It has been more than two months since Ten Thousand Things could perform but, perhaps alone among Twin Cities theater companies, it’s still paying artists for its canceled season.
Most theaters have paid for some canceled work, but the COVID-19 pandemic has forced all of them into difficult decisions — the most catastrophic being a 79% staff reduction at the Guthrie Theater. Smaller companies are hitting pause.
In the middle, TTT may be in the best of the bad positions, because its five-person staff is small and it has no real estate to maintain since its employees work from home and rehearsal/performance spaces are rented. The company has so far absorbed the hit of canceled shows because it depends less on ticket sales than most organizations, earning only about 25% of its income from tickets, compared with the national average of 50%.
That’s why, when the cast and crew were informed on March 13 that TTT would cancel remaining performances, they also were told they’d still be paid. That included the March production of “Thunder Knocking on the Door,” along with “The Hatmaker’s Wife,” planned for April 21 to May 31.
“We had already talked, looked at the numbers and said, ‘We’ll make the commitment to these casts that we’ll pay the contract, no matter what happens, so they don’t have to worry about suddenly losing five weeks of income,’ ” said Stephanie Thompson, managing director of TTT.
It was a substantial commitment for an organization with a $750,000 annual budget, half of which goes to artists’ salaries and $80,000 of which was lost in ticket sales. The company’s board OK’d it, though, because artist support is a core value of the theater.
“We’re not about the space and we don’t have big sets and huge costumes. It’s just from the inception the model has been, ‘We’re going to tell really great stories with really amazing artists and we’re going to have the closest physical contact we can between those artists and audiences,’ ” said Thompson. “It’s a personal and intimate theater, and the level of success we feel we can attain in terms of making a connection with audiences really is dependent on the skills of the artists.”
Continuing to serve
Those artists were, not surprisingly, thrilled.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t say how helpful it is, as a working artist who works project to project, that Ten Thousand Things found a way to keep me employed for these 10 weeks,” said Kimberly Richardson, who still would be acting in “The Hatmaker’s Wife” if the pandemic had not intervened. “They fulfilled my contract and the actors who are members of Actors’ Equity can get insurance through the union.” (The tentative plan is to present “Hatmaker,” with the same cast, next January.)
“Our first questions were: How do we serve our communities and our artists? We are in a privileged position to be able to do that,” recalled Marcela Lorca, artistic director of TTT and director of “Thunder.”
An integral part of the theater’s mission is performing in prisons, senior centers and homeless shelters, all now among the most precarious places to be. Production manager Nancy Waldoch has been checking in with those facilities to determine if TTT can help, even though it obviously cannot bring in plays.
“It’s totally understandable, but the heartbreaking thing in a lot of these places is that all programing has stopped as well as visitations. We know the incarcerated have very few outlets for connections,” said Waldoch. “The facilities are doing some things but we want to help them try and do more.”
To that end, TTT is using artists in a variety of ways: creating exercises for seniors, writing letters to prisoners, helping connect costume artisans with places that need masks, creating curricula for shelters and prisons, taping video messages, notating meditation exercises, brainstorming a podcast, and even pondering the creation of socially distant live theater, should that become a necessity.
Meanwhile, administrators find themselves with time to look to the future. Lorca has created what she calls the Spring Team. It’s the folks involved in “Hatmaker,” including actors Richardson, JuCoby Johnson, Meghan Kreidler, Kurt Kwan, Jim Lichtscheidl, Nathan Keepers, music director Peter Vitale and dramaturg Jo Holcomb. They have convened via Zoom and worked on a variety of projects.
Like the Playwrights’ Center and other companies, TTT has employed actors in online readings of plays under consideration. The Spring Team is also devising a new play, which might appear in a future season or might simply strengthen the company for when it is able to perform “The Hatmaker’s Wife” live.
“We are going to do the play, so we’ll work together toward this end product in a way we’re accustomed to,” said Richardson. “But now, it’s so wonderful to get to work with these other artists outside of that timeline, of that drive toward production, but still spend time with them. We’re deepening our relationships and then we’ll get to build a play.”
Bringing the joy
Thompson is quick to credit TTT donors and vendors, who allowed them to apply royalties and rent payments to future performances. She added that the theater is fortunate to have options that aren’t available to companies that aren’t as nimble or don’t have emergency funds.
“We feel really sensitive to the fact that we’re unique, that we’re able to do this now for these actors and these contracts, and that not every theater is able,” said Thompson. “This is a moment of pain for a lot of theaters and we really rely on the ecosystem of the theaters here. Our work is predicated on the strength of the arts in this community. We are not supporting [artists] solely with our productions. They’re supported by the wealth of theater in this community.”
Thompson stressed that no one at TTT is “gloating” or pretending to know what will happen next season, when heavy reliance on donors and grants may be a challenge.
An introvert who is predisposed to reflection, Lorca remains hopeful about the theater community, which is so much a part of how the Twin Cities defines itself.
“There’s something tremendously mystical about this moment. I feel it. And I think if human beings allow themselves to really be alone, which is what we’re asked to be right now, and sit in the center of their hearts or their spirits, I feel like it’s a magical time where there is a lot of opportunity for reflection, for imagination, for wondering,” said Lorca. “The events in the world are actually asking us and directing us to do just that.”
Waldoch acknowledges she is “scared” about the uncertain future of the arts, but suspects one thing about it.
“I love our audiences and I’m really excited for all theater to think a little more deeply about who their audience is and the stories they want to tell,” she said. “We’re all in this somber, somewhat dark place, but over and over we said, ‘We can’t bring that darkness out, we need to bring the joy and the silly and the comedy.’ That’s what is on my Netflix right now: It has to have the joy in it.”