Shakespeare Theater Center in Staunton, Virginia, struggling to stay afloat


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What does a theater company do when it cannot do what it was created for? Anything that comes to mind. For the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia, that means turning its ticket purchase lists into class lists and turning some of what’s being performed on its modern Renaissance stage into online teachable moments.

Just that moment was on view on a recent Sunday, when Lia Wallace, the company’s manager of college prep programs, led an hour-long Zoom seminar at Blackfriars Playhouse titled “Integrated Stage Cues.” Nine participants, including several high school and college students, discussed how Shakespeare’s words provide clues to desired physical action.

“Technology is terrifying,” Wallace confided to the class, one of many he offers on topics such as verse and rhetoric. Universities in South Carolina and Virginia have signed up for courses, in lieu of their canceled trips to the theater in the Shenandoah Valley. “The biggest struggle,” he added with a smile, “what if the video freezes?”

Companies like ASC, which produces works by Shakespeare and their contemporaries throughout the year, are struggling to control expenses and earn revenue as covid-19 has halted live performances; the travails of the 32-year-old organization are emblematic of the survival mode into which arts groups of all sizes have drifted. In the first phase of the closure a month ago, i wrote about how ASC art director Ethan McSweeny was nervously looking ahead to the weeks ahead: he needed $350,000 that he didn’t have to keep afloat until the expected reset date of May 26. The company has few reserves and lives on the $50,000 a week it earns. usually receive at the box office.

When ticket revenue dried up, McSweeny and CEO Amy Wratchford were forced to give the actors two weeks’ notice and furlough much of the 70-strong full-time and part-time staff. To further tighten their belts, they received approval from their bank to lower the theater’s monthly mortgage payments and even turned off the lights and air conditioners to lower utility bills.

What has changed since then has been equal parts reassuring and unsettling. The calls for help gave the ASC a financial cushion: they now have about $500,000 in cash. And the company recently received approval for a loan through the newly created federal Payroll Protection Program. But a May 26 restart for rehearsals, in anticipation of work resuming in mid-June, proved too optimistic. With no clear indication of when it might be considered safe to reopen the theater, Wratchford and his remaining crew (all on half or a quarter salary) have written contingency operating plans, only to have to crumple them up and formulate new ones.

If a June start-up for all four plays in their summer and fall seasons no longer seems likely, can they count on a comeback after July 4? Or August 1? Or after Labor Day?

“Now we’re meeting on financial plans G, H and I,” Wratchford said, a little wearily. The company had originally proposed a budget of $4.2 million for the fiscal year ending September 30. Now, Wratchford said, the budget has been cut to $3.3 million.

The American Shakespeare Center, founded in 1988 by Ralph Cohen and Jim Warren as the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express touring company, has performed to more than 2 million spectators since then. In 2001, the company opened Blackfriars, a $3.7 million, 300-seat theater that was modeled on a theater of the same name in which Shakespeare’s company performed after 1608. The hallmark of the ASC it is their tradition of employing Renaissance practices, an intimate style that requires minimal sets and keeping the house lights on throughout the performance.

So Blackfriars staying dark for months is a particularly strange phenomenon, one that the actors and management staff are trying to come to terms with.

“This place has been my life’s work,” said John Harrell, a company member who moved to Staunton in 2002 and has performed there in each of Shakespeare’s 37 plays, some more than once. “I can’t believe this could be terminal. We run so skinny at best.”

The company draws from a core group of experienced classical actors, many of whom live in Staunton. Others, who sign contracts of a few months or more, reside in ASC apartments in the city of 25,000 inhabitants. Several of the actors pointed to the safer aspects of the repertory company job and the feeling of having an employer who takes a long-term interest in them: The ASC extended wages as long as they could and kept health care coverage for as long as they could. the whole period. artist contracts.

“If there was ever a time in my life where I could be in a company like this, now would be the time,” said Topher Embrey, who was finishing an ASC tour when the virus hit and was supposed to join Staunton’s body. . “Being an artist right now is scary.”

Now it’s a matter of company members knowing which pieces of their job puzzle remain in place. Sylvie Davidson, a Nashville-based actress who played Desdemona in ASC’s summer production of “Othello,” is meanwhile writing songs in Staunton. with her husband and songwriting partnerTrevor Wheelman. Constance Swain, with ASC for five seasons, is exploring a side business in voiceovers. And Brandon Carter, a memorable Prince Hal in the company’s “Henry IV” Parts 1 and 2, stays oratorically in tune by performing a Shakespeare sonnet every day and posting his performances online.

“Fortunately,” said Carter, “Shakespeare gave you these things to sharpen your tools. We have all this creative energy. I guess now I can speak for all artists when I ask, ‘Where do I put that now?’ ”

McSweeny, who joined the ASC as artistic director in 2018, is looking for those outlets and trying to figure out how to make some money from them. Regular donors may feel burned out at this point: “I really can’t get back to a lot of these people,” he said.

So McSweeny is throwing the company’s hat to what has quickly become a crowded online theater market: an ASC video streaming series he calls blkfrsTV. With tickets starting at $10, the seven titles include “Much Ado About Nothing,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the “Henry IV” plays. There’s also an adaptation of “The Grapes of Wrath” that went on a national college tour and “Imogen,” a new play based on “Cymbeline.” During the last month, the company sold almost 2,700 tickets for BlkfrsTV.

The plays were filmed on the Blackfriars stage immediately after lockdown, while the actors were still on salary. Looking ahead, McSweeny wonders what other innovations will be needed to keep a company like his afloat.

“I think an audience wearing face masks is a potential reality,” he said. “And my costume shop is ready to make ASC-branded masks right now!”

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