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Shakespeare Theatre Company slashes budget, sheds a third of its staff


“This is all very tragic, and for no other reason than the pandemic,” said Simon Godwin, Shakespeare Theatre’s artistic director.

Added Jennings: “This is devastating for all of us. These are people who have been with us for decades.”

With the dim short-term prospects for sufficient revenue from stage productions, performing arts groups of all stripes are wiping clean their 2020 calendars and making sometimes drastic cuts. In Washington, both the Kennedy Center and Arena Stage have had to furlough a majority of their employees and cut spending. Outright layoffs of the sort Shakespeare Theatre has made are also occurring at other major institutions across the country: In May, Minneapolis’s highly regarded Guthrie Theater eliminated 79 percent of its 262-member staff while reducing its budget from $31 million to $12.6 million.

Godwin said that Shakespeare Theatre was able to hold off staff cuts for several months with loans from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, and a recent company fundraising effort, the Phoenix Fund, that raised more than $1 million from 1,700 donors. Rotating furloughs of the remaining staff account for additional savings.

The company is also working, Godwin added, on what STC will look like when authorities deem it acceptable for theaters to fully reopen. The District is in Phase 2 of its reopening plan, allowing gatherings of up to 50 people. Phase 3 is expected to allow gatherings of up to 250 people. Shakespeare Theatre officials say that the limitations of social distancing guidelines would realistically permit the filling of only about 25 percent of its seats in its flagship space, 774-seat Sidney Harman Hall, and a similar percentage in the 451-seat Michael R. Klein Theatre.

A restart date has not been set and the company is still formulating its roster of future offerings. Godwin did disclose that the first in-person production will be a return of its winter hit, a sterling revival of James Baldwin’s gospel-infused play from the 1950s, “The Amen Corner.” The show, directed by Whitney White and featuring Mia Ellis and E. Faye Butler, had its run interrupted when the novel coronavirus shuttered theaters in the capital and beyond.

How a classical theater adjusts to a new set of financial and public-health realities is one of the urgent matters being contemplated by Godwin, who was in the midst of his first full producing season when the pandemic struck.

“I’m trying to see it as an opportunity to get back to our roots,” he said, explaining that he is looking to history, and how William Shakespeare himself approached the practicalities of stagecraft. “Maybe the answer is in an Elizabethan model,” Godwin said, as he listed some of the streamlining notions of Shakespeare’s era that might be used in a leaner, modern theater world. “Shakespeare had shorter rehearsal periods, bare stages, an intensity around character and relationships,” he noted.

Regardless of how the company and others like it tailor their operations, there will be a need for additional outside assistance. Pointing to the $2 billion in aid that the British government has earmarked for the arts, Jennings observed that a financial rescue is just as crucial in this country. “I really hope that Congress will see the value of the arts, and to find some support for our industry,” he said. “And I hope the donors will stand by us.”


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