Karen Azenberg: A New Deal for the American theater

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Pioneer Theatre Company on the University of Utah campus.

“The theater is the only institution in the world which has been dying for four thousand years and has never succumbed. It requires tough and devoted people to keep it alive.”

― John Steinbeck, “Once There Was a War”

Those of us who chose theater as a career did it because the idea of doing anything else seemed inconceivable. It defines who we are. It is not an avocation; it is a job — one that does not stop at 5 p.m. or on weekends. We accepted it would be unstable, inconsistent and that there would be survival jobs to help pay the bills between or even during gigs. We embraced the battle to have this career, but it takes a toll.

There’s a phrase I’ve heard, and have probably uttered myself, which is a self-effacing, pre-COVID expression of the less-than-essential work we do: “Well, it’s not brain surgery.”

We need to take that back. Theater is vital. It is essential, and recent events have proved it. The same live, performing arts that are taking the hardest and most long-lasting hit during this pandemic are the first thing everyone turned to when quarantined at home: More than 12 million viewers enjoyed National Theatre at Home. Over 2.25 million viewers watched “Take Me to the Worldto celebrate Stephen Sondheim’s birthday. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of views every night of streamed productions and live readings.

There are even a few small lucky groups who gather at sites worldwide to catch balcony performances, like Brian Stokes-Mitchell’s in New York City, or the balcony performances in Italy. These small and large events have become part of our routine: the thing we look forward to, the reward for making it through the day. It’s their needed distraction from an unending and terrifying news cycle.

So where does that leave us now? “Go and get a real job”? Or, “Find something new?” How often have I heard this? (Most recently, from the president’s daughter.) The country is facing an economic depression, and the theatrical industry is about to be hit especially hard, not because there’s a decline in the amount of work available, but because there is no work. By nature, artists are creative, adaptive and excited to overcome obstacles; we do it all the time. But how do we survive when the root of our artistic life — the theaters — are closed for many, many months?

With theaters scrambling to weather the coming months, and unions keeping pension and health plans operational with barely a wing and a prayer, what is the reality for theater professionals? What happens when the CARES Act expires? When unemployment runs dry? When our benefits lapse? Will the need to get a “real job” become the only conversation?

And I’m not talking about waiting tables, bartending, childcare, or retail. I’m talking about dental school; packing it in to return to your hometown to join a family business; or teaching. This is the glaring threat in our industry: We will lose practitioners from all generations. We will not just lose the energy and immediacy of newcomers. We will lose the knowledge of veterans, the stability from midcareer stalwarts because they cannot ride out this period of unemployment.

Knowing that live theater as we know it will not be back until a vaccine is widely distributed, what are we going to do? The easy answer is to get more government relief for artists and, yes, that should happen, but to solve the problem, it must go beyond that. Can we put these folks back to work?

I say, “yes, we can.” Here at Pioneer Theatre Company — a LORT B theater in Salt Lake City — we have begun re-hiring members of our costume shop, full time with benefits, to sew masks that we are selling through our website. We are beginning other “cottage-industry” projects executed by our scene shop which would begin bringing them back to work. My hope is that this enables us to use fundraising dollars to hire playwrights, directors and actors to do developmental readings and workshops of new works. Is it enough? No. Is it a start? Yes.

“If you are looking for something, don’t go sit on the seashore and expect it to come and find you; you must search, search, search with all the stubbornness in you!”

― Konstantin Stanislavski, Building a Character

We have the most innovative, creative, persevering and stubborn people working in this industry. I know there are answers and we need to start looking for them now. I challenge every resident theater to find a way to rehire your furloughed technical staff, as well as some actors and directors. Commit to hire back a percentage of your regular full-time and freelance employees and get them back to work, earning salaries and benefits.

I challenge managing directors to stretch those Payroll Protection Program dollars, and create avenues of income to subsidize those jobs. I challenge artistic directors and production managers to think outside of the box for that crazy idea that will get people performing again and bring in income. I challenge marketing and PR directors to dig deep for community support that didn’t exist six months ago. I challenge patrons to try that which they have never experienced, delivered in a way they never knew was possible.

Theater people have never been known to wait for something to happen. We make things happen. Let’s not fail each other now.

Karen Azenberg is the Artistic Director of Pioneer Theatre Company

Karen Azenberg is the artistic director of Pioneer Theatre Company, a LORT-B theater located in Salt Lake City, and the former president of Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC). Azenberg is experimenting with creative back-to-work concepts to financially sustain resident staff and guest artists while theater and its traditional economic model have been interrupted. The LORT-B designation (League of Resident Theatres) refers to a professional regional theater of a certain size determined by a combination of theater receipts and seating capacity.