Before the coronavirus brought the curtain down on live theater,the Rochester Civic Theatre was already facing challenges.
Last month, a city oversight committee recommended terminatingthe city’s lease agreement with the theater company. That followedthe abrupt departure of former executive director Kevin Milleramidst revelations of the company’s financial troubles.
Despite having to return $150,000 in city funding for building maintenance and scaling back the number of productions next season,company leaders were planning to regroup and move forward.
"Our priority right now is to get the theater back in secure footing," said Sinéad Chick, director of operations for the CivicTheatre. "This isn’t something we can rectify in six months."
Then, just as the Civic Theatre was preparing to open "Romeo and Juliet," theaters around the state closed, prompted by Minnesota Health Department recommendations to slow the spread of COVID-19.
"The cat is amongst the pigeons now," Chick said. "It’s going tohave significant long-term consequences for our organization."
The short-term consequences have been serious enough. Two of theorganization’s seven full-time employees have been laid off.
Enter an anonymous benefactor — stage left.
Theater organizers kicked off a fundraiser to help the companysurvive the closure and get back on its feet afterward.
One donor pledged to match each donation up to a total of$50,000 through the end of April.
Chick said the closure and news of the financial struggles ofthe theater company have helped spur donations.
"To sit on our laurels and not do anything at this time wouldnot sit well with our supporters," she said.
The situation has also been an opportunity to remind patronsthat the Civic Theatre is a tenant in a city-owned building and todispel misconceptions that the company is a city-run — and funded —organization.
"There’s been some great education and opportunities to explainto folks what the situation is," Chick added.
Civic Theatre leaders plan to hold performances of "Romeo andJuliet" when state officials deem it appropriate and announce theupcoming season in May. By then, the company will need to startgenerating revenue again to avoid more layoffs or furlough ofstaff, Chick said.
Instead of launching a fundraiser, the Rochester RepertoryTheatre Company canceled a fundraiser scheduled April 18 at theEagles Club.
"We were all set, we had our donated items, we had ourdecorations," said Sue Schnell, managing director of the RochesterRep.
The company was in the middle of a run of "Strange Snow." Theremaining performances of the show have been canceled. A plannedproduction of "Red" has also been canceled. Staff are reaching outto the publishing company to see about refunds for the rights tothe show. Schnell said she’s uncertain the company will get therefund.
"The fact is, everyone’s probably asking for that right now,"she said.
The annual fundraiser coincides with the next season’s showannouncement. That announcement will likely be made online and thefundraiser held later.
The event, which usually nets about $11,000, helps support thecompany through the year. Revenue from ticket sales alone are notenough to sustain the organization, Schnell said.
The company has also taken on the added costs of purchasing abuilding.
"We’re trying to be responsible homeowners," Schnell said,adding that the mortgage is lower than rent, but still comes withupkeep costs.
For Absolute Theatre, not having a permanent home is helping thenew theater company weather their closure.
"This is actually one of the few times we’re actually at anadvantage not having our own space," said founding director JamesDouglass.
Absolute was in the middle of its run of Ken Ludwig’s adaptationof Agatha Christie’s "Murder on the Orient Express" at TheCastle.
Although the company doesn’t have much overhead to fund whilethe stage is dark, the halt of performances knocked a popularproduction off track, Douglass said.
"We knew we had something special going on before it evenopened," he said. "Tickets were selling well — we were close toselling out the first few nights."
The upcoming production of "The Laramie Project" has beenpostponed.
Douglass said the company plans to pick up where they left offon the run of "Murder on the Orient Express" when public events aregiven the OK by state health officials.
"If we can hold onto the actors and they don’t have othercommitments, we’re hoping to get up and running really soon,"Douglass said.
At Commonweal Theatre in Lanesboro, performances of "The Fox,"the apprentice capstone production for 2020, have been canceled,and their season opener, Neil Simon’s "I Ought to Be in Pictures"has been postponed.
Commonweal’s capstone productions give actors and productioncrew in training a chance to gain experience putting on a show.