As the World Slowly Reopens, Theaters Remain Closed, Leaving Furloughed Employees Uncertain About Their Futures
Weeks of order cancellations. Mounting dread. The March 12 shutdown of all Broadway theaters. Then the following Monday, Mollie Thoennes was told to collect her things and stay home. There was no return date.
“It felt,” Thoennes recalled, “like the beginning of the end.”
Thoennes was then Lead Sales and Operations Specialist at Broadway Inbound, the group sales division of The Shubert Organization. Now she is on indefinite furlough, along with 17 of her colleagues. Broadway Inbound had a staff of 24—now six remain.
Waves of furloughs and layoffs have devastated the theater industry in the months following the March 12 shutdown. In May, a New York City Department of Cultural Affairs report found that 15,149 staff had been cut at NYC cultural organizations, with performing arts organizations reporting an 18 percent loss of revenue.1 June and July only brought more bad news.
Cirque du Soleil filed for bankruptcy and laid off 3,500 employees.2 MSG Entertainment canceled the Radio City Rockettes and laid off 350 staffers.3 The Broadway League, the national trade association for the Broadway industry, estimated that 97,000 jobs had been impacted by the pandemic.4 The League itself also furloughed 14 of its 37 staffers.
Theatrical press agencies have also been hit hard, as well as major advertising firms including SpotCo and The Pekoe Group. Broadway.com’s parent company, The John Gore Organization, laid off more than 100 employees in August.5 Playbill and TheaterMania have also furloughed staff, along with Theatre Development Fund.6
At Off-Broadway institutional theaters, the story was not dissimilar. Roundabout Theater Company and Second Stage, both non-profits that own Broadway theaters, have conducted furloughs. Both declined to provide numbers, though Roundabout confirmed that from September 1 through December 31 all remaining full-time staff will work reduced hours and take mandatory two-week furloughs.
Other Off-Broadway giants are also in uncharted waters. Atlantic Theater Company has furloughed 13 staff since May. Brooklyn's Theatre For A New Audience furloughed 12 staff (some partially) and reduced salaries for the remaining seven. Signature Theatre furloughed 16 out of 44 staff for three weeks in April and May—a PPP loan brought them back for four months, but in September, 24 employees will be furloughed on a rolling basis through next March. Even for those who have their jobs, many at reduced pay, the future is unclear as companies still have to weather months without potential revenue or producing live theater.
The Public Theater also dodged expected furloughs in May following a last-minute PPP loan, but it proved a temporary reprieve. On July 20, the theater was forced to furlough 105 staff members—or 46 percent of its workforce.
Among that workforce was Gabriel Lozada. As New Work Development Administrator at the Public, Lozada had both managed the logistics of the department and assisted in long-term strategic planning. He was first told to expect furlough in May and recalled the relief of that last-minute loan.
“It felt like we had been granted some more time to get the company into a better shape,” he said. As protests for racial justice spread across the country and spilled over into the American theater, Lozada dug into structural inequities in the Public’s New Work development pipeline.
“Leadership wanted to use the remaining time to invest in structural anti-racism and create space for the staff to be heard within that conversation,” said Lozada. He presented findings to senior leadership on how the Public could combat their role in theater’s dominant whiteness. Then, in July, he was furloughed for real.
Though the Public ensured staff were prepared ahead of July’s cuts, their looming threat was still tough. “It's a challenge to be doing anti-racism work, which is so deep, and long, and structural, when there's a ticking clock behind you,” he said.
Thoennes felt a similar looming dread in April as she worked from home, processing sales for April and May performances she knew would not be happening: “It felt like we were just waiting for the moment when they would call to tell us we were no longer employed.”
Supervisors were attentive, but communication from the Shuberts was lacking. Hopeful return dates were pushed back bit by bit, creating “confusion and disorientation in not knowing what was going to happen.”
In mid-April, 13 staff members were furloughed. There were tearful goodbyes over Zoom to colleagues of four and a half years. For the remaining 11 staff, Theonnes said, “Every day was just one step closer to the next round.”
Now Theonnes is in a holding pattern until January 3, 2021, Broadway’s tentative date for re-opening. She hopes to remain in theater, the industry she loves.
Not everyone can wait and see.
K Walcott is coming around to the reality of leaving a life in the theater behind. Walcott is on 75 percent furlough as production supervisor at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. The Apollo has retained much of its staff (the theater did not return requests for comment), but, in these times of no performance, production departments have been hit especially hard.
“Everyone that I knew in the industry had already been furloughed ahead of me,” Walcott said of June, when she was knocked down to half time.
In July that became just eight hours a week. Fearful of losing her apartment, Walcott has taken a seven-month gig with ABC as an on-set COVID-19 compliance officer.
“I do want to stay with the Apollo and see out the pandemic,” she said. “But the bigger financial picture took over.” Some of her colleagues are shifting into film, going back to school, or moving into health services.
“Everybody's looking for something that can't be interrupted by another pandemic,” she said. “I think we're all now very aware of how fragile our industry actually was.”
Outside of PPP loans, government support has been minimal. Many theaters have partnered with Be An Arts Hero and asked audiences to place pressure on legislators to pass relief legislation for the sector, though support is likely a non-starter in the Republican-led Senate.7 New York officials are more sympathetic, but action has been slow to be realized.
Even as theaters join the Arts Hero campaign, many are reluctant to provide full details of furloughs and layoffs. Lincoln Center and Manhattan Theatre Club are just two leading Off-Broadway theaters that declined to provide that information.
“Greater transparency would help these campaigns,” argued Lauren Halvorsen, who was laid off as Associate Literary Director at Studio Theatre in Washington, DC in June. “Show me a theater company that isn’t furloughing or laying off their staffs right now. I think it’s important for the public to know the human cost of the government’s inaction.”
Some staffers also feel PPP loans were an opportunity squandered by theaters following a “wait and see” strategy, rather than investing in digital work.
“The loans offered a second chance for institutions to create a revenue stream and to think outside the box, and it is truly unfortunate that some don’t want to make that effort,” said one staffer at an institutional theater who asked to remain anonymous. “[The furloughs] exposed the elitism within institutions.”
Of the many furloughed, some will stick with theater, and some will be forced to move on. Either way, the emotional cost has been felt across the industry.
“The uncertainty of it all has been the hardest part for most people,” said Walcott. “You can see it in people's faces on Zoom meetings, just the emotional toll of all of it. People are just exhausted.”
- SMU DataArts, COVID-19 Impact on Nonprofit Arts and Culture in New York City https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/dcla/downloads/pdf/DCLA-AFTA-Covid-Impact-Report.pdf
- Valinsky, Jordan. “Cirque Du Soleil Files for Bankruptcy Protection and Cuts 3,500 Jobs.” CNN, Cable News Network, 29 June 2020, www.cnn.com/2020/06/29/business/cirque-du-soleil-bankruptcy/index.html.
- Steigrad, Alexandra. “Radio City 'Christmas Spectacular' Canceled, MSG Parent to Lay off 350 People.” New York Post, New York Post, 4 Aug. 2020, nypost.com/2020/08/04/radio-city-christmas-spectacular-canceled-for-first-time-ever/.
- Evans, Greg. “Broadway Producer John Gore Organization Lays Off Dozens Of Employees Due To COVID Shutdown.” Yahoo!Money, Yahoo!, 10 Aug. 2020, money.yahoo.com/broadway-producer-john-gore-organization-152329078.html?guccounter=2.
- Evans, Greg. “Broadway Producer John Gore Organization Lays Off Dozens Of Employees Due To COVID Shutdown.” Deadline, Deadline, 10 Aug. 2020, deadline.com/2020/08/john-gore-organization-broadway-layoffs-theater-employees-coronavirus-shutdown-1203008766/.
- Russo, Gillian. “Theatre Development Fund Conducts Layoffs amid Broadway Shutdown.” Broadway News, 20 Mar. 2020, broadwaynews.com/2020/03/20/theatre-development-fund-conducts-layoffs-amid-broadway-shutdown/.