DALLAS — The first call came from the Uptown Players. Dallas-based actor Duke Anderson had been cast in the company’s production of “Fun Home” — he was expecting to play the lead role of Bruce. The show's director told him the musical was on a temporary hold.
Anderson, who moved back to Dallas from New York in 2015 to be closer to family, was just gaining momentum in the tight-knit local theater scene when COVID-19 brought the entire industry to a stand-still.
A day after that call, Lyric Theater of Oklahoma told Anderson that its production of the stage adaption of “Matilda, The Musical” was also postponed. Anderson was set to portray the major role of Miss Trunchbull. Every other production Anderson had been hired for in his slow climb to name recognition eventually saw its plug pulled. To make ends meet, he picked up seasonal work as a baker and other odd jobs. He was also forced to move back into his parents' home.
“It's been really tough,” he said. “I know I'm not alone in the arts industry in having dealt with some depression because of it, some anxiety, and some sense of an identity crisis. What do I do? Who am I without this as a craft?
“It's our passion,” he continued. “It's the thing that we love to do most. And it's really hard to have that taken away from you and feel like you don’t have that avenue of expression.”
In the economic bloodbath that COVID-19 brought to bear, those working in performing arts were the first casualties — and most observers, like Dr. Gary Gibbs, the executive director of the Texas Commission on the Arts, believe the arts sector will also be the slowest to recover.
His organization, a state agency that supports the arts and offers millions of dollars in grant money, doesn’t track how many performing arts organizations have permanently shuttered, but he knew of a few.
During his recent testimony at a hearing of the state’s Culture, Tourism, & Recreation Committee, he pointed to a recent report by the state comptroller’s office that laid out how the entertainment industry as a whole was decimated by the stay-at-home orders.
“And the other really damaging part of this is that many arts organizations across our state are supported locally by the hotel occupancy tax,” he told Spectrum News 1. “And during the pandemic, people have not been traveling. Tourism has also been highly impacted and so those dollars that would normally support the arts organizations are not there.”
COVID's devestation on the performing arts extendeds far beyond lost jobs and seasons. When the curtain dropped on live theatrical performances in Texas, it also set in motion myriad unforeseen consequences.
Many performers who belong to the Actors’ Equity Association did not work enough to qualify to keep their health insurance, and members will now have to face a global health crisis with an added sense of uncertainty.
The arts also have a cascading economic effect, Gibbs explained. In 2019, based on data from the Texas Cultural Trust — an Austin-based non-profit that focuses on the economic impact of cultural organizations, the arts generated $6.1 billion in taxable sales and $380 million in state sales tax revenue.
“Typically when you go out to the theater or ballet or opera, you’re also going out to eat, hiring a babysitter, and paying for parking,” Gibbs said.
Many theaters and performing arts organizations pivoted to online performances and Zoom readings of plays. But for performers like Anderson, keeping his name top-of-mind for casting directors across the state has been a struggle.
“Theater is all about momentum,” he said. “They always say that you're only as good as your next job. So when those get pulled away, there is a sense that you have to completely start over.”
The employment dollars lost by workers in the performing arts over the past year — and the arts as a whole — are staggering. Data from the Texas Workforce Commission show employment in the arts, entertainment, and recreation fell by nearly half from February to April 2020, and remained 27% lower in November. By comparison, employment at hotels, restaurants, and bars — another industry disproportionately deflated by the pandemic — fell by 12.5% during this period.
The industries that suffered the most throughout the state, a comptroller’s office report said, were the ones whose workers operate in close quarters with their customers, “their profitability typically depends on face-to-face encounters or crowds, from restaurants to sports arenas. In addition, some businesses have been affected by … lack of consumer confidence and by a concern for individual health and safety. Many sectors are financially fragile, with little cash on hand to weather an economic downturn.”
Employment in the arts, entertainment, and recreation industries experienced the greatest percentage decline of any one sector at 29.6% or 42,800 jobs.
The contribution of the arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation and food services — a group defined by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis — to the Texas gross state product was obliterated. In 2019, these industries contributed $63.5 billion to the Texas economy, or 3.4% of the state’s $1.84 trillion GSP. Between the first and second quarters of 2020, their combined Texas GSP fell by more than $19 billion or 32%. Total output in the arts declined by more than half.
“The pandemic has decimated the arts communities across the state,” Gibbs said. “However, at the same time, you know, the arts are made up of very creative people. And so they've been able to continue. Many of them continued their programming by virtual means or very socially distanced opportunities.
“The biggest challenge has been that their ability for earned-income has greatly diminished during this time … Most performing arts organizations have not reopened yet.”
The recent passage of a new law offers some hope for the sector. The U.S. Small Business Administration began accepting applications in early April for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program. Theaters and live performing arts organizations are all eligible to apply for a share of the $15 billion pool. The new law also allows theaters that benefited from the Paycheck Protection Program to receive an SVOG. Prior to this becoming law, receiving or even having open applications for both programs had been prohibited.
Anderson will likely lose his health insurance on May 1. He gained insurance through his membership with the Actors’ Equity Association, a labor union representing actors and stage managers across the country. Equity members’ health insurance is tied to how many weeks out of the year they work on contract. Currently, members who work 11 weeks qualify for six months of coverage, and 19 weeks earns one year of coverage.
Across the state and nation, thousands of actors, musicians, dancers, and other entertainment industry workers are in the same leaky boat. They’re losing their health insurance or being saddled with higher costs in the midst of a global health crisis. Some, like Anderson, were simply unable to work enough hours last year to qualify for coverage. But others were in plans that made it harder to qualify for coverage as they struggled to remain solvent as the collapse of the entertainment industry led to a steep drop in the employer contributions they rely on.
Many more performers said that they felt abandoned for much of the year — both by their unions and by what many described as America’s broken health care system. Some are angry.
“I think it's a little tough because as a union member, I don't want to be disparaging of my union because in a lot of ways it's done amazing things for actors,” Anderson said. “It's gotten a lot of really great pay for some of us, and it's really come to bat in a lot of ways, even allowing us to have healthcare in the first place.
“I can't say that I am particularly overjoyed by the way that they've handled the pandemic situation,” he continued. “I think I echo a lot of members’ sentiments when I say that there’s been a lot of turmoil within the union because of it. We’re just feeling like nothing is being done on behalf of the members. So we're having to turn to these jobs that are much more high-risk than being in a theater.”
Several provisions in President Biden’s coronavirus relief plan offer the promise of relief. One would make it a lot cheaper for people to take advantage of the federal government program known as COBRA, which allows people to continue to buy the health coverage they have lost, and another would lower the cost of buying coverage on government exchanges.
Further frustrating Equity members is a new health plan released last week that raises the required number of work weeks from 11 to 16 before a member can obtain six months of insurance.
The AEA’s health fund is a separate organization jointly managed by union trustees and employer trustees. In anticipation of a new plan, Equity’s Council instructed its trustees to withdraw support for the proposed health plan until further examination, particularly into its effects on potential harm and remedies for BIPOC participants; potential harm and remedies for pregnant participants; and its impact on participants living outside New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Actors’ Equity Association released a statement regarding Equity-League's new health plan for Equity members.
“Recently, Council became aware that the health fund was preparing to announce plan changes,” said Kate Shindle, president of Actors’ Equity Association. “The more we learned, the more concerned we became that not enough work had been done by the health fund to determine how these changes would impact our members. That is why Council passed a resolution directing the union’s trustees to withdraw support from plan changes and delay the announcement that was made today until a demographic study was done.
“I am deeply frustrated that today’s announcement was made against the wishes of the Council and that no study has been returned to Council about how these changes might impact our members who face hiring bias. We all understand that there is no escaping the devastating loss of months of employer contributions nationwide, and no alternative aside from making adjustments to the plan. But I believe that the fund had both the obligation and the financial reserves to take the time to make better choices.”
This current season was supposed to be Jubilee Theater’s 40th. Fort Worth’s first African-American-focused theater — and the first in North Texas — was determined to continue with its programming, despite only being allowed to fill 50% of its 178-seat house last year. Its in-person performances didn’t last long.
“People just weren't ready to get out,” said Christie M. Howard, the company’s managing director. “We had houses that were four or five people.”
Like many performing arts organizations around the country, the theater went virtual. Howard and her staff created Jubilee On Demand. The shows allow her to continue to keep actors and support staff working. The COVID-related protocols, Howard said, are strict. Staffers must sign a contract agreeing to live a life that makes a monastery look like a rave.
“We asked our casts to kind of function in a bubble, really taking a consideration,” she said. “They signed an agreement not to go anywhere or do anything outside of their normal day to day."
Howard’s costs stay low because Jubilee is not an Equity house, meaning she doesn’t have to cast and employ a certain number of union members. Jubilee only employs three full-time workers — just Howard, an artistic director, and a box office manager. Everything else, she said, is handled by contractors.
“I don't want to sound cavalier in saying this, but we were kind of already modeled for something like this to happen,” she said. “What we do is keep actors and people working in a time where they're really struggling to find those jobs, and that's kind of how we made it.”
The company has also survived thanks in large part to some generous donors. Revenues are down around 82% compared to last year, she said.
“Jubilee has never had a season when it did not offer programming,” she said “And we took a stance that it wasn't going to happen on our watch.
“When you do these shows, you've made commitments to play writes [and others],” she continued. “The whole engine for performing arts really kind of came to a screeching halt.”
Howard said she doesn’t expect things to be back to normal until at least December.
In this pivot-or-perish economy, not everyone jumped at the chance to continue working. Anderson said he was “disheartened” by the way many theaters have turned so quickly to streaming.
“I'm not in the business of being on film,” he said. “If I wanted to go and pursue that, I would have gone into film. So it's been really tough for me because I just don't have a passion for that. So I've really had to kind of grapple with, Is this, is this the direction that I'm willing to take art into? Or am I going to have to find a new passion?