Why A Return to Live Theater?

Set model for Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol playing December 1 - 24, 2020. Arnold Bueso, Scenic Designer.

In recent days, Broadway has announced that it will not reopen until June 2021. Worldwide, many performing arts organizations are taking necessary but drastic measures in order to protect their businesses in light of the greatest challenge to our field in a century. So, you may be wondering: why is Milwaukee Repertory Theater attempting to return to live theater at this time? 

We should resist the natural urge to compare strategies of performing arts organizations. Every organization has a complex and unique set of circumstances that must be considered when responding to COVID-19. The path forward for cultural organizations will be as unique as our institutions are. Performing arts organizations will have to evaluate the financial, operational and regulatory environments in which a return to live performance would be possible. Milwaukee Rep has completed that work and is one of the first professional theaters in the US to get the endorsement of Actors’ Equity Association, International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees, United Scenic Artists and the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society to reopen, pending local COVID data when we begin to rehearse. 

Milwaukee Rep’s Board of Trustees unanimously endorsed our 2020/21 Season Reset, a 5-show season of live performances of smaller scale plays produced in a manner that aligns with recommendations from the CDC, State of Wisconsin and Milwaukee’s Moving Forward Safely Plan. Our FY21 budget includes a projected $6 million decrease in earned revenue, primarily from ticket sales, through June 30, 2021. To offset the loss, we have reduced our budget by 50% from $14M to $7M and are currently projecting a break-even budget, inclusive of several COVID mitigation strategies. To ensure the safest possible environment for our staff, artists and patrons, our COVID protocols include significant investments in upgrading facilities, increasing cleaning/sanitation, testing, contact tracing and training. In large part, these additional expenses have been offset by a few very generous major donors and anticipated funding from the CARES Act.  

Recognizing that this is a wholly unprecedented situation for which there is no playbook to follow, we have chosen our path for a few reasons:  

  1. Talent Retention. 80% of Milwaukee Rep’s budget is personnel related. Although we have experienced furloughs and layoffs, this plan allows us to retain a majority of our staff, keep key positions filled, and support local artists – all of which are critical to our future return to full production, maintaining Milwaukee’s creative economy and doing our part to support an industry that has been decimated. If we were to cancel all live production, it would necessitate a much larger reduction in force, which will not only be very challenging for our staff, but will leave us in a critical talent deficit that will risk future seasons and prolong the impact of COVID-19. 
  2. Patron Engagement. While we have pivoted to robust digital platforms to distribute artistic content, several local and national surveys are reporting there is declining interest in experiencing artistic content digitally. Many of us can relate – how we desperately long for the day in which we can return to in-person gatherings rather than using the now ubiquitous Zoom!  What makes live performance so special is very difficult to encapsulate digitally, not to mention digital capture and distribution can be very expensive and time consuming, as we have to negotiate concessions and intellectual property rights. As we enter our seventh month of closure, we fear that if we cancel all live performance opportunities and not produce for a year-and-a-half, it would place our patron and donor base at risk which may take years to rebuild. 
  3. Skills loss. Much like professional athletes, we have to keep in top shape if we want to bounce back as soon as the virus allows. If we stop all live production for an extended period of time, our skills and talents will begin to atrophy and we will not be able to produce at the world-class level that our brand is built on. Our future success is dependent on retaining our subscriber base through this difficult time. To do that, we must reinforce consumer confidence that we will be able to produce at levels our patrons expect in a post-COVID world.  

We acknowledge that our approach to COVID-19 may not be appropriate for other institutions and we continue to be in awe of the resiliency and creativity of our field. Producing in the interim stage between pre-COVID and post-COVID will be both expensive and challenging, however in working with our medical and public health experts, we believe it is possible to do in a safe manner for our theater. As COVID therapeutics and hopefully a vaccine become available, we hope to establish practices that can be useful to others in the coming months.  

My many thanks to our terrific leadership team, our tenacious staff and thoughtful board for their strong commitment to safety and mission-fulfillment. While the last several months have been the most trying of my career, I have never been more proud of this theater or of the professionals it employs.