Non-profit theatres across the country are in trouble, with many still struggling to recover from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In just the past few months, major cuts were revealed at Chicago's Steppenwolf and Lookingglass, Off-Broadway's The Public Theater and Brooklyn Academy of Music, and Los Angeles' Center Theatre Group.
But work is also underway to help ensure that our beloved theatres can be saved. A new piece of legislation—the STAGE (Supporting Theater and Generating Economic Activity) Act, revealed in September at a Washington D.C. event with Lin-Manuel Miranda and Phylicia Rashad on hand to voice their support—is looking to end this troubling trend and provide recovery for these and other theatrical institutions nationwide. The STAGE Act follows the Save Our Stages Act, which provided $16 billion to live performing arts venues when they were shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The newest effort is the work of the Professional Non-Profit Theatre Coalition, which comprises artistic, managing, and executive directors from more than 140 theatres across the country, founded by former Oregon Shakespeare Festival leader Nataki Garrett. The coalition worked with strategists from Arnold & Porter to develop the legislation, along with a plan to get it introduced and passed into law.
The Coalition's work with the firm began earlier in the pandemic when theatres were having trouble getting access to the COVID Relief packages that had become a lifeline for so many other industries. Through their work together, we got the SOS Act, which been credited with saving the industry—but only for that moment in time. The STAGE Act will be a critical next step to saving our non-profit theatres and making sure they have the wherewithal to flourish in the years to come.
We recently talked with Jessica Monahan, a policy advisor at Arnold and Porter who has been at the frontlines for the STAGE Act. We wanted to find out what this legislation actually does, where it stands today, and how theatre fans can help move it forward. Our chat has been edited for clarity.
What does the STAGE Act do?
Jessica Monahan: The legislation proposes providing $2.5 billion [in federal funding] over a five year period of time. It's not just a one-time infusion of cash into the industry for recovery effort. It's a long-term investment in the industry that I think is very important and long overdue.
The administration has deemed that the national emergency declaration related to the COVID-19 pandemic is over, and the pandemic is over—but that's not the experience of theatres these days. They still have to shut down productions for COVID cases. They're still very much in it. And while Shuttered Venues kept them alive for a period of time, the industry at large is still experiencing a lagging recovery. And not just that, but also enduring the reality that how we consume entertainment has changed. We have been very comfortable streaming entertainment at home, we've become more selective about the types of events we attend in person, especially large events. Audiences have just changed, so it's going to take a little bit more time for the theatre industry to recover.
But it's not just recovery. It's really about adaptation. We had a conversation with the coalition, and really determined that the writing was on the wall. Two to three theatres are closing monthly because the federal support from the pandemic relief ended, but the recovery hadn't completed. You hit this fiscal cliff, and what do you do? There's a strong commitment from the industry to continue to provide value to the performing arts community, but larger than that, to our culture, to our society—and to the local and, honestly, national economy. The need was at this moment in time, not necessarily being focused on recovery, but about survival and sustaining non-profit theatre in this country. Ultimately, we arrived at a proposal that would provide assistance with operating costs, to allow them to continue to operate with greater assistance from the federal government.
We took the input and discovered in our conversations with the coalition that there was not a one-size-fits-all solution. We discovered that the needs of one theatre weren't necessarily identical to another. Some might be needing to pay their electric bills, and others need the money to make payroll, and others might see it better suited for repairs to their facility so that they can continue to attract audiences and adapt for the future.
How does the federal funding for the theatre industry compare to other industries also impacted by the pandemic?
It differs depending on the industry that you're referring to. One thing that was startling to me when I began this work—and I say this as someone who grew up in the theatre. I was a theatre nerd. I took classes at the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis, which informed my love and passion for this work. But by and large, the federal government has woefully underfunded, non-profit theatre. If you look at the NEA, their annual budget is around $200 million, to cover all types of art. That's the federal investment that we make on an annual basis. When you boil that down to a professional non-profit theatre and look at their budget, maybe 1 percent of their budget comes from support from the federal government. At different levels of the government, some states do a better job than others supporting theatre, but we really view non-profit theatre and performance in general as a public good that deserves to be supported by our society and the federal government. What we're trying to do is fundamentally shift the relationship between non-profit leaders and the federal government, knowing that they can really benefit from one another and serve one another in a more productive way. The STAGE Act would be a monumental shift in that regard.
What is the current status of the STAGE Act?
We are actively engaged with few congressional allies who are in a position to likely introduce the bill in the near future. But as you may or may not know, it's not always a simple process. Staff has to do their due diligence. The bill has been drafted, but right now it’s open for collaboration with our potential lead sponsors. We're working through the refinement process with them, and hope to have it introduced in the next month or so.
How much do you anticipate its chances of passing is dependent on outcome of the next presidential election?
It’s really important to live in a state of reality when it comes to legislation and the policy environment and politics at large. We determined that what was best for the industry was to propose a bill that addressed the needs of the industry rather than trying to thread the needle of the political moment, meaning the conflict that is contagious on Capitol Hill between Democrats and Republicans. I don't want to claim that if the election went a certain way, this bill would pass immediately. I think there's still a lot more work to be done. But I also don't want to pretend like we can't, as a nation, rise to the occasion, regardless of the politics of the moment and do what ultimately is right. We want to effectively work against the tides of the political moment in order to affect change for the industry. Theatre is not partisan.
Can you tell us a little bit about how this impacts not just theatres but the economies in which they operate?
Theatres have a profound economic impact on the communities in which they reside. Look at the moment we are in right now as a country, where so many of our urban centers are just a shell of their former selves. A lot of people left downtown areas, businesses left downtown areas, people are still working remotely in a way that we had never before the pandemic. And a lot of large cities in this country are suffering as a result. It's completely transformed them, and they're in need of economic revitalization. Theatres can play a large part in that. Not only are they significant employers, they have a huge impact on their local economies and the US GDP.
The arts that we produce in this country is one of the country's greatest exports around the world. Shows like Hamilton, we love to talk about how it started in a small regional theatre and continued to be incubated at The Public in New York, and then ultimately became this huge international success and commercial success, and took actors who had been widely known, to major commercial success. So it plays a role in that, but also at the local level.
When you go to your local theatre for a show, not only are you buying that ticket which supports the theatre and employs people directly affiliated with the theatre, but you're probably going to a bar or restaurant nearby for dinner or drinks. You may be stopping by a local retail shop. You're spending time around that theatre. And not every professional non-profit theatre is located in an urban city. Many are in suburban areas, extra urban areas, and even in rural areas. But regardless of wherever they're located, they have an impact.
If these theatres close, it is felt by the businesses around them, the hotels, the restaurants, the bars, the people. It only adds to an issue that we're still trying to solve for as a country. Do we allow our cities in this country to fail, or do we help become a part of the Renaissance? And I think that theatre has a real opportunity to be a part of that effort.
What can we do as theatre fans to help?
Well, if you're a theatre fan, the first thing you should do is go to the theatre.
The second thing is, once we have this bill introduced, we would implore every theatre fan across the country to reach out to their member of Congress and urge them to support the bill. I wish today I could be providing you with bill numbers and lead sponsor names, and that's just not where we are at this moment. But we will be soon. And as soon as that occurs, that is what we need, momentum and voices. We need both efforts at the top level, which is certainly represented by the Professional Non-Profit Theatre Coalition, which is run by executive directors and artistic directors from professional non-profit theatres across the country; to the grassroots level, your average theatregoer who appreciates the art. Maybe someone like me, who likes to go to a few shows a year and would hate if they tried to go see a show at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. and found that it didn’t exist anymore—because we could have done something. I think it's much easier for us to sustain this industry from where it is now than to let it fail and try to rebuild it.