The Indicator from Planet Money - An Artful Pivot

How a theater company in Philadelphia is reacting to the existential threat posed by the coronavirus.

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NPR

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Wilma Theater in Philadelphia has about 300 seats. It normally runs 325 plays a year back in March the Wilma was forced to shut down because of coronavirus about six weeks before starting rehearsals for its next play a play called he's got is suddenly the theater company had to figure out if there was any way to still produced the play even though it's actual theater head closed its doors and then had to sell that new production so that I could see paying its workers and keep operating Lee Goldenberg the managing director of the Wilma Theater was determined to find out okay, it has to be canceled. Sorry. Let's figure out how that will work. Then went through at least four different iterations of what the production could be so that we could still tell the story The Art and important the folks involved. This is indicator from Planet Money on card of Garcia and I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

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Entire Performing Arts industry in Industry worth tens of billions of dollars has been hit harder than almost any other part of the economy their business model requires live audiences people to be packed into theaters and concert halls and Opera Houses and it will be a while before that is possible again today on the show how one theater the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia is responding to this existential threat and how its story reflects the struggles of Performing Arts organizations all across the country.

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When the woman theater shut down back in March, it has been planning an upcoming run if it's next play is God is which was going to be the final play of the season for the theater is like the greatest tight. Also Cardiff. What is this play about without giving away too much to play is about twin sisters who reunite with their estranged mother and then go on a kind of Rampage of revenge against her father for this like a horrible crime that he committed years ago. It is a very like emotional in and violent play and when the theater was shut down its managing director Lee Goldenberg had to figure out what to do and she did recognize that there was this one like tiny tiny tiny Silver Lining we were a bit fortunate in the timing many of our colleagues around the country and the city were in the midst of a run. We were about six weeks out from starting rehearsals from is Scott is so we had time to punt and plan what we would want to do next solely.

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And the cast and crew of the play got to work first thought about maybe just postponing the play putting it on later, but they realized that probably was not going to work because coronavirus looks like it was going to be around for a while. So then second they thought about this filming a play in an empty theater and releasing the video selling video, but that would not have worked because it might have been unsafe for the actors. So then third they figured why not just do the play from home and film it using cameras at home. Some TV shows are done this but crucial parts of the play include violence people hitting each other savagely blood everywhere. So they decided that couldn't work either as a finely the set and lighting designer said hey, how about just a radio play and the director of is God is James Iams remember thinking? Yeah, that could work though. He also remembers thinking it's going to require altering the play artistically the very first thing I thought about when we were like, well, let's do it as a radio play. I was like what how do weed?

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How do we do the violence? That doesn't sound corny or doesn't that you know, how do we create that sense of all this is brutal without it sounding like a cartoon, but it was working on it James also realize that changing the play for radio might actually have some advantages and she she gasped at Sheepshead and I was like, that's so real to me. But like I imagine I've never been hit in the head with a rock but like I imagined

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I would be shocked first and then the pain would come until we get to do this really detailed work about the violence like the breath is something that you don't always hear especially in a theater the size of the Wilma Wilma's settled on a radio play that you could listen to during a limited window of a few days. So if you bought a ticket, let's say you could then listen to it by streaming online during those days. But while the theater was making these artistic adjustments Lee says it also had to solve new logistical problems that it had not faced before we were testing different appointment. Our production manager was dropping things off at people's houses and helping them bills little soundproof space and all that fun stuff. So it was a mix of exploring the play itself. But also, what would the style of creating look like the Wilma Theater of also needed a new

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Commercial strategy for is God is our host an annual fundraising Gala and this year they had to do it online on their website back in May and it raised 25% less than they expected to be before the pandemic but still at least it was something in the theater also got a loan from the government as part of the paycheck Protection Program for small businesses a program that have been authorized by the big stimulus and a bill passed back in March as for the cast and crew the Wilma Theater paid as actors for 3 weeks out of the seven weeks that they had expected to be paid for the other weeks. The actress collected unemployment benefits, which has been expanded under the stimulus Bill the theater also honored his contract with the place designers, but it did not hire the usual crew to build a set and the lights run the production all that kind of thing to play had been produced in recorded the Wilma Theater needed a way to sell it to reach an audience that would actually tune in to hear it. So the theater decided to ask for a minimum donation of $10 to be able

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You're the play any day between July 23rd and July 26th plus people who would purchase subscriptions to the theater season plays could donate the cost of that subscription back to the theater instead of getting a refund. So all-in-all the theater is $57,000 in revenue for he's God is Lee says that's a big loss from the money that the woman would have made by showing the planet theater, but please focus on with the theater did make dollar-for-dollar know we did not bring in as much revenue as if this had sold out for four weeks in the theater we had budgeted.

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$114,000 in ticket Revenue, so we didn't come close to that but in terms of artistic fulfillment and what we're learning about creating work in this way and having Revenue to offset some of those expenses does feel like a win for us woman theater is just one example of adapting to survive is something the theaters and live Performing Arts organizations are struggling with everywhere now Sunil Iyengar is director of research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts the Nea even at the very start of pandemic in the US between March and April we found the Performing Arts employment dropped by can't believe this 48% about 50% unemployment for workers in the Performing Arts Industries. That's about 62,000 workers as for the Wilma Theater Lee Goldenberg says that the experience of adapting a show at least

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They will know how to do it again. Now, we've shown that we are doing it. We are delivering what we said we would do all these different variations. We did we're closing out our season with the art that we intended truth. Of course is that it's still unclear what comes next for the Wilma and four other theater companies and four other Performing Arts organizations everywhere because just how much these adaptations really end up helping especially if the coronavirus shutdowns last while it's kind of an open question, but what else is there to do the cast and crew of the Wilma just like so many other people and businesses were struggling right now are doing what they can but you know Cardiff artists are tough people. There's a lot of adversity when you're trying to make art and you know when theater they have the same The Show Must Go On and for now the show is going on.

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This episode of the indicator was produced by Brittany Cronin indicators editor is Patty Hearst and the indicator is production of NPR.

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