During A Pandemic, Metro Theater Takes To The Internet, One Step At A Time
When coronavirus-related restrictions went into effect in St. Louis and St. Louis County in March, they took a sledgehammer to Metro Theater Company’s immediate plans.
With school districts closed, the company called off its planned residencies in three school buildings. Company leaders pushed its May gala to next fall. Its usual fall tour of schools seemed imperilled. And coronavirus complications make it hard to sell tickets to an October show at the Grandel Theatre.
Troupe members turned to the internet as a way to keep connecting with audiences. But they say their artform is based on building community among people gathered in the same space at the same time.
Many aren’t sure if that sense of community will translate to a computer screen. But they’re giving it a shot.
Like many performing arts organizations, Metro Theater finds itself in the uncomfortable situation of having to make up new ways of doing things. According to a survey by the advocacy group Americans For The Arts, 92% of arts groups in the St. Louis area have canceled events due to the coronavirus, leading to nearly 175,000 lost admissions.
“OK, I can’t do it this way,” Artistic Director Julia Flood said of her thought processes these days, “but maybe I can look at this through the other side of the mirror and say, ‘What if I did it this way?’ Can I get the same result?”
The sudden cancellation of Metro Theater’s activities put the company in a financial hole. Managing director Joe Gfaller calculated that the organization wouldn’t be able to keep paying its 12 year-round staff members after the end of its fiscal year on June 30.
A $110,400 loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program will allow it to avoid layoffs or furloughs through the summer. Theater leaders also asked some donors to make some previously pledged gifts earlier than originally planned, and tapped into an existing line of credit.
By keeping staff in place, the company is able to rethink some programming that can no longer go forward in its usual form.
Metro Theater education artists began posting daily videos to YouTube with theater games and exercises that kids can do from home. They also rethought the schedule of theater camps on the calendar in June, compressing them each from two weeks to one, and turning them into interactive online events.
“If we can’t be together, creating in person, let's figure out how we can create that artistic community connection virtually. Let’s give it a go,” said Education Director Karen Bain. She said a day of online theater camp will range from group warmups to individual work between students and education artists.
Unsure if schools would be ready to book appearances by Metro Theater’s usual fall tour, Flood made the decision to combine it with a spring tour, using the same cast for both. The move saved $30,000.
These workarounds don’t do much for its mainstage production of Laura Schellhardt’s “Digging Up Dessa,” which is due to open in October at the Grandel Theatre in Grand Center. The venue is owned and operated by Kranzberg Arts Foundation, whose leaders haven’t yet decided when to reopen it following the lifting of prohibitions on public gatherings.
When Kranzberg venues do open, they will be capped at 25% of typical audience capacity, with that total increasing over time.
That leaves a lot of uncertainty over how many audience members will be allowed to attend the performance, if it indeed goes on as planned. Metro Theater is turning to internet solutions for that as well, making plans to record all of its productions next season with a three-person camera crew and make them available for on-demand streaming.
“It’s a very new world for everyone right now in the performing arts, recognizing that digital distribution is going to be a key way to reach people as we look to the immediate future,” Gfaller said.
Internet streaming is a solution that poses its own set of problems. Flood said it’s something she “never would have considered” last year.
Many theater artists view a video recording of a play as a poor substitute for the in-person experience. It’s also not typically allowed under the agreements theaters sign with the rights holders of individual plays and musicals.
Gfaller said he successfully renegotiated the theater’s agreement to allow for video streaming of “Digging Up Dessa” and for most of Metro Theater’s 2020-2021 season. He’s optimistic about getting similar permission for its spring show next year, but is waiting for approval from Eric Carle, author of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”
Rethinking their operations on the fly, Metro Theater’s troupe members are building ways to reach audiences through the internet. But it remains to be seen if they can weave the usual magic that comes from in-person experiences with theater.
Flood said she and her peers are used to finding ways to make things work with whatever tools they can find.
“One of the things that I think is true about all theater people is that we’re resilient,” Flood said. “And we’ve for a very long time been building castles out of cardboard boxes.”
Correction: A previous version of this story gave an incorrect first name for Metro Theater Company Artistic Director Julia Flood.
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