It's the kind of move that leaves even the most ardent lovers of drama unsettled.
Theater, which, like concerts, sports and churches, relies on people gathering in numbers to take in an experience, has been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic. Shows have been canceled, seasons retooled and companies, which operate close to the bone in normal times, have been left reeling in the face of an existential threat that could diminish a cornerstone arts and culture amenity in the Twin Cities.
"Theater with a capital 'T' has been around for 2,500 years — it has survived far worse things than even this terrible moment we're in," Guthrie Theater artistic director Joseph Haj said in an interview last month. "But when it comes to small-T theater, to each of our individual organizations, it's challenging and precarious."
At a board meeting 10 days ago, Guthrie trustees voted to slash its budget by 60% — from $31 million to $12.6 million — and pare what had been its most ambitious season in recent memory to three plays, which won't start until next March.
As Minnesota's flagship company, the Guthrie has been applauded for its boldness. The forward-looking decision offers some clarity at a time of heightened uncertainty. Theaters have been pushing back their shows and seasons in a cautious, piecemeal process, trying to divine when it will be safe for actors to get onstage again and for audiences to come back.
"None of us theater leaders were hired to lead our organizations through a pandemic, but here we are," Haj said. "There's no guidebook, no best practices, nothing to benchmark against."
The Ordway recently announced a season that will start in December, with "Disney's Beauty and the Beast" as its big holiday offering. The Children's Theatre has postponed big shows such as "Annie." Productions that were onstage at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, the Jungle and Theater Latté Da are frozen in place, with sets hauntingly lit by ghost lights.
Gov. Tim Walz, in his Wednesday announcement rolling back stay-at-home restrictions, said he would consider allowing theaters to open in June but has made no definitive decision.
In the meantime, companies are flying blind.
"The great challenge in trying to predict the future is you can't just throw a switch and get something on stage," Haj said. "These things are on long timelines, with enormous upfront costs. You hire folks in the R&D phase, then go through a pipeline before what is for us the equivalent of bringing something to market."
The nonprofit theater sector relies on the generosity of donors — corporate, individual and government — for half or more of its funding. But box office revenue is key to that formula. "A Christmas Carol" at the Guthrie, for example, has consistently been a top earner for the theater during its 45-year uninterrupted run before being canceled this year.
Unlike professional sports, which gets enough broadcast revenue that they are considering playing games with only a few spectators in attendance, theater does not have supplemental income streams.
Still, leaders press on, hopeful.
"We're going to need theater more than ever when this is over," said Children's Theatre managing director Kimberly Motes. "People will be hungry to assemble, to come together again."
Midsize theaters most at risk
Theaters can look to other fields to see what their near-term future may be like. The St. Paul Saints recently announced their conditions for play during the pandemic, and it includes drastic changes. There will be temperature checks and one-way aisles for patrons to follow. And, importantly, capacity will be reduced by about 75% to ensure social distancing.
Is theater even fiscally viable with such a drastic reduction in audience?
Avid theatergoer Robyn Hansen, a retired attorney in St. Paul, hopes to go to Park Square's mystery production this summer.
"I'm older but I'm healthy, so I might be inclined to go back sooner," said Hansen, 70. On the other hand, "I have a 7-month-old granddaughter and a 98-year-old father. It's a multivariable equation."
The biggest playhouses — the Guthrie, CTC, Ordway — will be challenged, but might be able to weather the crisis. They are relatively well-resourced, with endowments and strong boards. Smaller, itinerant companies like Ten Thousand Things, Frank and Pangea World Theater also might survive because they are more nimble.
It's those in the middle that could be most at risk, according to experts such as Michael Kaiser, former head of the Kennedy Center and author of the book "Curtains?" They have buildings and substantial financial obligations, and struggle with the wherewithal to survive.
That's particularly worrying in the Twin Cities, where the swath of midsize companies includes such noted organizations as the Illusion, Jungle, Latté Da, Penumbra, Park Square, Pillsbury House Theatre and Mixed Blood Theatre.
"I will just say that we at Mixed Blood are too stubborn to go away, so we'll be here," said the theater's founder, Jack Reuler.
"There's a lot we're all going to have to adapt to, and adapt to quickly," said Penumbra artistic director Sarah Bellamy. "We believe that theater will still play a very important role in people's lives, and we're going to adapt to the times while ensuring people's safety."
Concert halls, too
The Minnesota Orchestra is weighing how seating in Orchestra Hall might look, said CEO Michelle Miller Burns. Concerts are scheduled to resume in August, and a full season would begin Sept. 24.
Not being able to fill the hall would impact revenue by varying degrees, depending on the severity of audience restrictions and the timing of when concerts can resume.
"We're just going to keep moving forward, a step at a time, understanding what looks feasible, what looks safe," Burns said.
The orchestra is itself a large group of people, sitting close.
"It's hard to imagine that right out of the gate we'd have a full orchestra sitting shoulder to shoulder," Burns said. "What might that look like? Does it look like a smaller ensemble initially? Do we take a look at the instrumentation … understanding that, for example, string players could wear masks, whereas wind players could not?"
The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra just announced a season that will begin Sept. 11 but includes fewer concerts than usual and no guest performers. The company also projects a sizable drop in revenue.
"We are anticipating social distancing," said SPCO president Jon Limbacher. "We will be developing contingency plans for all of our venues."
Although its form might change, theater will survive, leaders said.
"Through plague and war, the advent of film and internet — theater has been pronounced dead many times," said Children's Theatre artistic director Peter Brosius. "But the need for stories to be told and all voices to be heard will not go away."
"The greatest gift we as theaters can give, both locally and to the field, is to be around next year," Reuler said.
He, like other leaders, hopes that people still will want to come to theater for the things it offers — a way of understanding and reflecting on our collective struggles and triumphs, or, perhaps, escaping from them.
"Our art form is great at helping us remember," Haj said, "and also is good at helping us to forget."
Staff writer Jenna Ross contributed to this report.