‘Revving up their engine’: Philly Theatre Week signals potential industry revival to regional arts and culture organizations

By  –  Reporter, Philadelphia Business Journal

Dozens of Greater Philadelphia theaters are gearing up for the fourth-annual Philly Theatre Week, with many organizations pegging the event as a jumping off point for the arts and culture industry to begin recovering from Covid-19.

The programming is slated to run April 22 to May 2, with hundreds of performances and events scheduled from 64 arts organizations located in the city, suburbs, New Jersey and Delaware. While 2021 Theatre Week is still taking place, show formats are expected to look different in a Covid-19 world, said LaNeshe Miller-White, executive director of Theatre Philadelphia, an umbrella organization doing marketing and advocacy for the regional arts and culture sector that is the driving force behind Theatre Week.

Various tactics will be used to facilitate Theatre Week programming including in-person outdoor events, theater-by-mail, audio plays, livestreamed digital performances and pre-recorded shows. Tickets follow a pricing scheme of free, $15 or $30.

“The main difference is that most things are going to be virtual and even for the in-person events none of those are, ‘Come in to a big audience in a theater and watch a show,’” Miller-White said. “They are drive up or walk-by, so all of it is non-traditional. None of it is the standard in-person events that we would normally have.”

Theatre Week, which usually takes place in February, comes at a time when arts and culture organizations are planning future seasons and “working really, really hard to stay afloat” and stay at the top of audiences’ minds, she added.

Throughout Greater Philadelphia the sector has lost about $1 million in revenue every day since March 2020, according to a recent study by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. That balances out to $305.6 million lost between last March and December, with an additional $66.1 million in projected losses from January to March this year

Forging ahead with Theatre Week piggybacks on a potential turning point for the industry that emerged last week when the Kimmel Center announced it’s preparing for a fall revival with 100% capacity allowance for its venues. Theatre Week is now giving other companies confidence to begin planning programming farther out, Miller-White noted.

“Kimmel has kind of opened the doors, no one wanted to be the first to step out in confidence with, ‘We’re going to do it,” she added. “… Now that companies are seeing that everyone else also is revving up their engine, I think that’s going to help people to be a little more confident in the planning for either a fall in-person reopening or a winter 2022 in-person reopening.”

This year’s Theatre Week provides an opportunity for participating organizations to prove they are “moving forward,” “adapting,” and “resilient,” said Paige Price, producing artistic director at Philadelphia Theatre Co.

The 480 S. Broad St. venue typically runs a show during Theatre Week that “brings visibility” to the organization as many newcomers take advantage of discounted pricing, she added. This year the company is pivoting to announce an upcoming documentary and the winners of a playwriting contest to engage viewers instead. The venue is hoping for a complete reopening in late fall with at least 50% occupancy.

“It says a lot that theater week is still happening and I think that should give the fans and the audiences great confidence that theaters are still working behind the scenes to bring them great seasons,” Price added.

Another draw of participating in 2021 Theatre Week is that the visibility and marketing around the group effort is “less risky” for companies at this time than planning and promoting programming independently, Miller-White noted. Participants are able to feel more confident about experiencing an “extra bump” in business.

Norristown-based Theatre Horizon usually participates in Theatre Week and this year will livestream a comedy from its Arts Houses series on April 24, said artistic director Nell Bang-Jensen. The coordinated group offering is allowing regional theater companies to work together at a crucial moment for the sector as it looks to emerge from the pandemic, she noted, adding Theatre Horizon is remaining flexible in its scenario planning. Productions in the works for 2021 are being developed to work online or in-person, and the venue has a goal of opening up to full in-person audiences in 2022.

“We can all sometimes get so buried in our own organization that we forget to reach out,” Bang-Jensen added. “… In this moment where we all really need to be advocating for more funding for the arts sector to talking about how to keep our audiences, artists and staff safe, it’s really a great opportunity to have more conversations with each other.”