When a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic hits, individuals and organizations are forced to make tough decisions. Will we follow the guidance of healthcare leaders and stay in? What is the safest, smartest thing to do? As organizations, what is the most responsible way to respond? Should we stay open and allow people to make their own choices or will we close down, taking away individual freedoms but lessening the chances of spreading the virus?
Locally, theater and arts groups are among many deeply affected. The Actors Guild of Parkersburg, Mid-Ohio Valley Players, and Peoples Bank Theatre have chosen, for the sake of their performers as well as the audiences, to shut down their productions and bring down the curtain on productions that were either in progress, about to open, or in one case, in mid-production. Also suffering are art centers on both sides of the Ohio River.
The Actors Guild of Parkersburg was about to launch the last weekend of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility when their host, West Virginia University at Parkersburg, had to close. “We are truly saddened,” said Brent Null of the Guild, “that S&S closed prematurely, but support the decision surrounding why the closure and cancellation was necessary.” Those involved in the production expressed similar mixed feelings.
“The cast and crew of Sense and Sensibility were disappointed when the final weekend performances of our show were canceled,” said director Greg Merritt. “Of course, we all understood that public health concerns were of paramount importance.” The Guild has chosen to postpone all three of their remaining shows indefinitely, with an eye to rescheduling when life begins to get back to normal. “We plan to monitor the situation weekly and hopefully get things rescheduled as soon as we are able,” said Null.
The Guild has found itself filling the role of wandering minstrels, mounting shows at Blennerhassett School and WVU-P as their facilities are undergoing major renovations. If there is any bright spot in this situation, it is that renovations have continued even as the productions have had to halt. It is hoped that the theatre’s auditorium will be completely finished by the time they raise the curtain on their next production, The Producers, which was in rehearsal at the time things were shut down.
[It] was like having an itch with no way to scratch it.R.J. Lowe
Emotional responses from the actors and crew members of both shows have been surprisingly upbeat. Null said, while disappointed, everyone involved is confident that they made the right choice. He went on to say the public has been highly supportive as well. “So far, the response has been positive mixed with sadness.” While patrons of the Guild want nothing more than to see a show, everyone seems to understand it just isn’t possible in the current climate.
Meantime, in Marietta, the Mid-Ohio Valley Players found itself in a similar predicament, though with a slight twist. Rather than losing the last weekend of a show, they were literally hours away from opening night of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. The bad news, according to R. J. Lowe, who was set to play Judge Lawrence Wargrave in the celebrated whodunit, is that the cast and crew had built up their energy for opening night and had no satisfactory outlet for that energy. “You build up a certain energy,” said Lowe, “and anticipatory vibration when heading towards an opening night and, since we weren’t told about cancelation until kind of late in the day, those energies had already been building up and to have no way to release them was like having an itch with no way to scratch it.”
The potentially good news is that Lowe and his compatriots hope to have another chance to present their show. Kermit Polan, president of MOVP, said they are taking a slightly different approach to their schedule than the Guild’s. They are, Polan said, “choosing to remain optimistic,” by dropping their next production, Ring of Fire, from the schedule altogether and rescheduling And Then There Were None to open May 1 and leaving their final show, The Dixie Swim Club, in its original slot of June 19-27. If the quarantine lingers, Polan concedes they will have to re-evaluate, though he feels by having productions scheduled, it gives people something to look forward to and a sense that life will go on eventually.
Both the Guild and the MOVP are taking a difficult financial hit, as ticket sales are their life’s blood. “We can’t lose a show in our budget,” said Polan of the idea of losing ticket sales for an entire show. “We’ve lost a substantial piece of our budget.” Null expressed a similar sentiment about losing a weekend of ticket sales and there not being a clear idea of if or when they’ll be able to have shows for which they can sell tickets. “Yes, we are definitely concerned,” Null said, “about how we’re going to pay the bills and meet payroll for our employee. Basically, without shows, we have no income.”
Neither theater is in any immediate danger of closing its doors, though. “We’re not destitute,” said Polan, “and we’re hoping the public, when this is over, is anxious to see a show.”
Similarly, art centers on both sides of the Ohio River are facing struggles due to not being able to be open to the public. In Marietta, for instance, The Riverside Artists Gallery is in dire straits because of the nature of their business. The gallery is a small collection of artists who come together under one roof and maintain expenses primarily by renting space and sharing administrative duties. It does offer a limited number of classes as well as art shows and author readings, but the bulk of their income is derived from space rental fees from the artists who make up the gallery.
Art is not at the top of Main Street Americans’ priority list. It understandably falls below housing, utilities, gas, clothing, etc.Betsy Cook
“Right now,” said Betsy Cook, one of the artists, “Riverside Artists Gallery has no income but must continue to pay rent and utilities.” Additionally, they had to cancel scheduled art classes and refund the registration fees to those who had already signed up. “We are very worried about the future since we were struggling in this economy already. Art is not at the top of Main Street Americans’ priority list. It understandably falls below housing, utilities, gas, clothing, etc.”
The picture is somewhat less grim in Parkersburg, where the Parkersburg Art Center is struggling due to the loss of income generated by workshop and camp fees but is a much larger entity with more sources of income on which to fall back. Jessie Siefert of the PAC expressed concern mixed with optimism. “This is a huge hit to us financially, as with all non-profits and local businesses around the country. We are not alone. Without the income that our programming and venues provides, we will have to dip into reserves to maintain our facility and pay key staff.” It is the existence of those reserves that makes the Art Center’s future, at least in the short term, a bit less cloudy.
As is true of us all, the good people of the artistic community here in the Mid-Ohio Valley hope to see a quick end to these stay-at-home orders, though not before it is safe for that to happen. And when it finally does come to an end, they all look forward to seeing the public inside their venues, and with them the dollars that will keep them open. As hard as it is to even consider at a time when many of us are struggling ourselves to maintain our household budgets, those of us who can, might consider supporting these organizations and others like them by making donations or buying gift certificates or advanced tickets. At the very least, they would appreciate it if everyone would follow them on social media and let them know the community is in their corner and look forward to the day their doors open again.
An irony of this situation was summed up quite aptly by R. J. Lowe. “It’s interesting that so many people, a lot of whom would be all for cutting funding for the arts, are now turning to artists to make these times bearable. I hope they remember that when all is said and done!”