Checking the vital signs of shuttered venues

A federal grant relief was due to launch today, but it didn’t. Meanwhile, after a year without ticket sales, theaters chart their paths forward.

The volunteers at Restless Artists Theatre have spent the pandemic upgrading and renovating the building. Director Doug Mishler gives a tour of the new railings and seating configuration. Photo: Kris Vagner

Fourteen weeks ago, Congress passed a $16 billion aid package intended to help revive performing arts and live entertainment, industries that saw their main revenue source—ticket sales—disappear overnight in March 2020. 

The application process for this aid package, the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, opened yesterday but promptly shut down due to technical difficulties. The Small Business Administration, the entity that’ll administer the grant, says it’s working to repair the system but does not yet have a re-launch date. 

Even once the application portal re-opens, the grant won’t be a magic bullet. Some have voiced concerns that funds could run out before every venue gets a slice of the pie, and not every venue is eligible. But, even with those caveats, the fund promises at least a partial lifeline for the performing arts.

We checked in with two theater managers, one who plans to apply for the grant and one who doesn’t, to find out what challenges they’re contending with and what their paths to reopening might look like.

For a Carson City art center, 2020 was all about adaptation

At the Brewery Arts Center in Carson City, the ballroom, 128-seat theater, and 224-seat performance hall have been sitting empty for more than a year now. If people couldn’t come to the BAC, the staff reasoned, they would do their best to bring their programming out into the community.

“We were able to get creative,” said Executive Director Gina Lopez. Her group hosted drive-up movies in the summer and a “Reverse Nevada Day Parade” in the fall. When the concert series couldn’t open in June, the BAC borrowed trucks from nearby construction companies, outfitted them with stage lights and railings, and hired local musicians to play flatbed concerts in Carson City neighborhoods.

Kingwhistler played on a flatbed truck in a Carson City neighborhood over the winter holidays. Photo: Courtesy Brewery Arts Center

While Lopez and the staff never would have asked for a summer without the use of their building, she said the whole experience did yield a benefit. “I think it’s healthy to shake it up a lot once in a while,” she said. … “It was good for us in the sense that we reached an audience who might not have come to (the venue.)”

The first round of funding from the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant is reserved for organizations that lost 90 percent or more of earned revenue for 2020. “We lost 99 percent,” said Lopez. She plans to apply.

“Luckily, they’re very generous with the options of what we can do with it,” she added. While grant funds are often restricted to specific projects, the parameters for this fund are wide open. “We can use it for payroll, operating costs, production, marketing,” Lopez said.

Venues can apply for up to 45 percent of their gross earned revenue from 2019. But even with a substantial cash infusion, the group will still face some major challenges. “We’re going to have to do more for less people,” Lopez said. We’re not going to have the capacity of crowds. Ticket sales won’t be as high. We’re being asked to provide more for public safety. If we have to use a circle or a pod, it’ll be 25 percent capacity.” 

It would be next to impossible for indoor events in a quarter-full theater to garner enough revenue for a show to break even. For now, most BAC events, including performances by groups like Sierra Nevada Ballet and Wildhorse Theater, will be outdoors, where audience members can more easily keep their distance.

There’s still a long road ahead to full financial recovery, but Lopez sounds like she’s settled into what has become, for many, a strange new normal. “I’m making it up as I go along right now,” she said. “I’m just going to have to be a little patient and flexible.”

For a black-box theater in Sparks, size mattered

Restless Artists’ Theatre opened in a former laundromat on a quiet street near downtown Sparks in 2016, with a mission to stage contemporary dramas we might not otherwise see in the region. With 45 seats, it’s a venue so intimate it feels like you could reach out and give the actors a handshake.

In 2020, after a couple of fizzled experiments with virtual plays, the RAT crew determined that non-live programming was not their métier and instead focused on making improvements to the facility as they waited out the pandemic. 

Restless Artists’ Theatre Director Doug Mishler said that the shutdown left a lot of time for building upgrades, including new paint in the walls and new LED lights over the ticket window. Photo: Kris Vagner

By now, said Managing Artistic Director Doug Mishler, “90 percent of our building has been remodeled and repainted. There are new lights for the stage, lobby, and hallway. There’s a new seating arrangement, an upgraded tech booth, and a new storage structure.”

With a grant from the state, RAT implemented COVID safety measures such as installing touchless sinks and soap dispensers in the bathrooms, planning a touchless payment system for tickets and concessions, and purchasing an electrostatic sprayer that looks a bit like a souped-up Nerf gun. “We’ll have new HVAC filters, also two hospital quality air purifiers,” Mishler added. 

He said that it usually takes about five years for a new theater to establish itself. In that sense, the pandemic’s timing was awkward for this small, young organization—RAT’s fourth anniversary was in 2020. But its small size may have also been its saving grace. While the dark stage and the halted ticket revenue have been no picnic, RAT was able to avoid an existential economic crisis. There was no mad scramble for rent. Mishler owns the building outright. And there are no employees to pay—the theater is run by a 10-person board and a few volunteers.

Mishler said that because RAT has no employees, it doesn’t qualify for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, but there are some other relief funds the group can apply for.

One of Mishler’s chief concerns at the moment is that, because theatergoers trend toward the 50+ age bracket, RAT’s audience members, post-pandemic, may hesitate to return to public places.

“Our theater—the best thing about it was, when we did a show, the patrons were part of it almost, they were in very close proximity,” he said. “Well, will you want to do that now? … Will people be afraid to be around small crowds of people?” 

As Restless Artists’ Theatre awaits reopening, the board and volunteers are planning now so they’ll be ready when the time comes. 

“We had a meeting today,” Mishler said late last week. “We might start working on a play today. We’re all vaccinated. We’ll all do a temperature check and things like that.” He’s thinking they might launch the next season by re-visiting the streaming idea. They might choose a play where actors don’t need to be too close to each other onstage. They’re prepared to perform for a 30 percent full house, if necessary. (Yep, you did the math right. That would be an audience of 15.) And once the building re-opens, if health guidelines call for barriers between audience members, they’ll be ready to install one around each patron or couple. 

“If we present it, and it doesn’t make money back, that’s OK,” Mishler said. “I’m hoping by fall we can do something live with a limited audience.”