple of months, depending on virus numbers.
Some companies will continue to offer online productions. Others are considering how to best optimize outdoor spaces, especially once warmer weather arrives. The FAC’s Levy is considering what a permanent outdoor stage might look like, or somehow bringing performances to communities around the city. Theatreworks is planning outdoor shows around its Ent Center for the Arts home at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, including a shadow puppetry production in late February.
“When it does lift and people feel safe to gather inside, there will be a huge upsurge. People are starved for it,” says Jackson. “There’s no telling when that will be or what safety protocols we’ll have to keep in place. We may be open to 35 people instead of 109. Next year we’ll have a better sense of how it’s going to go. What really is killing us is the unknown. You have to, in this business, be somewhat forward-looking.”
Those running live music venues insist the places aren’t going anywhere. They’re just waiting for mandates to lift.
“We (will) have a very strong comeback for 2021,” says Corbitt, of Sunshine Studios Live. “We have been keeping in close contact with national bands and agents and they are all itching to tour back through Sunshine Studios Live.”
In the meantime, music lovers can expect more virtual concerts and creative events from local venues.
Make or break
It’s the other F word: financials. This year did some damage. Money and jobs were lost. But nobody has closed up shop yet. Many are in the middle of a gift campaign and end-of-year giving.
“We have fingers crossed. So far we’re OK,” says Jackson, of the Millibo Art Theatre. “We’ve had tremendous support from the community. It will carry us through to spring. The building will stay open and we’ll be able to jump into it come summer. Really our sole source of revenue is ticket sales.”
SET has enough in reserves to last through 2021, but Radcliffe would like to see that amount double so they can ensure at least another two years’ worth of shows.
Near the end of 2020, almost like a Christmas gift, independent music venues got some good news: Congress passed a new COVID-19 relief bill that will include funding for independent music venues that have been closed throughout the pandemic.
The funding offers some hope for local places such as Lulu’s and The Black Sheep.
Brent, of The Black Sheep, says the funding “will prove to be huge for us and everyone else in our business.”
Companies attached to higher education naturally are at lower risk.
“We’re existing in a world where the support of the college is amazing,” says Levy.
“We have not had to furlough any staff. These have been small projects, but being able to provide artistic and financial compensation to close to 100 artists in the community is amazing.”
Lowans is working to give patrons experiences and making sure artists continue to get paid. She intends to use Theatreworks’ endowment to create works that don’t depend on ticket revenue.
“How can we make sure we’re not succeeding to the detriment of people who are more vulnerable than we are?” she says. “Finding ways to pay people is more important than we are. We will have to continue robust fundraising to support the work we’ll be offering and also support staff members.”
Hamilton’s also busy fundraising and anticipates returning to the stage in the fall with the musical “Charlotte’s Web.” Medina, too, feels hopeful for the future.
“Everybody’s waiting in the wings, and so are we,” he says.
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