In the last 10 months, New England’s rich arts scene has been hit hard.
Those who depend on live audiences to make a living have lost wages — and many lost their jobs. President Joe Biden’s proposed extension of unemployment benefits could help.
Still, music clubs and theaters have been forced to hibernate and some places have permanently closed.
Online fundraisers have become revenue streams for some venues. The Shea Theater in Turners Falls, Massachusetts, just held a two-day event featuring musicians performing from home studios.
Owners Vitek Kruta and Lori Divine put Gateway City up for sale last summer. What finally caused them to close — or at least seek someone else to continue their vision?
“It’s very complicated,” Divine said.
Adding to the fierce economic impact of the pandemic, Divine and Kruta had opened a full-service restaurant and bar at Gateway City — just a couple months before the shutdown. But that wasn’t what did them in.
“Every aspect of our business — businesses,” Divine said, correcting herself, “was based on people being together. It didn't matter if it was to hear music, or to eat or sit at the bar. You couldn't do it.”
The community has been hugely supportive, Kruta said, but he and Divine are tired and realize it could be many months before they can reopen.
“There was a synergy of everything we created over 10 years,” Kruta said.
He described Gateway City as a small convention center, with performance space, meeting opportunities, three bars and a catering company.
It also had 42 people on payroll.
Other large, longtime venues have managed to hibernate. The Iron Horse Entertainment Group, and its four Northampton clubs plus Mountain Park in Holyoke, are rescheduling shows for later this year and into 2022.
“Basically, we mothballed the venues and we will reopen when the world is back on its axis,” IHEG’s Jim Neil said.
Ten months ago, the live music business came to a sudden halt. Reopening will be gradual and depends on how efficiently the vaccine rollout goes.
"I don't think that people realize that it's not going to come back the way it was,” said Marty Fullwood, who over the years has owned several entertainment venues in Holyoke and the Springfield area.
“It was just turning around for me,” Fullwood said. “I [had] two rooms, about 6,500 square feet.”
Club One won’t be Fullwood’s last entertainment venture, he said, and at this point he may be better off than other club owners. That's because Fullwood rented the space for Club One and was able to get out of the lease.
Many arts venues and organizations aren’t so lucky, said Michael Ibrahim from the Mass Cultural Council, the state’s arts agency.
“Some of our organizations have a building to maintain and long-term, expensive leases that make sense when you're programing in person,” Ibrahim said. “Some organizations may have had very little cash on hand coming into this. Some may have already had debt levels.”
Theaters, galleries and museums have been hanging on largely with the help of major gifts, and state and federal money. Successful shows that bring in revenue, Ibrahim said, are now taking place online.
"So if you think about Williamstown Theater Festival, for example, they had a partnership with Audible and they put their programming in ways that it's being shared much larger than it ever would have been,” Ibrahim said.
The streaming revenue may not be as lucrative as ticket sales, Ibrahim said, but musicians and actors and others get paid. Royalties go to writers.
Quite a few theaters have been able to hit pause during the pandemic, laying off staff if they had to. But in Northampton, New Century Theatre, which ran for almost 30 years, permanently closed.
The Westfield News theater writer Mark Auerbach said New Century didn't announce anything prior to turning out the lights.
“Like many small theater companies, they operate with a deficit,” Auerbach said. “They're not producing theater; they can't pay their bills.”
With Broadway on pause, the Bushnell Performing Arts Center in Hartford said it won't be able to stage national tours until late 2021. Exact dates have not yet been announced.
One success story, Auerbach said, is TheaterWorks Hartford, which streams a new live show for audiences every month.
“Some plays [are] written specifically to be streamed, like their play ‘Russian Troll Farm,’” Auerbach said.
“Russian Troll Farm” by Sarah Gancher imagines the daily life of professional internet trolls who try to influence American popular opinion. It was named among the plays on The New York Times’ Best Theater of 2020 list.
Looking ahead, Auerbach said Barrington Stage in Pittsfield and the Berkshire Theater Company look like they’ll be up and running this summer, based on their live performances in the summer of 2020.
“They both made impressive strides in working not only with the [local] health departments, but with Actors' Equity, to make sure that they can perform safely for their actors and their audiences.”
It also helps that just a few months ago, each theater was gifted just over a million dollars from a dedicated patron.
So much of the arts industry has been disrupted, and so many creatives are out of work. But playwright Michael Brady, a member of the Berkshire Playwrights Lab in Great Barrington, said people who work in the arts are resilient. They must be.
“Actors go to 100 auditions to get the one role. Writers go through rewrite after rewrite after rewrite,” Brady said. “There's a tenacity, I think, in people who are committed to the arts. They've sacrificed to get where they are.”
Brady also writes poetry. In March, when theaters first went dark, he wrote “On Learning of the Closure of Theaters by Government Decree.” A repeated refrain: “The actors will come back.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story contained incorrect information about when national tours of Broadway shows would return to the Bushnell Performing Arts Center in Hartford. The Bushnell said it plans to resume the programming toward the end of 2021, although no dates have been publicly announced.