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Recent closures could mean big trouble for local theater community

Updated March 17, 2020 - 7:48 pm

The coronavirus pandemic has forced local theaters to shutter temporarily — and it threatens to jeopardize the long-term financial and social future of that community.

“I started directing in Las Vegas in 2010,” says Troy Heard, owner of downtown’s Majestic Repertory Theatre. “I saw Vegas rally back from the recession. It took a long time. Now we’re finally getting attention for what we do in the arts off-Strip.”

While the local theater scene is small, Heard says, it is active, and as the quality of shows has increased, so, too, has its reputation as a source of entertainment that is viable alongside big-name shows on the Strip.

This week, the nonprofit theater should have been in the middle of its three-week immersive outdoor show, “Garden Party.”

“Sales were doing great for that. We’ve had to refund every ticket,” Heard says.

Among the challenges Heard is facing, is trying to plan for the end of the CDC’s eight-week recommended quarantine period when he may be able to open the theater again. Financially, the theater can only survive through May without reopening, he says.

“When so much of the city is shut down, theater becomes a luxury item,” he says. “When we get out of this, how do we position ourselves as a thing people need? I hope people will want to come socialize again. But who’s going to have the expendable income for this?”

A new theater

Poor Richard’s Players opened The Playhouse theater last fall.

“We’re non-profit, we’re a new theater, we’re still trying to let people know we exist,” says Joshua Meltzer, an associate producer with the group. “We’re still building an audience base and it was going all right until we just ran into this brick wall.”

The company had to cancel its upcoming show and its fifth annual Vegas Improv Festival, which would have brought 70 improv troupes from across the country to perform at The Playhouse over the three-day event.

“As a cultural thing for the community, it’s losing laughs and the opportunity for levity and humor in the middle of a crisis,” says Meltzer.

The eight-week theater closure poses challenges for the company’s actors, all of whom have day jobs in the entertainment sector, which have been jeopardized by widespread closures.

Meltzer says The Playhouse’s current landlord has been an incredible partner, but he’s unsure how many months of payments the landlord will be able to forgive.

“If this continues beyond May, it could be an existential crisis for the theater,” he says. “Beyond that, we’ll be talking about our jobs and our homes. It’s hard to fathom this crisis lasting that long.”

Support for the arts

Other Las Vegas theaters, including Las Vegas Little Theatre, the Las Vegas Theatre Hub and Super Summer Theatre Studios for the Performing Arts have temporarily closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Super Summer’s website, the 2020 season is being postponed until July. Nearly 40,000 people attended the 2018 season’s 47 performances, the website said.

Sarah O’Connell, executive director of theater promotional website Eat More Art Vegas, launched a petition aimed at financially supporting the performing arts community.

“The moment things started to happen, I started working on efforts to collect and assess how everyone was being impacted,” says O’Connell.

She wrote a letter to Gov. Sisolak and Mayor Goodman imploring them to “put a moratorium on evictions and enact a plan to forgive rent and mortgages for wage workers and local companies who will be unable to make the income needed to pay their bills until the outbreak is under control and business is able to recover.”

Since circulating the petition on the 10th, it has garnered more than 9,000 signatures.

“I’m concerned they’ll be pushed out by opportunists and gentrification that’s impacting theaters,” she says. “I’m concerned theaters will defer on the rent and developers and landlords will make other decisions on how to use that land.”

Surviving

With a theater community as small as that in Las Vegas, Heard worries that the permanent closure of even one theater would leave a visible dent in the performing arts landscape. He’s using the recess as best he can.

“I have time to create new opportunities to focus on an acting repertory, so, if there is another significant blow, those actors will have a home.”

Contact Janna Karel at jkarel@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3835. Follow @jannainprogress on Twitter.

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