As theaters and concert halls shutter in response to new mandatory social distancing measurers that could remain in place through April, smaller independent theater companies have banded together to game out plans for survival.
Following the lead of Seattle Symphony, Annex Theatre, and Copious Love, dozens of companies are exploring ways to transform their stages into television studios where they can livestream performances. It’s a last-ditch effort to connect Seattle audiences with live theater, dance, and musical experiences in a city struggling to cope with a pandemic that’s going to get worse before it gets any better.
On Thursday morning Lily Raabe at Scandiuzzi Krebs, an arts consulting firm in Seattle, convened a conference call with several independent managing directors and tech experts to raise questions and talk solutions about live-streaming.
Challenges include negotiating with unions, dealing with licensing for music, creating and distributing instructions for setting up live-streaming capabilities, figuring out appropriate streaming platforms, working with internet providers to expand bandwidth for high-quality video, and even creating a central virtual space to host all these performances. If you want to check out the conversation or contribute some ideas, go here.
Stephen McCandless, longtime managing director at Annex Theatre, is working with audio engineer Xris Nil to wire up their raucous upstairs joint on 11th Ave. On the call, McCandless suggested streaming the same play multiple times and editing together each recorded presentation into a final cut to put behind a paywall. "You’re not going to get the sound and cameras right the first time," he said.
Aside from technical issues, the big question, as always, is funding. If this strategy is going to have legs, they’ll have to find start-up and maintenance money.
Information about possible arts funding from federal, state, and local governments is thin on the ground. Most of the federal and state measures have focused on public health measures and stitching up the safety net. On Friday House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reached an agreement with Trump on a stimulus package that guarantees two weeks of paid sick leave and three months of family and medical leave for people struck with the virus, according to the New York Times.
Washington State’s legislature closed up shop after doubling emergency funds related to the coronavirus to $200 million, and that money will go to public health and unemployment benefits for those affected by the virus. Seattle Rep. Noel Frame said gig workers and contract workers affected by the coronavirus should apply for unemployment, even if there's some doubt about getting the benefit. "Even if they are contractors, they may meet the definition of employee by legal standards, such that the company they're working for should've been treating them as an employee in the first place," she said.
Kate Becker, the arts liaison in Executive Dow Constantine’s office, said she might know more about county plans next week. King County Council Member Jeanne Kohl-Welles said she's "intending to introduce legislation." On Wednesday 4Culture announced it would allow Sustained Support artists to access grant money earlier.
City officials at the Office of Arts and Culture have told me they'll let me know of any arts-related relief efforts when they have something fit for public consumption.
Becker said ArtsFund is gathering data from larger institutions to figure out what the need is.
“It has cut so deep so fast,” Becker said. "The question our leaders need to know is, 'What is the number that will be able to make a dent in the pain our community is feeling right now?'"
According to the last economic impact study from ArtsFund, the arts and culture nonprofit sector is a $700 million industry that supports 18,778 jobs in the central Puget Sound Region. About 80% of that is contract work, which can be precarious.
One arts consultant guesses the sector in Seattle alone could be seeing losses on the order of $2 to $3 million per week. If nothing changes in three months, the threat of permanent closure is real, even with major houses. Smaller houses with much smaller budgets could get wiped out for good.
Becker is encouraging artists to track their losses. “It’s critical for them to document their lost work, so they need to keep track of canceled offers, canceled gigs, flyers from canceled gigs, emails. And it’ll help if they can show how much they made last year compared to this year,” she said.
The county's arts initiative website, Becker says, is being retooled to include coronavirus-related updates for the creative community. Artists are also putting together national resource documents for freelancers, which include some opportunities for relief from the private sector.