When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Cincinnati region’s arts sector was in full swing. For local theaters, closing their doors meant canceling long-anticipated productions. Cincinnati Shakespeare Company was staging “Pride and Prejudice” while preparing for “Hamlet.” Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati had opened “Pipeline” just one day before they were forced to close. Every theater in the region was mid-season. Several were mid-show.

All that changed instantly as stay-at-home orders and social distancing recommendations came down from state officials. Almost immediately, staff and artists at local theaters knew they were facing an unprecedented, but hopefully short-term, disruption. Brian Isaac Phillips, producing artistic director of Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, first planned for an eight-week shutdown, steeling the company for those painful consequences. D. Lynn Meyers, artistic director of Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, was certain that her newly opened show would continue its run, and she told the actors to stay in town. No one anticipated the nine-plus months of closure that followed, with re-opening to full houses still months away.

From a business perspective, the ongoing pandemic has been devastating for arts organizations. This is especially true for theaters, which generally cover a majority of their costs each year through ticket sales. With as much as 70% of income at stake for Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and 81% at stake for Price Hill’s Warsaw Federal Incline Theater, for instance, the inability to welcome audiences inside the venues has meant a real threat to survival.

In response to that threat, local theaters have made painful but prudent decisions. Furloughs, layoffs and reduced pay for many remaining staff members were immediate steps to ensure survivability. At the beginning of 2020, Cincinnati Landmark Productions (which operates the Incline Theater as well as the Covedale and Madcap Puppets) had 14 full-time staff, 15 part-time staff and 200 artist contracts. By the end of the year, they had reduced that number to just five full-time staff and six contracted artists. Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park is currently operating at one-third of its normal staff size, until conditions allow it to re-open for regular programming. Ensemble Theater furloughed some full-time employees, cut remaining staff’s pay and cut all part-time and artist contracts. Beyond the immense constriction of organizational capacities, these necessary measures have resulted in hundreds of out-of-work artists and arts professionals.

Outside of the Cincinnati region, the story is similarly bleak. Hundreds of furloughs have become layoffs at Broadway production companies, and theaters all around the world are shedding payroll costs, losing staff and artists. Even Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, laid off entertainers from their highest profile shows in what some described as a “bloodbath” in October 2020.

Drastically reduced operations have caused theaters to prioritize their goals, resulting in a heightened focus on what the arts do best – connecting the community. Yet ironically, at this time, this connectivity needs to be delivered differently – through safe, socially distanced ways. With an inability to congregate either on stage or in audiences, innovation in the form of new investments and applications in technology and creative delivery of performances have been essential.  

The Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati shifted resources toward growing a digital library of performances. Playhouse in the Park hired local playwrights and actors to write and perform “Monologues of Hope,” which were posted on their website early in the pandemic. Cincinnati Landmark Productions accelerated the timeline for the launch of a new Distance Learning program, going from a 3-year ramp-up to a 3-month blitz.

Know Theatre of Cincinnati created a library of digital content that includes a sizable collection of audio, video and livestreamed content. In fact, their largest series, the Cincinnati Fringe Festival, with hundreds of shows typically performed throughout dozens of OTR venues, was produced in an all-digital form and had record online audiences.

Virtual shows, however, have inherent drawbacks. Actors themselves must adhere to social distance guidelines, restricting possible interaction on stage. Backstage, generally close quarters, it is likewise a challenge for technical production crews to do their magic. Perhaps even more significantly, licensing issues and professional union rules limit theaters from simply putting videos of past productions, or specially staged new productions, online.   

To bypass these challenges, theaters have turned to the outdoors, where larger numbers of people can gather safely. Cincinnati Landmark Productions held a series of “Open Air Cabarets” in the parking lot of the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater. Cincinnati Shakespeare Company re-imagined their “Shakespeare in the Park” series, reaching new audiences in locations from parks to parking lots. Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park helped create a haunted corn maze in Newtown during the fall season.

2020’s heightened focus on racial justice and inclusion has also been top of mind for theaters over the last year. While 60% of the actors on stage at Playhouse in the Park for the last two seasons have been of artists of color, Artistic Director Blake Robison is quick to comment about the ongoing focus on greater diversity in leadership, staff and board composition.  Cincinnati Shakespeare Company has changed its recruitment processes, slowing things down to be sure that qualified diverse candidates are part of every search. The Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati is part of a national network that meets every two weeks, working together to pave the way in the theater industry for actors of color. These are just a few examples of how local theaters are responding to the need for greater equity and more diverse voices, on and off stage.

Live, in-person performances will return to our local stages. When they do, our local theater companies hope to meet the opportunity by not just going back to normal, but something better than before. When the time comes for the curtain to rise, the staff and performers at each Cincinnati region theater look forward to seeing their audience on the other side.

This topic was discussed at a recent ArtsWave Hour, an event series for Leadership Donors to ArtsWave. To help theaters and other arts organizations plan for restarting when it’s safe to do so, donate at artswave.org/recovery.