They may not be sick, but they’re struggling.
Theatermakers are gig workers, and with the declaration of a national emergency, and the state requiring staying at home and shuttering arts organizations, they’re definitely hurting.
Most get paid by the show they’re in. Some have hourly gigs. Some are full- or part-time employees. Right now, almost all are out of work. In many cases, their insurance, if they have it, depends on their employment. They may not have a safety net. Many have jobs that will carry them through these difficult times. Others are already dipping into their rainy-day funds. Some rely on the generosity of parents. Some have a spouse with a full-time job, even if it’s in an arts or theater organization. Some have children to keep occupied at home, which we now hear is likely to be through the end of the school year.
I spoke to an array of theater people, married and single, employed and not.
Several common themes came to light.
No matter what their current financial and employment status, they were universally grateful for what they had. Every one of them considered themselves lucky, and far more fortunate than others. Not only were they trying hard to remain upbeat, but they were trying to get creative in maintaining some semblance of work, and bringing their friends and colleagues along with them. Anything to keep the artistic energy flowing. They all embodied, in one way or another the old saw that ‘The show must go on.’
The Heil family won the prize for number of theater people affected in one household.
Kim Heil is associate producer and casting director at San Diego Repertory Theatre, whose gorgeous production of “House of Joy” closed right after opening night and will not be reinstated.
Jason Heil is an adjunct professor at Cal State San Marcos and Grossmont College. Both suspended classes for at least four weeks. He was in the midst of directing a production of “Pride and Prejudice” at San Marcos, which was scheduled to open in April
Their two children, 9th grader Katrina and 6th grader Tristan, were also shut out of their shows. She was in her high school production of “Godspell” and he was in “Matilda” at San Diego Junior Theatre. Now, they’re all at home.
“We’re really lucky,” says Kim. “Both of us are salaried. I’m full-time, and as an adjunct, Jason is paid through the end of the semester. Our situation, as theater people, compared to a 9-5 worker, looks unstable. But fortunately, we’ve both had consistent employment for years.
“We’re not flush with cash,” Kim continues, “or stable enough to plan a vacation in six months. But we’re so much more stable than others in the industry. We’re fortunate to work for institutions that take care of their employees. The fact that the ‘House of Joy’ cast and crew was paid for the entire run of the show [partly in the hopes of making a video of the production] shows that the Rep makes it a priority to protect those who are really vulnerable. Now the leadership and the board have to discuss what’s next.”
Other companies have thought about videotaping their performances. KPBS even offered to provide in-studio taping of productions. But there are rights issues, and videotaping or airing would run afoul of the actors’ union, Actors Equity Association, and would step on the toes of SAG-AFTRA, the Screen Actors Guild/American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which represents film and television actors. If there is an in-house video, apparently, it can only be shown to patrons who have already bought tickets to a canceled production.
“I have to credit The Old Globe,” says Kim, of the company where she served as education programs manager for nine years. “They introduced employees to financial planners who made a presentation about their services. After I engaged one of them, I got information on a college savings plan, life insurance, creating a trust, retirement planning, long-term-care, how to buy a house on a pretty meager salary. I’m really, really worried about artists who aren’t as well educated about financial planning. There’s definitely a deficit of information with people in the creative industry. Because of the unstable nature of the industry, they should be putting something away. I’m grateful that we were able to do some planning, which makes us feel a little more secure now. I think this public emergency will shine a light on how inequities are crippling American families from leading their best lives.”
“Some of the teaching artists I hired when I was the education director at Junior Theatre,” Kim continues, “were living by the skin of their teeth. Some didn’t have cars. Some were lucky to have spouses not in theater.”
Actor/writer/teacher Lance Arthur Smith also has two kids, but he and his wife, Colleen Collar Smith, are lucky to have regular jobs. Colleen is the managing director at Moonlight Stage Productions, which means she works year-round for the City of Vista. He is writer in residence at the Army-Navy Academy, a military boys’ boarding school in Carlsbad. He’ll be teaching his writing classes online now, using Google Classroom.
Lance was about to open in a lead role in “La Cage aux Folles” at Cygnet Theatre, which has been postponed. For that production, he also served as the Actors Equity deputy, meaning that he’s the liaison to the L.A.-based Actors Equity regional business rep. He’s been awaiting a verdict from Equity on what would be paid to actors in the case of production postponement or cancellation.
Now, he says, “we’re being told to seek financial assistance from the Actors Fund at Actors Equity. Or, SAG-AFTRA actors can seek emergency assistance from the SAG-AFTRA Foundation fund. Equity is continuing to have meetings to discuss the situation.”
Lance, who claims he’s worked for nearly every theater in San Diego (those with Equity contracts, anyway), was also directing the fight choreography for a production of “West Side Story” at Mt. Carmel High School. Colleen was choreographing Jason Heil’s production of “Pride and Prejudice” at Cal State San Marcos.
In the meantime, absent the income he was counting on from the Cygnet production, Lance is trying to “fill in” as best he can. He’s doing voiceover work, either recording in his own home or in a studio (most recently, in Laguna Beach, for a videogame in which he played a hyena). He’s working on a remote staged reading, to be presented via video teleconference.
“I’m blessed,” says Lance. “I’m always busy. I always have a lot of pans in the fire. If I keep picking up enough remote gigs, we should be all right for a while. So many smaller theaters here depend on the revenue. I worry about them. Many of them are refunding ticket prices, but they’re asking, if you can afford it, that you consider donating that money to the theater. I’m seeing a lot of that, which gives me hope. I’d like to believe that the strength of our community won’t let anyone — individual or small theater company — fail. We’ll take care of each other. There’s a lot of reaching out now, digitally and remotely.”
One person who’s reaching out is William BJ Robinson, who was performing in “Alice” at Lamb’s Players Theatre, until it got postponed (new tentative dates: May 13-June 7). He is also on hiatus from teaching at San Diego Junior Theatre, where he was musical director of “Matilda,” the same production Tristan Heil was scheduled to perform in. BJ has a private voice studio in his home, and he may transition to online teaching. He hosts a weekend TV program, “KPBS Arts,” that features stories about artists across the country, and “occasionally local artists.” Most of his gigs are hourly.
“I feel we’re any moment from total lockdown,” BJ says. “I’ve been sitting and wracking my brain; what are we supposed to do now? I wish we could go full-on ‘Babes in Arms’ and put on a show. We do this all the time, with selfies and videos. Let’s channel that and stand up for the whole community.”
So, BJ is putting together a “Virtual Cabaret,” where, he says, “artists can create their own content and share their work. They can attach GoFundMe or Venmo to get some income from their performance. Some companies are planning livestreamed benefit concerts. I’ll be adding some of those links. This will help keep us all going. We all have time. And whether we’re singers, dancers, set or sound designers, we all love what we do. If we can make a little money doing it, it’ll keep us happy, sane and motivated.
“I’m trying to find out what permits are allowed for performances and what content can be shared on different platforms,”,BJ continues. “Everyone’s scrambling. It’s all so awkward and unknown. It’s kind of like what the world went through after 9/11 and with Y2K. But people are already dying; this is a different kind of panic and unknown. It’s already changing the whole world.”
BJ’s Facebook page, San Diego Virtual Cabaret, bills itself as a place where “actors, dancers, instrumentalists, impersonators and singers share their own content (performing a song or an excerpt, reading a monologue, or performing a routine) that will be organized and systematically released via social media over the next few weeks, as a way to support local artists in getting some recognition, as well as providing art for the greater San Diego community.”
Artists who wish to be a part of this venture can go to another Facebook page, San Diego Virtual Cabaret Series, to sign up. In his first 24 hours, nearly 300 people became members. Membership is now over 400.
“I try to be a cockeyed optimist,” says BJ. “It’s harder than ever right now, and it’s only going to get harder. But we have to find ways to prevail, or, as my choir director once said, ‘to triumph over circumstances.’ My work as an artist through 2019 was very good for me, and allowed me to catch up, paying my rent through this spring. I have a little cushion, not a big one. I know people are worse off. I have a partner (an engineer), a house and a puppy. We’re not in dire circumstances yet; we’re hangin’ in.”
Someone else who’s just “hangin’ in” is Randall Eames, a choreographer and teaching arts who has no regular day job; he only does contract work.
He was working on two youth productions — directing and choreographing “Big Fish” at Center Stage Productions in Escondido; and choreographing “Godspell” at Valhalla High School, the show Katrina Heil was in, which had been in rehearsal since January. He received partial payment for those. He had supplemented those gigs with singing telegrams (no longer a viable option) and his small private coaching studio. He’s now exploring scheduling virtual interactions: “holding rehearsals” and scene study.
“A lot of the industry is virtual already,” Randall says, “with audition videos and websites. A lot of resources for online studios and rehearsals are currently being offered. I’m going to investigate that further.”
Financially, he’s holding his own for the moment.
“I consider myself one of the lucky ones,” says Randall. “I was fortunate to have a lot of contracts December, January and February. I have a little wiggle room, but it can’t be stretched for too long. I could probably get through April if I had to. Anything beyond that, not working would be pretty tough. Some of my friends are not so lucky. I have health insurance through Covered California; I pay for my own, with a little state and federal subsidy. And, I unknowingly bought toilet paper before the world went crazy!”
He feels “fortunate to have the keys to the rehearsal studio for ‘Big Fish,’ so I can let myself in and dance, to keep in shape and prepare for upcoming projects, which hopefully, won’t be canceled. I’m also taking this time to create new art. I’m excited to see how we all start creating from our own apartments. I joined BJ’s group, which I think of as emotional therapy. I just hope our community continues to support each outer. We’re all unemployed and trying to take care of each other. It’s a very loving community.”
Lettie De Anda is another teaching artist with many irons in the fire. She has worked at about ten different local theaters, including The Old Globe, La Jolla Playhouse, Diversionary and Junior Theatre. For two quarters a year, she’s a teacher at a private school (Warren Walker Middle School) and sometimes for Rock Creek, an enrichment center for homeschool families. She has also participated in the medical teaching programs for Standardized Patients at UCSD and USD. She has a temporary part-time job in the box office of Moonlight Stage Productions in Vista.
“Of all my jobs,” says Lettie, “that’s the one that might come back. And the one where I have the least contact with the public.”
Her husband is a musician who performs as a solo guitarist around town and has a teaching studio in their home. They’ve both had a lot of cancellations.
“We try to keep busy with passion projects,” Lettie says. “My husband is working on a music instruction book, and I’ll probably help, doing a little photography. We have health insurance through Obamacare, but with a really high deductible. Hopefully it won’t go terribly wrong. This crisis is highlighting problems in our society for those without safety nets: affordable housing, healthcare, student loans. Now everyone, from the bottom up, is having problems.
“We have a little bit of savings” says Lettie. “But what happens if we have to live like this for many months? For a month, I think we can survive. I’m sure our landlady and bank will work with us. I’m not in panic mode; not counting pennies yet. We’re creative people; we have to get creative with our income, too. There are not a lot of guarantees — for anybody! But I’d still rather be doing something I love.”
A few months ago, Lettie launched a page on Patrion, a membership platform that allows creators and artists to earn a monthly income by providing exclusive rewards and perks to their subscribers, or “patrons.”
“In theater, we’re used to shared experiences. Hopefully, my husband and I can work together and maybe make a little money. My fear is that, if there’s a ripple effect, how much are people going to want to part with their money? I hope people will consider donating the money from their canceled tickets to the theater company. The small theaters really are hurting.”
One of those small theaters is the 36 year-old OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista. James P. Darvas, who recently took over as artistic director, is a little nervous. And this week, after losing his 10-year food-server job at the now-shuttered (except for takeout) Old Town Mexican Café, he just filed for unemployment insurance for the first time in his life.
Personally, he says, “I’m above water, and very, very lucky to have a generous mother. But this is the most unsettling time of my life. I’m frightened. And I’m diabetic; I need two medications a day. Fortunately, I have friends in Mexico who can get those for me, since my medical insurance was through the restaurant.”
The website of his 60-seat theater says, “We are somewhat concerned that we will survive this stop-down. Every day without a play is a day without a dollar. Yet the rent marches on.”
“We’re re-structuring the whole season,” James reports, with the twice-postponed “Real Women Have Curves” (supposed to open this weekend), now scheduled to open on May 15 for a 4-week run. His obsession right now is “remaining a presence to a donor base.”
The theater’s annual budget $160,000, and ticket sales only account for 40% of income. The company relies on donors, and James is sending each one of them a personal, hand-written letter.
His creative, keep-us-in-mind endeavor includes what he calls “an ‘Inside the Actors Studio’ type online show, interviewing high-profile locals like actor/writer Herbert Siguenza and artistic director Sean Murray, a kind of mentor to me. I want to make sure that OnStage Playhouse still pops up in people’s streams.”
The new project, called “Q2Q @ OSP,” will be hosted by actor/writer Salomon Maya.
“Let’s get to know one another during these challenging times,” James explains. “We’ll laugh, we’ll learn, we’ll ponder life, and we’ll get through this together!
“My heart and soul lives at OnStage Playhouse, and I’ll do anything to remain open. I’m just trying to stay above water. The San Diego Foundation and SDG&E set up funds for non-profits to help with rent and utilities. Five performances were already sold out for the reprise of “Always… Patsy Cline,” but that’s money that’s already been spent.”
When James took over, he made sure that every artist working at the theater gets a stipend.
“The main thing I preach here is production value. If we don’t have the funds to support a quality production, then we shouldn’t do it. Now, I have to make sure that, when the government says it’s time to re-open, we’re ready. Our only choice is to focus on the future.
“I’ll be fine,” James concludes. “I just have to figure out how to remain grateful, enthusiastic and thankful.”
Another theater artist worried about her troupe (New Match Collective) as well as her personal financial situation, is Jasmin Haddad.
New Match has had to cancel its monthly “Boozin’ with the Bard” “drunk Shakespeare” shows and, she says, “it is still very unclear when we’ll be able to resume programming for any production. That’s the most frightening part of this pandemic, from a business and a personal perspective.
“My own personal finances have been drastically affected,” says Jasmin, who makes her living as a teaching artist at four different theater companies: San Diego Junior Theatre, Christian Youth Theatre, Intrepid Theatre Company, The Old Globe.
“This epidemic has wiped out all of that. Every single class and project I’ve had has been cancelled, with no end in sight. Since there is no paid leave for part-time employees, there really is no safety net for myself and others. Several artists I know have taken to Facebook looking for any form of work — daycare, child care, dog-sitting. We all know that’s not really safe. But we also know that bills do not cease to exist because work has ceased to exist.”
Watching all this hardship around her, Jasmin decided to launch a GoFundMe crowd-funding site “as a way for any artists in the same position as me to be able to have something, anything, that would help them pay a bill or two. The site allows local theater artists to request portions of the contributions to pay for everyday life expenses. All I’m asking from the artists is that they tell me a little bit about where they work and how they’ve been affected, and to give a Venmo or PayPal account where they would like the money to be sent. Not too many questions. We want to help as many people as possible.
“I believe we need to address issues as a community,” Jasmin continues, “and this was a small way to do that. Everyone seems scared to me. Maybe it’s because I’m scared that I’m picking that up. But a lot of these artists don’t know when their next check is gonna come in and don’t know what to do. I set the [fundraising] goal high, at $10,000, so that participants would be able to get something substantive out of it.”
Goldstar.com, where many theatergoers buy discount tickets, is offering a way to contribute to the arts organizations they patronize and love. The current list is small, but hopefully, growing and includes New Village Arts, OB Playhouse, CYT and the San Diego Shakespeare Society.
As an apt summary of the situation, BJ Robinson says: “We have to plan for the worst and hope for the best. As artists, we’ll figure out something to keep ourselves going, to keep producing art. We’ve gotta keep breathing, keep singing and keep innovating.”
Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.