When the pandemic started in March, performing arts venues all over the country closed. In June, Off-Broadway fixture The Playroom Theatre shuttered permanently, and many of New York’s independent theater owners, directors, and administrators feared they would be forced to do the same.
Many turned to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) for assistance at the federal level, primarily through two different programs: Economic Injury Disaster Loans (for small businesses and non-profit organizations experiencing a temporary loss of revenue) and/or the Paycheck Protection Program – meant to help businesses keep their employees during the COVID-19 crisis.
But with the prospect of help came confusion. “EIDL and PPP were rolled out very bizarrely and the information initially available was lacking,” said Theresa Buchheister, artistic director of The Brick. The Williamsburg theater was initially granted a loan of $9,000 dollars through EID, and now must give $4,000 back, Buchheistr said. “We thought EIDL below $10,000 was forgivable. However, it’s EIDL plus PPP below $10,000 that is forgivable,” she explained. “Considering that huge for-profit places received millions…it still seems messed up. Especially because there’s been no other forms of government support offered since April.”
Others, like Theatre 80 St Marks, have had to pay full property taxes on buildings that have made little to no revenue since March. “It’s outrageous.” said the East Village theater’s owner and manager, Lorcan Otway. He worried that “COVID is the final nail in the coffin for independent theatre in New York.”
Even during the stress of the pandemic, there have been success stories for independent theater. The Irish Repertory Theatre in Chelsea has released eight full-length digital productions, and has brought in a huge online audience since starting their digital programming. Director of Marketing and Digital Strategy Frances Howorth says, “We’ve had, at this point, 42,000 reservations for our productions, so that actually totals the average number of people we see in our space for the year.”
While theaters stay closed, independent theaters have gotten creative about how to stay afloat and continue to showcase their talent via digital productions and Zoom readings. Watch our video, above, to hear more from The Brick, Theatre 80, and The Irish Rep.