State of the Arts
By Cindy Landrum
Coronavirus is far from the only challenge Julian Wiles has faced as founder and producing artistic director of Charleston Stage, but it's certainly the most unique.
When Hurricane Hugo slammed into Charleston in 1989, a mere two weeks before the start of Charleston Stage's production of "Scapino," the cast rehearsed in its scene shop during the day, opening the loading dock for light, because the city had no electricity and a curfew. Other hurricanes forced evacuations, too. There was the Great Recession, a time that brought staff reductions and additional belt-tightening.
"We've got a bit of experience dealing with things, but nothing as Draconian as this," Wiles said of the shuttering of the economy designed to help slow the spread of the virus. "We will have been shut down for almost nine months by the time we think we'll reopen."
Charleston Stage last month announced it would delay opening its 43rd season until January. It cut $1 million from its budget immediately after the closure began, Wiles said. While a stimulus grant helped the theater keep its staff in place so far, it will have to furlough 19 of its 29 staff members in August and cut pay for those who remain, he said.
Charleston Stage is just an example of the significant impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on South Carolina's performing arts organizations.
Losses could total in the millions of dollars, said David Platts, executive director of the South Carolina Arts Commission.
"I'm worried about our artists and arts organizations," he said. "I'm not sure what the landscape will look like a year from now. I know at least one organization (York Ballet) has announced its closing, and if we aren't able to get together safely soon, we'll lose others. Those that remain won't come out looking the same, either."
The arts mean big business in South Carolina.
According to a 2018 report by the University of South Carolina economist Douglas P. Woodward, the arts have a $9.7 billion impact on the state's economy. The South Carolina Arts Commission funded the report.
The report said the state's arts-related economic cluster supports 115,000 jobs and is responsible for $3.8 billion in labor income. It generates $269 million in tax revenue.
Nationally, the arts contribute $763.6 billion to the U.S. economy, according to 2018 data by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2018, the arts accounted for 4.2 percent of the gross national product and added four times more to the U.S. economy than the agricultural sector and $200 billion more than transportation or warehousing, the report said. The report said the arts employ 4.9 million workers with earnings of more than $370 billion.
When the shutdown hit, The Warehouse Theatre in Greenville was in the middle of its production of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," a show that Artistic Director Mike Sablone said was on its way to becoming one of the theater's all-time top five shows.
"Now and then I have to go into The Warehouse to grab something that I've forgotten in the office. Seeing that Hedwig set just sitting there is hard because I think about the artists who were working on that show, I think about the audiences connecting with that show and how they were deprived of that," Sablone said.
Sablone estimates The Warehouse Theatre has lost at least $80,000 in revenue but said it could be a lot more than that, depending on when the theater can reopen.
"For the last year, our shows have exceeded box office expectations right and left," he said.
South Carolina Theater Association President Will Ragland founded the Mill Town Players in Pelzer in 2014 to bring quality, affordable theater to the former mill town and to kick start the area's economic revitalization.
"It's a game of survival at this point," he said. "Fortunately, I'm the theater's only employee. I have options. If I have to get a new job and donate my salary to the theater, that's what I'll do."
Some performing arts organizations appealed to ticket holders to convert their tickets into donations instead of asking for refunds. Greenville Symphony Orchestra Executive Director Julie Fish said over 60 percent of the symphony's ticket holders did so.
Some received Payroll Protection Program loans to keep staff on the payroll. Others received funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or received grants from arts umbrella organizations. In Greenville, the Metropolitan Arts Council distributed $275,000 to 28 arts organizations. The MAC Covid-19 Arts Relief Fund started with a $102,000 withdrawal from the MAC Endowment for the Arts.
Some are using cash reserves.
"We were fortunate to have a rainy day fund. We always thought we would use it for a big hurricane," said Charleston Stage's Wiles. "We never expected it would be a pandemic."
Ragland said most theaters are now looking at fall openings. Some, like Charleston Stage, plan to stay closed until January or February.
Sablone said not knowing when the shutdown will end is difficult.
"There are a million different scenarios that can happen. Trying to plan for an infinite number of scenarios is very tiring," he said. "It's difficult to figure out not even what the best way forward is, just the way forward is. But we're doing it. We're all moving forward."
Wiles said that while the pandemic has been devastating, it has forced Charleston Stage to think about how it will move forward.
"It has forced us all to take a breath. We're not trying to get a show up so we have time to think about how we design shows, how we build shows, how we do our casting. We've essentially had several months to re-evaluate what we do, and that's been great," he said.
Staying in front of audiences
Part of moving forward is coming up with ways to stay in front of audiences when they can't be physically in front of those audiences.
Charleston Stage launched "Where Are They Now Wednesdays," a series of interviews and short performances by actors who have worked with the theater in the past and are performing somewhere else in the world. One Charleston Stage alum is still performing "Phantom of the Opera" in Seoul, South Korea. Another played Aladdin on Broadway.
"It's a way for audiences to reconnect with people they saw on stage," Wiles said.
Greenville Symphony Orchestra has started a digital concert hall, which sometimes features GSO musicians performing from their living rooms. Other digital concert hall selections come from encore performances from previous GSO concerts with insights from Maestro Edvard Tchivzhel.
The Curtains Up Coalition is producing an online performance series that highlights a community theater in the Upstate.
The South Carolina Children's Theatre was supposed to be staging "Dr. Suess' The Cat In The Hat" in its new theater this month. Instead, it will hold "Summer on the Dock," an original revue-type production outside on the theater's loading dock, Executive Director Debbie Bell said.
Greenville's Peace Center has cleared its schedule until October.
"We're not built for social distancing," said President and CEO Megan Riegel.
Once the question of when performance venues can open is answered, the next question is whether people will come.
"A lot of running a nonprofit theater is dealing with unknowns and things that crop up. This is certainly a big hurdle," Wiles said. "But in Charleston, we've had other pandemics. We've had wars. We've had other things that have shut down theaters, and we've always come back. I think when we can get back together, it will be a real celebration for everybody."