Live from Chicago: How Theater is Surviving the Pandemic

 /  Nov. 22, 2020, 3:36 p.m.

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With famous alumni like Steve Carrell, Tina Fey, and Stephen Colbert, Second City is one of the most iconic institutions of live comedy and experimental entertainment in Chicago. However, COVID-19 has made the production of live shows and classes at Second City impossible. Following the suspension of performances and classes in mid-March, October brought a harsh reality. Steve Johnston, president of Second City, announced that although Second City will continue working in online education and performance, the company is going up for sale.

Second City’s hardship raises concerns for the fate of other entertainment venues. With a multitude of theaters making serious adjustments, live theater as we know it may change for good. With the livelihoods of actors, directors, and staff in jeopardy, government and individual aid has stepped in to help keep Chicago entertainment alive.

Designing Disease-Proof Theaters 

Currently, most Chicago theaters rely solely on virtual programming, but the question of what to do when theaters open remains unanswered. It is unlikely most theaters will completely redesign themselves to protect against the virus. Plans for reopening have focused largely on disinfecting measures, shrinking casts for shows, and limiting crowds, rather than permanent architectural changes. One notable example is Steppenwolf Theatre, a non-profit Lincoln Park theater. Prior to COVID-19, Steppenwolf was in the process of creating a 400-seat in-the-round theater. Now, nearly eight months into a pandemic, the theater does not intend to change its construction plans altogether in light of COVID-19; rather, they are adding extra safety measures like touchless bathrooms and doors while counting on an innovative ventilation system to minimize recycled air. 

Other theaters have undertaken similar initiatives. The Black Ensemble Theater, located in the Uptown area and known for productions showcasing African American culture, has expanded their normally tightly-packed backstage, added partitions, changed entrance and exit routes, and improved sanitation through paperless tickets, temperature taking, and hand-sanitizing. Owner Jackie Taylor, in her conversation with the Chicago Tribune, emphasized the need for a sense of normalcy in these challenging times, describing her plans for a “beautiful theater and not a pandemic shelter.”

Theater’s Importance To Local Communities

Lifeline Theatre is another local promoter of the arts and a valuable economic asset to the Rogers Park neighborhood. The Chicago Sun Times described a “symbiotic relationship between the arts and nightlife and a community—where one’s success begets the other’s.” Where theater-goers once gathered together at restaurants and on the sidewalks before a show, the neighborhood is now comparatively silent.

Thus, the role theater plays in the economic vitality of individual neighborhoods, as well as Chicago as a whole, cannot be downplayed. The Chicago Tribune says that in “the methodology of the Chicago Loop Alliance, which estimated that for every $1 spent on a ticket, a total of $12 in economic activity was generated, that would give you an economic impact of $80 million for Chicago’s legendary basements, walk-ups, black boxes, converted churches and the rest.” The limit on theater and live entertainment during the pandemic thus hurts not only creatives in Chicago, but the greater community. Monetary support has therefore been vital for Chicago theater workers and communities alike.

For example, Lifeline is accepting donations from those able to pay in exchange for virtual productions. It has also received a relief grant from Arts for Illinois, which has supported many smaller theaters this year. The fund works with the City of Chicago, the State of Illinois, and receives support from individuals and organizations, but has only small amounts available. Similar efforts have been made by the Chicago Theatre Workers Relief Fund, which works with the League of Chicago Theatres and the Saints, a not-for-profit performing arts organization. This fund in particular is intended for artists who have lost income due to the closing of theaters and productions. 

At the University of Chicago, theater has faced similar setbacks but is continuing to persevere. Professor of Theater and Performance Studies Leslie Buxbaum Danzig, director of the upcoming My H8 Letter to the Gr8 American Theatre, is optimistic about the ability of theaters to tackle important subject matter, even in their current limited capacity. 

Danzig is using an array of tactics to maintain a safe and productive environment in her production, employing a mix of virtual and live rehearsals and a live-streamed performance without a live audience. “Cultivating the same amount of intimacy in these remote circumstances will be a challenge,” in comparison to the normal rehearsal process, she says. Still, she is excited for the future in which “infinitely creative artists” will pay tribute to this difficult experience and continue to adapt to the changing situation, and hopefully soon be able to satisfy the “hunger to be in spaces together.” 

However, Danzig also cautioned that “the economy of live theater is so fragile.” Unemployment and underemployment are real dangers, particularly now that many Chicagoans are facing a shortage of disposable income that might have once been used for live entertainment. Based on data from the US Department of Labor's Current Population Survey and the 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, as of May, approximately 27.4 percent of performing artists nationally reported unemployment. Outside financial support is thus a necessity to keep theater alive. 

Aid Programs Provide Some Relief

Aid can come both at the individual level, through donations to organizations providing live-streamed performances, and at the national level, through advocacy and monetary support that recognizes the economic and social benefits the theater industry provides. This benefits individuals working in the industry as well as other industries affected by theater closures, such as area restaurants and bars. Governmental support is certainly crucial to Chicago theaters. On October 2, the City of Chicago created the Performing Arts Venue Relief Program, a $1.2 million grant program for theaters. Their $10,000 grants go specifically to for-profit venues, which have received little funding from other relief sources. 

Relief organizations place particular concern on the health and well-being of employees within the theater industry. An April statement from Actors’ Equity, the labor union for artists within the theater industry, affirms that each theater must have “a comprehensive plan in place that protects not just the actors and stage managers, but ensures that everyone who works in the theater has a safe workplace.” 

In order to guarantee the safety of audience members and employees alike, Chicago’s live entertainment venues are drawing on their instinctual creativity to develop innovative solutions to pandemic limitations. However, governmental assistance has supported those who work in theater and offset some of the economic strife faced by theaters and related industries. Like many other industries, theater in Chicago is struggling to survive under the current conditions and is waiting for a time when business as usual can resume.

If you would like to support Chicago live theatre venues and their workers, the following organizations are accepting donations to combat the effects of COVID-19:

Artist Relief

Chicago Theatre Workers Relief Fund

UChicago Arts Donation

The image featured in this article is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. No changes were made to the original image, which can be found here.

Molly Morrow


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