Almost half of Chicago’s small performing arts organizations have yet to return to in-person performances, according to Donnelley Foundation survey

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Since Illinois has reopened from the pandemic lockdown in 2020, normalcy is one thing that remains elusive. Case in point: a new survey by the Chicago-based Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation that shows that despite overall comeback, smaller performing arts organizations are still struggling to reopen.

The Donnelley Foundation, an organization that offers unrestricted grants to 175 small arts organizations in Chicago with budgets under $1 million recently surveyed 91 of its performing arts grantees to garner insights on the obstacles preventing theater, music, and dance organizations from returning to live performances this fall.

While 56% of organizations surveyed are returning to produce in-person shows this season, 27% are unable to welcome audiences in-person and 16% remain uncertain about returning to the stage due to ongoing uncertainties caused by COVID-19. Of the organizations that reported being unable or uncertain about returning to in-person performances this fall:

  • 64% cited that it is because they wish to further monitor the COVID-19 health crisis before returning.

  • Asked about anticipated return, 30% foresee returning to in-person performances in the spring of 2022, 20% anticipated returning to the stage in the winter of 2022, and 5% anticipated that they wouldn’t return to the stage until summer of 2022.

  • 20% said that returning to in-person this fall was too risky a financial decision to make, and many cited lack of funding to hire the staff necessary.

  • 13% said that they do not have enough space in their theater to accommodate their preference for social distancing.

  • 10% said they do not own their performance venues and must abide by the rules of their venues.

According to Ellen Placey Wadey, Donnelley Foundation’s artistic vitality and collections program director, those theater spaces that have seating ranging from 20 to 100 seats don’t have a big enough space to allow for their preferred social distancing and/or wouldn’t be able to make enough money to support a production, if they did.

“Most of these guys have really small budgets and they want to make sure that when they start, that it’s for real,” Wadey said.

While some theater, music, and dance organizations opt in and out for programming this season, several organizations are doing in-person performances with certain stipulations like outdoors only or choosing to collaborate with other small performing arts partners to present works and combine resources. And still other organizations are moving forward with a hybrid model for their fall season to allow audiences the choice of attending in person or virtually.

For Redtwist Theatre in Edgewater, the fall season began with Stephen Karam’s “The Humans” on Oct. 10. The black box theater received partial rent abatement during the height of the pandemic, but that ended this month. The theater must produce performances or risk losing the space. Charlie Marie McGrath, artistic director at Redtwist, said an industrywide attrition isn’t helping matters either. Some artists have moved away and other have moved on to other fields.

“There’s a popular axiom in our industry right now: ‘We can reopen, but we can only afford to reopen once,’” McGrath said. “Our entire community really came out for us, but I won’t pretend that the situation isn’t still near dire for most of the performing arts. We anticipated that subscriber and single ticket sales would be significantly down when we returned, and we predicted that correctly.”

Wadey said being in ongoing relationships with the organizations they support, helps her organization figure out what other resources they might bring to the table. She said with rent breaks and supplements from the government slowing or stopping, the conversation is shifting for those organizations in need.

“It’s a conversation we’ve been having for a long time now, but we got to keep having it,” Wadey said. “These are places that are really important to neighborhoods, and if you want to see these places survive, we have to keep supporting these organizations.”

Wadey suggests giving tickets to performances as holiday gifts to those willing to go out and see a show, to help keep these organizations stay alive.

“We’re seeing more folks saying ‘we want to do a collaborative production or we have space that we’re willing to share,’ Wadey said. “It doesn’t have to be that everybody gets their own space, it’s how do we do this in a way that helps everybody move forward in this pretty tentative time. We just got to ride this out until we all get to a place where we feel comfortable again.”

McGrath agreed.

“I think that the pandemic taught us that all theater has to sort of play it by ear now,” McGrath said. “We’ve been there for 15 years and we hope we never have to leave. The pandemic definitely shifted our focus to the fact that we just need to try to be better prepared than we ever thought we’d have to.”

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