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Wednesday, Feb 28, 2024

On-Stage Survival

In early March, director Ronnie Marmo was casting a group of actors for a play called “Stupid F*cking Bird,” a contemporary take on Anton Chekov’s “The Seagull,” at his theater company Theatre 68 in the heart of the North Hollywood Arts District. Then came COVID-19. “We’re not allowed to open our doors,” Marmo told the Business Journal. “It’s a scary time.” The city’s mandated business closures have rendered theaters unable to host acting classes or put on shows to collect money, leaving Theatre 68 and the bevy of other performing arts venues that comprise the Arts District unable to pay rent and bills. According to Nancy Bianconi, president of North Hollywood Communications, 18 of the neighborhood’s 22 independent theaters – the highest concentration of theaters in any square mile of the U.S. outside of Broadway – are at risk of permanent closure due to the COVID-19-related economic shutdown. “These small business owners are looking at incurring mostly debt. Every month that goes by that theaters can’t operate puts them further into a hole.” North Hollywood Communications runs the nonprofit NoHo Arts District, which functions as a partner to local businesses, helping them market themselves to business and leisure travelers. NoHo Arts District is spearheading a GoFundMe campaign to raise $108,000 for the theaters. Bianconi said the sum would buy two months of rent for all 18 struggling venues, three of which are nonprofits. She added the four NoHo theaters not participating in the fundraiser either own their buildings or have been able to raise funds on their own. Bianconi estimated theaters pay their landlords somewhere between $2,500 and $5,000 a month, depending on location. Marmo said Theatre 68, nestled at the high-traffic corner of Lankershim Boulevard and Magnolia Boulevard, has “one of the highest rents there.” As of press time, the GoFundMe had raised more than $22,000 for the theaters. Art-based economy While NoHo today is the unofficial stage theater capital of the West Coast, the neighborhood wasn’t always so lively. One of the first theater operators in the neighborhood was Broadway producer Ed Gaynes, who opened a two-theater complex called the Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center on Magnolia Boulevard in 1988. “Lankershim before was not a great area. … When we started opening theaters 30 years ago, there was nothing there,” Gaynes said. “Most storefronts were empty or abandoned. There was no street traffic at all, and no restaurants. It’s impossible to believe what it was like then.” Gaynes now runs a total of four theaters in the Arts District, including the Whitmore-Lindley Center, the Avery Schreiber Playhouse on Lankershim and the BrickHouse Theatre on Peach Grove Street. He said it took decades for the neighborhood to really take off. “There was a lot of improvement in the 1990s and 2000s, but it didn’t fully blossom until maybe eight or nine years ago. That’s when the restaurants and businesses and people-walking and new apartment buildings (showed up), because people wanted to live in the area,” he said. The dramatic transformation happened directly because of the theaters, Gaynes added. “The Arts District is really a theater district,” he said. Today, NoHo’s theaters present more than 500 shows a year, host roughly 35 acting classes on any given night and bring tens of thousands of patrons – and their dollars – to the neighborhood each year. But independent stage theaters aren’t lucrative businesses. Marmo said breaking even is considered a successful month, and most venues don’t have much in the way of savings. “Some might have two or three months in the bank. I don’t see (Theatre 68) making it through the summer,” Marmo said. Bianconi said the shuttering of NoHo’s theaters wouldn’t just be a tragic loss for the city’s arts community, but the rest of its small businesses too. Local lighting, costuming and stage design businesses, for example, would be devastated if theaters closed. Bianconi said NoHo’s restaurants also depend on theaters. “There’s a national statistic that, when people go to the theater, at least 40 percent will go to dinner prior,” she said. “Then after a performance ends, they’ll go out for drinks or desert. And then actors, the cast, after doing a performance, they’re usually hungry.” Little Toni’s, a 65-year-old Italian restaurant on Lankershim Boulevard, has developed such a symbiotic relationship with NoHo’s venues. Owner Brent Rotner said business picked up when theaters started opening nearby. “There were more people in the area … people that didn’t live here, but were coming for the shows,” he said. “It really is a big part (of our customer base).” NoHo’s proximity to Hollywood means the Arts District is also intrinsically tied to L.A.’s screen entertainment industry. “Many artists start (acting) first for live audiences. … Many will move to television and film,” Bianconi said. “They have the passion and love for theater, but make their living from film and T.V.” If the theaters disappear, so does that pipeline of acting talent. Accessing aid Marmo said the $349 billion federal Paycheck Protection Program ran out of money before he was able to get his application paperwork sorted out. Since Congress reloaded the fund with an additional $310 billion last week, he said he would try to apply again, though he’s not exactly thrilled about it. “I don’t want a loan. I can’t pay back a loan. We need relief,” Marmo said. Gaynes said the federal aid packages don’t present much help for theaters, which normally don’t make enough income to pay back a loan even at a low interest rate. Complicating matters further, PPP loans are forgivable only if an applicant keeps all of its employees on the payroll. But not all theaters use full-time employees. Lots, like Gaynes’, rely on paid independent contractors, while some others are run by volunteers. That leaves payroll expenses looking meager compared to rent payment. “We’re a different kind of business. It’s like trying to put a round peg through a square hole. It doesn’t work,” Gaynes said of the programs. Bianconi said she was able to apply for a PPP loan for NoHo Arts District, but never heard back. While accessing federal aid has been challenging, the theaters are working with L.A. City Councilman Paul Krekorian to try to shore up relief funding from the city. Krekorian has proposed a Council District 2 Emergency Grant Program to allocate $200,000 of the city’s revenue from Arts Development Fees, collected as a tax on private development projects, to provide grants for live performance spaces. “Art and performance are critical to the economy and fabric of Los Angeles,” Krekorian wrote in the proposal. “Major disruptions … have the potential to erase an entire sector if urgent action is not taken.” City council will vote May 12 on the program. If passed, the Department of Cultural Affairs will distribute individual grants of $8,000 for theaters and other arts venues to use as operating capital. In exchange, theaters must host a free virtual workshop or performance for the public. That doesn’t mean theaters are out of the woods. It’s still not clear how long the lockdown will last, and some businesses may need further aid to stay afloat until the economy reopens. “We really need rent deferment,” said Gaynes. “That all comes down to landlords – whether they’re willing to work with us.” Operational adjustments Gaynes does not predict a return to normalcy for theaters, even once stay-at-home orders and business closure mandates are lifted. “Are people going to be afraid to gather in small places? Can Broadway reopen?” he asked. He acknowledged the possibility that the economy would reopen in phases, with large groups remaining prohibited at first. That would present a huge problem for theaters, which would be forced to operate at a loss while still paying full expenses. “We can’t open if you have to keep an empty seat between people,” he said. “The economics won’t work.” Gaynes added the core theater audience is typically an older crowd – a shared demographic with those most vulnerable to COVID-19. “I think a lot of people have been scared,” he said. Bianconi isn’t one of them. “I’ll wear a hazmat suit to the theater,” she said. Until they can finally draw the curtain again, theater operators are trying to keep actors engaged with technology. Marmo has moved Theatre 68’s weekly acting workshops online using videoconference software Zoom. He said he’s treating the classes as a direct fundraiser for the theater, and is charging $150 for a cycle of four weekly classes. The first will be held May 20. “The good news about Zoom is people can join us from anywhere – Brazil, Wisconsin, it doesn’t matter,” he said. Marmo said digital classes aren’t quite the same as in-person ones, but they’re worth trying. “We do scene work, we do monologue, we do improv. In fact, in some ways it feels very much like a film class. There’s been a dozen or so actors that I think are doing the best work they’ve ever done. On stage it’s a different presentation, but in film you just have to keep it simple and honest.” As for “Stupid F*cking Bird,” Marmo is doing everything possible to make sure the show goes on. “We put it on hold for a month, but now we just cast it. We’re starting online Zoom rehearsals for the play. And just as soon as we have permission to reopen, we’ll probably put tickets on sale (for a show) six weeks after that.”

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