The Last Ones Out: Examining the Long Road Ahead for Arts and Culture Industry

May 12, 2020

Across the country, businesses are reopening according to state-specific guidelines and phases. Entertainment, art, and culture-related businesses are the last to open in almost every state. Executive director of Paducah, Kentucky's Market House Theater, Michael Cochran, speaks with Tracy Ross about how the theater is adapting their business model to fit within the pandemic's boundaries.

Market House Theater, an education and performance space nestled in Market House Square on the Paducah riverfront, has managed to continue running despite the pandemic's disastrous effects on small businesses nationwide. "We got our first round of PPE funds," Cochran begins, "but the question is, what are they going to work on?"

"I don't have any money for materials to do shows," he continues. "Even if I do have money for materials to do shows, can I schedule that? When are they going to go on? What's going to happen? I'm trying to work on future planning for what we have, but...some people say [arts and culture reopenings] are going to happen in the fall. Some people say it's not going to happen until 2021. I'm looking at the national models...Broadway doesn't know when they're going to reopen. Hollywood doesn't know when they're going to reopen."

Market House's multi-purpose space makes maintaining adequate social distance even more difficult. "Half to two-thirds of our programming is classes and education. I'm looking at Murray State [and] these other places and going, how are you guys going to get students back together in the classroom? Because that's just as important for us as the performance," Cochran says. 

"In some ways, we're doing a lot of things that we can online now," Cochran continues. "We're rehearsing The Show Must Go Online. It's a twenty-one actor [cast], 4th through 8th graders. It'll be out at the end of the month. The education director is rehearsing that right now through Zoom. Learning all these new tools and technology, trying to get the kids to [use certain kinds] of lighting...we're in a new world. I think the biggest thing for non-profits, especially those in the arts and culture, is you can't even really [make plans]. You can make plans, but you can't implement anything until we get further along in this."

Cochran, like many others in the performing arts industry, is uncertain when theaters, venues, and similar spaces will see a return to a new or modified 'normal.' The Market House Theater would need "about six to eight weeks" to get show-ready, Cochran says. The theater turned to a disaster planning company for guidance, working "to create the protocols and plans for how [Market House] reopens."

"Their advice was, whatever date they say, add two months to it," Cochran says. "That's how long it will take for arts and culture to get back up, to rehearse, to do what the need to do." Regardless of how quickly community theaters can put together a production, their attendance still relies on individuals feeling comfortable enough to return to a mass gathering setting. 

"The first things that people will do is...go back to the zoos...outdoor spaces...museums. Things you can walk in and keep social distance. I think that it's going to be a slow process," Cochran says. "I think restaurants, for us, are important. That kind of gives us a measure - when local people start feeling comfortable going into a restaurant. But I think this experience has changed us, and we're trying to find how we're going to operate in the future with this new reality. It may take a year; it may take two years to come back...if it gets back that way. If they get a vaccine. If they do things like that where everybody feels comfortable." 

"But in the meantime," Cochran continues, "we all have to figure out how to operate in a different environment. For us, socially distancing...is great for us because we're small and we're nimble. In some ways, [we] can do some socially distant things. Our theater seats 200 people. If I do socially distancing seating, that brings it down to 50 people. So we're doing a performance for 50 people. Now I have to make sure that we can still afford to do a performance for 50 people. Do the numbers still work on that? Can we stay in the black doing that?"

"Even though we're a non-profit, you still have to maintain a certain business balance on that. There are a lot of questions that we're working through right now with possible alternatives, but at the end of the day, I just kind of do a lot of pacing in my office. There's still a lot more that's going to happen in this. Trying to say, 'okay, we're going to change this right now to go do this,' isn't necessarily the best case because you still have to work slowly through the options. Then, as things happen, you can adjust to that. I think we're all trying to make as many plans as we can. At the same time, we're still early in this. We're still waiting to see how this unfold to know what direction to firmly plant that flag in."

In this time of unavoidable uncertainty, donations can still be made to support Market House Theater's operational costs and online services. "Donations help to keep the lights on...keep the power going...keep the insurance paid," Cochran explains. "We have staff that we've trimmed back down to a core level. It does take planning to do a lot of these things."

Donations can be made by visiting the Market House Theater website. "We're so grateful for people who want to continue to support the theater even when we can't give them a product right now," Cochran says. "That's the best way to support us. We may be a non-profit, but we're still a business. Market House Theater has fifteen employees. We generate a lot of economic impact in the community from restaurants to everything else."

"Some places have said, 'well, we just need to focus on the small businesses to support them.' All of the arts groups are small businesses. When you take the number of employees and the economic impact that all of these groups have, that's a significant part of a community. [I ask] for communities to support not just Market House, but...all of the arts and culture [in] whatever way they can. Keep us in mind as we go through this. We're going to be the last ones out of this. That's the hard truth. We're going to be one of the last ones out, and it's going to be a struggle for all of us," Cochran concludes.