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Some of Baltimore’s most established theater troupes, storied venues especially vulnerable to pandemic’s financial strain

In a widely published image of the the novel coronavirus, the parasite resembles a gray and orange studded wrecking ball. It has behaved like one, too, knocking crater-sized holes in the finances of some of Baltimore’s most venerable and established theater troupes and presenting organizations.

Everyman Theatre estimates it could lose as much as $1 million, or roughly 25% of its projected revenues for the year. Baltimore Center Stage was deprived of most revenues from two it its six main-stage shows. And Chesapeake Shakespeare Company is at risk of losing nearly half of this season’s planned performances.

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The Creative Alliance laid off nearly 100 part-time staff members. The five-day Maryland Film Festival was canceled for the first time in the organization’s 22-year history. And the pandemic has put on ice a much-needed plan to revitalize the historic, under-utilized Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric.

Because these “mid-size” organizations have greater overhead costs than small groups and fewer deep-pocketed donors than large organizations, they may be particularly at risk, according to at least one expert.

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Federal aid and generous donors are helping many of them limp to the end of their current seasons, which for performing groups often wraps up in May or June.

But the bad times might be just beginning. The arts are widely predicted to be among the last segment of society to reopen once social distancing restrictions ease.

”The effect of the pandemic on arts groups has been unprecedented, devastating and potentially irreparable,” said Ruby Lopez Harper, senior director of local arts advancement for Americans for the Arts, an advocacy group representing 13,000 cultural organizations nationwide.

”That’s not just because of the immediate and anticipated losses in revenue but because of the new habits people are developing as a result of social distancing. It may be a long time before people are comfortable going out to a restaurant or attending a performance if it means sitting next to someone who could be coughing on us.”

The pandemic has cost cultural organizations nationwide $5 billion so far, Lopez said — and the losses reported by the group’s 430 Maryland members in the past nine weeks exceed $14.7 million.

Just as the novel coronavirus puts some victims in the hospital while leaving other people symptom-free, it hasn’t exerted an equal impact on Baltimore’s arts groups. Talk to enough arts administrators, and two big differences begin to emerge:

Performing groups depend heavily on ticket sales and other forms of earned income that evaporated overnight. As a result, they appear to be struggling more than museums, which are supported mostly by donations. (The Baltimore Museum of Art, for instance, announced last week — in the middle of the pandemic — that it has secured a new $3.5 million gift, which ties for the third largest donation in its history.)

In addition, the groups that will be hit the hardest likely will be mid-tier performing groups with budgets of between $2 million and $10 million.

”The littlest organizations are very, very resilient,” said Michael M. Kaiser, founder and chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland. ”They have such a small cost base and are used to making do with very little.“

The largest organizations, he said, “have the wealthiest donors and the strongest boards, and many of them have endowments that they can draw on.

“It’s the mid-level groups with building costs and big staffs and artist contracts but who lack significant cash reserves that scare me the most. From one day to the next, their earned revenue was gone.”

The pandemic arrived at critical moments for some of these groups.

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The 2019-2020 season was to have been the biggest in the history of Everyman Theatre, with eight plays occupying two stages. After the pandemic struck, the second half of Everyman’s season — including the inaugural New Voices festival — was canceled.

Facing a potential seven-figure loss, Everyman instituted two-week furloughs for more than two dozen employees.

”We’re trying very hard to figure out how long we can last after losing those kind of funds,” said artistic director and company founder Vincent Lancisi.

The pandemic struck just as the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric was launching a major effort to reinvigorate the 125-year-old, under-utilized institution.

The Lyric has furloughed four of its 10 full-time staff members indefinitely. The big-name band that was supposed to trumpet the organization’s rebirth — two concerts by former Beatle Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band — has been postponed until possibly the summer of 2021.

Yet Jonathan Schwartz, the Lyric’s general manager, said he expects the Lyric to rebound quickly once social distancing restrictions have eased. Unlike theaters that rehearse shows for weeks in advance, the Lyric hosts acts for one or two nights that require little preparation.

”We’re not in complete control of our own destiny,” he said, “but we believe we’ll figure out a way to get through this.”

A casualty of the coronavirus was the 2020 Maryland Film Festival, originally slated to run from April 29 through May 3 for live audiences.

Executive director Sandra Gibson estimated that the pandemic will cost the Festival, which has an annual budget of about $3 million, between $500,000 and $750,000 in lost revenues. Its SNF Parkway Theatre has been shut down and eight part-time staff members furloughed since mid-March, she said.

None of the mid-size performing groups have yet announced their 2020-21 seasons. That annual ritual typically is performed in late winter or early spring and sets into motion the all-important sales of season tickets.

How can they? They don’t even know when they will be allowed to reopen and welcome audiences. That makes it impossible to sign contracts, design sets or hire guest artists.

“This is an especially challenging time for the performing arts in particular," said Lesley Malin, managing director of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company.

“While the entire country is filled with uncertainty, we have to face the reality that performing arts will go last in the reopening process — and that could be anywhere from two months to two years.”

Her troupe shut down this season’s fourth production, “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)," and never opened its fifth, “Hamlet.“ Its sixth, "Much Ado About Nothing,” is scheduled to debut on June 19. Time will tell if it, too, will be postponed.

The groups themselves are remaining determinedly upbeat. They may not know when they will reopen, or what their auditoriums and concert halls will look like when they do. Will they remove every second seat in their performing halls to preserve social distancing, or perform outside more often? What will that do to sight lines and to their budgets? Will they implement temperature checks and require masks?

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But they are busy exploring options, weighing the pros and cons, analyzing, debating and planning.

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''Lose' is not in my vocabulary," said Creative Alliance executive director Gina Caruso.

Creative Alliance has been able to retain its 18 full-time staff members, and Caruso said that she and board members are “looking toward the future when the pandemic is over and we can re-employ“ the nearly 100 part-time staff members who were recently laid off.

“The board, staff and I are not operating from an abyss narrative. Instead, we’re thinking about how we can innovate and thrive — not just survive — and are budgeting accordingly.”

And history appears to be on the troupes’ side. Even in Elizabethan England, there was an awareness that disease could spread through human contact. London theaters were padlocked for the second half of 1592 and into 1593 during an outbreak of the bubonic plague, according to an article in the journal English Literary Renaissance. But once the plague abated (albeit temporarily) audiences came back.

“The good news is that people will always turn to the arts to be entertained, inspired and educated,” Kaiser said.

“I am not pessimistic that audiences will come back when they feel it is safe to do so. The question is how long that will take and how much will be lost in the interim.”

Kaiser thinks that for the arts, the havoc wrought by the pandemic has not yet peaked. The curve, which he thinks will have four phases, has not yet begun to flatten.

“We’re in the first phase in which we’re sheltering in place,” he said.

”I’m frankly most concerned about the second phase when people start getting out of their homes and apartments but the arts groups won’t be allowed to perform. Many of the special programming and funding sources and energy that’s happening now won’t necessarily be there for that stage.”

The third phase — when the arts groups resume performing — will be characterized by an abundance of energy and excitement. But resources will be scarce and competition for audiences will be intense.

Finally, Kaiser said, the arts groups that survive will put into practice the hard lessons they learned during the crisis.

”The fourth phase means progress,” he said.

It’s not easy, in the midst of a crisis, to spot the opportunities glimmering inside a disaster.

But some groups are doing just that. They see the problems the coronavirus is causing in their neighborhoods, and they are using their art to help solve those problems. By demonstrating that artists, too, can be essential personnel, they hope to deepen and strengthen their ties to the community.

Baltimore Center Stage has been struggling with its own financial challenges. The company had to forego all revenues from two of its six mainstage productions for the 2019-20 season. Administrators estimated the pandemic could cost them $500,000.

That didn’t prevent executive director Michael Ross from reaching out to Mercy Medical Center in March. A loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program had allowed the company to retain its full staff without layoffs, pay cuts or furloughs. Those employees had time on their hands.

Ross volunteered to have his costume shop make protective gear for doctors, nurses and other essential personnel. The answer came by email immediately and in all caps: “YES, PLEASE.”

So far, Center Stage had made more than 500 face masks based on a prototype designed by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Other projects include crafting ear guards (a project for the props department employees) and more than 100 face shields that protect workers at MedStar Union Memorial Hospital.

”We talk all the time about how art changes people’s lives,” Ross said. “But in this instance we’re actually helping to save lives.”

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