Coronavirus Shutdowns Affect Theater Companies/Productions Differently In Houston

Peer Gynt is the last production we're going to see from Classical Theatre for a while
Peer Gynt is the last production we're going to see from Classical Theatre for a while Photo by Pin Lim/Forrest Photography
Oh, what a difference a day makes.

Last Thursday our inboxes were flooded with messages from theaters outlining the precautions being taken to disinfect their spaces and ensuring us that the show would safely go on.

Then Friday happened. The Alley was first. All shows canceled until the end of March. Then came Catastrophic and Classical Theatre, postponing their upcoming shows until next season. Stages followed, suspensions of shows until March 22. No shows at Ensemble until March 31. Lady of Agreda, A Mystical Journey playing at Queensbury would shut down after Sunday and A.D. Players rescheduled upcoming events until the summer.

There are some companies presently playing by ear and weighing options, but there’s no question that more cancellations are to come. And while this may be the best thing for the health of the public, it’s a difficult decision that affects each company/production differently.

“The final straw for us was when local schools shut down,” says Classical Theatre Company Artistic Director  John Johnston explaining that about 25 percent of the company’s audience are university and high school students. Losing them would mean losing precious revenue.

Classical’s show, The Marriage of Figaro, was set to open April 15, outside of the closure window set by other theaters at the moment. Perhaps by then, the health scare would be over or at least greatly diminished. But for Johnson, there were just too many unknowns to go ahead with the show. "It would put us three weeks into rehearsal and we just can’t afford that”, says Johnson. “We would have by then spent thousands and thousands of dollars and then to maybe not be able to put on the play?” Impossible to foot the bill for that Johnson says.

While it made financial sense for Classical to delay the show, it may end up harming them next season when they apply for the foundation and government funding they need to survive. “One of the metrics when it comes to receiving funding is whether you’re growing as an organization,” says Johnson. “So, the only way we can convince agencies to give us or increase funding is to say, hey we're reaching more people, and obviously having to cancel a show (one-third of our season) means we are reaching fewer people."

Johnson hopes that because so many companies will be in the same boat, funders will recognize the hardship and recalibrate allotment rules, but only time will tell.

Catastrophic Theatre knew when they postponed their fundraising brunch last week that their upcoming show, The Book of Grace by Susan Lori Parks, might also be postponed. But it wasn’t until the city suggested no gatherings of more than 250 people that Catastrophic Associate Director, Tamarie Cooper pulled the plug. “We operate at MATCH, and if there’s multiple things going on, that’s over 250 people,” says Cooper. “But what it really comes down to it though, is the health of our audience and artists too.”

Cooper has seasonal asthma, a condition that makes her more vulnerable to coronavirus. “If I were to have to come to rehearsal every day I don’t know how safe I’d feel no matter how many containers of hand sanitizer there was,” says Cooper. “I’m being advised to stay away and I think there are many people like that in our audience and even some other artists. So, it became clear that the overall safety of everyone involved was the thing to do."

Because Catastrophic plans on working with the same crew and artists on the show next season, it’s not a total financial loss compared to what other companies may be facing. “I don’t know for example if the Alley’s production of 1984 (which played one night before being suspended) just gets torn down and never seen, or they’re finding ways to change their schedule,” says Cooper.

Even with the ability to move their show into the 2021/22 season, Cooper is concerned about the loss in company revenue due to the postponement. However, when it comes to the performers involved, things are not utterly dire. "We already pay our artists a good portion of their contract from the minute they show up at rehearsal. Most have already received two-thirds of their pay," says Cooper. "For our equity artists, they have a mandated two-week termination policy. So, we're doing what we can, but it's awful for freelance artists in every medium across the city as gigs get canceled.”

A home-grown world-premiere musical isn't something we get often in Houston, but coronavirus worry doesn’t discriminate, and so Lady of Agreda, A Mystical Journey (book by Marley Singletary and music and lyrics by Cynthia Jordan) slated to open March 20 became the latest victim.

Sort of.

The musical, playing at Queensbury Theater, began previews on Friday, and, as Singletary explains, will continue playing until Sunday, when it will be shut down and postponed until September 2020.

"We do believe coronavirus is a health risk and we are taking it seriously," says Singletary who is not allowing more than 150 audience members at a time and following disinfection protocols. "Our thinking was until the city recommended a shutdown of all public events then we would continue through Sunday and let the show have it’s run at least for a little while.”

Because the production is privately backed, the postponement, while disappointing for the artists involved, doesn’t mean performers don’t get a paycheck. Singletary says that yes, everyone will be compensated according to union rules whether they are a member of equity or not. “Basically, for our run, that translates to just one week that there will be no pay.” says Singletary.

When it comes to emotionally processing the reality of her brand-new show being cut off at the knees, for the time being, she is turning lemons into lemonade. "I feel fortunate as a writer that I got to have a whole production to figure out what works and doesn't work," says Singletary who now has time until August to make changes before opening night and before the show gets reviewed. “So, for me, I see this as a huge positive. It's not like I can change things, so instead, I'll feel positive.”
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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman