As currently written the latest round of federal stimulus through the Shuttered Venue Operators Grants, (SVOG), with its original and admirable goal of providing a lifeline to live music venues shuttered for many months by a deadly pandemic, excludes thousands of community theaters from accessing aid needed to keep afloat the cultural lifeblood of many small towns and suburban communities across the country.
Our nonprofit theaters rely on donations, far less forthcoming in a battered economy, to help keep the heat and lights on. For Curtain Call, the award winning, year-round community theater in Stamford, Connecticut, the linguistic roadblock in the bill means the difference between a grant of about $310,000 provided by SVOG vs a second PPP loan of about $98,000.
Why does this matter? Budgets for community theaters include rent, mortgages, utilities, insurance and royalties paid to authors, composers, lyricists. And while the actors are performing as an avocation, community theaters often compensate professional directors, musical directors and choreographers, to lead creative teams. About half of the nearly 20,000 community theaters in the U.S., including Curtain Call, The Ridgefield Theatre Barn, Thomaston Opera House and more in CT, have a professional staff managing operations. Those that do not are not even eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans because those are meant to keep employees from being laid off.
When the Save Our Stages campaign (now SVOG) was launched by the National Independent Venue Association last summer, its goal was to support live venue operators, promoters, producers and talent representatives. As it became evident that other struggling cultural institutions had been, perhaps inadvertently, left out, the bill’s reach was expanded to include theatres. However, the bill’s original language stating that organizations must “pay artists fairly” and that artists do not play solely “for free or for tips” failed to take into account the local institutions that rely on amateur talent.
As a result of this technicality Curtain Call, where I have served as executive director for 20 years, will likely get cut out of desperately needed arts funding. Our year round staff of 10, plus 50 more seasonal employees, (last year’s payroll: $500,00+), deserve to be supported. The nation’s community theaters, which went dark like all others across the country, operate with budgets totaling nearly one billion dollars, with most of those funds being reinvested into our respective communities.
Community theaters, like our professional counterparts, are also economic engines. Patrons who frequent these theaters often make a night of it, going out for dinner and drinks. They support tourism in the local communities and serve as artistic and educational resources for local youth as well as adults who often have careers outside of the arts. And perhaps most important, they allow for people of all ages to be exposed to all manner of high-quality theater at a tiny fraction of the cost of a night on Broadway.
Community theaters also provide a venue for aspiring actors to test their mettle. Among Curtain Call alumni are Dan Micciche, current music director for Wicked on Broadway who also previously appeared as Mary Sunshine with the Broadway and touring companies of Chicago; Christopher John O’Neill, who starred as Elder Cunningham in the Broadway and touring productions of The Book of Mormon; and Teddy Yudain, who was appearing in the off-Broadway revival of Little Shop of Horrors when the lockdown began in March.
While I remain most grateful for the bipartisan support of the SVOG at a time when bipartisan anything is hard to come by, I implore all theater lovers to reach out to their federal congressional leaders and tell then to fix the language in the law to ensure that beloved community theaters – many of which are on the brink of shutting their doors – have a shot at keeping their lights on. Also, encourage these leaders to include specific funding for community theatres as they hammer out the details of President Biden’s next round of stimulus. A quick phone call is all it takes – you can find specifics at www.curtaincallinc.com.
—Lou Ursone, a professional actor for more than 40 years, is executive director of Curtain Call, Inc., Stamford, CT’s award-winning community theatre.
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