Loss of income challenges Southwest theaters, artists

Jungle Theater
Jungle Theater managing director Robin Gillette (right) and actress Isabella Star LaBlanc outside the theater. “It’s so precarious to be an actor,” LaBlanc says. “It’s like, ‘Oh, OK, so I’m not making money doing theater again’ — I’ve been here before.” Photo by Becca Most

When Butch Roy had to close down HUGE Improv Theater in March, the executive director thought it would be a good time to catch up on some maintenance projects, maybe a fresh coat of paint.

But after spending a couple hours inside the empty LynLake comedy theater, Roy gave up and went home, confronting the heartbreaking reality that he didn’t know if the theater would ever reopen.

“There’s no relief,” he said. “The stage was the biggest tool in our arsenal, and we couldn’t use it anymore.”

For Southwest theaters and their artists, the onset of the pandemic meant instantly evaporated revenue streams, performances halted on the verge of opening and uncertainty about when (or if) venues could ever return to full capacity.

Roy said the LynLake theater would normally host about six shows a week. When it closed March 13, staff were gearing up for the Twin Cities Improv Fest at the end of June, their biggest event of the year.

“It’s really hard to overstate just how precarious of a position entertainment venues are in,” Roy said. “We were the first things to close and we will be the last things to get to open.”

Unlike other businesses, Roy said, theaters can’t really operate via “curbside service.” Even if the staff and the audience were comfortable sitting inside, the wearing of masks and following of social distancing protocols in the small indoor theater would ruin the atmosphere, which thrives on laughter and interaction, he said. Although Roy has been able to pay rent for the building and received a PPP loan to pay staff for a short period of time, the threat of eviction is heavy.

“That’s the nightmare that we’re in,” he said. “The company you built with a community of artists, and got off the ground against all odds and nurtured to a place of financial health, [could end up] just wasting away and dying.”

Last summer, HUGE was plotting a move into the Art Materials building a few blocks north on Lyndale Avenue, but the theater’s loan application was rejected before the pandemic and the plans to move were abandoned. The theater’s staff, who focus on building inclusive community, had wanted to distance themselves from current landlord Julius DeRoma, a political supporter of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Roy said the theater will continue to explore options during the three years remaining on its lease at 3037 Lyndale Ave.

Laura Zabel, executive director of Springboard for the Arts, has been working overtime to help direct artists toward resources, financial aid, legal help and community support. Since March, the nonprofit has raised over $1 million and distributed $500 grants to more than 2,000 artists throughout the state.

Zabel said the pandemic has highlighted gaps in eligibility for unemployment. Those who are classified as “mixed-income” workers, which include freelancers, gig workers and the self-employed, don’t qualify for full unemployment benefits and often get paid inadequately when they do apply for unemployment due to certain technicalities.

“A lot of artists have built whole careers with these really diverse income streams,” she said.

Some artists and actors make a living selling goods at craft fairs, working in schools or teaching community classes. Others work as servers, Uber drivers or employees at theaters. Many of these lines of work have also been impacted by the pandemic.

Although she considered herself lucky to be able to act full time, Jungle Theater actress Isabella Star LaBlanc (who was involved with the theater’s recent “Shine a Light” project) lost 90% of her income three weeks into the pandemic. After acting almost all her life, she was finally able to earn enough to work solely in theater two years ago.

“It’s so precarious to be an actor,” she said. “To be back to that place where it’s like, ‘Oh, OK, so I’m not making money doing theater again’ — I’ve been here before.”

LaBlanc said those in theater are used to being adaptable and are constantly multi-tasking, budgeting and planning ahead for their next show or performance. Many of her actor friends’ second jobs, backups and safety nets have dissolved, forcing them to go back to school or transition to other careers that offer more stability. Although this can be hard, pursuing other passions or interests can be exciting and will ultimately make them better artists, she said.

For some artists, theater has been a way to work through the stress of the pandemic.

Vanessa Brooke Agnes started Dark Muse Performing Arts in June following George Floyd’s death.

On June 10, the company featured singers, poets and speakers — all Black, Indigenous or people of color — in a protest and performance event titled, “The Uprising Vol. 1,” which took place in the parking lot of Theater 45° in Stevens Square.

With over 300 people in attendance at the event, Agnes let the participating artists decide most of the content and structure of the event, though she coordinated a couple of specific poems and songs to include.

“This is the way we’re fulfilled as people, and this is our outlet,” Agnes said. “Being a performing artist is a way of life, and that’s threatened right now — not only financially but also mentally, emotionally, physically.”

Looking to the future, Agnes said she predicts the performing arts community will continue having conversations about diversity, equity and accessibility in the field. She hopes people will keep supporting the arts through this time and said she’s inspired by the creativity she’s seeing.

“There’s nothing that really captures the human experience more than art,” she said. “So hopefully that’s something that people will be craving when we come out of this.”