• COVID-19 completely shut down all aspects of the entertainment industry from Broadway to  school theater productions. 
  • Arts organizations now host online classes and  camps to replicate the live experience and allow for social interaction.
  • Live theatre events may not completely resume until 2021.
  • Seating arrangements that follow social distance guidelines have vastly different financial impacts for movie theatres versus live stage productions.

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] JOHN WHYTE: You're watching Coronavirus in Context. I'm Dr. John Whyte, chief medical officer at WebMD. COVID-19 has impacted every aspect of our life. Have you been to a concert lately? The theater? I bet not. To discuss the impact on the entertainment industry, I'm joined by two guests-- Rob Ahrens, who's a theater producer, and Elizabeth Stanley, an actress. Thanks for joining me.

ROBERT AHRENS: Well, thank you for having me, John.

JOHN WHYTE: Let's start off with, what exactly has been the impact on the theater industry, Rob?

ROBERT AHRENS: Uh, it's been a complete, uh, shutdown, uh, both on-- on Broadway, on tour, uh, local productions, uh, high school productions. Everything, uh, shut down, uh, on March 12th.

JOHN WHYTE: How has that, you know, impacted everyone's lives, financially, artistically? How are you dealing with it, Elizabeth?

ELIZABETH STANLEY: Uh, well, you know, one day at a time. Uh, so right before the shutdown, I was playing the leading role, the matriarch, of Mary Jane in the Broadway musical Jagged Little Pill, which is based off of the iconic Alanis Morissette album. Um, so it did-- it felt like the most extreme moment I could have ever imagined, because it's really a highlight of my career thus far.

Um, and in the spring, you know, all of the Broadway shows are opening and gearing up for the summertime and tourism and the awards season. And so it felt like the pedal was, like, all the way down, and then the emergency brake got pulled. Um, so it was definitely a-- a shock to the system in a lot of different ways.

JOHN WHYTE: Rob, you were involved in two productions when all of this happened. What were you feeling when, all of a sudden, it just comes to a screeching halt?

ROBERT AHRENS: Uh, it was really tough. I had Little Shop of Horrors running off Broadway in New York, and, uh, then I-- I was developing a show called Fly at San Diego. Uh, and you know, going from two shows to nothing, uh, was-- was really tough emotionally. It turns out-- I was sick at the time-- I did have a mild case of COVID. And I went from having a really full life, uh, to being sick in a one-bedroom apartment. So, uh, so it-- it was tough.

JOHN WHYTE: And tell us how you're doing now. It seems like you've recovered a bit?

ROBERT AHRENS: Yeah, yeah. Uh, I was really fortunate to have a mild case. Uh, and so, you know, I went from being in shock and being sick to, uh, doing a lot of work, uh, just to make sure that Little Shop could reopen again. We have to deal with insurance, we have employees. We're trying to, uh, keep some sort of presence in-- in media in-- in order that we can reopen once this all stops. And then-- uh, that was sort of the second stage of COVID for me. And now the third stage is, uh, is-- is George Floyd's murder and the protests and, uh, self-examination of how, uh, we can be better, uh, going forward, uh, with regard to race, uh, personally, uh, in theater, uh, and then hopefully in our country, as well.

JOHN WHYTE: Elizabeth, you had mentioned, you know, how can you translate some of these skills to online performances, online entertainment. What-- what's going on online that viewers might be interested in?

ELIZABETH STANLEY: Uh, I mean, it seems like everything, right? Zoom is the place to be. So some of the teaching I'm doing is through arts organizations that already existed prior to this moment that normally would be having, you know, an in-person, live summer camp experience. Um, and so now the classes, the students get links to the classes, and it's kind of great. They've set up different forums for them to kind of gather socially outside of class. So they-- they're trying to replicate the live experience.

Theater is-- is very different via computer or, uh, through a camera, but as an actor, you know, we're all used to doing things with a camera, as well, so it's a great time to be practicing what that skill is. Um, and I mean, as I'm sure you've noticed, like, I feel like every creative arts institution is offering so much free content. So you know, you can take a class through the Whitney or through the MOMA about different types of art making.

And um, you know, in addition to like what Rob was speaking about with the-- the race relations in our country, there's so much information to take in. And like, the next couple nights, I'm gonna be taking a class, uh, through my church that, uh, the minister of my church is giving about, you know, activism and anti-racism. And, uh, similarly, within the Broadway community, they had a sort of three-day online forum held by the Broadway Advocacy Coalition that was all about, you know, how can we move forward as a community and, um, take action in this time. So it's-- it's a strange time, but it's also kind of exciting to be forced to change and grow so much.

JOHN WHYTE: Now, what are you hearing about reopening? Um, what would the theater experience look like? Rob, have you-- what have you been hearing?

ROBERT AHRENS: Yeah, I've been hearing, um, optimistically, uh, January. Uh, I've also been hearing, uh, March or April. Um, and, uh, the Broadway League is doing a lot of work to try to figure out how to open as safely as possible. Uh, but ultimately, the industry has a pretty limited amount of control over when it opens. It's gonna be largely driven by-- by science and, uh, by--

JOHN WHYTE: [INAUDIBLE] seems very hard to do in-- in a theater setting. Is the theater experience changed permanently? What do you think, Elizabeth?

ELIZABETH STANLEY: Oh, gosh, what a question. Um, I mean, I think-- I think yes. I mean, who knows. This is obviously complete speculation, but I think all of us are gonna be changed I don't think that we will come out of this time being the same exact person as we were before this. And, um, and so along those lines, I do think that-- I think there will be perhaps probably new guidelines for what it means to go into any space where there are a lot of people. And theater is one of those spaces.

Uh, but I also think with that will come this deep appreciation for how sacred it is to be able to gather together, and-- and why we love it. And you know, theater has, like, been around since the dawn of time. It's, like, survived a lot. And so I don't think it's going anywhere. And-- and I think it's so interesting that what is it about human-- humanity that craves that, that wants to be together to celebrate, to see, to witness, to feel? Um, so I think we're gonna appreciate that more deeply than ever.

JOHN WHYTE: What do you think the future holds, Rob?

ROBERT AHRENS: Well, I think, like Elizabeth was saying, um, we crave-- humans crave other humans. Uh, you know, people need people. And I think the theater experience, what people love about it is it is a shared, collective emotional experience. And, you know, to echo Elizabeth, I think we're all going to be changed people. And I think that, you know, things will change artistically.

In terms of a-- from a business point of view, I-- I don't think it's gonna be possible to distance, uh, audiences in theater. Uh, not the way the economic model is currently set up. Uh, most of these shows break even at about half, uh, capacity, you know, give or take 10% or 20%. So, uh, you know, you can't have every five chairs empty. There-- there's no way of doing that.

So we're really gonna be dependent on either transmissions lowering, uh, effective treatments, a vaccine, uh, herd immunity, but we are-- uh, at the moment, we're not trying to figure out how to have, uh, every fifth seat filled and how to have every other row filled, which I think is what they're doing with movie theaters right now. I think, for the summer, when they're opening movie theaters, they're gonna have a lot of spacing in movie theaters.

But they can run, you know, the movie five times in a day, and it doesn't cost very much to run the movie, whereas each time we run a show, we have, you know, 20, 30 to 100 people working. Uh, so-- so we-- we can't afford that kind of distancing and-- and pay our people what they deserve to be paid.

JOHN WHYTE: Well, as you both have mentioned, it's had a devastating impact on the performing arts. What can viewers do to help?

ELIZABETH STANLEY: So many people across various industries are-- are feeling really desperate in this moment. Um, since we're-- we're talking about the performing arts, um, the Actors Fund is really a wonderful place that you can give. Also, there are so many of us, like myself, out there independently trying to, you know, keep up with our own side hustle and, you know, teaching online or producing music online and-- and putting it out there. And-- and so the more you can give directly to the actual artists is also a really wonderful way to give back.

JOHN WHYTE: Rob, any-- any thoughts on how viewers can help?

ROBERT AHRENS: Um, I-- I think the things Elizabeth just said-- the Actors Fund, supporting people who are, uh, performing, um, or giving classes online. I think, uh, supporting, uh, political initiatives. Uh, hopefully there will be some sort of assistance given to theater, because we are probably going to be the last-- or one of the last industries to open. So we are going to, uh-- so it's gonna be a little tougher for us than for industries that can open in earlier stages.

JOHN WHYTE: Well, I want to thank you both for joining today. Thanks for the insights, and in terms of how the performing arts have been impacted by COVID, as well as what viewers can do to help out.

ROBERT AHRENS: Right. Thank you, John.

ELIZABETH STANLEY: Thank you.

JOHN WHYTE: Thank you for watching Coronavirus in Context. I'm Dr. John Whyte.