Nearly everyone in the Bay Area, except maybe dyed-in-the-wool doubters who believe that COVID-19 is no threat, is in survival mode.
So, too, are theater companies, including large ones like the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.), Berkeley Rep, BroadwaySF and TheatreWorks. But it’s really the smaller outfits with disappeared revenues that are in the most trouble, forced to beg more than usual for financial support.
Many, in fact, have gone dark; many more are going digital while doubling down on fundraising.
In the latter camp is the nonprofit La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley.
Natalia Neira, co-executive director, calculates the venue will have to stay shut “through at least August 2021, based on the city’s reopening protocols.”
That means a protraction of no in-person theatrical performances, no concerts, no panel discussions.
Ergo, the multicultural center (http://lapena.org) produced its first online production on Sept. 11, marking not the Twin Towers’ destruction in 2001 but the 1973 coup d’état in Chile. Coupled with that production were live shots of Chilean artist Gonzalo Hidalgo installing an altar in front of the Berkeley building.
Now, a December fundraising drive is planned for La Peña, “to invest in online technology and support our operations,” Neira says. An August campaign already raised $55,000. In addition, the city gave the organization “$24,000 for relief from COVID, and local foundations really stepped up within a month of our having to close,” she adds.
Meanwhile, the 99-seat Martinez Campbell Theater, which houses Onstage Repertory Theatre, “is technically open although we can’t mount any productions,” says program coordinator Randy Anger.
But definitely coming up, he notes, is a show by the Improv for Good troupe, perhaps outdoors with social distancing. No exact date has yet been set. “We’re also considering having some musical groups perform outside,” Anger says — and there’s a good possibility, too, of Zoom performances.
A new filtration system will help what Anger hopes will be an April opening of the theater with 50 seats. That 50-percent-capacity figure would allow the company to break even.
“We’re lucky,” Anger explains, “because we have some money in the bank.” But that doesn’t stop the company from needing a donate button on its site, http://campbelltheater.com.
The city of Martinez, which leases space to the theater, has helped enormously. “We’re very fortunate,” Anger observes, “because the city council very generously reduced our rent to $375 a month from $1,500.”
Money is also an issue for AlterTheater, an alternative San Rafael institution that used storefronts (some vacant, some in retail use) to stage its pre-COVID productions.
“Although we have no overhead because we don’t pay rent, there’s never enough money to do what we do,” says Jeanette Harrison, co-founder and artistic director. “Right now, every penny is going to pay artists, but we still want to create more jobs and opportunities for underrepresented and budding artists.”
About fundraising, she adds, “We’re only $65 away from hitting our first $25,000 goal, which makes us eligible for a $25,000 [matching grant] for Native American communities, which are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19.”
Regarding what’s being produced, she says, “We’re collaborating with The Parsnip Ship, a company that’s done radio plays for five years.” First up is “Br’er Peach,” a fusion of African American tradition and a Japanese folk tale.
“Pure Native,” an AlterLab residency creation by indigenous playwright Vickie Ramirez on modern Native life, tradition and water, is being prepared as a Zoom show.
AlterTheater (http://altertheater.org) has also started a virtual pilot program teaching playwriting to sixth- through ninth-grade kids on reservations, “in response to parents struggling with homeschooling.”
The Masquers, in Point Richmond, have learned as much about fundraising as most companies have. A capital campaign to repair their playhouse ended at $550,000 — some $50,000 over the target.
The company (http://masquers.org) had expected to finish reconstruction and reopen, after four years, this fall. Because COVID-19 interfered, it’s putting on an original Halloween radio show, “Does It Bother You When I …?”
“We’re in rehearsal now,” says Carl Smith, managing director. “It’s a lot of fun, and it’s accessible: If you want to go on Zoom, you can; if you want to just listen, that’s OK.”
The show, he elaborates, “is silly, with lots of puns, about the high jinks of a mad scientist and what can go wrong.”
The future? “We’re looking at more audio dramas during the pandemic,” he says, “then plan to produce five full productions.”
That’ll require more dollars. “We need to raise $36,000 in the next six months for a year’s operation just to stay afloat,” Smith says.
But the pandemic isn’t the only problem the arts face today, he explains. The new gig-work rules established by AB5 — and AB2257, the revision specifying some exemptions — have made working on theater productions more complicated for performers and creators. And this year’s stimulus check from the U.S. government only went so far in the Bay Area.
“Some actors who did gig jobs already have had to move back home, wherever they were from,” Smith says, “because the $1,200 they got has run out and they couldn’t pay rent.”