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Chelsea's Purple Rose Theatre

Arts Crisis

Theater audiences applauded. Music lovers enjoyed live jazz, concert music, or pop.

by Davi Napoleon

From the July, 2020 issue

It seems like forever ago.

When there is a vaccine for Covid-19, Ann Arbor will become the center of arts and entertainment it always has been. But that will take time. Some organizations will be changed. Some won't survive.

The Kickshaw Theatre canceled its last scheduled production this spring and closed permanently. Crazy Wisdom Bookstore will reopen, but the second-floor tearoom, which hosted acoustic music and poetry readings, has been repurposed as a community room for event bookings and yoga.

Other venues hope to reopen but don't know when.

"Theater is a contact sport. You have to be in the same room and breathe the same air and touch," says Purple Rose Theatre managing director Katie Hubbard. Its intimate building in Chelsea normally seats 168. With social distancing guidelines, they could sell just twenty-eight tickets, so they won't reopen soon.

After considering summer shows in West Park, the Penny Seats Theatre Company realized distancing would still be tricky and indoor rehearsals would put actors at risk. The 2020 season is off; reopening awaits a vaccine. The Ann Arbor Civic Band's summer concerts at the West Park band shell are canceled, too.

The Ark closed ahead of the shutdown and can only open when it's safe for artists to tour. University Musical Society has announced its coming season but will adapt audience capacity and to travel issues, too.

"Loud and close together and energized. That's what the Necto is," says Scott Greig. But a crowded dance floor is not the place to be with Covid on the loose.

After canceling this summer's event, the Ann Arbor Antiquarian Book Fair has reserved May 16, 2021.

Laughter may be the best medicine, but since it doesn't cure this virus, the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase, along with many other entertainment entities, canceled scheduled performances, too.

Some arts organizations stream live presentations, often from artists' homes; others show works that were captured when originally presented. Some show films, host discussions, or

...continued below...

offer other online events.

Some plan to integrate virtual experiences into future seasons. "I think as we use technology, we can also increase accessibility. It's a scary time, but I think there are untapped opportunities," reflects Joe Schoch, director of Ann Arbor Pride.

UMS has been offering online events. But Sara Billman, vice president for marketing and communications, says that's made audiences and artists "realize how much we value being together with others for shared experiences, and that the energy transfer is two-way ... It's hard to feel that energy from your living room."

The financial toll varies. Forty percent of those who held tickets to canceled UMS events donated them back. Supported by donors, Green Wood Coffee House is saving money, since ticket sales never covered costs of bringing in artists. Penny Seats budgets in advance through donations, and its lease is based on occupancy. The Ann Arbor Festival of Song, a shoestring operation, had no money to lose. The Ann Arbor Film Festival, presented for free this year, lost only 8 percent in revenue because sponsors came through and most advance sales were converted into donations.

Loans and grants and celebrity fundraisers keep the Purple Rose afloat. Founder Jeff Daniels has done four fundraising concerts online. The theater's endowment is a safety net now.

The Ark reduced its staff, and memberships and donations are helping cover fixed expenses.

The Antiquarian Book Fair has refunded booth fees but still had expenses. A GoFundMe campaign helped pay Zal Gaz Grotto's summer property tax bill, and the club hopes to use its liquor license outside.

Monthly revenue for the Michigan and State theaters is down more than 70 percent, a situation that's not sustainable long-term.

The Necto is working to reduce costs. A skeleton staff is keeping the coolers clean and the sound equipment in good shape.

"The Necto has been there since 1974," says Greig. "It's an institution in town, and we'll fight and claw and scratch to keep the torch lit."     (end of article)

[Originally published in July, 2020.]


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