Three times a week, the artists and staff at Maryland’s Olney Theatre Center march to the “COVID testing center,” a small room on the theater’s large campus that was hastily converted for this use when the Omicron variant surged last month. Tests are handed out by a theater associate whose job description now includes COVID test coordination.
It’s a routine that has become commonplace at theaters across the region as the Omicron variant spikes, quashing hopes for a return to normalcy in an industry that only recently reopened after an unprecedented 18-month shutdown left theater professionals out of work, out of cash, and unsure what the future would bring.
The cost of Omicron — both financial and emotional — is high for theaters across the region. For Olney, which had two hugely successful musicals running when Omicron surged last month, the costs were catastrophic. COVID testing alone — a service that all professional theaters are now required to provide under guidelines from the Actors’ Equity Association — currently costs Olney an average of $30,000 each month.
But the deeper cost came when breakthrough cases in the cast — detected through the vigorous testing — forced Olney and several other theaters across the region to cancel performances at the most lucrative time of the year, the busy holiday season. Because of breakthrough COVID cases, Olney was forced to cancel one week of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and the final 12 performances of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, a production that was playing to sold-out audiences and garnering national press attention.
“On December 22, we were almost $100,000 above our goal for Beauty and the Beast,” Olney Managing Director Debbie Ellinghaus said in a Zoom interview this week. “On December 23 we had to cancel the rest of the run. Christmas week. The biggest week of our entire season. Within a week we had lost $300,000.”
Large professional theaters must honor contracts and pay artists regardless of whether a performance actually happens. So when a performance is canceled, not only does a theater need to refund patrons for the tickets that were already purchased; it also has to pay everyone who was contracted to work at that performance.
Adding to those costs, Olney houses 16 theater apprentices and several cast members who do not live in the area. When some of these professionals contracted COVID, Olney put them up in a hotel while they needed to quarantine. “We had nearly a dozen people that we put up in a hotel for between five and 14 days,” Ellinghaus says.
In total, these unexpected expenses cost Olney Theatre Center over $500,000 in the month of December alone.
The story is the same throughout the region. In Shirlington, Virginia, Signature Theatre sustained similar losses when 15 mostly sold-out performances of Rent had to be canceled due to breakthrough COVID cases in the company. In Washington, DC, the Anacostia Playhouse canceled the final two weeks of A Snowy Nite at the Dew Drop Inn when COVID hit its cast.
Anacostia Playhouse Artistic Director Stephawn Stephens calls the closure of Dew Drop “a major financial loss” for the Anacostia-based venue. The theater ran into an additional problem: When a member of the Dew Drop cast tested positive for COVID, none of the people who were available to step in as understudies had been vaccinated. The theater had committed to hiring performers who were vaccinated against COVID. So the show closed.
And Omicron isn’t finished with DC theaters yet. More than a third of the productions originally scheduled to open during January have been canceled or postponed. Round House Theatre is postponing the US premiere of the British hit Nine Night after COVID was detected during rehearsals of the show. Managing Director Ed Zakreski notes that Round House has already spent more than 75 percent of its budgeted expenses for the show, calling the postponement “a significant financial hit” to the theater.
Omicron is also leading some theaters to rethink their programming going forward. The timeline of a theater year dictates that venues determine their programming and budget up to a year before the shows are performed. So a splashy musical with a big cast may sound great when COVID numbers are low, but what happens when a new variant hits six months later when it’s time to perform that show? “Is it wise to put up another full-scale production in this atmosphere?” Stephans wonders.
Finding replacements for cast or crew members who test positive or come down with COVID is not easy for theaters. Many regional theaters do not have pockets deep enough to retain understudies or swings (performers who can step into any role at a moment’s notice). And it’s even more difficult to find replacements for people doing highly specialized backstage work. “If a sound mixer comes down with COVID,” Ellinghaus notes, “it’s not easy to put another person in that position.”
While the financial cost is devastating in itself, it’s harder to quantify the emotional toll that continued COVID interruptions are having on theater workers. Front-of-house employees (those who interact with patrons at the box office, lobby, and auditorium) are now dealing with staff shortages when workers are out with COVID and customer service emergencies when tickets need to be refunded quickly. In addition, employees are now being tasked with responsibilities like checking vaccine cards and enforcing mask requirements. “The struggle is that we are asking people who took this job because they love theater to make calls on public health and it’s just incredibly stressful,” Olney Director of Marketing Joshua Ford says.
Erin Murillas, Signature Theatre’s longtime box office manager, notes that her staff had to refund or replace 4,200 individual tickets to Rent between Christmas and New Year’s Eve while simultaneously dealing with staff shortages. “The audience sees when an actor tests positive and has to be out, but staff members testing positive has the same impact. It was a mad scramble to find coverage and refund tickets.”
Patrons to theaters in December probably saw senior employees stepping in as ticket-takers, ushers, or vaccine card checkers. Ellinghaus was checking vaccine cards at Olney one day, covering for an employee who was out with COVID, when an elderly patron told her he forgot his vaccine card. In conversation, Ellinghaus figured out that they both used the same healthcare provider. She was able to download the app on the patron’s phone and help him find proof of vaccination. “The show started ten minutes late that day,” Ellinghaus recalls, “but we do everything we can to make it work.”
Since COVID first closed theaters in March of 2020, a variety of county, state, and federal grants have been available to theaters. These grants enabled theaters to retain staff and to pay infrastructure costs like mortgages and utilities throughout the 18-month closure. But these grants came with stipulations that the funds be used by specific dates, most of which have already passed.
When Omicron hit, the only source of funding left was the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, a federal grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration. Funds from this grant enabled theaters like Olney and Signature to withstand the unexpected expenses of the past month. But there is absolutely no wiggle room going forward.
Ellinghaus hopes that government institutions will reinstate some of the grants that allowed theaters to survive the pandemic to date. “We are now living in an endemic,” she says. “This is not going to end anytime soon, and the costs of testing, cancelations, social distancing, and isolation mitigation will continue. Where are theaters going to get the money to help keep the community safe?”
Raising ticket prices is not an option, Ellinghaus states. Both Olney and Signature stress that their patrons are their biggest supporters and note that donations from patrons have steadily increased since COVID started.
And that is what makes it all worth it, Signature Marketing Director Jennifer Buzzell says. “We have a staff meeting today and we are going to celebrate all of our success. It was really hard, but the joy of the audiences at live performances is undeniable.”
Ellinghaus agrees. “For all the challenges, there are no regrets. I am so proud of what our community has done. The artists, the staff, and the audience. The messages that we received about Beauty and the Beast and Hedwig were some of the best feedback we’ve ever gotten about what a difference these shows are making to people. It’s been a real reminder that what we do is important. It’s as vital as anything else, and without it, our community suffers.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated incorrectly that Actors’ Equity prohibits theaters from hiring unvaccinated artists.