Curtain down

Houston's theater scene suffers closings and layoffs due to coronavirus

Houston's theater scene suffers closings, layoffs due to coronavirus

Alley Theatre presents 1984
The Alley Theatre, which has produced 1984 (pictured here), has closed and announced massive layoffs.  Photo by Lynn Lane

The bad news came, at first, in a trickle.

On March 17, Stages announced it was postponing and rescheduling much of its 2019-2020 season due to coronavirus concerns. Honky Tonk Laundry is rescheduled for May 20 through July 26. Sensitive Guys is now slated for June 12 through 21, Hook's Tale for July 10 through August 2, and MacGyver the Musical will close out the season from August 7 to September 20. The rest of the season, including Circle Mirror Transformation, Airness, and Pieces of the Moon were cancelled.

That same day, Broadway Across America at the Hobby Center announced the postponement of the tour of the new production of Fiddler on the Roof, originally slated to run March 24 through 29, because the Hobby Center itself is closed through April 2.

Then came the bombshell: the Alley Theatre announced March 20 that it was temporarily laying off 75 percent of its staff and asking the remainder who make more than $50,000 per year to take a pay cut, in addition to cancelling the rest of its 2019-2020 season.

It seemed the news for Houston arts was about as bad as it could get. But, like the plot in some dystopian play, it was only the beginning.

Theatre Under the Stars shelved the remainder of its season as well, including the highly anticipated new musical, Pure Country, set to open next month. The cancellations affect all shows through July. (At this time, summer camps for both the Humphreys School and The River will go on as planned.) “It is with heavy hearts that we make this decision,” said  Dan Knechtges, TUTS artistic director. “However, the health of our guests, artists, crew, and staff must be our top priority at this time. The curtain will rise again!”

But it's not only the medium-and larger-sized companies that are affected. The Rec Room's company manager, Tasha Gorel, said in an email, "Unfortunately, all shows for the season are postponed at this time." 4th Wall Theatre Company is suspending all performances, including the already well-acclaimed Between Riverside and Crazy and the upcoming Pavilion, for the next eight weeks, until May 11. Main Street Theater cancelled its productions "for the foreseeable future." The MATCH box office is closed.

The losses of shows are not just about entertainment for Houstonians. According to figures from  TUTS, the cancellations represent a loss of $1.975 million in revenue, and an additional $2.6 million in lost philanthropic support. That's a total loss of $4.6 million.

Stages projected a ticket-revenue loss of more than $650,000. And the Alley, simultaneously with the announcement of temporary layoffs, pay cuts, and the cancelled season, launched a $6.5 million Emergency Campaign to help recoup revenue.

"The best way for patrons and supporters to help us during this crisis is to consider donating to the Alley Emergency Campaign,” said managing director Dean Gladden. “Canceling the remainder of our season is a huge financial burden. We need the support of Houston more than ever before to continue producing incredible shows while supporting our artists and staff.”

While the Covid-19 pandemic has been disastrous for so much of life in the Bayou City, and indeed, around the country, the city's arts organizations pledge that the show will go on.

"This is a powerful moment with the people of our world facing so much that is unknown," said Kenn McLaughlin, Stages artistic director. "As theater artists, the very essence of our art form — the gathering of a community — is not possible for now. In the midst of so much uncertainty, there is one thing that I know is true - we can make it through this challenge. And we will be stronger for the effort. I have been part of Houston's resilience from 9/11, through Allison and Ike, from the financial crisis of 2008 through Harvey, and we have stood tall every time. We have emerged more unified, more compassionate and closer as a community. I know we will do so again and I look forward to great productions in our future together."

That sentiment was echoed by the Alley’s artistic director, Rob Melrose. “These are extremely trying times, but we will get through them with a focus on a brighter future,” said Melrose via press release. “We look forward to the day when our staff is back with us and our lobbies full of bustling audiences beginning in September, then on to the spirit of togetherness during A Christmas Carol, the applause for productions featuring our Resident Acting Company, and all guest artists and designers, and — most importantly — having you back with us once again.”

And TUTS offered its own glimmer of hope: the beloved Tommy Tune Awards, which celebrate the accomplishments of high school musical theater, will still take place — online. The winners will be announced via a specially created video on the Tommy Tune Awards Facebook page and the TUTS YouTube channel on April 28 at 7:30 pm.