Monday, September 21, 2020

One Writer's Six-Month Pandemic Check-In

It's a been a little more than six months since the COVID-19 pandemic started shutting things down and wreaking havoc on our lives and killing rising numbers of people. My last blog post, in April, tried to look ahead at what a pandemic might look like for the Boston and national new play scene (the jury is still out, but some circumstances have changed more than expected). Today, I want to do a quick check-in on how my writing life has been impacted the pandemic so far.

This look back comes as the US has just reported more than 200,000 deaths from the virus. Which is far more than I would have hoped six months ago, but the politicization of the public health response ended up making things worse in ways I wouldn't have predicted.

My own family has not yet contracted the virus, though quite a number of my friends have not been so lucky. We lost a family friend to the coronavirus this spring, and just this week, Bryan Fonseca, a director friend in Indianapolis, died from the virus. In our house, we've been fortunate that my wife's job at MIT has been steady (and she can work from home), which is important since we depend on it to pay our bills and provide healthcare. My 20-year-old son with a disability lost his part-time job as a classroom helper, and my 25-year-old daughter finished her Master's degree in psychology online in May and now has moved back home as she looks for full-time work. Though she worked part-time while she was a graduate student in Florida, she's never been able to collect unemployment from Florida.

As for my writing life, there have been quite a series of losses, but also a few gains, too. This has been a devastating time for the entire theatre sector, as well as the museum field, with in-person performances still not viable, and uncertainty making planning and predicting the resumption of our business a nearly impossible task.

The losses:

  • My play Mox Nox, which I've been working on with the Brown Box Theatre Project since 2017 was scheduled for an 11-stop, 14-performance tour in May and June and I was going to go with them. That show has been rescheduled for May of 2021. They had already built the set in Maryland and costume design was in progress, and we were able to start rehearsals. 
  • Beloved Island: Windows on Campobello was a new site-specific play set in FDR's summer cottage on Campobello Island, in New Brunswick, Canada. Fortunately, the Roosevelt-Campobello Park supported me in completing the commission, so the script is now complete. But the two-week run on the shores of the Bay of Fundy (I was going to be in residence for the run!), had to be postponed. Right now we're hoping for August 2021.

  • Daniel Berger Jones and Dale Place in Blood on the Snow
  • Blood on the Snow. This popular Boston site-specific play was set to return to the Old State House for a month-long Equity run, reuniting much of the original cast, in the year marking the 250th anniversary of the Boston Massacre. Originally, I thought the October run would be safe, since things would surely be under control by then. But it became increasingly clear that cramming an audience of 56 into a small room with ten actors was not a safe plan. The show has been canceled for now, though I have hopes it will be back someday.
  • Moonlight Abolitionists. This is a one-act play written to be performed under the full moon at Mount Auburn Cemetery, created as part of my residency there. We had two possible performance windows this fall, and I thought it might be possible to make it happen under social-distancing guidelines, but then numbers started to creep up in Massachusetts, so we decided to pull the plug. Our next available moon/weather/darkness window (it takes a lot of calculations to plan this show) is end of April 2021, so we'll see what the world is like then.
  • At the start of March, I had just put together a contract for a new commission with a small historical theatre operation, plus they were going to tour another of my plays. The pandemic put a hold on both of those plans. 
  • I was also talking to an institution about a possible staff job, that could have made an interesting impact on my writing, the field, and been a boost to my family (regular paycheck), but now many museums have laid off half of theirs staffs (or more), so that possibility is likely gone.
  • I'd contracted to write the screenplay for an independent historical feature film. We'd actually signed the contract in 2019, but they'd had trouble raising the necessary funds. I received a call while walking on a frozen lake in Grand Lake, Colorado, while at the National Winter Playwrights Retreat in March, that the producer found the money to go ahead. I've written a number of film scripts over the years, but this seemed like one that might actually get made. The pandemic dried up the funding and logistics and the producer finally pulled the plug last week.
  • My company, Plays in Place, contracted with Revolutionary Spaces (who got me started in the museum world) to commission and produce a new short play about Crispus Attucks at the Old South Meeting House. The good news is that we were able to commission playwright Miranda ADEkoje to write a fabulous one-act play. The original plan was to have the script finished in mid-spring and have a run of nearly 180 performances for site visitors over the summer and fall. The script now has a great draft, but the production will have to wait for us to be able to gather audiences safely indoors. 
  • In a typical year, I normally pick up a few small productions here and there, plus get at least 20 school productions of my short plays. Those mostly can't happen now.

So a pretty serious collection, and one that I'm sure is small compared to many of my colleagues. And again, I'm lucky that my income has mostly been supplemental for our family. Many of my Equity actor friends need to work a certain number of weeks to qualify for health care coverage, but those weeks have all evaporated. Other theatre artists relied on gig work to supplement their meagre theatre earnings, but many of those gig jobs are also gone. The Boston Globe published an article today about the severe impact on adjunct professors due to the pandemic--many playwrights I know make a large portion of their income teaching as adjuncts.

For me, the impact from lost productions/royalties is more than $10,000 and  additional lost commissions/film work of more $20,000, for a total more than $30K in total losses.  You can see my stats from past years in this series of posts, but grossing $25K is a superb year for me. This would have been one of my best years ever, in terms of audience and income.  The projects scheduled for this year would likely have reached at least 8,000 people.

Plays in Place was scheduled to produce three main projects, and I was working to sign a few others. Our budget was expected to be around $130,000 in 2020, with almost all of that going to individual theatre artists (because we do site-specific work in partnership with institutions, we don't pay for rent and have very little tech costs).  When you spread out $100,000 over various artists, you can see the ripple effect, even from just my small company.

Right now it looks like Plays in Place will bring less than $10,000. We have pretty low overhead (no salaried employees, home office, etc.), but we'll still lose money this year (which comes out of my own pocket). We can't keep repeating that for long and stay in business. 

We are, of course, in a far different condition from most theatre companies who are burdened with rent and high overhead costs, and very few ways to generate income. Borrowing money is the start of a path to a slow death for theatre companies, so they have to be creative and cautious as they try to keep their doors open.

Despite the losses, there have also been some unexpected positive surprises that have helped provide much needed encouragement, support, and funds.

The positives:
  • Revolutionary Spaces has commissioned me to write a big new site-specific play designed to be performed at Boston's Old South Meeting House. I'm deep into the research right now and hope to start writing next month, with the goal of having a first draft by the end of the year. It's a very challenging and exciting project, and I so appreciate their support and confidence in me and my writing.
  • The Huntington Theatre Company commissioned me to write a short audio play for their Dream Boston series. I got to work with a fantastic director, Roz Bevan, and two terrific actors, Omar Robinson (who was in my play Fire on Earth, years ago) and Rachel Cognata. My episode will stream starting on October 21.
  • Mount Auburn Cemetery worked with me to published a new book that collects all the plays I wrote for my residency: The Mount Auburn Plays. It's a gorgeous little paperback with photos from last year's productions and reflections by the actors and director (and me). Took a lot of work, but I'm excited to have a tangible reminder of this project. We have a virtual book launch planned for 6pm on September 30
  • I'm finalizing a contract for Phase 1 research work on a series of three new site-specific plays for the National Park Service in Boston. This is a deal we've been talking about for more than a year, and I'm extremely grateful that the pandemic has not derailed this project.
  • I did a small adaptation commission for New Rep in Boston and hope to have small project coming up with The Lyric Stage Company. A bunch of my short plays got virtual performances or filming:  Santa's Dolphins with Wheelock Family Theatre for the Boston Theater Marathon; Beatrix Potter Must Die! was filmed by Cherie Julander for the Hive Collaborative competition, Ms. Claus got a fun zoom performance from Theatre Three on Long Island, and Santa's Dolphins got an audio version from One Night Stand in Colorado.
Which is a lot of pluses. Some of these projects only exist because the pandemic derailed other plans at those institutions. I'll pick up almost $10K in unexpected new work from these (though not all of it will be paid this year, because of how commissions are structured), which helps to offset the losses. I'm extremely grateful to the companies who have been supporting me over these past six months. 2020 was always going to be a busy one for me, but now rather than being in rehearsal and on tour, I'm actively researching and writing new material (and renovating a house and barn). As seems always the case in my life, I'm juggling a lot of projects and trying my best to find the time to get it all done.  (That might be just a personality trait, rather than a reflection on the world.)

Mostly, I'm grateful that my family has been able to stay healthy and safe. I realize that part of what has allowed that to happen is the fact that we've been able to stay at home and follow safety precautions. This pandemic has highlighted the huge economic and social divides that exists in our country--people who have jobs that they must work in person are being highly impacted, while people who can work from home can stay safe. Because of inequities in our education, health, housing, and social networks, this puts the burden much more severely on communities of color.  

And, we're seeing the economic impact strongly in industries that require in-person contact--the stock market remains strong because of the economic weight of high-tech companies (Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Google), but the gathering economy, theaters, concerts, museums, etc. have taken a devastating hit. Unemployment remains at record levels. 

As I wrote back in April, I still worry whether our field will lose a lot of talent, as people are forced away from the arts due to economic issues (which are highlighting financial problems that were already in the system). The death of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter has caused some serious conversation and pressure on the the artistic world to examine itself more closely and make long-needed changes. I'm seeing a lot of positive push happening here in Boston, but to say that it's a complex issue is an extreme understatement. 

After six months, I desperately miss being in rehearsals with my fellow artists. I long for experiencing plays, my own and others, with audiences again. I felt like I'd really built some skill and experience in creating intimate site-specific work, and the frustration of having that arc so abruptly interrupted is strong. There are other new models being explored to use in reaching audiences, which is great, but I am eager for the days when we're all back in the same space, collectively breathing the creation that we make together--actors, text, production, audience--into a theatrical experience.


tericee said...

Any chance Blood on the Snow would work as a table read? Maybe as a fundraiser?
I'd like to "see" it even if I can't experience the full thing.

Patrick Gabridge said...

It's certainly possible. (Courtney O'Connor, our director, was just reminding me that we were originally scheduled to open the show at the Old State House tonight, before the pandemic.)