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Wortham Prepared For Months Of Darkness, Uncertain Consequences If Closure Stretches Into Fall

Matt Peiken | BPR News

It was March 14 at Asheville’s Wortham Center for the Performing Arts. The Rosie Herrera Dance Theatre of Miami was in the middle of a weeklong residency and three-show run when the Coronavirus pandemic ground everything to a halt.

“They did two performances at reduced capacity and by the third performance, we had to close,” recalled Rae Geoffrey, the center’s executive director.

“I don’t think anyone expected it would be this long of a shutdown,” she said. “So we were kind of scrambling to see what we could to reschedule everything for a week, a month, which turned into two months, which turned into three months, which turns into indefinite right now.”

  This was the Wortham’s first season since expanding into three spaces—the 500-seat mainstage theater and two black-box spaces that made the center feasible for performing artists in the community with more modest profiles.

The cancelations cost the Wortham eight mainstage productions through early May, including a pair of performances each from the dance company Pilobolus and the Dance Theatre of Harlem—both rescheduled for this fall. Some performances were already sold out. About 100 rental events in the studio spaces were also wiped off the calendar, taking along with them about 75 percent of the center’s rental revenue.

“Earned incomes’ definitely taking a hit,” Geoffrey said. “We’re looking at about a quarter-million deficit through the end of June, assuming we’ll stay closed that long, and probably longer.”

Now with a staff pared down to two and a half—down from nine full-timers—and with virtually no part-time help, Geoffrey sees some rays of relative sunshine through the dark clouds. She said about three-quarters of people who had already purchased tickets to the spring performances have held onto them for their rescheduled dates in the fall or later.   

“One of the great bright spots in this ordeal—our patrons have been incredibly generous and flexible,” Geoffrey said.

While the Wortham is eating through its modest rainy-day reserve fund, there’s no debt on the books related to the renovation or otherwise. It’s also moving forward, as it does every spring, with a push for its membership program.

“There are so many organizations who aren’t asking right now, who don’t feel comfortable going out and saying ‘Hey, we need your support,’ because we know so many people are hurting,” Geoffrey said. “But that’s actually not the right thing to do for an organization right now. We still need to be going out and talking to the community and asking them for support.”

The great unknown facing the Wortham—and every other public-facing arts organization—is not only when to welcome people back through the doors, but also how. Geoffrey said social-distanced seating at the Wortham isn’t an option.

“For us, if we’re running a 500-seat space, we’re on a thin margin already,” she said. “So saying we could cut our audience by two-thirds and still have any sort of realistic financial gain is not even possible.”

Geoffrey and others whose livings depend upon live performance are hoping performances resume this fall, and indeed, the Wortham is marketing its 2020-21 season, set to begin—optimistically—in September. Infectious disease experts insist such events won’t safely resume until 2021, at the earliest. Geoffrey doesn’t want to forecast whether the Wortham can still exist if that holds true. There’s also the unanswered question of when people will feel comfortable enough to be part of a large audience.

At least for now, the Wortham is still marketing and selling tickets online for events on the calendar as early as June.

“I feel confident that the industry, as it always does, is going to pull together to find creative ways to make this happen,” she said. “Arts organizations just by their very nature are used to being flexible. The needs of the community are constantly shifting and the arts organizations that are successful are the people who are always looking at their community and figuring out where they fit and what kind of value they can provide to their community. That’s no different now; it’s just in a much different bubble.”


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