The past month has been one of upheaval and uncertainty as everyone is learning to navigate his or her new normal, which has been born out of necessity in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe.
The performing arts community has proved it is not exempt, as posters, websites and social media posts announcing upcoming shows are now all littered with the word “canceled.”
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines limiting gatherings to those of no more than 10 people and practicing social distancing has hit the performing arts community in the Jackson metro, and across the world, hard.
Local performing arts organizations are fielding calls from patrons requesting ticket refunds and performers who now have no certainty of when they will book work again or where their next paycheck is coming from, all while feeling the weight of the loss of revenue and trying to work out what role technology can play in keeping things going in the meantime.
Jay Dean, who serves as the artistic director of Mississippi Opera, co-artistic director of FestivalSouth, artistic adviser to the Natchez Festival of Music and director of the School of Music at the University of Southern Mississippi, said more than 100 events he had scheduled over the coming months have all been canceled, resulting in loss of funds and jobs for artists.
Dean said Mississippi Opera’s board of directors began discussing the possibility of canceling the performance “Romeo and Juliet” on March 10, as people from all over the country, and around the world, perform in these shows.
“Not only that, but we knew if this thing grew, we could also be endangering people,” Dean said of the decision to cancel. “We were also concerned about local citizens and the audience who might be fearful of attending.”
Health concerns aside, Dean is also worried about the artists who are without steady pay during this time, as there is no way to know when the outbreak will be contained or when it will be safe to continue on with performances.
“You get paid when you perform, and if you don’t perform you don’t get paid,” Dean said. “I know more than 100 performers who lost everything.”
“This has had a profoundly negative impact on the performing arts,” Dean went on to say. “Almost all performing artists are considered independent contractors who don’t have health benefits or retirement plans through an employer. They get paid only when they work.”
Now, 100 percent of that work is canceled for the foreseeable future.
“Imagine being without a way to derive any income from two weeks to possibly 18 months,” Dean said. “It’s not possible.”
Francine Reynolds, the artistic director of New Stage Theatre, said the organization is reeling from the impact of coronavirus as well.
Performances of “Pipeline,” which was originally scheduled to run until March 22, were all canceled.
“We only had one week of ‘Pipeline.’ Financially, that left us with a deficit of 40 percent of what we had projected for ticket sales,” Reynolds said. “The other thing with ‘Pipeline’ is all the other events around it. The show is all about education and social issues.”
After the initial shows that were able to go on as scheduled, she noticed that it was sparking conversations about various important topics, which was by design.
“Everybody really wanted to talk about it, and it brought in a diverse audience,” Reynolds said.
So, in addition to lost ticket sales, Reynolds said New Stage lost something important, and intangible, as well.
“We lost a show that we had marked to create audience engagement and bring in a new audience,” Reynolds said.
A wider, more diverse audience and sparking conversation is not only an asset in bringing about change and fostering community, but also helps keep the theatre running.
“These are things that we write about in grant applications,” Reynolds said, which is a large revenue stream for New Stage.
Also, the events surrounding the performances, including actor chats, dialogues and youth nights, have also been canceled, which is another important piece in applying for grants.
Fortunately, Reynolds said New Stage Theatre had already paid the actors through the entire show run. However, now they are working with those who purchased tickets to figure out how to move forward and establishing future plans.
“Right now, for the rest of the season, shows are postponed,” Reynolds said. “A lot of things are up in the air. We need donations now more than ever to keep us going.”
In addition to the loss of ticket sales, New Stage Theatre’s annual fundraiser, A Toast to Broadway, which was originally scheduled for March 26, has been postponed. A Toast to Broadway typically brings approximately 12 percent of the annual budget.
“That one-night event brings in a considerable amount of money through ticket sales and silent auction, and it will be hard not getting the silent auction revenue that helps us this time of year.”
Michael Beattie, the president and executive director of the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, said they were forced to cancel several performances due to coronavirus as well.
“We had to cancel several performances because we felt strongly about the safety of, not only our audience, but also our people,” Beattie said.
He said the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra is relying on donations at this time, as they navigate the loss of ticket sales and the expense of productions which are now canceled.
“It will have an impact on the budget,” he said. In the meantime, Beattie said they are offering the option to exchange tickets for canceled concerts.
At Ballet Mississippi, Artistic Director David Keary said they are feeling the effects in the wake of coronavirus, but fortunately the financial impact has not been negative.
“We have been prudent with our funds, and the financial impact has been next to none,” Keary said.
Mississippi Metropolitan Ballet Artistic Director Jennifer Beasley said the performance of “Frozen Heart” has been canceled.
As a non-profit, most of their funding comes from sponsorships and grants, but another revenue stream for their budget is ticket sales, which are now at a halt following the show’s cancellation.
Moving forward, the performing arts community is putting in the effort to rally. This is no small feat, but - as it is so often said - the show must go on.
At New Stage Theatre, this looks like filming three-camera recordings of one-hour shows to give to local schools and other places they were scheduled to perform as a resource. They are also recording education shows, and creating online creativity challenges for the youth acting troupe and Saturday class attendees to give them a creative outlet during these uncertain times.
For the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, this effort is in the development of future plans, among other things.
“We still have wonderful messages to deliver,” Beattie said, and he encouraged locals to stay connected through social media for updates.
“The most important thing is everyone’s health and safety,” Dean said. “Everything else runs a huge distance after that. Everyone should participate appropriately in social distancing and sheltering.”
And, in the meantime, Dean said he will be taking some time to consider the future of communication and the role technology will continue to play in the performing arts.
“This period for me has been a time to start thinking about the future and how we communicate with people,” he said.
Most performing arts organizations, including those in this article, are offering options for tickets to canceled events. Refunds are available, but the cost of the ticket can also be donated to the organization. Some are offering to credit the ticket value to future performances.
For more information, updates as they arise or to donate to one of the above groups, visit the organizations’ websites or social media pages.