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As theaters stare down uncertainty, Ars Nova buys itself time
Barrie Lobo McLain, center, in the Art Nova production "Oratorio for Living Things" at Greenwich House Theater in New York, March 8, 2020. In committing to paying its people during a three-month shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, the theater gives itself breathing room to prepare for when it can open again. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Laura Collins-Hughes

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In the hours after Broadway shut down for 30 days to slow the spread of the coronavirus, off-Broadway closures followed in a wave — show upon show postponed or suspended or prematurely ended.

Ars Nova was one of those companies, going dark the same night that Broadway did, and for the same length of time. On March 12, after just two previews, it paused production of the music-theater piece on its stage, Heather Christian’s “Oratorio for Living Things,” and halted all activity at its headquarters, an incubator for emerging artists and their work.

Then, on March 23, Ars Nova — which has been a launching pad for artists including Lin-Manuel Miranda, Annie Baker and Billy Eichner — took what its managing director, Renee Blinkwolt, called a “calculated leap of faith.” While much of off-Broadway has adopted a wait-and-see posture toward productions slated for late spring, or postponed them without announcing new dates, Ars Nova took the concrete step of canceling the remainder of its season, which was to have ended June 30.

In doing so, it promised to pay in full each person who had been scheduled to work during that time: staffers, artists, independent contractors. The opening night photographer for “Oratorio,” or an usher for an April 10 performance? On the list. It adds up to an estimated 223 people, for a total of about $685,000 — such a hefty price tag for a company with a $3.7 million budget that Blinkwolt chuckled wryly when she spoke it aloud.

“Pardon the laugh,” she said by phone from her home. “I take it very seriously. It’s just a big number to make a commitment to right now.”

But a commitment it is, and it comes at a time when some major regional companies — including California Shakespeare Theater, which nixed its entire 2020 season; Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which will be dark through Sept. 6; and Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., which canceled the rest of its season — have announced layoffs or furloughs with their closures. Broadway, under an emergency agreement, will pay its unionized workers for only 2 1/2 weeks of its shutdown, most of that at the minimum rate.

This may be a good place to mention that Ars Nova did not seek an article about the course it has chosen. On the contrary, Blinkwolt and Jason Eagan, the company’s artistic director, worried that discussing it publicly could look like they were shaming colleagues amid an industry-rattling pandemic. They know that other arts leaders are agonizing, too, about how best to take care of their people and safeguard their institutions.

“It’s not meant to be virtue-signaling,” Eagan said from his home, “but we are putting money in artists’ pockets. That is something we are doing because we are in the fortunate position of being able to do it.”

As Blinkwolt framed it, that ability has nothing to do with an angel donor — there isn’t one, she said — but rather serendipity.

Thanks to a capital campaign it embarked on in 2018, Ars Nova started the current fiscal year with an unusually large cushion of working capital — six months’ worth. An as-yet-unreleased report by the Howard Gilman Foundation, using data from 200 New York City performing arts groups that it funds, said that just over one month of working capital is the median for its grantee organizations of all sizes.

Also in Ars Nova’s favor is the odd-duck timing of its annual gala benefit, which it holds in the fall, an evening that tends more toward sexy than staid. With Tina Fey, Audra McDonald, Josh Groban and Freestyle Love Supreme in attendance, this season’s unusually starry incarnation netted $714,000, or nearly 20% of the company’s annual budget.

That percentage is “pretty typical” for theaters, Blinkwolt said. But spring is more traditional for galas, and the threat of the coronavirus has many theaters scrambling to reschedule or reconfigure events that bring in a sizable chunk of their income.

A third factor is that Ars Nova keeps its ticket prices low so that its shows are accessible to young audiences. With box-office sales making up only 7% of its budget, losing that income “is obviously a hit,” Blinkwolt said, but a less painful one than it might be otherwise.

So, when the pandemic’s disruption began to look like it would last longer than 30 days, the company directors decided to do what their means enabled them to do.

Like nonprofit theaters with their paper-thin margins, Blinkwolt said, the people they employ “probably don’t have three to six months of their living expenses in their savings account, and so aren’t built to weather this kind of storm.”

She and Eagan hope that Ars Nova’s supporters will replenish the funds they are tapping into now.

“I mean, you calculate the risk,” Eagan said, “and then you do what you can — but you do everything you can. The right decision for us is leading through our values, following our hearts. It sounds cheesy, but it’s the whole reason we exist.”

And now that they have cleared away the energy-sucking distraction of what he called “incremental crisis management” — changing plans in response to each development in pandemic news — they have a few months to plan for the longer term, figuring out ways to bounce back quickly when the all-clear sounds.

Maybe then “Oratorio” will return in some form, even if Eagan can’t yet say how.

“It feels even more important to me now that people get to see it,” he said. “We’re going to start exploring all the possibilities for how to do that somehow, somewhere, sometime.”

In the meanwhile, Eagan is happy to have Ars Nova host what it can online — like an Instagram concert last Friday in which Andrew R. Butler performed songs from his musical “Rags Parkland Sings the Songs of the Future.”

“But I’m finding myself mostly thinking about resilience,” Eagan said. “And how do we come out the other side of this.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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