6 North Texas arts venues say this year was about survival. What will 2022 bring?
It’s by no means as bleak as 2020, but as a Fort Worth Opera executive says: “We’re still dealing with a very active pandemic.”
As a seasoned veteran of the theater, David Lozano is no stranger to tragedy. He knows that all great stories fall into categories of history, comedy or tragedy and that the best stories inhabit all three.
That would describe what he and his artistic colleagues have had to endure since March 2020, when the coronavirus provoked a national emergency. They have moved from the halcyon era of 2019 to the devastation of 2020 to the uncertainty of 2021.
Dallas Summer Musicals went from a year of selling out five weeks and 40 performances of Hamilton to 18 months of no live shows — from March 2020 to August 2021. Music venues are enticing concertgoers to return, knowing that the deadly COVID-19 virus can be spread through singing. Across the country, arts venues are hoping to rebound from more than a year of three menacing words: No earned income.
So, what happens now? That, Lozano says, is the question of the moment. And no one has the answer.
We checked in with six area arts organizations — three large, three small — and found that each story varied. All are immersed in their own survival game, hinged on one key word: pivot.
How they pivot differs from one group to the next, but all agree that the game has changed — that the blissful boom year of 2019 feels more like 100 years ago than two.
Arts companies large and small marvel at Major League Baseball and the National Football League, which have gone back to business as usual — filling stadiums to capacity in 2021 without requiring masks or proof of vaccination.
It is nowhere near that way in the arts world, where the prevailing mood is one of cautious optimism. In August, an informal online survey shared on social media by KERA and The Dallas Morning News showed that fewer than 30% of more than 1,400 respondents felt safe in returning to public arts events.
After the bust of 2020, here’s how the chosen six are proceeding.
“Before the pandemic, Cara Mía Theatre Co. was on a trajectory of growth, as a nonprofit, Latinx theater,” says Lozano, its executive artistic director.
The company was building its operation as a production company, “investing in our productions at the Latino Cultural Center and in national touring productions of Latinx plays. We were serving a lot of schools, a lot of children. We had built a community action department. We were growing really quickly and developing an extraordinary level of efficiency.”
And then he sighs. Heavily.
“The pandemic just stopped all of this forward movement, in terms of operations and programming. We had to figure out immediately how to redirect our energies.”
The immediate problem, of course, was one of economic devastation.
“So, here we are now, still in the middle of a pandemic, and it feels like the delta variant has placed us in the middle of a second surge. It feels like an encore at a concert. Because we’re having to re-think the pandemic the way we did when it first appeared.”
Lozano worries about audience members who balk at wearing a mask or being vaccinated. He worries about performers who don’t feel safe enough. And most of all, he worries if life will ever return to normal.
Cara Mía, which employs five staff members, received $43,635 in federal funding through the Paycheck Protection Program (or PPP) and an additional $34,798 through the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, or SVOG. Its pre-pandemic budget was $700,000 a year, a figure he says will decline slightly, though he isn’t sure how much.
“The biggest transition we’ve made,” Lozano says, in describing Cara Mía’s pivot, “was to film our repertory of bilingual plays for schools and universities.”
In doing so, “We’ve been able to serve over 35,000 students since the beginning of the last school year with virtual plays. That’s been able to keep our actors at work, generate revenue and impact young people.”
Edwin Cabaniss knows the feeling. Cabaniss is owner of the for-profit Kessler Theater, a live music venue in Oak Cliff with a capacity of 600.
But during the pandemic, he took on a new role.
Cabaniss helped spearhead the national bipartisan movement that led to the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, or SVOG, which came to the rescue of thousands of arts groups across America — including Cara Mía and his own.
Cabaniss calls 2019 a record year, “across the board — people had discretionary money. They were spending it on experiences.”
He goes so far as to say that “2019 was as healthy a year as has ever existed for arts organizations. And we were off to a fantastic start for 2020 — which lasted through the first two weeks of March.”
Cabaniss also owns The Heights Theater in Houston and operates in two venues in Austin, where the absence of South by Southwest in 2020 led to the death of dozens of clubs. The festival resumed in 2021 but on a virtual-only basis. In 2019, SXSW fueled Austin with an estimated economic impact of $356 million.
The Kessler’s own bluesy period of going dark endured from mid-March to mid-September 2020, resulting in a dramatic loss of revenue.
Cabaniss says it reminded him “of the old Mike Tyson quote — everybody has a plan until they get punched in the nose.”
Nine months transpired from the start of the national emergency to December 2020, “and that’s when you started to see a lot of people throwing in the towel for good.”
But then, a flicker of optimism. SVOG won congressional approval just before the dawn of 2021, which coincided “with vaccines getting approved.”
Cabaniss says it reminds him of the saying, “the darkest hour is just before the dawn. Dawn came in the dead of winter.”
Kessler Entertainment Group got $2.47 million in SVOG money, which helped the organization get its finances back to pre-pandemic levels, Cabaniss says.
“The last six weeks, we have seen tremendous, pent-up demand. Compared to where we were, we now know we’re going to survive. More than 11,700 venues across the country have received the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, and because of that, we plan on staying in business — and continue onward.”
But the recovery remains bumpy, he adds. For example, a recent week had “three sellouts on the books” but one show was canceled, one had a 40% no-show rate and the last had a full house.
Anyika McMillan-Herod, the co-founder and executive director of Soul Rep Theatre Co., has a different story to tell. She’ll remember the pandemic for being the inspiration of unexpected growth and change.
“It’s actually been a blessing,” she says with a laugh. “Never was there a question that we would stop producing. We were determined to not let the pandemic stop us.”
Soul Rep, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, produced an entire season virtually. They did an audio play. They did a film. They turned to technologies they never anticipated using — and used them brilliantly.
She calls it a year of collaboration, “of validation and support. It was even a great year for us financially. We had a lot of support locally from organizations,” such as TACA, The Arts Community Alliance, and the Moody Foundation. “And other funders who believed in us and who are proud of us for chugging along and finding a way to reinvent ourselves. It has truly been an amazing experience.”
Soul Rep is small. It has one staff member who receives a part-time salary.
“The rest of us volunteer — for now,” says McMillan-Herod, who notes that, because of its size, Soul Rep “did not even bother to apply” for PPP or SVOG.
It was hardly as pretty a picture at Dallas Summer Musicals, but getting $9.2 million in SVOG money helped ease the worst of the pandemic, which shut down the company after three performances of the Broadway mega-hit Come from Away in March 2020.
The company remained dark until Aug. 3, when Wicked became the first Broadway show to go on tour since the pandemic began, and it happened at the Music Hall at Fair Park.
The results were extraordinary. Wicked endured until Sept. 5, luring more than 120,000 customers to the Music Hall, which is more than the Dallas Cowboys draw at AT&T Stadium and more than the Texas-OU game pulls into the neighboring Cotton Bowl.
DSM President Kenneth T. Novice says the company still figures to run a deficit for the current fiscal year, which began Nov. 1, 2020, and ends on Oct. 31.
Novice says the deficit for the 2020 fiscal year with Wicked was $600,000. Without it? $1.7 million.
After a combined 16 layoffs and furloughs, and pay cuts as high as 25%, staffing levels and pay have been restored. And now, starting Nov. 16, the return of Hamilton will christen the renaissance.
There is also a sense of budding optimism at the AT&T Performing Arts Center, whose pivoting — in the form of staff and salary reductions — allowed it to escape a deficit for the 2021 fiscal year, which ended Aug. 1.
As with most companies, ATTPAC also benefited from federal money in the form of PPP and SVOG.
“When you look at our overall results for 2021, they’re still going to be severely affected by the pandemic,” says Debbie Storey, president and CEO of ATTPAC. “There still haven’t been touring shows for the majority of 2021. But as we look forward, there’s a big, big bright light coming into the tunnel — now.”
The ATTPAC calendar is filling up, Storey says, with shows being booked throughout 2021 and 2022. October and November are full of performances by the Dallas Opera and Texas Ballet Theater, both of which are resident companies of ATTPAC.
“We have a jam-packed December and beyond. So, for now, the future looks really, really bright.”
Afton Battle became general director of the Fort Worth Opera in September 2020, when COVID-19 was at a peak.
“From then until the close of our fiscal year in August of 2021 was hell on wheels,” Battle says. “I came into an organization that was trying to stay afloat, that had taken a huge hit in revenue, because there were no performances. And because of the festival format that used to exist, the company lost two festival seasons.”
In other words, grim.
“It was,” she says, “extremely difficult. It was tense.”
The company benefited from two federal programs, landing $164,900 in PPP money and a comparable amount in SVOG money. With no earned revenue, “we applied for every grant that we could,” says Battle, who enabled the company to escape the 2021 fiscal year without a deficit.
“Every day was a new day. Every day was a new challenge. The name of the game was keeping the lights on and keeping my people paid.”
The company opens its new season on Oct. 9 at the Artes de La Rosa Cultural Center for the Arts, “and we have shows booked all the way through April 2022. The turnaround from September 2020 until now is astonishingly different.”
And yet, caution abounds. Battle gives pro and college sports a bit of a pass, saying that, when it comes to COVID-19, the world of the arts is different.
“Theater, dance and opera are the most toxic spreaders of this virus,” she says. “We speak, and sing, and when you do, you spew aerosols, which is how the virus is contracted. ...We’re not a museum, where you walk around with your mask on.”
All the more reason, she says, to insist that those in the audience wear a mask.
Because, as Battle warns, “I can guarantee you this: Very few companies will sustain another March 2020 shutdown again.”