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Thursday, May 19, 2022

Performance Venues in Second Year of Shutdown

Local performing arts and cultural centers – unable to stage concerts or invite audiences to see plays – have felt the brunt of the pandemic. Thor Steingraber, executive director of the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts at California State University – Northridge, told the Business Journal he has seen downturns before – but never like this.“I lived and worked in New York at the Lincoln Center during 9/11,”’ Steingraber told the Business Journal. “When the Twin Towers came down, the Lincoln Center closed.” At the time, the question people in his industry asked was: “When will the theater reopen?” Steingraber said. “The sense of unknowing – a huge world event has happened. What will cause us to open?” The contrast with the coronavirus pandemic, Steingraber explained, is that New York’s theater district reopened all of two weeks after 9/11.

“The difference here is that there is still some level of uncertainty,” he said.

The Soraya, also called the Valley Performing Arts Center, ranks No. 2 on the Business Journal’s list of Performing Arts Venues.Year aheadAs the pandemic shutters live entertainment for its second year running, a timeline for a reopening — let alone a full comeback — is still a big question mark, and programmers such as Steingraber need a year ahead to plan, market and execute an event.

“We pivoted in April of last year to virtual and online work, not with the same degree of regularity,” Steingraber said.  Whereas pre-pandemic the Soraya saw two performances weekly, now the plan has become mounting one piece a month virtually. In recent months, the Soraya’s online programming has included intimate live interviews with artists and audience-free concert performances.

Such posts, blasted through various social media, may attract 30,000 views.

“Our biggest event (was) our tribute concert to Linda Ronstadt with PBS,” Steingraber said of the “huge concert with lots of musicians.” Last October, Steingraber noted, was when the COVID was most under control. The staff followed state guidelines regarding all filming, which includes testing, masking and sanitizing, with a compliance officer on staff enforcing California regulations.

“We had 90-plus people in the venue and not a single COVID case,” Steingraber noted.Revenue is another matter. Aware that the Linda Ronstadt concert would ultimately compete with the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney Plus, “we decided not to create a paywall,” Steingraber said. “(In this situation), success looks like access. The more people who have access, the more we are able to fill our mission and succeed in reaching an audience.” While it’s important to maintain a presence online during this down phase for the venue, Steingraber harbors no delusions that it in any way comes close to replacing having a live act on stage before an audience of 1,700 attendees.

“Live experience – that may turn out to be what our prime product is,” Steingraber said. “Music and theater in a live setting – it’s why you get out of the house, it’s special.” Preparing past survival The past pandemic year has been a challenging one for the region’s performing arts venues.

Last April, media reports detailed the arrest of an office manager allegedly embezzling more than $130,000 from a music company based at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, the location of the 1,800-seat Fred Kavli Theatre and the 400-seat Janet and Ray Scherr Forum Theatre, which occupy the No. 1 and No. 12 spots on the Business Journal’s list.Last month, the city of Glendale announced that the 1,411-seat Alex Theatre in Glendale, No. 3 on the list, was seeking out a new operator/manager for the city-owned venue, which debuted in 1925.In Northridge, the Soraya – despite having to initially trigger a small staff reduction seven months into the pandemic – has been able to stay afloat during the pandemic, largely from its business model as a college-based, nonprofit arts organization.

“Ticket sales will never cover the full expenses of a show,” Steingraber continued. “When you are not programming a show and not bringing in revenue, it’s basically a wash. You still have to pay salaries and save your business to address fixed expenses. (But) once you put an artist on the stage, your expenses skyrocket.” When events ramp up again, the pressure to break even or make a profit will return.While the last 11 months have been difficult, Steingraber said “there’s a good chance the next 11 months will actually be harder.” That’s because the elements of planning – artists, audience and regulations – are in flux.“If you reopen and then all of your regular expenses become regular again, but not everyone feels comfortable going back to the theater … suddenly you have all of your expenses and a fraction of your revenue,” he explained.

Michael Aushenker
Michael Aushenker
A graduate of Cornell University, Michael covers commercial real estate for the San Fernando Valley Business Journal. Prior to the Business Journal, Michael covered the community and entertainment beats as a staff writer for various newspapers, including the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, The Palisadian-Post, The Argonaut and Acorn Newspapers. He has also freelanced for the Santa Barbara Independent, VC Reporter, Malibu Times and Los Feliz Ledger.

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