Nonprofit Theaters Finding Ways to Navigate Through Closures

By Molly Gilmore

Olympia theaters are dark these days — quite literally — yet those running them see light in the distance. Metaphorically speaking, “the show’s going to go on,” said Jill Barnes, executive director of The Washington Center for the Performing Arts. “It will.”

Barnes and the leaders of other local nonprofit theaters have been scrambling to cope with cancellations, postponements and financial plans for weathering the closures. “It’s been quite a ride lately,” Barnes said

Although Gov. Jay Inslee’s order closing theaters and other social and recreational venues extends only through March 31, arts leaders expect to be shuttered longer than that that. “It will be interesting to see how far we’ve come in a few more weeks,” said Audrey Henley, executive director of the Olympia Film Society. “Everyone has been mandated to stay closed till the end of the month, but with coronavirus, that doesn’t mean people are going to open back up wham bam.”

Harlequin Productions’ State Theatre

At Harlequin Productions, all operations have been suspended. “I’m operating on the assumption that we won’t be able to open until at least the first of June,” said artistic director Aaron Lamb. “All of our contingency plans right now take that into account.”

“We’re really optimistic that we’ll be able to operate in May, and if not, then we’ll look forward to June,” said Barnes, adding that all of the Center’s shows through the end of April have already been canceled or postponed. “We’ve canceled so many shows,” she said. “So. Many. Shows. And this is how we make money.”

A great many shows have been or will be rescheduled, she added, though new dates might be months out. Portland’s jazz-world mini-orchestra Pink Martini, originally set to play April 9 at the Center, is now on the calendar for Nov. 16 — more than seven months from now. “People want to reschedule, and that’s great,” Barnes said. It’s just a matter of it is right for public health. We’re going to be ready to roll as soon as we get the go ahead.”

At the Capitol Theater, too, there’s a lot to look forward to in the coming months. “Most of the concerts have rescheduled, which is phenomenal,” Henley said. New dates are coming for concerts by Bikini Kill, Snail Mail and Mudhoney. Also to be rescheduled is the Olympia Film Festival, which the society canceled even before the governor’s March 16 mandate closed the theater completely. “We knew people wouldn’t want to travel,” Henley said.

Olympia Film Society’s Capitol Theater

At Harlequin, productions are suspended until further notice. “We are postponing our season announcement until whatever date we are allowed to reopen,” Lamb said. Then they’ll hope to continue the season apace. “We have some plans for how to develop a plan when we restart,” he laughed. “Since we don’t know when it will be, we don’t really know what we can do. We’re watching and waiting.”

Meanwhile, all three theaters have furloughed many employees and limited the hours of others. Lamb is working without pay. “That sounds drastic, and it is,” he said. He and the others OLY ARTS spoke with are working on fundraising ideas to help them make it through a time without ticket sales and when it’s unclear how much funding will be available to assist arts organizations. “Fundraising is really going to be key to keeping us alive,” Henley said.

“There are a ton of amazing ideas of what all of us in art houses are going to do to survive,” she said. “One of them is streaming movies.” She’s working to set up partnerships with online services to encourage the sale of more film-society memberships during a time when films can’t be shown in the theater, and she envisions those partnerships continuing after the theater reopens.

The Washington Center for the Performing Arts

There are already multiple ways to support the film society, the Center and Harlequin Productions — and any other theater or cultural organization that you patronize and value.

First, the theaters are encouraging patrons who can afford it to donate tickets for canceled events. “Every organization has been hit incredibly hard,” Barnes said.

Direct donations are needed, too, and the amounts needed are far from trivial. The cost to keep Harlequin Productions running — covering utilities, rent on the scene and costume shops and wages for the few employees still working — is about $20,000 a month.

For that, Lamb said, the company needs more donors who pledge to support the company each month. “The best thing people can do if they want to help is become a sustaining member,” he said. “Any other donations are appreciated and will be helpful.” Till the end of the month, the theater is offering tote bags, two-for-one ticket deals and other incentives for new sustaining members and for current sustaining members who increase their monthly pledges. And Harlequin’s raffle for a pearl necklace will carry on online.

In addition to asking for donations, the Center and the film society are selling gift certificates — and all three theaters have swag for sale. The film society has a particularly wide selection of products: embroidered patches, aprons, holiday cards and re-usable shopping bags (which, let’s face it, are going to be accessories you’re carrying pretty much every time you’re seen in public these days, given that most people aren’t venturing far beyond the grocery store).

Getting yourself a Harlequin mug or a Washington Center fleece vest won’t just support the organizations. It will also serve as a reminder of a beloved place you can’t visit right now, kind of like when you wear the T-shirt you bought in Hawaii on a particularly dreary day. And maybe you can wear or carry those items when the theaters — and you — are back in action.

“People are going to be hungry for live performances,” Barnes said. “They are going to be hungry to come back, and we’ll be ready for them.”

To donate to one of the theaters mentioned in this article, click on a link below.

The Washington Center for the Performing Arts

Olympia Film Society

Harlequin Productions

The United Way of Thurston County and The Community Foundation of South Puget Sound have jointly set up a relief fund for local nonprofits and individuals. To donate to this fund, click here.

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