Sometimes the show can’t go on
COVID-19 pandemic prompts postponements — and serious financial concernsCOVID-19 pandemic prompts postponements — and serious financial concerns

They say the show must go on, but North Texas theater, dance and music groups are finding the show-business edict difficult to honor in the time of the coronavirus. A second wave of productions scheduled to open later this month and into April and May have been postponed, creating unprecedented anxiety about how long the local performing arts scene can weather a crisis of this magnitude and stay viable.

Many artists are out of work, scrambling to find alternative sources of income. Some have come up with creative solutions, including plans to stream performances online. But that will not make up for the loss of paying patrons at live shows.

“This part is heartbreaking,” says Sam Brukhman, artistic director of the vocal groups Verdigris Ensemble and Arts District Chorale. “I know many singers completely out of a job for the next three months, at least, because all festivals, performances and schools are closed or have canceled. To give you an example, one of our sopranos normally pieces together an income by teaching private lessons at a local high school and supplements by singing in the Dallas Bach Society, Orpheus Chamber Singers, Verdigris Ensemble and her local church. All entities except for Verdigris Ensemble have now canceled their engagements.”

Even livestreaming is a challenge, he says. “The problem with Verdigris Ensemble is that it requires at least 17 musicians in the same room. And that is discouraged by the Trump administration at this time.”

Choreographers like Danielle Georgiou (Danielle Georgiou Dance Group, Undermain Theatre, Eastfield College) and Katie Puder of Avant Chamber Ballet are moving their dance classes online. Georgiou is opening the classes to the public and asking for donations through a GoFundMe page.

“These next few months will be pretty excruciating for all arts organizations and our local artists,” says Tina Parker, co-artistic director of Kitchen Dog Theater, which is in the midst of a capital campaign to raise money for a new home. “Hopefully, we all can figure out a way to survive, but that’s a big question at this point. It’s hard to stay optimistic, to be honest.”

Kitchen Dog’s next production, A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus by Washington Irving, by local playwrights Cameron Cobb and Michael Federico, isn’t scheduled until June and is still on the books.

Other companies facing more pressing decisions had no choice but to postpone now. These include productions by some of the area’s leading troupes like Dallas Theater Center, Stage West Theatre, Texas Ballet Theater, WaterTower Theatre, Dallas Black Dance Theatre, Undermain Theatre, Teatro Dallas, Uptown Players and Ochre House Theater that were underway or opening in the next couple of months. In addition, touring-show presenters like Dallas Summer Musicals and TITAS/Dance Unbound have announced postponements.

One of the most disappointing delays is Undermain’s workshop production of David Rabe’s He’s Born, He’s Borne, which was to open April 16 and has been pushed back to June. The multi-Tony nominee and winner for his 1972 Sticks and Bones was scheduled to spend several weeks in Dallas developing the new play, which is set in medieval times and features death as a character, roaming the world.

“Mostly, we’re in a holding pattern to wait and see like everyone else,” says Undermain co-founder Bruce DuBose, who is still hoping to get Rabe to Dallas, though his participation may have to happen remotely.

Jeffrey Schmidt, artistic director of Theatre Three, is still trying to find a way to go on as scheduled with his company’s next production, The Elephant Man, which is set to open April 9. “If The Elephant Man isn’t a play about social distancing, I don’t know what is,” Schmidt says in a phone interview on his drive back from the Hill Country, where he had picked up a clawfoot bathtub for the show.

Schmidt is exploring the possibility of mounting the production with smaller-than-usual audiences in Theatre Three’s performance space at the Quadrangle in Uptown. As he worries about paying the utilities and his staff, he also wonders if 50 theatergoers would be willing to show up, even with increased safety measures.

As an alternative, Schmidt is looking into streaming the production online, which involves negotiations with the actors’ union. He concedes it would not be the same as the live experience or look like a professionally shot film. “It’s like a bakery trying to become a tire shop,” he says.

Dallas Theater Center is using a similar strategy with American Mariachi, the musical play that was set to open March 14. Ticket holders will be able to watch a filmed version online. A number of other local groups and individual artists are also presenting shows over the internet.

On March 13, Georgiou streamed Eastfield College’s Faculty Dance Concert online. Other groups like Avant Chamber Ballet, Dallas Opera, Classics Theatre Project, Plano Symphony Orchestra, a new Facebook group called Quarantined Cabaret, and singer Denise Lee — in collaboration with Union Coffee — are putting past or future performances online.

In one of the more unusual twists, Cleburne’s Plaza Theatre Co. starts producing “drive up theater” this weekend in its parking lot, with patrons watching the show from their vehicles.

“It’s such a weird time,” says Mara Richards Bim, founder of Cry Havoc Theater Co., a company of teen actors that produces a season of shows, including one major play each year about a compelling contemporary social issue devised through its own research.

The group was supposed to be in Seattle this week during spring break, investigating climate change and modern man’s separation from nature for Endlings, slated for July. The trip had to be canceled when Washington state got hit especially hard with the coronavirus.

Scrambling to find an alternative, Richards Bim arranged for the group to go to Galveston to see the work of a foundation that is restoring the bay. Then, with increasing restrictions to stop the virus from spreading, that had to be called off, too. Cry Havoc is now planning to conduct the originally planned Seattle research remotely.

“Pulling the plug was very hard. I felt bad,” Richards Bim says. “But they’re kids, and I’m the adult in the room. ... Are we overreacting? I have to err on the side of overreacting.”

As she stays home fighting a cold, she’s also working on other projects that speak to our present circumstances and a potential future of consuming more of the arts on our computers and other electronic devices.

One of them is a joint effort with a New York organization that would give people a chance to write about the coronavirus and related topics like nature and resiliency. They would respond to artworks and other material posted online and have their scripts read by actors.

The other is a monthly one-minute storytelling series originally intended for live audiences. It would now be produced online, with the writers prompted by single words like “hope,” “identity” and “nature.” Richards Bim compares it to an open-mic night, with no screening of the material in advance.

But even as artists come up with creative responses to the coronavirus outbreak, the Verdigris Ensemble’s Brukhman worries about the financial uncertainty brought on by a downward-spiraling economy.

“Are we under threat of closure?” he asks. “It’s hard to say at this time. I don’t see any immediate danger. But if the economy does not recover, it could very well affect us poorly in the long run.”

Manuel Mendoza is a freelance writer and a former staff critic at The Dallas Morning News.