LANESBORO — The stage was set for Commonweal Theatre in 2020. The professional live theater company was coming off one of its best years in 2019, having sold the most season passes in its 31 years of operation at that point.
That was the prologue. We know a great season for live theater anywhere in 2020 was not written in the stars, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced performance venues to close.
“We just feel like we got shot in the foot,” said Jeremy van Meter, communications manager for Commonweal. “So much of that energy and momentum was lost.”
A measure in the latest COVID-19 relief bill signed by President Trump last week is designed to help organizations like Commonweal regain some of that lost momentum and revenue. The Save Our Stages Act allots $15 billion for independent performance venues, movie theaters and other cultural institutions, as well as promoters, managers and agents.
“If we get it, it will help put us back on the track we were on going into 2020,” van Meter said.
The funding will be disbursed through the Small Business Administration. The National Independent Venue Association, a New York-based organization of independent music venues, promoters and festivals, is working with SBA to develop an application process for the funds.
Under the act, organizations that qualify that have lost 90% of their gross revenue from 2019 will be able to apply in the first 14 days of the process. Organizations that lost 70% can apply in the second 14-day window. The bill also sets aside $2 billion specifically for organizations with 50 or fewer employees.
Those measures help organizations that need funding the most have a chance to apply, said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., one of the authors of the bill.
“We want to make sure the bulk of the needs are met first,” she said. “We took special care to take care of small venues.”
Although the exact year-end numbers are still out, van Meter estimates Commonweal will qualify within the second 14-day application window. The company employs 16 people — 14 of them full time — and would qualify for funds in the $2 billion set aside for small venues.
Still, van Meter isn’t counting on anything yet.
“We’re trying not to get our hopes up,” he said. “We’re definitely optimistic.”
The bill created an unlikely coalition of Republican and Democratic lawmakers. Theaters and music venues are a draw for small towns and cities in red and blue districts, from a Texas honky-tonk bar to the Bluestem Amphitheater in Moorhead, Klobuchar said.
“If we just have this as big metro areas, we lose,” Klobuchar said of passing the bill.
The value of live entertainment stretches across party lines, even if taste in that music and entertainment differ.
“It’s one of the last areas of common ground right now,” she said, adding that the absence of those opportunities highlights how valuable the organizations, venues and live entertainment are to people.
In pushing the legislation, Klobuchar has said such venues were the first to close and will probably be the last to fully open.
“You can’t stand in the middle of a mosh pit during a pandemic,” she said.
Klobuchar, a longtime live music fan, regularly attended concerts and plays before the pandemic. A pre-pandemic photo of her sitting onstage at First Avenue, a popular music venue in downtown Minneapolis, accompanied publicity for the bill, which was written this summer after the first round of COVID-19 stimulus had already passed.
She couldn't recall when the photo was taken, but said it was First Avenue CEO Dayna Frank who reached out to her about the legislation.
“Part of this for me, is I love music,” Klobuchar said.
Van Meter said it’s fitting that the legislation originated in Minnesota. He said Klobuchar has attended multiple shows at Commonweal in his time there the past decade.
“She’s very supportive of the arts,” he said. “And Minnesota is a very arts-oriented state.”
If the funding comes through, van Meter said he realizes it could be months before audiences are back in the theater. Currently, Commonweal plans to start its 2021 season with a one-person show, “I Love to Eat” by James Still.
Van Meter said he hopes 2020 and the first part of 2021 turn out to be an intermission and not an ending for organizations like Commonweal.
“The main question we always hear is ‘Will people come back?’ ” he said. “My answer is always a definitive ‘Yes.’ ”