Repairing The Arts, After The Storm

Repairing The Arts, After The Storm
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Life and safety are most important. A place to live comes next. Then jobs, business, livelihoods. In the wake of the storm that just slammed New Jersey and New York, these are the priorities, first and foremost.

But it's my nature to turn to thoughts theatrical, and there's no question that every manner of live performance in the affected areas will feel a strong and lingering impact in the days and weeks -- perhaps months -- to come. Even venues that were spared any direct damage from the storm will have to grapple with having artists, staffs and audiences cut off from theatres for days; the minds of ticketholders and potential ticket buyers are not focused on their next evening out, but instead on the priorities of my first paragraph.

Yes, we all heard that Broadway was shut down on Sunday night and has yet to announce the reopening of shows as I write. But Broadway is just the tip of the iceberg, the headline that efficiently communicated, pre-storm, that New York was hunkering down. Off and Off-Off Broadway, theatres outside of Manhattan, and outside of New York all shut down as well. Rehearsals, tech, workshops, showcases, readings - all were hit, from Virginia northward, and westward too.

On the Internet, snide remarks on Sunday and even Monday played off of "The show must go on," as if heeding safety alerts and protecting patrons were somehow a dereliction of duty, instead of a prudent decision to insure that no one took undue risks. These are the same people who are probably complaining about lack of mail service today.

The immediate suspension of productions will no doubt have a financial impact on every venue, commercial or not-for-profit. Movies may get more attention, but they are fixed art; perhaps their theatrical runs may be curtailed by loss of marketing momentum, but they won't cease to be. TV ratings may take a hit because of major markets without power, but reruns, Netflix, Hulu and the like will make certain that programs don't go unseen.

In theatres throughout the region, shows that were already at financial risk may see their demise hastened; shows in previews or rehearsal may see their production schedules altered and face challenges in luring audiences, even after transportation returns to normal, because focus and priority won't be on entertainment. Even successfully running shows will take a sustained hit.

This is a natural disaster, not terrorism. But as the ripple effects of 9/11 went far from ground zero, this storm will pass but its memory and its impact will linger as well. Theatres in the mid-Atlantic and Northeastern U.S. will have to convince audiences to return once again, and it won't be about conquering justified fears, but conquering physical and financial realities which will impede that process. It will take a long time to get past this.

As a final word, precisely because the relighting of Broadway, when it occurs, will again capture headlines, I'd like to remind everyone who cares about live performance that the performances and companies at greatest risk are those that are not as high profile, those without extensive financial resources, those that operate from small venues in locations somewhat less traveled. Yes, the relighting of Broadway houses has an impact on the many industries that benefit from the influx of audience members to those shows, but that same situation is played out in microcosm at every performance venue, in every neighborhood affected.

Let's do all we can to help our families, our neighbors and those we don't even know heal and rebuild. But when each of us is able, let's also look to the arts -- so often an afterthought in the minds of so many -- and make sure that we can gather together in theatres large and small very soon, and support with our labor, our money and our presence.

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