The marquee at The Argyle Theatre in Babylon.

The marquee at The Argyle Theatre in Babylon. Credit: The Argyle Theatre

There are two phrases rather than shows on the marquee of the Argyle Theatre in Babylon: "STAY THE COURSE" and "STAY TUNED LI."

Apt words for a bitter pandemic year in the performance world. New York’s theaters and entertainment venues and all the people employed by them are crucial to our economy, cultural heritage, and emotional wellbeing, and we must help them stay on course until it’s time to tune in.

COVID-19 decimated the industry, from Broadway to Long Island and beyond. Revenue for a time was down 98% at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport, says theater co-owner and managing director Kevin O’Neill. Such pandemic drops were true all around the country and performers left with few options.

Then there are the cascading effects of not being able to have actors onstage: the pit musicians and bartenders and box office staff who couldn't work, plus the loss of all the outside industries that rely on theater. A nonprofit arts attendee spends an additional $31.41 per person, per show for child care, dinner, parking and the like, according to an estimate from the group Americans for the Arts.

Those purchases can lead to more than just pleasurable experiences--they rev the local economy.

Venues and performers have been helped by the federal government through a variety of programs, including supplemental unemployment insurance, the Paycheck Protection Program, and the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant.

But now there is concern about getting through the "bridge" period from the present of plateaued infection levels to the moment--perhaps months from now--when theaters can open in full.

Most theaters don’t have the flexibility of other industries to open profitably at severely reduced capacities, given the tight margins of the live performance business that might call for a 22 person cast and eight-piece orchestra just for starters. And theaters have to navigate the comfort-levels of a public slowly getting vaccinated and unsure about being indoors. It’s becoming a sad truism in the theater world that they were the first ones out of work due to COVID-19, and could be the last ones back in.

So continued support will be needed for workers who may have a hard time finding a job even late this year, when Broadway blockbusters may be just returning. Increased funding or the National Endowment for the Arts could take a New Deal approach to spreading the arts around the country such as national tours featuring Broadway-caliber productions and all their lighting, costumes and music in underserved areas.

Capacity limits and shows are inching back, as this weekend's performance with Nathan Lane and Savion Glover on Broadway showed. Ultimately, the path to playbills will be paved by lower infection levels, more vaccinations, and perhaps better digital passport-style systems to show that ticket-buyers have tested clean or been inoculated. In the meantime, let’s support the performance spaces and performers with whom we will laugh and cry and applaud, now very personally processing through ancient communal methods the grief and challenge of this pandemic year.

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