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Theater Producers Facing Unique, Daunting Challenges In Time Of Coronavirus

Cheyenne Dancy

Two weekends ago, when music and theatrical performances everywhere began to topple like dominoes, Katie Jones, the artistic director of Asheville’s Magnetic Theatre, spoke with the cast and crew about to premiere the play “Traitor.”

“It was late Thursday night, and this particular group had been through their dress rehearsal,” Jones said. “They’ve done a whole production’s worth of work and I thought ‘OK, if we don’t do this production now, we’re never gonna get to do it.’”

Opening night was nearly a sellout. The next night, only half the people who purchased tickets in advance showed up. On Sunday morning, Jones canceled the two remaining weekends of “Traitor.”

Now, while artists everywhere are considering their options for presenting work and earning money online, those who produce staged theater face unique, daunting challenges.


Unless companies are producing new, original works, their licensing agreements for existing scripts forbid any video productions. Even those that can turn to video only get one shot at it—there isn’t an audience for multiple videos of the same stage show.

Also, the income such a video could generate likely won’t go far when spread among even a modest cast and crew. And unless it’s a show that’s on its feet and ready to go, it isn’t practical to cast, rehearse and do all the technical work to mount a show for one videostreamed performance.

“This is where things get really scary for us,” said Lisa Bryant, the artistic director of Flat Rock Playhouse, the region’s largest professional company, employing a fulltime staff of 24. Flat Rock’s mainstage season is set to open April 24 with “Million Dollar Quartet.”

“It will likely be our highest-selling show and our greatest profit margin because it’s a relatively small cast that packs a big punch and brings in a whole lot of capital,” she said. “If this thing (Coronavirus) goes into middle- and late-May and certainly into summer, it becomes very frightening at that point, much like many theaters are already experiencing.”

Southern Appalachian Repertory Company mostly produces existing musicals from the campus of Mars Hill University. Artistic director Chelsey Mirheli said the near horizon is bleak. 

“At this point in our fiscal year, this is when we are really pounding the pavement and talking to people in our community and getting our sponsorships in order for the year,” Mirheli said. “Right now, a lot of businesses are struggling themselves. They don’t have plans to advertise in our program because they’re barely able to keep their own doors open.”

When the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts shuttered its entire March calendar, that meant Different Strokes Performing Arts Collective would have to shelve a show that had been in rehearsals since early February.

“We’re used to spending money and then making money right back when we do these productions,” said Stephanie Hickling-Beckman, the company’s founding director. “But now we’ve got this money that’s just laying out there, so it affects what we can put into the next show.”

Local directors say companies licensing existing work under rigid contracts are beginning to show unprecedented flexibility, extending production dates further down the calendar and even considering some element of online video. Actors unions are also relaxing contracts. It’s all with the understanding that without that openness, theater won’t happen, and that means no income for anyone.

The long-term prospects for theater in this region vary company by company. At Flat Rock, Lisa Bryant said she can support her staff without any new income at least until June. At SART in Mars Hill, Mirheli is looking at potentially changing her artistic model to smaller casts and budgets. At Magnetic Theater, which already puts a premium on new work, Jones is considering podcasts as a way of extending performances and broadening the income potential of a given show.

Directors are asking those who have already purchased tickets or season passes to wait for those shows to be rescheduled or to consider those purchases as donations, rather than asking for refunds.

“Let’s just pretend we’re able to reopen just for actors in late May, early June,” Jones said. “Even if we’re able to reopen, who knows how long it will be before people, a public audience, even feel comfortable coming back?”

“I think this is all training us for all kinds of other battles we may be facing in the future,” Mirheli said. “So I’ve already learned ‘Go ahead and make the backup plan.’


NOTE: The on-air version of this story incorrectly stated the Magnetic Theatre canceled its Sunday matinee during the opening weekend of "Traitor." That performance was staged, with all performances afterward canceled.


Matt Peiken was BPR’s first full-time arts journalist.
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