The Coronavirus Shutdown Is Devastating New York City’s Independent Theaters

The industry operates on slim profit margins and has few tools to weather the crisis

The Secret Theatre is one of New York City’s many independent playhouses at risk of becoming casualties of the coronavirus financial crisis. / Photo Courtesy of The Secret Theatre

In a good year, the Secret Theatre in Long Island City, a small non-profit theater, operates on razor-thin margins. The playhouse relies heavily on local businesses to remain afloat, along with the occasional GoFundMe project. It’s worked, for the most part. The theater held more than a dozen events last year, including acting classes for children and a month-long short play festival over the summer.

Now, however, the coronavirus shutdown could drive the theater to shut its doors for good. Like the Secret Theater, almost all of the city’s small theaters are non-profits that operate on annual budgets of a few hundred thousand dollars. COVID-19 has closed down Broadway, and Off-Broadway shows, raising fears of millions of dollars in losses. For small theater companies, however, the coronavirus crisis could be a death knell. Members of the city’s theater community warn it poses an existential threat to the tiny theaters that New Yorkers love to attend.

“This is cultural damage at a massive scale, and culture keeps us sane,” said Richard Mazda, founder and artistic director of The Secret Theatre.

The economic shutdown and social distancing orders put into effect to combat the spread of the virus forced the closure of all non-essential businesses in the city and most of the country. Theaters were among the first to be shuttered because they are places where large groups of people pack together.

“This type of disruption is likely insurmountable for many theaters,” said Randi Berry, executive director of the Indie Theater Fund and IndieSpace, non-profits that provide grants and services to actors and theater owners. “It’s really intense. I cannot downplay it.”

Mazda and Berry spoke to New York City Lens over the phone from their homes, where they are practicing voluntary self-isolation like most New Yorkers.

Before shutting down, The Secret Theatre regularly held drama classes for children. The classes are now offered online. / Photo Courtesy of The Secret Theatre.

The Secret Theatre typically is a busy place. On any given week, there could be a Shakespeare production, children’s theater, rehearsals, and auditions, or drama classes. However, that all could be over. Mazda said if the shutdown drags on for another month without relief, he may have no other choice but to close the theater.

“The prognosis is not good,” he said.

The shutdown has resulted in a loss of revenue and donations for the playhouse. Many of its benefactors are locally owned small businesses that now have their financial troubles. Mazda launched a GoFundMe page the same week he closed the theater, a tactic he said allowed him to raise as much as $20,000 in the past, but the link has only garnered a few hundred dollars in small donations.

“There’s a part of me that feels guilty to ask people for money when I know that nobody has any,” he said.

Mazda, 65, is aware that help is out there. The Indie Theater Fund gave him a $500 grant. Other philanthropies have streamlined the application process for theater owners and actors. However, Mazda said most of the aid available to small businesses exist in the form of loans, which he is reluctant to take.

“For me now at my age to take out a $75,000 loan, even if it was interest-free that’s still a loan, and how do you pay that back from a theater that’s living paycheck to paycheck?”

Berry also praised the philanthropic community for stepping up to help the industry, but she warned it’s not going to be enough.

“Funders in the city are doing an incredible job coming together to put relief funds on the table, but the city, state, and the federal government are going to need to step in,” Berry said.

The top priority is rent relief for actors, many of whom have been left destitute, and theater owners. The freeze on evictions is appreciated, but Berry and Mazda are concerned it delays the inevitable.

“If they have to cover back rent, this is going to be an absolute disaster,” Berry said.

Actors are especially at risk, Berry warned, because their other primary source of income may have dried up when restaurants were forced to close their seating areas.

“Independent artists make some of their money through theater work, but most money comes from gigs, and restaurant and bar work,” she said.

Randi Berry / Photo Courtesy of IndieSpace.org

The coronavirus crisis is not the first economic catastrophe The Secret Theatre has endured. Mazda founded the company with a business partner in 2007. They took out a lease on a warehouse on 23rd Street north of Jackson Avenue. The building is easy to miss. You have to walk through a gate, across a small parking lot, and around a loading dock to reach the front entrance.

Once inside, guests walk through a small lobby and past a narrow ticket counter before entering the 80-seat theater. The bright blue seats are tightly packed around a black stage area with black curtains as the backdrop. The building also has a rehearsal room. Mazda said he and his business partner built everything from scratch down to the electrical work.

“We did it all ourselves,” he said. “I put my life savings into this project.”

The stress of the current financial crisis has taken a heavy toll on Mazda physically and emotionally. He is now on blood pressure and anti-anxiety medication after having what he called an emergency intervention days after closing the theater. He already suffers from chronic inflammatory lung disease. His age and underlying health conditions place him in the “high risk” population for COVID-19.

“We live in very, very frightening times,” Mazda said.

One bright spot for the theater is its online classes. Four instructors had to be laid off, but the instructors have been able to remain on the payroll. Mazda hopes the courses allow The Secret Theatre to carry on as a digital company even if the physical location vanishes.

There are signs the tight-knit community is organizing in the form of Zoom conferences. The first gathering happened on March 22nd and attracted dozens of participants. Most of the discussion focused on how to cope with the various—and sometimes conflicting—messages from the city, state, and the federal government.

“Things are changing very quickly. Everyone is just trying everything they can think of to get ahead of it,” Berry said.

The group also discussed ways to form a united front among theater owners and actors, like how to cover refunds and payrolls for canceled productions.

“The grassroots are helping each other,” Mazda said.

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