Performers Were the First Left Unemployed by the Pandemic and the Last To Be Rehired
It’s certainly a sad note to hear that the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, among the important homes for new plays, is closing.
Formally, the owning Centre Theatre Group is canceling plans for a new season and laying off staff, but all the signs are for continuing financial issues that will keep the Make Taper Forum theater closed. It’s another harbinger of the problems that arts groups and performers are facing around the country.
Call it another effect of long Covid and more: The financial health of live repertory theater across the country is reporting financial issues that are forcing cutbacks or worse as work and leisure habits change. Performers were the first left unemployed by the pandemic and the last to be rehired.
Already fragile theaters, orchestras, museums, clubs, and arts institutions are facing trouble as workers increasingly avoid going to downtown areas to work at home instead and the big companies are turning more and more to productions for distribution on television screens. Thus a writers’ strike over the change in work without adequate compensation and consideration, and a SAG-AFTRA strike is looming.
The 1,800 local, professional, nonprofit repertory theaters around the country, of which the Mark Taper Forum was a part, all report pressures to reduce costs, staffing, performance days. Before 2020, those theaters were producing between 14,000 and 25,000 productions each year, attended annually by an average of more than 35 million people, according to the Theater Communications Group, or as NPR noted, twice the combined in-person audiences for professional football.
The nation’s hosts to experimental thought and drama that sparks creative audience reaction are giving way only to Broadway-like efforts to re-stage hits from the past in hopes of drawing more assured audience. Arts institutions, meanwhile, juggle ways to draw new audiences or seek to distract from the ever-rising prices with various kinds of merchandizing or efforts at engagement.
For actors, dancers, musicians, and others, we’re seeing live performance spaces contracting and opportunities growing tighter – all coming amid a spreading culture war that is aimed largely at attacking intellectual life. Playwrights, composers, and choreographers are forced to turn to increasingly small, more flexible, but financially fragile ways to stage their work.
The nation’s critical thinking that comes with Art in its various forms is suffering as much as the financial health of arts institutions. It would be interesting to overlay, Venn diagram-like, a match between those who fear questions of gender identity, abortion choice, and social justice with those who consider the future of the arts important.
What’s the Price?
Beyond whatever passes as cultural thoughts and prayers, of course, this decline in our cultural institutions, like the Mark Taper Forum, is drawing exactly zero interest or attention in our presidential or Congressional politics.
For politicians of many stripes, music and art is the stuff only of boosting live audience spirit at the political rally – and then refusing to pay for licensing or even to ask performers whether they want their musical styles associated with that politician.
When we do pay attention, it is to the physical spaces, like the multi-year fund-raising and construction (or re-construction) of concert halls and theaters. In the meantime, actors, musicians, dancers, and administrative staff face layoffs even from an industry where everyday existence requires maintaining multiple incomes.
Our city mayors bemoan homelessness and rising crime numbers while watching shop windows board up or replaced by unstaffed banking locations and our arts institutions under pressure without any connections. In New York City, fully 13 percent of the workforce are directly connected with the performing arts, and the economic effects of the arts ripple into all the restaurant and leisure industries, tourism and travel, and merchandizing by local stores. The idea that what makes New York a destination is as much is theater, jazz clubs, dance centers as its landmark buildings is being squandered amid oversized public concern on where to house bused-in migrants.
The federal Department of Labor identifies economic sectors by manufacturing, services, farm, construction, and other sectors, but avoids looking at directly at our creative economy – an important component of our increasingly gig-based economy.
The House Republican plans would wipe out arts subsidies through the National Endowment programs or for public broadcasting.
It was John F. Kennedy as president who noted that our success as a nation would be judged by our arts, saying, “I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.”
Perhaps today’s politicians should think about that anew.