Pioneer Theatre Company Artistic Director Karen Azenberg on The Pandemic
By Michael Raver
These are uncertain times. Unemployment is the highest it’s been in the last 70 years. For theaters everywhere, the future is unclear. Employees have gotten furloughed and already strained budgets have gotten even tighter. Many companies have assured their audiences that the show must go on, though few know exactly when.
For Pioneer Theatre Company, the hurdles are high, but not insurmountable. The Salt Lake City venue has continued to produce some online content as things are on pause. Their 2020 MainStage season has essentially been bumped to 2021. Artistic Director Karen Azenberg has felt the blow to the theater industry as much as anyone; yet, she remains optimistic.
For the state as a whole, things might be looking up. The Utah Department of Workforce Services reported a 17% drop in traditional new applications for unemployment last week.
The recent civil rights boom has also led to a major awakening for people on a national level. Theater companies across America are hitting a major reset. The world is changing. For an industry that boasts a dedication to the human condition, that change will be reflected, as Azenberg says, “both and and off stage.”
How has the pandemic affected your company?
Karen Azenberg: Pioneer has had to furlough all of the production/artistic staff with the exception of the Production Manager and myself. On the administrative side we essentially only have department heads. We lost over $300k in potential ticket revenue from the postponed productions last spring, plus additional loses for the cancelation of our spring gala. Clearly, we have had to tighten our belts and look to our supporters to help during these unprecedented times.
What are you doing to stay sane?
KA: A nice white wine certainly helps…..also a little gardening and home projects. I will admit that I have limited my virtual theatre viewing and play reading, it was increasing my anxiety so I am opting for moderation in everything I do.
Have you had to lay off any employees?
KA: As an affiliate organization of the University of Utah we were able to furlough as opposed to laying off staff. This way we are able to continue providing health insurance to everyone. It still wasn’t a fun thing to have to do.
The socio-political environment has become tense. How do you think this will reflect on the theatrical community when things do eventually reopen?
KA: I would like to think that “tense” is not the right word, because it implies resistance. I don’t think people are resistant to the issues being brought forward right now, I think theaters are struggling in so many ways and to be faced with these GIANT social-political issues right now, and acknowledging that we have been lax in making needed changes to the way theatre do business is overwhelming. However, given the chance, I think theaters will look differently when we return. Literally look differently. I think this break will give everyone a chance to reassess all of their hiring practices and the result will be that you will see more BIPOC faces on stage and off.
What’s your advice for staying creative during the downtime?
KA: Creativity can’t be forced, if you aren’t feeling it, then take a break. There is nothing wrong with taking a step back and putting your energies in another direction for a moment or two. It is about keeping your mind, body, and soul active – creative energy can be channeled towards volunteer work, or baking bread, or building a bookshelf. That said, you might be able to use your sadness, anxiety, frustration about the state of the world towards something creative in your field as well. We are all experiencing something that has never really happened before and we need to acknowledge that and know that there is no precedent for how to manage it.
Is there anything about our industry that you’d like to see change when we’re all able to get back to work?
KA: Hmmmm, that is a difficult question. There are always things I would like to see change, and certainly this is a time of change. Yet, in this moment, I want mostly to get back to work. When we get back to work I would like everyone to remind themselves of the reasons that many of us went into theatre in the first place; we love it! Telling stories, sharing with an audience, changing the way people look at the world—yes, we need to better reflect that world on our stages and in our buildings—but we do theatre because we can’t imagine doing anything else, I’d like to see everyone remember that.
For more information about Pioneer Theatre Company, visit https://www.pioneertheatre.org/