Executive directors of community theaters discuss challenges ahead
“Hopefully absence makes the heart grow fonder,” replied Lin McEwan, executive director of ProArts, when asked how the conditions surrounding COVID-19 could evolve into a positive for the performing arts.
The phrase has many origins, but I’d like to believe it started with William Shakespeare’s, “But I dote on his very absence” from “The Merchant of Venice.” Shakespeare survived three plagues in 1593, 1603 and 1608. Each outbreak closed the theaters of England. During the Bard’s social distancing he may have written “The Taming of the Shrew,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Othello” and “King Lear.”
I corresponded with the executive directors of Maui’s community theaters to discuss the challenges ahead. “The immediate and far reaching challenge for Maui OnStage is the lack of income. The longer this situation goes on, the tougher it’s going to be financially for everyone,” said MOS Executive Director Luana Whitford-Mitchell. MOS is particularly hard hit, and as is the case with many Maui hotels and restaurants, the entire MOS staff has been temporarily laid off, including Whitford-Mitchell.
“MAPA is in serious white water, just like many other organizations and businesses throughout the country. So, how do we navigate the rapids and survive? Searching for advice and ideas, I stumbled across a publication, ‘When In Doubt Ask For More’ by Alex Counts, “ related David Johnston, executive and artistic director of the Maui Academy of Performing Arts. Johnston shared this quote. “If you learn to pause and reflect before acting in moments of crisis, frustration, and even despair, you’ll discover that many problems, even ones that initially look insoluble, resolve themselves if you give them time to work themselves out. Occasionally, they turn out to be blessings in disguise.”
“The most obvious challenges are of course the postponements resulting from the government mandates and the domino effect of delays and financial issues, but the more pressing concern is a potential loss of momentum or interest among our community and patrons,” said McEwan.
All seem wisely unsure of when theaters might re-open. “Right now, we are navigating a highly fluid reality. New information contradicts projected timelines as soon as they are spoken. But we are working on planning future programming, productions and how to integrate them into the re-start of our operations,” related Johnston. “The beauty of art is that there isn’t an expiration date. This downtime will allow us to come back even more organized and efficient. Resuming in mid-May would be wonderful, but our first concern is the safety and well-being of our patrons, performers, and production crew members, so if that means starting fresh next season, then that’s what we’ll do,” McEwan offered. “We were right in the middle of rehearsing ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ when the shutdown occurred. The cast is amazing and we’re so thankful they are willing to stick with us. We hope to start back up again with ‘Cat’ and our youth summer program and show ‘Madagascar JR.,’ “ said Whitford-Mitchell.
“I think the silver lining in all of this is that it’s forced us to press pause, take a step back and look at the big picture. According to a recent newsletter from the League of Historic American Theaters, over 60-percent of their membership had temporarily closed their doors due to COVID-19 and over half have less than three months of financial reserves. Reach out to your local community theaters. Buy some tickets to an upcoming show. Make a donation. We’ll be back,” appealed Whitford-Mitchell. “Although we know there are many struggling as a result of this crisis, to all of those planning on donating to your favorite local arts organization somewhere down the road, if you are in a position to do so now, contributions are greatly appreciated to help all of us weather this storm. Picasso said, ‘The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.’ With hope and aloha in our hearts, we look toward the time in the not-so-distant future when this crisis has passed and we, and the other wonderful arts organizations on this island, can help everyone to dust themselves off and to have a cathartic laugh or cry with friends,” McEwan shared.
“MAPA’s work is built on bringing people together in performances and classes to experience the performing arts. I hope when we gather together again we will celebrate the power, the joy and the transformative nature of these shared experiences and find new paths to transform our world and ourselves for the better,” conveyed Johnston.