The stages went dark before almost anyplace else.
In early March, 2020, few people knew what to think about the looming COVID-19 pandemic. Few had any idea of the radical changes the coronavirus was about to impose on us all.
Among the first to get a true sense of how difficult things might get were entertainment venues: theaters, movie houses, live music stages. By the time Gov. Phil Murphy issued Executive Order 107 closing all venues on March 16, many had already made the decision to shutter temporarily.
Now it’s 2021, and in New Jersey, as in many places around the country, those patrons still haven’t been back. Nine months and counting since theaters and other entertainment spaces have been able to book musicians, movies, and plays, or pack the house with happy crowds.
In the days after the pandemic struck the U.S., a new organization quickly formed called NIVA: the National Independent Venue Association. NIVA began as a loose consortium of 75 music venues from across the country that wanted to start the discussion of how to keep the industry from collapsing after losing most of their streams of revenue.
Within months, NIVA had more than 2,000 members, including both music venues and music promoters. One was McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton. Another was Hopewell Theater, which since 2017 has been a venue known for its live music performances and film screenings.
Hopewell Theater announced its decision to shut things down on March 12, days before Murphy locked the state down with Executive Order 107. “None of us knew how long this would last, so we canceled shows in stages,” says Sara Scully, Hopewell Theater’s executive director. “We thought we’d be shut down for like two weeks to a month or something.”
In May NIVA released the results of a survey it had sent out to its membership. Ninety percent of respondents indicated that they expected to close for good within a matter of months, if the federal government did not intervene.
In June NIVA began the #SaveOurStages movement with a letter to Congress requesting federal assistance for the industry. By July senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) had co-sponsored a bill known as the Save Our Stages Act, which would provide six months of financial support to help keep theaters and other venues afloat.
“We knew about NIVA, and once they got the Save Our Stages campaign underway, that’s when they really got on our radar,” Scully says. “We wanted to do everything we could to support the Save Our Stages legislation.”
The act was passed as part of the COVID-19 relief bill signed into law on December 27.
“We at Hopewell Theater, are grateful for the efforts of NIVA and the public who championed SOS and lobbied, wrote letters, and donated to the cause of getting it passed. We are now working as New Jersey’s regional outreach coordinator for NIVA to help make sure that reliable information on how to access these relief funds gets to the New Jersey venues that need it,” Scully said in an e-mail.
Early in the pandemic, Scully, her business partner Mitchel Skolnick, and the rest of the theater’s professional staff kept busy.
As the pandemic wore on and more shows had to be canceled, layoffs became inevitable for Hopewell Theater and many other venues. Which is to say that the only way most NIVA members were able to avoid the survey’s dire prediction of mass permanent closure was by letting go of the majority of their employees.
McCarter, which announced on March 23 that it was canceling all shows through June 30, laid off 70 percent of its staff on May 10. Hopewell Theater had several rounds of layoffs, until the only employees left were Scully and three others, two of whom work part time.
Scully says that when it became clear that they wouldn’t be hosting any live events for a long time, they had no choice but to come up with ways to pivot the business. They entered what she calls an R&D phase, to try to figure out what would be the best thing they could do to enable the business to survive long term. Even in a pandemic.
The best idea they came up with — one that they are working on right now — is something she calls the Sanctuary System: a system that would allow venues like Hopewell Theater to live stream and do prerecorded live presentations of broadcast quality.
You can think of it, Scully says, as an independent channel for venues. They could prerecord performances, build a library of content, then push it into the world on a multi-tenant platform that would enable them to monetize the content.
“It’s kind of going beyond how live streams are presented creatively and how they’re shot,” Scully says.
To make this happen, Hopewell Theater has partnered with a couple other technical and theater companies that have experience in this area.
“We’re hoping that by the time it’s built, we will be able to keep an audience in the theater and an audience online,” Scully says. “Even when we’re back open, digital’s not going to go away.”
Besides developing the Sanctuary system, Scully says her main priority has been supporting NIVA in its push for the Save Our Stages bill. She has also been busy launching a group similar to NIVA, but for New Jersey-based venues, called NJIVA.
“The entire ecosystem of the creative industry has been affected by this,” Scully says. “We were the first places to close, and we’ll be the last to reopen. It’s affected promoters, musicians, technical people, venues — if one goes down it affects all of us. These musicians need venues to play at. That’s why we’ve been so passionate in advocating for Save Our Stages.”
Just three weeks after the statewide lockdown, McCarter Theatre launched McCarter@Home, described as “an online platform for archival footage, new content, and opportunities to engage through classes, readings, and virtual programming.”
One of the first McCarter@Home events was a virtual conversation between decorated actor Mary McDonnell and outgoing long-time artistic director Emily Mann. Other sessions soon followed, including one with actor Michael Shannon. In December McCarter@Home featured singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin and an ongoing virtual festival dedicated to the work of Black playwright Adrienne Kennedy.
Sarah Rasmussen succeeded Mann as artistic director in August. One of the first pandemic-related challenges she faced was figuring out what McCarter could do regarding its annual holiday favorite, an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novella “A Christmas Carol,” which it would not be able to produce on stage this year.
The solution they came up with was A Christmas Carol@Home: a box filled with scene readings, conversation prompts, and postcards that would enable groups to enact their own versions of the play in the safety of their homes. The $40 boxes were a hit and sold out quickly.
Also successful for McCarter has been its online classes for all ages. Topics range from “Mystery Theatre Drama” whodunits for kids to improv classes for adults.
“We’re serving about the same number of students online now that we would have in person,” Rasmussen says. “When we come back to the theater, we’ll be glad to get together in person again. But I hope it’s really the best of both worlds, and I could definitely see us continuing to offer classes online.”
The 1867 Sanctuary in Ewing, also a NIVA member, has dealt with many of the same challenges that Hopewell Theater and McCarter Theatre have gone through, only it’s been a little different. For one thing, the Sanctuary (like McCarter) is a nonprofit organization, but with a volunteer-driven staff and limited tax liabilities.
For another, the preserved and former First Presbyterian Church of Ewing building has relatively low overhead. The Sanctuary is administered by Preservation NJ, shares services like bookkeeping with that organization, and has been able to reach out to donors who have supported the venue over the 10 years since the initiative began to save the historic site.
Audiences have been good donors, and a “Save Our Sanctuary” GoFundMe campaign raised more than $2,000 to help cover expenses like the oil bill. “We’re not rolling in money, but I think we have enough support that we can anticipate that when the pandemic finally releases its grip on us, we hope by April or May, we’ll still be able to be standing, and be able to have public events again,” says Bob Kull, event manager for the Sanctuary and a Preservation NJ board member.
One of the Sanctuary’s innovations to try to make some money during the pandemic has been to actually live stream performances from within its walls. Kull says the Sanctuary upgraded its internet to minimize the risk of freezes and other glitches during the show.
But as Kull points out, live streaming is not as simple a thing to do as it might sound, and one of the reasons for that is copyright law.
The 1867 Sanctuary is an American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers — aka ASCAP — licensed venue, but for live performances only. While the Sanctuary is permitted through its license to live stream a performance, it would need a different, costlier license from ASCAP to be able to record and rebroadcast the performance or make money from the recording.
Another complication with live streaming is the challenge of charging virtual attendees ahead of time for access.
In terms of welcoming patrons back into the Sanctuary, Kull doesn’t think it will all happen at once. “I think we will be able to become active again later in the spring, but the bigger question is whether audiences will be comfortable in coming, whether there will still be limits on the number of people that can be in a space,” Kull says.
Kull also notes that a lot of musicians have used the abundant downtime to work on their craft. “It should be quite eventful next year when we start having concerts again, not just getting back into the swing of performing, but also there will be a lot of new music out there,” he says.