arts entertainmentPerforming Arts

Sure, Abbott can raise the curtain. But who will take the stage?

A stalemate with the Actors Equity Association means many local theater companies can’t hire performers. Small companies have the most to lose.

Update, 10:20 a.m., May 26: An additional statement from the Actors’ Equity Association has been added.

It sounds like a line in a play, and yet, it’s real life, and it’s permeating the performing arts in America. Craig Lynch of Dallas’ Uptown Players calls it an increasingly “hot mess.”

The hot mess is rapidly engulfing small and large companies alike, making it difficult to stay alive, much less flourish. And now the conclusion many are being forced to accept is that 2020 may already be a goner. Maybe they can perform again in 2021, but the question growing more urgent by the day is:

How many companies will still be around next year?

For smaller houses, which by default lack the deep pockets of their counterparts, it’s a concern. And here’s why: Uptown Players, where Lynch is co-producer, WaterTower Theatre in Addison, Theatre Three in Uptown and Stage West in Fort Worth use professional actors who belong to the Actors’ Equity Association, the labor union that represents more than 51,000 professional actors and stage managers across the country.

At the moment, Actors’ Equity has declared a nationwide moratorium, meaning that, until the union sorts out the issues surrounding the health and safety of its performers, it won’t let them do what they do, which is, of course, perform.

“We’re just trying to see what the state is going to do and what the unions are going to allow,” Lynch said. “The state is not giving us any guidance, but neither are the unions.”

Ashley P. Gonzales, center, stars as Victoria in Uptown Players presentation of "Victor/Victoria" at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.
Ashley P. Gonzales, center, stars as Victoria in Uptown Players presentation of "Victor/Victoria" at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.

On Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott gave no signal whether performing arts venues would be allowed get back to their regularly scheduled programming as part of the second phase of statewide reopenings. Although Abbott’s omission shocked several theaters in Dallas, the union issue remains just as, if not more, pressing.

Lynch estimates that as many as 18 of the smaller companies in the D-FW area use Actors’ Equity actors, which means that, even if the governor said yes, you can reopen, they still can’t.

We reached out to Actors’ Equity for comment and got this response from spokesman Brandon Lorenz: “It is unclear under the current circumstances how productions can resume while protecting the health and safety of the audience, actors and stage managers. Members who are offered work should contact their regional Equity office.”

In a second statement, Lorenz offered more detail on the organization’s current focus. “If decisions about theaters reopening are not based on science, everyone in a theater is put at risk,” he wrote. In order to come up with new standards for theaters, Actors’ Equity has brought on the Obama-era head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, David Michaels, for guidance. It promises updates “in the days ahead.”

“Equity staff (is) committed to working with DFW-area theaters in this crisis and nationally Equity has advocated for stronger arts funding to help the industry recover,” wrote Lorenz.

Stage West in Fort Worth recently issued a statement announcing delays in its current season. In doing so, it cited the parade of forces darkening theater across the country: health and safety issues affecting “artists and audiences,” “severe budget hardships projected to accompany major capacity restrictions” and “the moratorium on work by the Actors’ Equity Association.”

And, it added a tagline: “The performing arts in general make up 4.5% of the nation’s GDP and provide work to hundreds of thousands of Americans.”

Another leading Fort Worth company, Circle Theatre, which also uses Actors’ Equity talent, recently removed two more plays from its current season, one of which was August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winner Fences. The count? It now adds up, executive director Tim Long wrote in an email, to “the third production we have had to suspend this year.”

So, with a stalemate in place, 2020 looks increasingly — to go with a baseball term — like a foul ball. The renowned Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis recently announced that it would not reopen until March 2021 at the earliest and even then with a truncated season. The elite Guthrie also reduced its staff by 79%.

Gigi Cervantes, center, stars as Amalia, whose memory loss and love of mariachi music, spark the plot of "American Mariachi," which received a recent online only production by Dallas Theater Center.
Gigi Cervantes, center, stars as Amalia, whose memory loss and love of mariachi music, spark the plot of "American Mariachi," which received a recent online only production by Dallas Theater Center.(Karen Almond)

Uptown Players received about $40,000 from the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, loan money that came through the feds. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra, by comparison, received $4.1 million in PPP loan money.

Even so, it is hardly a panacea.

“Eighty percent of it has to go to payroll,” Lynch said, “and, you only have eight weeks to use it.”

Lynch estimates that, yes, some of the companies in the metro area are “in grave danger” of closing.

“If we can’t produce shows at Uptown Players,” he said, “we will have to take some severe steps in January. Or we will be laying off all of our employees. We have things in the works that we hope will prevent that from happening, but if we were to have a resurgence of the virus, it’s going to be hard for any of us to survive."

To what extent is Actors’ Equity hamstringing them at the moment?

“Several ways,” Lynch said. “We’re getting no guidance from Equity on how we can proceed with even rehearsals. All they’ve said is, ‘We’re looking at our safety protocols, and we’ll let you know.' "

The quartet of (from left) Maurice Verrett Johnson, Walter Lee, Akron Watson and Calvin S. Roberts performed "On Broadway" in a preview of  WaterTower Theatre's production of "Smokey Joe's Cafe."
The quartet of (from left) Maurice Verrett Johnson, Walter Lee, Akron Watson and Calvin S. Roberts performed "On Broadway" in a preview of WaterTower Theatre's production of "Smokey Joe's Cafe."

Shane Peterman, the producing artistic director at WaterTower Theatre in Addison, said it’s not only possible, it’s probable that 2020 can’t be salvaged, at least not in any traditional way. He said it’s also true that some small companies will simply not survive the economic cratering caused by COVID-19.

Forgetting 2020 and focusing instead on 2021 is an option that many groups, “including us, are exploring,” Peterman said.

And yet, in the shadow of the apocalypse, at least one silver lining has emerged.

“The absolute future of this business,” Peterman said, “is streaming. And the future is now.”

Allison Pistorius as Laura (from left), Blake Blair as Tom, Connie Coit as Amanda and Sterling Gafford as Jim in "The Glass Menagerie" at Theatre Three in the pre-coronavirus days of 2015.
Allison Pistorius as Laura (from left), Blake Blair as Tom, Connie Coit as Amanda and Sterling Gafford as Jim in "The Glass Menagerie" at Theatre Three in the pre-coronavirus days of 2015.(Lois Leftwich)

“I am fully intending on making that a permanent option for our audience,” he said.

Peterman offered just one example of the obstacles he faces in going live right now — and how streaming offers hope — focusing on the one-man show, I Am My Own Wife.

“I have permissions from the rights holders, the author himself and from the town of Addison to safely produce this show without an audience — mind you, for video. And I have asked Actors’ Equity three times, to no avail, to give me some type of contract. They have said no unequivocally.”

He would be using his $100,000 of PPP money to pay for the show, “and it’s money I have to spend,” Peterman said. “I would love to spend it on artists in this town, but my hands are tied.”

So, recently, Peterman made a game-changing decision: He’s taking the bold step of going non-Equity in staging a video production of I Am My Own Wife.

He’s not alone. Theatre Three, which performs at the Quadrangle in Uptown, recently made the decision to stream the last show of its season, The Immigrant, which playwright Mark Harelik based on his Jewish grandfather immigrating to the rural Texas town of Hamilton.

“Think of it as a fancy Zoom play with significantly more production value,” said Theatre Three artistic director Jeffrey Schmidt.

Schmidt said he reached out “regularly” to Actors’ Equity, “but there has been no change regarding them issuing contracts. We unfortunately had to recast with non-union performers.”

“Half my career has been spent in film and broadcast, so I feel confident we’re going to offer a compelling story that honors the theater even though it won’t be live.”


Elizabeth Stanley as Francesca and Andrew Samonsky as Robert share a moment during a performance of "The Bridges of Madison County" at the Music Hall at Fair Park.
Elizabeth Stanley as Francesca and Andrew Samonsky as Robert share a moment during a performance of "The Bridges of Madison County" at the Music Hall at Fair Park. ( G.J. McCarthy - Staff Photographer )

At WaterTower, Peterman has already been forced to shutter The Bridges of Madison County and Golden Boy, due in large part, he said, to Actors’ Equity not providing contracts. Streaming, in his words, may be the only alternative.

“If you’re not providing your business model with a streaming option, there’s a big question as to whether you will survive at all,” he said.

He said he hopes the union “will work with me on that, but I can’t wait for the union to continue to run this business.” It’s critical, he said, calling the situation nothing less than “an economic depression.”

In his view, the elderly in particular may be afraid to return to live theater, and people 60 and older dominate the local audience pool.

“We’ll be back, at some point,” he said with a sigh. “But, yes, I think you’ll see some companies fold. And it’s sad.”

In This Story

Greg Abbott

Texas governor Greg Abbott took office in Jan. 20, 2015. He previously served as a state district judge, was appointed to the Texas Supreme Court in 1995 and elected attorney general in 2002.

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Michael Granberry, Arts Writer. Michael Granberry was born and grew up in Dallas. He graduated from Samuell High School in Pleasant Grove in 1970 and from Southern Methodist University in 1974. Between his junior and senior years, he interned at The Washington Post during "the Watergate summer" of 1973. He spent 19 years at the Los Angeles Times before returning to Dallas.

mgranberry@dallasnews.com @mgranberry
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