Atlanta theater leaders on moving through stages during two challenging COVID-19 years

Last week marked two full years since Atlanta’s COVID-19 shutdown, which occurred on March 16, 2020, just five days after the World Health Organization declared that this “novel coronavirus” outbreak was now a pandemic. Ever since, to paraphrase Shakespeare, time has “crept along at a petty pace,” punctuated by whiplash-inducing fluctuations. Those have ranged from hospital surges and devastating loss to the immense hope of the vaccines to not one but two ultra-contagious variants that upended not just plan B but plans C, D and E for so many. Now, with recent changes to public health guidance on various mitigation measures, Atlanta — and its arts community — are standing once again at a juncture of “OK, what’s next?”

To observe the milestone, ArtsATL spoke with leaders from five of Atlanta’s performing arts organizations — from long-established Horizon Theatre, a key player for almost four decades, to a rising troupe, Havoc Movement Company, which debuted in 2018. They weighed in on what it means — financially, creatively and structurally — to continue operating a theater and creating art long-term amid the reality of this still-lingering, still-harmful, still-evolving virus. And that’s against the knowledge that everything can change in an instant. (Answers have been edited for clarity and organization.)

ArtsATL: How are you feeling about where things stand right now, compared to two years ago or even just two months ago?

Chandra Stephens-Albright, managing director, Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company: We have been following our audiences and our unions. As you recall, at the beginning of the pandemic, older people and people of color were more impacted by (COVID-19). We are cautious and we are being very diligent about the safety of the folks onstage and behind the scenes. We had planned for “Raisin” to really kick off this season, but it just wasn’t safe to rehearse a big company like that with delta and then omicron. (Citing omicron concerns, True Colors canceled its staging of the musical adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play last month.) So, we had to adapt. We pulled forward several readings that we had planned and still were able to present the art and the stories about “Raisin,” but in a different way.

Rachel May, co-founder and producing artistic director, Synchronicity Theatre Company: We added increased testing as part of our strategy, not just rapid but also PCR. Obviously, it’s been an intensely difficult two years, but we have continued with forward momentum. This season, despite the painful process of shutting “Alice in Wonderland” down early, we have had a lot of success for the shows we’ve had and cemented our tour (of “Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds”) going on right now, which has the most bookings that we’ve ever had for that project.

Credit: Courtesy of Jake Guinn

Credit: Courtesy of Jake Guinn

Jake Guinn, co-founder, Havoc Movement Company: We’re in such a crazy time, not only with the disease itself but with world events. Just as COVID’s clearing up, we need to make sure we’re paying attention to our involvement with the Russia-Ukraine crisis. The arts are in such a space to be affected by these world events. Right now, we’ve got a full plate, we’ve got a full season planned, but it feels oddly reminiscent of two years ago.

Credit: Courtesy of Horizon Theatre

Credit: Courtesy of Horizon Theatre

Lisa Adler, artistic director, Horizon Theatre Company: I was never more grateful to have opened (the new season) with a one-person show (”Every Brilliant Thing,” which ran from January-February this year). It was certainly nothing like pre-pandemic, but it exceeded our expectations. People expressed how much they missed it and how they were grateful, which was encouraging.

Alex Scollon, managing director, Actor’s Express: We started early with a really clear safety plan and clear idea of how to keep our audiences safe — people felt really good and then omicron hit and we had to reevaluate and shut down for almost three months to be able to recalibrate and reopen the show we had planned in January (”Intimate Apparel,” which opens March 24). It’s been a real struggle.

Freddie Ashley, artistic director, Actor’s Express: We are encouraged that the caseloads and the numbers have decreased to the extent they have. I think all of us are waiting for the other shoe to drop when it comes to the other variants. At the moment, though, we’re feeling pretty confident about where we are.

ArtsATL: What has been the financial impact for your company from the last two years?

Freddie Ashley: When the pandemic hit, as with every other theater around the country, our earned revenue disappeared immediately. Even when we moved to virtual programming, that only attracted an audience when it was free. It’s further complicated by the fact that I anticipate earned revenue, in general, might be slightly down for the foreseeable future because of audience uncertainty with respect to safety and feeling comfortable going back into confined quarters with other people. As we are building budget cycles for the future, we are taking into account an expectation of reduced earned revenue.

Alex Scollon: We were lucky that we were able to use so many of these COVID relief funds, but we’re at the point where we’re starting to produce on a more normal schedule, which means that resources are continuing to get scarce. We came out of a period where we had $5,000 in earned revenue in a pandemic out of what would typically be $500,000 in earned revenue. But we did that without having to lay any of our staff off and were able to still do quite a bit of fundraising, so that tells me we have flexibility.

Jake Guinn: We completely stepped away (in the fall of 2020), let our LLC lapse, and thought we were done. The thought was maybe in 10 years, if we felt like picking it back up, we would. At our lowest point, I remember the conversation where we were like, “Well, I guess we’ll talk at some point.” It was forlorn and despondent. The only reason we started back is because a theater reached out and said, “Hey, we want to follow through on (collaborative) plans we had two years ago,” and we were like, “I guess we’re back in the saddle, kids.” It was tough getting the ball rolling again.

ArtsATL: What resources have you been leveraging?

Freddie Ashley: We had a surge of contributions from our supporters at the onset, and that has remained. The different government programs we’ve been able to benefit from have been key to keeping our doors open and continuing to produce work. Particularly the Save Our Stages program and the PPP loan program.

Chandra Stephens-Albright: We are being diligent about the quality of the grants that we’re writing. With the racial reckoning, there were a lot of places that were like, “Oh, we have been underinvesting in Black theater.” Donors would support LatinX and Black work at large white theaters but not at companies creating that work with those audiences. What the reckoning has helped expose folks to is that we are doing that work and that it’s our natural state.

I don’t believe in the scarcity model; I believe there’s enough for everyone. So, let’s continue to support that large white institution but also support that work at True Colors because it is being done to a Black audience under a Black gaze. That’s where the opportunity is for us to make that change moving forward. The equivalent of a $50,000 gift over here will make a huge impact.

ArtsATL: What will financial stability look like in the future, especially amid so much uncertainty?

Chandra Stephens-Albright: We started a five-year strategic planning process in 2020, right when things were uncertain. It laid out a framework for us to follow and helped us figure out what we wanted to look like at the end of five years, what’s important, what needs to happen.

Lisa Adler: The main thing we are doing is building the COVID reserve fund. We’ve been taking funds and putting them into a fund that we can use in recovery, so we’ve got something to draw from besides our operating income. We think it’s going to be a two-year recovery, and we’re trying to build in our own cushion to get us through that period. The main thing is that we’ve all had to get comfortable with uncertainty. For Horizon, that’s nothing new. We’ve just had a different kind of uncertainty prior to now.

Freddie Ashley: From my vantage point, each show has a bit more pressure on it. Knowing that a show has to connect is more acutely important than ever. As we’re going through our final season planning for next year, we’re being very methodical about contemplating the pros and cons of each title, looking at possible partnerships and models for operating. You start to look at everything, not only what you’re doing but how you’re doing it, to maximize efficiencies.

ArtsATL: The last two years must have also impacted your work creatively. How has that has played out? And how do you balance creative priorities with financial ones?

Amanda Washington, National New Play Network producer, Actor’s Express: It’s a really interesting question. How do you create when things are tight financially? You want to build out the process in an equitable way, giving artists something for their time. What does that look like? How can Actor’s Express grow even deeper roots in our surrounding community? It’s definitely a balancing act. Because things cost money. There’s no way around that. But also, the driving force is community, and we have a mission statement that we want to make sure is always at the forefront of what we do and not necessarily the money. I don’t think we’re living in a “leap of faith” scenario where the bridge will come. I think we’re more so looking at previous structures and what we want to reconfigure. So, maybe it’s not hoping the bridge will be there but building a new bridge to get there.

Alex Scollon: We decided we were not going to use the pandemic as an excuse to tighten our belts even more. We could have easily decided to cut back on those things, but we decided to treat the last two years as a wake-up call. Every contract position, every artist and staff position saw a pay increase this season over the season that was canceled. Our intern program, which has been unpaid since its inception, now includes a stipend. We decided to use the resources we were granted during the pandemic to take those steps forward.

I honestly believe that everything flows from the art at an organization like ours. If you’re not committed to creating the best art, you’re not going to see individual donors give the most to your organization. It feels like a risk if you’re not used to thinking about it as investing in the betterment of the organization.

Chandra Stephens-Albright: Jamil Jude is a visionary. His first season (as Artistic Director at True Colors, a position he stepped into at the start of the 2019-2020 season) was all about Black women on the True Colors stage. There are so few Black-produced plays in Atlanta, and if you look at those plays, so few are by women. He said, “I’m going to program a whole first season by Black women.” He decided to double down on that as opposed to running away from it — commissioning plays, not only to create but to develop and nurture work so it could be produced.

Credit: Courtesy of Rachel May

Credit: Courtesy of Rachel May

ArtsATL: 2021 saw the Great Resignation, when millions of people stepped away from jobs due to underpayment and extreme burnout. Did your organization experience that? And how have you responded?

Freddie Ashley: One of the things that our team has been reckoning with is how to become more equitable, more just and also more humane. We’re looking at things like adjusting rehearsal schedules so they’re not as demanding, tech rehearsals so they’re not as time-consuming. I think for years, those of us in the theater have labored under the sort of cliché that if you love what you do, it’s not work. But in fact, it’s very hard work. And it demands a lot of a person. I’m not surprised there’s been a mass exodus. People are taking care of themselves. What we can try to rededicate ourselves to is that we are a human-driven field, and we have to make sure that the experience of making the art isn’t taxing. Those have been some really delicate and even at times intense bouts of self-reflection about why we do what we do.

Rachel May: We’ve added some benefits for our staff and have been working on increasing pay, and next year’s budget reflects that. We’ve been doubling down on that commitment. We are also really interested in bringing new people in, particularly (those) in the technical space. So, we’ve been bringing on some new stage managers and connecting them with mentors. We’ve been looking at who already exists in our sphere and how do we provide more work for them? How can we beef up the opportunities that exist?

Alex Scollon: I think that, unfortunately, many artists have left the field, and that is going to be painful. As hard as it was to be an organization over the last two years, it was even harder to be an artist. There were almost no paying opportunities. There was almost no work. Most of our production teams have moved to work in TV and film. Once you get paid pretty well, it’s hard to give up those gigs even when your passion is in the other space. We also lost quite a few artists who never had the chance to start their careers — anyone who graduated in the last two years has had no opportunity to start developing their skills.

Lisa Adler: The Great Resignation got people thinking about their quality of life and what they’re willing to sacrifice and what they’re not. I would say from a technical theater side, (the workforce) is severely reduced. I know some actors are excited about going back into the theater, but they’re realistic about their film and TV opportunities, too. Some people told me they’re just going to take a break from theater.

Jake Guinn: The industry forces you into the idea of “live to work.” But how can you be an artist if you’re only being an artist? Shouldn’t we be people first if we’re trying to show the human condition? The industry encourages you to put your nose to the grindstone and hustle until you’re dust. And you know what? Dust don’t make art.

ArtsATL: How has the theater community played a role in supporting one another during the last two years?

Chandra Stephens-Albright: We are just so fortunate to live in a city that has such a collaborative and supportive arts economy. Every other Friday, (arts leaders) get together on a phone call and we talk about stuff that is important to us and share resources and ideas. It’s this sense of we’re all in this together. That makes it so much easier.

ArtsATL: Is this an existential moment for theater? Why is live theater essential as the pandemic continues?

Amanda Washington: Many people have questions that they never ask out loud, but they wonder, “What’s the answer to this? What’s the perspective on this?” And theater allows people to delve into those questions they may never ask out loud.

Freddie Ashley: At the end of the day, nothing can imitate the live shared experience of theater. There is something primal and instinctive about our need as human beings to gather and share experiences. That has been in existence in every civilization since humankind went on record. It is as innate as breathing.

Alexis Hauk has written and edited for numerous newspapers, alt-weeklies, trade publications and national magazines including Time, the Atlantic, Mental Floss, Uproxx and Washingtonian magazine. Having grown up in Decatur, Alexis returned to Atlanta in 2018 after a decade living in Boston, Washington, D.C., New York City and Los Angeles. By day, she works in health communications. By night, she enjoys covering the arts and being Batman.

Credit: ArtsATL

Credit: ArtsATL


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