June 20, 2024
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Tri-county performers struggle as audiences forbidden


The coronavirus pandemic has much of the region working from home, but there’s only so much you can do from home when your work is performing in front of crowds of people.

Theater companies, orchestras and concert venues in the Tri-Counties began cancelling and postponing shows even before state and local governments banned public gatherings in mid-March.

With no clear idea of when it will be safe for audiences to gather again, performing arts organizations have cleared their calendars for months and are working on contingency plans in case the lockdowns continue into the summer and beyond. If the crowds can’t come back in the coming months, jobs and even the organizations themselves could be in peril.

New West Symphony in Thousand Oaks laid off two of its 10 employees on March 23, a week after it announced that it was postponing two spring concerts. The other eight employees all had their hours reduced, said Ross Goldberg, vice chairman of the symphony’s board.

“Considering the economic downtown that is expected even after the ban is lifted, we’re in the process of lowering our income projections through the end of 2020 and possibly longer,” Goldberg said.

Other arts organizations are in the same boat, though most have held onto their employees thus far.

“Currently, we have everybody working remotely, but eventually we will run out of remote stuff to do. We’re looking now at what to do about furloughing people,” said Mark Booher, the artistic director of Pacific Conservatory Theatre, a professional and educational theater company affiliated with Alan Hancock College in Santa Maria. Pacific Conservatory has around 50 full-time staff members.

Santa Barbara Bowl, the region’s biggest concert venue, was about to begin its 2020 season when the pandemic hit. The bowl has postponed all of its shows scheduled for April or May, said Rick Boller, the organization’s executive director.

Its 16 full-time employees have been unaffected, but more than 200 seasonal, part-time employees who work on concert nights are without those jobs for the time being.

For the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura, the pandemic comes just as the organization is rebuilding from another disaster: the Thomas fire in December 2017. Buildings just blocks from the theater in downtown Ventura burned down, and the Rubicon itself suffered smoke damage.

When the smoke cleared, many of Rubicon’s supporters and subscribers had lost their homes, and the theater company lost 600 subscribers, or about one-third of its total, said Karyl Lynn Burns, Rubicon’s producing artistic director. The company laid off eight of its 14 full-time employees.

“We had two very tough years, and we’re now close to break-even,” Burns said. “It’s been about a three-year recovery, and for the last few months we’ve thought, wow, we’ve been rounding the corner finally. And then, this.”

Rubicon has added two more full-time equivalent positions since the layoffs in 2018, and Burns said she worries about how long she can keep everyone on the payroll during the coronavirus shutdown. Rubicon has postponed two shows so far.

“Our hope is a Small Business Administration loan,” Burns said. “There’s at least a possibility that if we retain our staff, there may be some sort of loan forgiveness. That’s our hope, because this group of people have been so committed and so passionate and have worn so many hats over the last few years since the Thomas fire. We would just be devastated if we had to let anyone go.”

Regional theaters like the Rubicon tend to get about half of their revenue from ticket sales and half from charitable donations. Ticket sales are close to zero for the moment, and donations are also likely to suffer during and after the crisis.

Many people will lose their jobs or their savings, and those who have money to give might choose health care organizations or pandemic relief causes instead of the arts.

“There are societal needs that need to be looked after,” said Jill Seltzer, the managing director of Ensemble Theatre Company in Santa Barbara. “We’re hoping that along the way, the arts get supported, but we know these are tough choices for people to make.”

Rubicon and Ensemble both hope to resume shows sometime over the summer, but there’s no way for them to know when the stay-home orders will be lifted and people will feel comfortable seeing a play or a concert in a crowded theater.

It’s possible that even after most of society returns to something approaching normal, large gatherings like plays and concerts will still be forbidden or frowned upon.

“Nobody knows what the new normal is going to be, but the New West Symphony is not going anywhere, and classical music is not going anywhere,” Goldberg said. “I think when the pandemic passes, people will feel a real eagerness to get back together, and our responsibility and our pledge to the community is to provide that for them.”

• Contact Tony Biasotti at TonyBiasotti@gmail.com.