HOW'S BUSINESS? Marissa Wolf, Portland Center Stage
Marissa Wolf became the artistic director of Portland Center Stage at The Armory, the top theater company in Portland, in August 2018. Everything was going well in her first full season. She had many hits, including the musical "In the Heights" and the play "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time." However, it all came to a screeching halt on March 12, when the shows on stage were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. On Thursday, March 19, the season still seemed salvageable when the Business Tribune talked to Wolf.
Business Tribune: So how is a nonprofit theater company supposed to survive with no bums on seats?
Marissa Wolf: We had to cancel eight weeks, and we're hoping to come back in late May, but the season really is a moving target. Every day is new information. It's really nail-biting upon an organization.
BT: If the coronavirus magically went away next week, could you pull together a show that just closed?
MW: Oh, sure, yes. The sets are just sitting there until we can take them down. We're hoping to rebound in June with a show called Cambodian Rock Band, which would be very energizing, and everyone would be in communion with each other. What society will be aiming for in the coming months is to come together. What's so wild about this is right across the country theaters are all shut down right now. My fear is that so many talented artists, technicians, artisans and administrative staff at Center Stage and throughout our region will not be able to sustain even for a couple of months here. So, it's a very scary time.
BT: How can you survive without ticket sales?
MW: Sixty percent of our revenue is ticket sales, concessions and rentals. It's earned. Forty percent of our revenue is contributed: Government sources, foundations and individual donors. So, 60% of our income just turned off right now and that puts us in a dire position. We're a nonprofit that does not have an endowment. We do not have cash reserves.
Several theaters have endowments, like the Alley Theater in Houston, Texas. And their financial situation is different. I'm guessing even closing their doors for eight weeks, they can sustain their revenues. The truth is, if this goes on for months, everyone's going to be in an unknown world.
BT: Could you open in the fall based on the 60% and hope the rest comes back later? Maybe add more populist shows?
MW: We can open up, but the question is, what does that season actually look like? The really important thing is to be driving the mission of the company and creating ambitious work. So we're not going to come up with only Broadway-style theater.
BT: How're other theaters coping? What are they talking about?
MW: They're all in a similar position. Ticket sales are a significant way that salaries are paid. What I'm seeing nationally is conversations about digital content and ways to think strategically about creating performing arts in new ways that allow for this climate of social distancing. But publishing houses are not particularly interested in making digital content.
There's a lot of work around advocacy, politically, a lot of coming together to put pressure on government agencies around relief. Even when there's an urgent need around safety and well-being, theater and the arts make us human, and it's one of the most important parts of life.
BT: What is the skeleton staff doing?
MW: We're all working from home now, with just a few people in the building (The Armory), and some box office people handling a high volume of calls. Yes, I could be watching the National Theater Live, which is shot in HD with three cameras, but now it's a time for fundraising and strategy. This would be a time when we're doing our fundraising, so I'm making calls.
BT: Normally, high dollar fundraising is at parties and in people's homes. How can you do it now?
MW: We're reaching out to many of the long-term supporters of the company. We're using video conferencing because we also want to be respectful of everyone's time and we don't want to ask people to come and meet us.
BT: Are people being generous?
MW: Many ticket holders are donating their tickets back. We're not making a profit on that. Everything goes back into making more theater.
BT: In an economic shock like this, it's not like people are choosing to not spend their entertainment dollar. There's literally nothing to spend your money on beyond streaming and media. Whose is the most vulnerable type of theater?
MW: As a large nonprofit, we have overheads, so we don't have the same agility as a small theater. And Broadway, that's paid for by multimillion-dollar venture capitalists — it's a totally different game. I have a lot of love for Broadway. But I think each of those three levels will shift and I don't know how.
BT: What's the worst-case scenario?
MW: That is certainly on all of our minds. What I will say is that theater is an ancient art. Storytelling is a common ritual, and it's not going anywhere. So the effects on the theaters are unknown, but the question will theatre and the arts survive? Absolutely.
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