We are supposed to be in the midst of the busiest time of the South Florida theatre scene—when the weather is perfect, and the audience is chock full of snowbirds. At least six productions were scheduled to open last weekend from theatre companies in the tri-county region, along with another four this coming weekend.
All have been canceled or postponed, with future cancelations expected for the foreseeable future. It started in the afternoon of Thursday, March 12, when Miami New Drama, under direction from the City of Miami Beach, made the agonizing decision to postpone its production of the Louis Armstrong-centered play “A Wonderful World.” A flurry of postponement or cancelation notices flooded my in-box over the next 24 hours—first Primal Forces, then Zoetic Stage, then Slow Burn, then Measure for Measure, then Theatre Lab, then Actors’ Playhouse, then Pembroke Pines Theatre for the Performing Arts. Going into Saturday, the Wick was virtually the only game in town for live theatre, until it, too, shuttered its production of “A Chorus Line” after the following day’s matinee. (Companies that had opened shows in prior weeks, including Pigs Do Fly Productions and Ronnie Larsen Presents, quickly followed suit and ended their runs.)
Certainly, these unprecedented decisions took a creative toll. The cast and crew had been pouring their hearts and souls into their work for weeks of rehearsals, only to be forced to go dark on the eve of their opening nights. Perhaps more existential to the companies’ futures is the financial impact of the cancelations: One artistic director confided to me in a text message that the closing of his production cost the nonprofit $75,000.
But not every company faces such an economically damaging future. I spoke to the artistic directors of two Boca Raton companies whose losses were mitigated by the comparatively minimalist natures of their productions.
“We were in a pretty fortunate position,” says Theatre Lab’s Matt Stabile, who made the call last Friday to postpone “To Fall in Love,” a two-character play featuring himself and Niki Fridh. “We know we’ll be able to postpone and remount the show. We paid all of our artists and technicians and designers their full contracts. It is going to add some financial impact to us to remount the show, because we’ll have to issue new contracts. But having been artists, and living that life, we know the impact that it can have to lose expected income for the next month. We went ahead and paid those contracts, and said that’s a hit we need to be willing to take to support the people who work with us.”
Stabile and Fridh, under the direction of Theatre Lab founder Lou Tyrrell, did manage to present one preview of “To Fall in Love” last Thursday to an audience that had already begun to shrink under threat of coronavirus: Of its 46 ticket buyers, only 16 showed up. As Thursday crawled into Friday, Stabile reasoned out his decision to close. “In my mind, we were going to have one of two things happen. We were going to have an opening weekend where most of our audience didn’t show up because they were worried or concerned. Or we were going to have an opening weekend where most of our audience did show up, and put themselves unnecessarily at risk. And I didn’t want us to be doing either of those things.”
Primal Forces, which operates out of Sol Theatre, saw a similar diminishment of its audience during its two previews, last week, of the political drama “Warrior Class.” Artistic Director Keith Garsson says only 50 percent of his audience attended.
“It felt like the floodgates opened Thursday night and Friday morning, and then we heard a rumor that Trump was going to declare a national emergency, which would have sealed the deal,” says Garsson, on his decision to close. “So Friday morning we made the decision to postpone. If it were a football game, it would be the equivalent of a time-out. A long time-out—we probably would use up all of our time.
“People have been, for the most part, very nice about it,” he adds. “Few people have called up angrily demanding refunds.”
Like Theatre Lab, Primal Forces’ production was already budget-conscious, with a local cast of three, which keeps the company from hemorrhaging money. Yet, he says, “the slightest delay causes you a financial loss. Perishable props have been bought; they’ll have to be thrown out. We paid people through the weekend, even though there were no shows. We will continue to pay rent as long as Sol doesn’t have anything else scheduled. … We had single ticket sales throughout the four-week run, but we’re fortunate in that we have a very large subscription base, which is probably two-thirds or three-quarters of the tickets. As long as we make them whole, we should be OK.”
Like Theatre Lab, Primal Forces has not committed to a revised opening date, reflecting a fluid situation that has been changing by the hour. They both want to open as soon as they safely can.
“We have to wait and see … is the peak of the number of cases going to be lower but more spread-out and manageable? Or are we going to peak badly like Italy?” Garsson says. “Until we see what the curve is, with all due respect to my fellow sistren and brethren theatre producers, nobody really with any certainty or knowledge can come up with the right move. Let’s say you open—pick a random date—April 16, and everything’s fine. You’re more lucky than you were smart.”
Stabile says, “At this point, our audience has been very understanding. We’re asking them to wait until we announce the new dates, and they’ll be able to exchange their tickets for dates in the new run. If they’re unable to attend those new performance dates, we’re hopeful that they will take the advice of a bunch of organizations from the country that are now encouraging people to either donate their tickets back to the organization or work with that organization to find solutions.
“Now is the time to purchase subscriptions to the next season—especially these companies that are having financial troubles,” he adds. “Give them an influx of cash and investment. Just by purchasing a season subscription, you can help them do that.”