DC theaters face ‘catastrophic’ economic impact if coronavirus causes prolonged ticket sales decline

Written for The DC Line and published on that site here.

DC theaters may soon be struggling with the economic impact of the new coronavirus as theatergoers choose to stay at home or are forced to do so. 

In San Francisco, municipal officials ordered a 14-day halt to performances and other large events at theaters and other facilities owned by the city, and many nonprofit and private operators followed suit. The San Francisco Chronicle compared the impact on local business to “an immediate recession.” Restaurants and bars near the shuttered theaters are nearly empty.  

Rebecca Medrano, executive director of GALA Theatre in Columbia Heights, said a two-week closure like the one in San Francisco would have severe effects, potentially wiping out the entire run of a show years in the planning.

“A 14-day closure would be extremely damaging for GALA [right now] because we are opening our GALita children’s theater world premiere this week,” she said. “We would lose the entire projected income for this production.”

Representatives from several other DC theaters did not respond to requests for comment.

Thus far, theater professionals are having to wait and see whether the spread of the coronavirus results in government-ordered closures, reduced ticket sales or empty houses. Even if theaters aren’t forced to close, box office receipts will be affected if individuals and institutions alter their routines.

Amy Austin is CEO of theatreWashington, the industry association for DC-area theaters. “The potential spread of the virus could impact ticket sales. [But] it’s too early to tell since we have very few reported cases in the region.”

Austin said that on Friday. As of Tuesday afternoon, four cases of coronavirus had been confirmed in DC, and about 22 in the greater region.

Michael Kaiser, former president of the Kennedy Center, said that even a 20% reduction in ticket sales for an extended period of time would be “catastrophic” for the fiscal health of area theaters.

Closures to prevent community spread of the coronavirus are now being implemented across the country. Late last week Austin canceled the widely popular South By Southwest technology and entertainment festival despite the expansive economic impact for the Texas capital. The NCAA is making contingency plans to play its annual “March Madness” basketball tournament without a live audience, and the NBA is similarly preparing for the possibility of games with only essential personnel in attendance

Meanwhile, a growing number of universities and companies have canceled employee travel and conferences, and today American University announced plans to conduct its classes online for two weeks. Locally, cancellations have included the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital, which was scheduled to start Thursday and will instead highlight selected films online next week.

“We did not come to this decision lightly, but the safety of our audience, local and out of town participants, volunteers, partners, and staff is our number one priority,” the film festival’s executive director, Christopher Head, said in a press release. “Given the situation, we felt this was our only viable option.” 

Long-term planning is proving difficult given uncertainty over the spread of the coronavirus, so it’s not surprising that Capital Fringe Festival executive director Julianne Brienza declined to comment on the potential impact on that event, scheduled for July 7 to 26.

“We understand the concern regarding the potential impact on the creative and entertainment industry,” John Falcicchio, DC’s acting deputy mayor for planning and economic development, told The DC Line in an email Friday. “However, in line with the latest science-based guidance available at this time, we encourage our residents, employers and visitors to go about their daily lives while following all of the safety tips provided at coronavirus.dc.gov.”

Already the DC government is feeling an economic impact, related primarily to tourism. Initial projections suggested the outbreak could cost the District $52 million in lost sales tax revenue from hotels and restaurants, according to DC Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey DeWitt’s revised revenue forecast released Feb. 28. 

Much of the initial impact has centered on events dependent on international travel. At least one major area conference, a gathering of the International Association of Dental Research, has experienced registration cancellations, NBC4 reported. North Carolina-based SAS Institute canceled a global forum at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, and the International Monetary Fund dropped plans for its spring meetings in DC, the Washington Business Journal noted. Thus far, organizers of the National Cherry Blossom Festival have said events will proceed as planned March 20 to April 12, with appropriate health-related precautions. 

The financial effects on the tourism and hospitality industry, however, do not translate squarely into the theater community. Most ticket buyers are locals, not tourists, according to theater professionals — a key reason that DC’s theaters were spared much of the impact from DC’s tourism slowdown in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

This time, the impact could result from local residents who are told to — or who decide they want to — stay home.

“We didn’t take as much of a hit as you might think after 9/11,” said Joy Zinoman, founder of the Studio Theatre and artistic director from 1978 to 2010.“Studio Theatre overwhelmingly serves DC residents and the region, and we found people really wanted to be together. But this is a different kind of situation. People may decide not to buy tickets, to stay out of crowds.”

Kaiser, now president of the DeVos Institute, headed the Kennedy Center from 2001 to 2014. “The vast majority of Kennedy Center tickets were sold locally, so the loss of tourism post-9/11 did not affect ticket sales substantially,” he told The DC Line. “What was affected more was attendance at educational programs as schools cut back on travel to DC that year (which also included massive snowstorms, the anthrax scare and the DC sniper).”

As far as the bottom line for DC’s theaters, costs will still mount even if performances are canceled. Medrano noted that GALA would incur significant production costs in the event of a forced closure during a play’s run. “Due to contractual agreements with artists, we would have to pay them 45% of their contracted pay if we cancel with less than a week notice,” she said.

Opportunity for Jewish Artists: Authenticity and Identity Exhibition


Application is live for artists to submit for inclusion in a visual arts exhibition considering the issue of Jewish Authenticity and Identity. What makes a work of art Jewish? What makes an artist Jewish? Any artwork relevant to the topic may be included. The exhibition will be held at Adas Israel Congregation, curated by Ori Soltes. View the online submission form [link to come] here.

Curator Ori Z. Soltes is a professor of Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. The former director and curator of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum he is co-founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project and author of numerous books and articles including Tradition and Transformation: Three Millennia of Jewish Art & Architecture; Fixing the World: Jewish American Painters in the Twentieth Century; and The Ashen Rainbow: the Arts and the Holocaust.

  • The exhibition will be on display May 6 – June 2, 2020
  • Submission is free.
  • Artwork of any type may be submitted for consideration, including paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, digital media, sculpture, and more.
  • Artists may submit more than one item for inclusion, up to 4 pieces.
  • Artwork does not have to be newly created to be submitted; Artists, collectors, gallerists, and estates, may submit artwork for consideration.
  • Selected artwork must be delivered to the site ready for hang.
  • The exhibition will occur at Adas Israel Congregation in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington D.C., 2850 Quebec Street NW DC.
  • The application period opens February 10 and will close March 25, 2020.
  • Selected artists/artwork will be notified by April 10, 2020.

The exhibition is produced in a partnership between Adas Israel Congregation and the Jewish Artists of the National Capital Region and through funding from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Adas Israel Congregation is the nation’s largest conservative synagogue, a vibrant, dynamic, multi-generational community that offers access to Jewish life for people of all backgrounds. For almost 150 years Adas Israel Congregation has been a flagship synagogue in American Jewish life and that tradition of leadership and excellence continues. The Jewish Artists of the National Capital Region is a community of area artists working to enhance the capacity of Jewish artwork to inform, inspire, and educate, and supported in part by Hazon’s Hakhel Intentional Community incubator program.

To facilitate activities and events related to the exhibition the project partners have created an exhibition committee and if you’re interested to participate in that, or learn more about the exhibition, please email exhibition director Robert Bettmann at Robert <at> Day Eight.org or Naomi Malka at Naomi.Malka <at> AdasIsrael.org.

With Webre’s Exit Washington Ballet Faces Challenges

Washington was abuzz this past weekend with the announcement Friday afternoon that The Washington Ballet’s longtime Artistic Director, Septime Webre, is leaving his post at the end of his current contract.

When asked to respond to the news, Webre’s former Board Chair and one-time Executive Director, Kay Kendall, wrote, “He put The Washington Ballet on the map, not only as a major player in the world of dance, but also as a household name in the world of performing arts entities in our town. One of his many gifts was introducing young people to the world of dance and that has been of immeasurable value. He will be greatly missed.”

Septime Webre (Photo: Dean Alexander)

Kay Kendall’s sentiment was echoed by Arthur Espinoza, recently Managing Director of The Washington Ballet and now Executive Director of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Mr. Espinoza wrote, “Septime Webre was a longtime colleague of mine at The Washington Ballet, and The Washington Ballet has been a long-standing grantee of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

During his tenure, the Ballet saw a significant level of growth, contributing greatly to the artistic landscape of the District and to the careers of many artists. I wish the best of future successes for both Septime and the Ballet.”

Sarah Kauffman writing on Monday in the Washington Post about what the Ballet should look for in its next artistic director, wrote, “The ballet doesn’t need a radical change, but a firm hand to fine-tune, streamline, and aim for high points not yet reached.”

It’s hard to not agree with her, and the Ballet’s Board of Directors should also look back and consider the challenges Septime Webre faced, as some of the conditions a new Artistic Director will have to address may remain beyond his or her control.

For instance, in 2005 Washington went from being a “one ballet” town to a “two-ballet” town with the Kennedy Center’s underwriting of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet. Balanchine repertoire, which had been a strong part of The Washington Ballet’s offerings, nearly disappeared from their concerts in response as suddenly The Washington Ballet had to contend not only with the Ballet companies presented by the major local arts Center, but a Ballet company sponsored by the major local arts center.

The early 2000’s saw a building boom in dance academies competing for students with The Washington Ballet, most notably with the opening of the southern home of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the City Dance Center at Strathmore in Rockville. The Strathmore dance center was able to lure away one of the leaders of The Washington Ballet’s dance academy, and suddenly parents in upper northwest and Bethesda had a choice about where to send their children for high quality weekend and after-school classes. In addition to the Strathmore center, the dance academy at the American Dance Institute in Rockville (under the direction of retired Washington Ballet star Runqiao Du), and new dance centers in Arlington and Capitol Hill help explain why one studio (Maryland Youth Ballet) had to briefly close its doors before stabilizing in a large new suite of studios in downtown Silver Spring.

The Washington Ballet’s company and education facility on Wisconsin Ave in upper Northwest D.C. has been far from competitive for some time, and plans for a major upgrade and addition have languished for a decade. While Shakespeare Theatre, Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Studio Theatre, and Arena Stage completed major new buildings, the Washington Ballet remains on an under-sized parcel in Tenleytown, and renting performance space. The school has acquired surrounding parcels but it will require policymaker facilitation (and some zoning exemptions) to get the ballet into the kind of facility able to attract the dancers appropriate for a touring company.

Septime was hired to run The Washington Ballet in part because he had taken a struggling little-known New Jersey-based dance company (the American Repertory Ballet) and turned it into a thriving institution. Taking over from Mary Day in D.C., Septime immediately faced intense competition from closer-in neighbors in an overall smaller market, and yet has done the same thing here. While Washington National Opera was absorbed by the Kennedy Center five years ago, there continues to be active competition between the Washington Ballet and the Kennedy Center. Can a Washington Ballet really thrive without a strong partnership at the largest local arts center?

Congratulations are due to Septime Webre not only for shepherding hundreds of beautiful performances, and educational opportunities, but for the creation of ballets for the Company by modern legends including Trey McIntyre, Christopher Wheeldon, and Edward Liang. It’s interesting to note that following multiple commissions from The Washington Ballet both McIntyre and Wheeldon launched full time touring and performing companies, neither of which made it to a fifth anniversary.

This article was published here on DCTheaterScene.