To paraphrase a song by Elton John and Bernie Taupin: “They’re still standing.”
Austin’s “Big 5” performing arts troupes — as well as the city’s “Big 3” performing arts presenters — have survived what appears to have been the worst of the long pandemic.
These eight groups collectively grossed more than $70 million annually from tickets, grants and donations during the years leading up to the 2020-2021 season, which, despite some brave efforts, was effectively canceled, leaving a lot of income to make up.
They are not alone. To my knowledge, all of Austin’s most significant performing arts groups survived.
‘Unrolls like a film’: Austin’s Zach Theatre is back with immersive outdoor ‘Into the Woods’
This, despite many months without in-person audiences or customary box office income.
This, despite painful layoffs, furloughs and premature departures of up to 80 percent of the work force at some arts companies.
This, despite steep declines in public funding, due to the implosion of the local hospitality industry, which supports the city’s artistic, musical and historical projects indirectly through hotel taxes.
During the darkest days, some troupes made do with livestreaming and video works. Others improvised using outdoor performance venues. Still others went into deep hibernation.
As of last Friday — when Conspirare returned to the stage with the etherial “Path of Miracles” — the big groups were all up and running again at near-full force. Other ones — Central Texas is home to hundreds of arts nonprofits — are doing the same.
Ballet Austin, Zach Theatre, Austin Opera, Austin Symphony and Conspirare — normally considered the city’s five main local performing arts troupes — along with Texas Performing Arts, Long Center for the Performing Arts and Paramount Theatre — the three major performing arts presenters — are once again leading the way with new programs, expanded missions and an increased sense of their places in people’s lives.
So are groups such as Georgetown Palace Theatre, Austin Playhouse and Austin Classical Guitar, which in any good year earn revenues of $1 million.
(Note: Revenues in this story are based primarily on reports from the nonprofits about their 2019-2020 fiscal year, with supporting material taken from GuideStar, a group that collects data on the nation’s nonprofits.)
Let’s see where they stand and how they got here.
Pre-pandemic annual gross receipts: $10.5 million
Zach Theatre, which earns the vast majority of its income from ticket sales, was among the hardest hit early on. In response, the troupe furloughed a majority its employees soon after the March 2020 shutdown.
Half a year later, Zach leaders found a way to keep the voices of its performing artists heard. For almost a full year, it staged outdoor themed concerts, dubbed “Songs Under the Stars,” in its People’s Plaza, under stringent pandemic protocols.
The company began rehiring behind-the-scenes employees this past summer, and it announced two blockbuster, immersive musicals: “Into the Woods” outside in the plaza, and “The Sound of Music” inside the Topfer Theatre. Later, Zach unveiled a full 2021-2222 season.
Here’s what I said about that first full show: “I’m convinced that ‘Into the Woods,’ and its profound psychological insights, irresistible score and ingenious storytelling, is exactly what the artistic doctor ordered for our times.”
Pre-pandemic annual gross receipts: $8.7 million
Dancers, like athletes, simply can’t take time off from training, practice and rehearsal. During the pandemic, Ballet Austin retained its more than 20 dancers and its numerous teachers.
The leadership set up “health pods.” They then released a grand cinematic version of “The Nutcracker,” filmed before the pandemic, followed by a superb short film about theatrical ghosts. The dancers created pieces for themselves and each other to present in the Austin Ventures Studio Theater.
While the troupe excelled at digital shows where other companies did not, audiences could not wait to get back in a theater with the dancers. In September at the Long Center, artistic director Stephen Mills confected three servings of pure dance in “Joy,” one a refined ensemble piece, another a series of solos presented in a drawing room setting, and a final, ecstatic frolic amid piles of pink confetti.
Count this would-be balletomane overjoyed.
Pre-pandemic annual gross receipts: $5 million
The Austin Symphony made it through late 2020 and early 2021 with crisp, expertly executed performances by small groups of its musicians on the Long Center stage. These low-heat shows were delivered to audiences via livestreaming and video.
In April, new CEO and executive director David Pratt arrived in town and concluded that the symphony’s musicians “can play anything.” He and his employees moved into the group’s new temporary HQ in the Judge’s Hill neighborhood.
In May, the orchestra followed the baton of conductor Peter Bay during a thrilling performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and other pieces at Riverbend Church. Due to social distancing, however, the grateful audience was unable to respond at top volume or with the usual social fervor.
By September, the orchestra was ready to return to the Long Center with a Latin-themed program that culminated with Maurice Ravel’s Latin-informed “Boléro.” (I missed that show.)
On Oct. 16, however, I caught the first half of a Long Center program at a packed Dell Hall. In some ways, it was if the performances had never gone away. The full orchestra was well matched to guest pianists Christopher Atzinger’s reading of Greig’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, at first exceptionally tender, then unreservedly dramatic.
Yet the audience retained a leading role in this show with an instantaneous standing ovation and a reminder that, without them, the music would mean much less.
Pre-pandemic annual gross receipts: $4.5 million
Early in the pandemic, national experts advised artists to avoid investing too much time and energy in digital fundraisers and video performances. Plan to come back big. Come back strong. Remind people why you count.
Austin’s Opera’s leaders were listening. When it came time to choose a stage, they selected an enormous, outdoor one: The Germania Insurance Amphitheater at Circuit of the Americas. In case you wondered, this is where the Rolling Stones will appear when next in town.
If the frame was grand, the stage setting was simple and direct. Alas, on the night I attended “Tosca,” drizzle threatened the instruments, if not the voices, so the show preceded without an orchestra. Those who attended the second performance reported fairer weather and a fuller sound.
Austin Opera under general director and CEO Annie Burridge and artistic advisor Timothy Myers has been nothing if not resilient. During the pandemic, they invested in digital strategies thanks to a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies.
They open their coming Long Center season with “The Marriage of Figaro” on Nov. 6. Among the most anticipated offerings in this series will be “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” a new opera about Mr. Apple, which opens Feb. 3.
Pre-pandemic annual gross receipts: $1.5 million
When a company’s name translates as “breathes together,” you can begin to imagine how difficult it was for Conspirare to return to full force during amid the threat from an airborne virus.
Other than some sweet digital offerings, Austin’s Grammy Award-winning choir waited to go in-person last among the Big 5. They did so Oct. 15 under the most thorough protocols that I’ve witnessed, including special masks for the singers.
It was more than worth the wait.
Jody Talbot’s “Path of Miracles” is, as the title suggests, miraculous. Using various languages and musical styles, the four-part concert follows medieval pilgrims along the sacred route to Santiago de Compostela.
As always, artistic director Craig Hella Johnson’s professional choir sang exquisitely from beginning to end. In this case, the sounds and staging were amplified immensely by Camilla Tassi’s allusive images, projected onto the pale, shallow apse and ornate, medieval, dark-wood altarpiece at St. Martin’s Lutheran Church, a modernist jewel.
The Big 3 presenters
Texas Performing Arts
Pre-pandemic annual gross receipts: $21 million
The University of Texas performing arts center’s Broadway series is big business. Overall, the center attracts up to 285,000 guests a year for touring shows that sometimes charge top dollar. Its highly curated global arts series is no small potatoes, either.
You can’t reopen a touring venue, however, if no tours go out on the road. In addition, the center’s primary venue, Bass Concert Hall, puts almost 3,000 guests very close to one another, as well as large numbers of artists and tech crews.
New director and CEO Bob Bursey, who signed on just weeks before the pandemic broke, took the dark time to make key improvements in sight lines, carpeting, décor and seating arrangements at Bass. He also tended to a large, veteran staff reduced in part by early retirements and other departures.
Yet Bursey and team got the memo about coming back big: Its first new Broadway series includes mega-hits “Hamilton” and “The Lion King,” while its curated series will bring experimental theater gods from the Wooster Group to Austin for the first time. That series opens with much-missed Ballet Hispánico on Oct. 30.
Long Center for the Performing Arts
Pre-pandemic annual gross receipts: $11.8 million
One could divide the Long Center’s performing arts activities into four broad categories.
It serves as the permanent home to the city’s leading symphony, opera and ballet companies.
It also presents touring shows, including celebrated musicians, comedians and speakers.
At the Rollins Studio Theatre, the Long Center regularly hosts mid-size local arts groups such as Tapestry and Austin Shakespeare, which opens “Bollywood Twelfth Night” there on Nov. 5, as well as other creative events.
Yet the Long Center’s fourth artistic function proved the most valuable asset during the worst of the pandemic: entertainment in the great outdoors. Shows on the H-E-B Terrace. Shows on the Hartman Concert Lawn. Anywhere outdoors where one could fit guests and artists safely.
In September, the Long Center’s main inhabitants returned to the fold, and special indoor events fired up again, as well.
Paramount and State theaters
Pre-pandemic annual gross receipts: $10.5 million
Austin’s populist palaces on Congress Avenue were designed to pack people close together. So, not an asset during the peak months of the pandemic. Yet its leaders eventually found ways to space guests out, and the Paramount and State theaters did not remain totally dark for long. They returned to full capacity shows in August 2021.
While some marque events — film and comedy festivals, big parties — went digital or were delayed, Austin Theatre Alliance, the nonprofit that runs both theaters, could broadcast big news about a close neighbor: a new hotel inside a pencil tower that shares structural elements with the State, almost done.
This locally led project will not only provide new offices for the Alliance; it will generate cash to restore both performing arts venues. Didn’t we just do that a few years ago? Old buildings need a lot of loving care.
Meanwhile, the shows must go on! Moontower Comedy Festival and Austin Film Festival returned to the theaters this fall.
They’re still standing, too
Other Central Texas arts groups in the $1 million budget club also got through the worst. Here’s a report from one that lies outside the city limits:
Georgetown Palace Theatre
Pre-pandemic annual gross receipts: $2.4 million
The Palace Theater, the gem of Georgetown, announced big expansion plans before the pandemic. The prolific suburban troupe fills up multiple venues, one of them a former movie theater, and it runs an extensive educational program.
In response to the first pandemic wave, it cut staff pay by 50 percent.
Leaders itched to reopen. As early as June 2020, they first announced the return of live, in-person performances. As the pandemic worsened, however, the Palace paused, then staged instead carefully spaced outdoor shows, before returning indoors with a season of eight musicals and eight plays.
The Palace is in full swing with the teen musical “Grease” through Oct. 31, and the ferocious historical drama “The Lion in Winter” through Nov. 14.
Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at [email protected]
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