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Colorado theater companies are clinging to life and worry coronavirus will mean shows cannot go on

Some 60% of the arts groups supported by the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District are only moderately or not at all confident that they will survive

Laura Jo Trexler performs in "Play On! A One-Woman Musical Romp with Shakespeare's Heroines." The show will be live streamed from Troxler's living room on May 9, 2020. (Photo by Theresa Stroll)
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Live from her living room on Saturday night, Denver actor-writer-composer Laura Jo Trexler will perform her original one-woman musical, “Play On! A Musical Romp with Shakespeare’s Women,” streaming in real time through the Aurora Fox’s website and Facebook page

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“We’re trying to keep our art form alive and bring live theatre to the masses by way of virtual content and streaming services,” Aurora Fox Arts Center spokesman Steven Burge said. 

It’s a matter of necessity. Most theaters, including the Aurora Fox, have gone dark. The industry is clinging to life, facing an uncertain future in the time of COVID-19. Some 60% of the arts groups supported by the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District are only moderately or not at all confident that they will survive.

“This is only the beginning,” SCFD executive director Deborah Jordy said.

SCFD, which distributes more than $60 million in tax dollars annually, on Thursday released results of a survey of arts organizations. Of 321 respondents, 57% of the organizations have less than four months of operating reserve, Jordy said.

Fully 60% report a decrease in philanthropic donations or sponsorships; 45% of respondents have made temporary staff reductions, 21% fear those reductions will be permanent.

“It’s bleak,” she said.

The Aurora Fox folks aren’t the only ones scrambling to practice their art while performance spaces are shuttered. 

Play on. Virtually.

Laura Jo Trexler’s “Play On! A Musical Romp with Shakespeare’s Women,” will stream at 7 p.m. Saturday through the Aurora Fox’s website and Facebook page.
 
The performance is free, though donations are encouraged. In “Play On!” Trexler portrays 11 of the Bard’s most memorable leading ladies. The show won the Hit of the Fringe award at the Hollywood Fringe Festival in 2018.

The Colorado Symphony’s virtual concerts and #PlayOn group efforts — musicians alone together, in T-shirts, jeans and earbuds, some well lit, others clearly not, digitally playing Beethoven’s 9th, bring tears to eyes in lockdown. The symphony will live on, but some smaller arts organizations — the ones barely profitable in normal times — may succumb.

Many have canceled seasons, vital fundraisers and major events, including the Cherry Creek Arts Festival and the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival.

The Denver Center for the Performing Arts at the start of April drastically slashed its staff in addition to canceling shows.

The David Byrne immersive project with the DCPA Off-Center has been “postponed.” Just the word “immersive” sounds prohibitive during a pandemic.

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival went dark. Central City Opera canceled its summer program and suggested ticket holders donate the cost of their tickets back to the company’s COVID-19 Relief Fund, to pay 2020 festival artists and staff a portion of their contracts.

A scene from “Romeo and Juliet,” staged in 2019 by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival on the University of Colorado campus. (Gabe Koskinen, Colorado Shakespeare Festival)

Curious Theatre likewise urged donations and patience. From the website: “We’re asking that you give us time right now to explore our options. Many folks have already gifted the cost of their tickets to Curious and we’re so grateful…Hang tight.”

While much attention has been devoted to “essential” businesses like nail salons and tattoo parlors, all sorts of arts organizations are also facing possible extinction. Small theater companies, a reliable source of community spirit, creativity and togetherness, are in for a rough go. Even if audiences are eventually allowed to gather, this period of shutdown may be more than some can survive.

“The industry across the world has been, I don’t want to say decimated,” said Helen Murray, executive producer at the Aurora Fox. “The question is, how do you come back from a pause like this? There’s been a lot of ninja budgeting.”

Nationally, the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the arts and culture industry thus far is estimated at $4.5 billion, according to a mid-April survey by the nonprofit Americans for the Arts. AFTA reported median lost revenue to arts groups from late January through early April ranging from $10,000 per organization (those with budgets under $100,000) to $1.5 million (for arts organizations with budgets over $10 million).

The pandemic will result in a projected loss of tens of millions of dollars to arts groups in metro Denver, according to one estimate. In the national study, AFTA found median losses per organization of $38,000. 

Working off of the AFTA numbers, Gary Steuer, president and CEO of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation, predicts a statewide loss of $17 million, roughly $13 million for metro Denver. Again, these figures are only estimates and are already out of date. 

“We certainly have anecdotal data from our many (50+) grantees and it is very grim,” Steuer said in an email.

For Colorado, “we believe that impact number to be exponentially larger than $17 million,” said Christin Crampton Day at Colorado Business Committee for the Arts.

Emergency arts funding on the way

Locally, Bonfils-Stanton Foundation and The Denver Foundation established an emergency fund in mid-March for metro Denver’s small and mid-sized arts and culture organizations. Unrestricted funding is being provided to 43 organizations that have received general operating and program support from Bonfils-Stanton in the past 18 months.

Bonfils-Stanton initially committed $1 million toward the COVID-19 Arts & Culture Relief Fund. This week, Steuer revised the aid plan upward. “Our hope is to grow this fund to at least $2 million, and ideally more,” he said in an email exchange.

The grants will likely be made in waves, with a first deadline in June, followed by additional grant cycles in the coming months. “Groups with summer seasons that have been canceled may be in acute crisis right now, while groups with fall seasons that have not yet been canceled may not yet report steep losses,” Steuer said in the emailed conversation. “But come the fall, if they are unable to present their seasons, they may be in crisis.”

The Denver Foundation, which will administer the fund, initially donated $50,000. Other early donors are Denver Arts & Venues at $205,000, Gates Family Foundation at $100,000 and PNC Bank at $10,000.

Grant awards will range between $5,000 and $50,000 per organization, based on 10% of their most recent grant.

“The cultural sector is critical to our quality of life, to our humanity, to our community vibrancy and diversity, and touches all of us in so many ways,” Steuer wrote in the announcement. “We must ensure that when we come through this crisis, the diverse cultural ecosystem that makes our community so special is still there to enrich our lives.”

Steuer acknowledged that, like most foundations, the endowment’s coffers are low due to declines in the market. “The market will rebound at some point,” he said in the announcement, “but many of our more fragile cultural organizations may not.”

The supermoon sets behind a performance during the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in the Mary Rippon Theater on the University of Colorado campus. (Zachary Andrews, Colorado Shakespeare Festival)

In the meantime, arts groups can find pointers online. Colorado Business Committee for the Arts has a series of webinars to help, such as “How COVID-19 is Impacting Intentions to Attend Cultural Entities – And What Will Make Visitors Feel Comfortable Visiting Again” and “Ready. Set. Reopen. Your Bounce-Back Plan.” (CBCA’s website is a good source for virtual arts experiences available during COVID-19, from recorded Red Rocks concerts to international museum walk-throughs, online poetry jams, film fests, zoo visits, dance classes and more.)

What does success look like for a small theater trying to stay alive? For the Aurora Fox, Burge said, “success, in this case, will be defined simply by having done the piece. Yes, of course we hope to have a couple thousand views when it’s all over. And yes, I hope people tip Laura Jo through Venmo, and donate to the Fox through our website. 

“But at the end of the day, we’re going to feel successful simply for having done something to explore the question on every theatre-maker’s mind: What is live theatre going to look like in the coming weeks? Months? Years, even?”

The future does involve live performance

The city-owned Aurora Fox operates on a $1 million annual budget, of which $400,000 is the actual production budget. Murray became executive producer at the Fox in 2018, in charge of artistic and administrative duties, and is working hard to keep the little theater on East Colfax running.

“I haven’t talked to anybody who said, ‘We’re done.’ They’re figuring out, reassessing,” she said.

Laura Jo Trexler performs in “Play On! A One-Woman Musical Romp with Shakespeare’s Heroines.” Trexler plays 11 of the Bards most famous leading ladies in the show. (Photo by Theresa Stroll)

Theater leaders are talking to health officials about how to manage flow, considering everything from sneeze guards in the lobby to e-ticketing and low-capacity seating.

The timeline is unknown. Currently, the rule is 10 people per gathering but, “by fall we may have moved to 50,” Murray said. “What is important is (that) we do figure out the way to move to live performance.” Never leaving our homes is not an option, she said.

It’s all about human connection, Murray said.

“It doesn’t matter how much streaming I watch,” she said, “there is no substitute.”

Rising Sun