There is a moment in the Guthrie Theater's 2020 adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" that seems prescient. "There is infection in disease and sorrow," says an actor, but "there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humor." The line is delivered in a theater without an audience. Neither an infectious laugh nor a contagious virus has anywhere to go.
The Guthrie, whose holiday production is available through the end of the year for purchase online (and free to schools) under the title "Dickens' Holiday Classic," is likely to benefit from the COVID-19 relief package that Congress passed last week.
The $15 billion allocated for music clubs, movie theaters and performance venues as part of the relief package won't go far enough. But it will be welcome in an industry that, its supporters point out, was the first to close and will be among the last to reopen.
"It's a start, right?" said Wendy Porter of the Live Events Coalition Minnesota. "There are 10 million people [in the live-events industry] that are 100% unemployed right now."
Outgoing President Donald Trump, appearing in his customary role as the Ghost of Christmas All About Himself, threw the relief package into late-stage chaos before finally signing it on Sunday. His demand for changes in a bill he might have helped shape, if he were not so consumed by his quest to remain in office, had no effect other than to slow it down.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who was instrumental in getting the venues included in the relief bill, has vowed that the program will be enforced to benefit independent venues, rather than the big businesses (she mentioned Ticketmaster) that might try to horn in. First claim on the funds will go to organizations that suffered a 90% loss in revenue for the year. Next up are those that lost 70% or more.
"The Guthrie would not fall into either tier," Managing Director James Haskins told an editorial writer. Although the theater's earned revenue — most of it ticket sales — has fallen hard, it still has some income from grants and other sources. The Guthrie expects to apply for a portion of relief funds reserved for organizations that fell outside the 90% and 70% loss categories.
In the meantime, the theater is taking the opportunity of doing some maintenance work in the absence of audiences. "We're looking forward to coming back to the live space," Haskins said.
Yet the Guthrie is finding that the digital space has its rewards, too. The splendid production of "Dickens' Holiday Classic" is doing better than expected at the virtual equivalent of a box office. Guthrie officials estimate that 125,000 students around the world will see the production, and that the number of paying households may exceed the number of households that attend "A Christmas Carol" in a normal year.
At the other end of the spectrum are the members of Porter's Live Events Coalition. Earlier this month, they staged an "empty event" at the Aria Event Center to showcase the kind of work they aren't doing. They set up tables, chairs, sound and lighting, an announcement said, "to demonstrate the powerful emptiness the Live Events Industry is experiencing due to the COVID-19 pandemic."
Porter called attention to a poignant statistic: In December 2019, members of the Minnesota International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 13 were summoned to work for 3,366 shifts on various projects. In December 2020, that number has dropped to 12.
The federal relief package is only a first step. The incoming Biden administration should seek further ways to counter the effects of a devastating pandemic and an indifferent former president. Like Dickens' Scrooge, the U.S. government has a chance to wake up changed, and behave accordingly.