Even in a good economy, arts organizations often struggle for money. But coronavirus has completely upended the equation as shutdowns forced the cancellation of shows, entire seasons and, in some cases, annual galas that were a critical source of funding.
Like many local arts organizations, GALA Hispanic Theatre is scrambling to find a way forward in these uncertain times, experimenting with virtual performances while trying to figure out when to reopen and how to make up for lost revenue.
But this performing arts center that focuses on works by Latino artists was hit with a double whammy: Its co-founder and executive director, Rebecca Read Medrano, came down with coronavirus in March in the midst of a production.
Medrano, along with her Argentine-born husband Hugo, have spearheaded GALA’s steady growth since its inception in 1976. Today, the organization has staged over 220 productions ranging from classical Spanish theater to contemporary Latin American plays, along with original musicals, dance, poetry, film and works by local Latino youth. It also tours elementary schools with bilingual children’s programs and provides workshops for hundreds of students.
In 2005, GALA moved in to its long-awaited permanent home at the historic Tivoli Theatre in the heart of the Columbia Heights neighborhood.
The theater was staging its family-oriented “Galita” production of “Rigoberta, ¿Dónde Estás? A Journey Through Guatemala” last month when Rebecca Medrano learned she had tested positive for Covid-19.
GALA informed audience members who attended the March 14 performance (the only day Medrano was in the theater) that someone had tested positive for the disease and to monitor their health, later disclosing that it was Medrano, who had not experienced any symptoms during the performance but fell ill a week afterward.
In an interview, Medrano — who has since recovered and is now working remotely — talked about her experience and how the pandemic is impacting her organization, along with the broader arts community in D.C.
Like many other people struck with the coronavirus, Medrano said diagnosing her illness was not clear-cut.
Initially she had a small cough that doctors attributed to a cold. She took cough suppressants and felt better.
“Then on the 17th of March, I felt like it just hit me,” she told us. “And it was basically pain in my intestine, which was really strange because that’s not one of the symptom boxes that you check off. I was in pain and I was nauseous and had back ache and it just didn’t feel right.”
Medrano called the doctor but because she didn’t fit the typical coronavirus profile, she didn’t quality for testing. Medrano told us that she fudged a bit by saying she had a small fever, “and then I said — and this is true — that my husband who is 77 years old has COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and that’s a very dangerous situation because if you contract any respiratory disease, it’s awful.”
So she was tested for influenza and shingles but not the coronavirus. After again insisting, she was finally tested for Covid-19, but the first two tests came back negative. Four days later, however, a third test came back positive and she went into complete quarantine.
“We’d already shut down the theater so I really hadn’t been around people,” she said. “But I quarantined with Hugo in the house, which was difficult because I was terrified of him getting it.
He moved to the back bedroom and we try to avoid each other but with only one shower that’s a little hard. But so far, knock on wood, he has developed no symptoms, which is great news.”
Medrano warned against finger-pointing during the pandemic, noting that even with all of the precautions GALA Hispanic Theatre was taking — such as constant sanitizing and deep cleaning, no physical contact, etc. — asymptotic carriers can unfortunately spread the virus.
“We took all the right precautions. We’ve been very responsible,” she said, noting that theater shut down right away.
Closing down may have been the responsible thing to do, Medrano admits that “it’s been a devastation for us” because “we were in the height of our season. And two of our most popular shows — the ones that were going to be the moneymakers — were scheduled for April, May and June. So it’s a tremendous amount of ticket income — over $200,000 in ticket income we’re losing.”
In addition, GALA has had to postpone its annual benefit, which was to be held April 6 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts and which Medrano says usually brings in $90,000 to $100,000.
Despite the financial hardship, “we also feel very committed to honoring our contracts with our artists,” she said. “We paid artists 50% of what their fee would have been had they performed. We had to credit schools for next season, meaning that money’s gone. We are keeping all of our regular staff and as many artists as possible on payroll as long as we can with our reserves and recent additional funds, but that’s kept me busy and kept my mind off my illness.”
On that note, Medrano said she spends eight hours of her day on the computer “trying to apply for everything that we can qualify for. Some of the larger organizations go for the big bank loans, but it’s very hard for us smaller organizations to do that. However, there have been some very generous foundations and longtime supporters who’ve come up with emergency funds.”
She also cited a previous city grant that GALA had received that it put away and is now using to do much-needed renovations to the theater while it sits empty.
But after that, Medrano — like other members of the arts community — is grappling with the uncertainty of what the next few months will bring and how much money they’ll need to cover their losses.
“We won’t know how much is enough until we know how long this is going to last. If it’s just through the summer, can we open in September? Could we open in late July? Could our youth program go on in the summer?”
That full-time summer camp is free and usually attracts about 30 to 45 children. Likewise, GALA has had to rework its Paso Nuevo program, a free after-school theater workshop for youth ranging in age from 12 to 19 years old.
While participants are now connecting online, Medrano worries it’s not the same experience.
“The youth program suffers because they need a place to go not just after school, but outside of their homes. Because it’s one thing if you’re in a good home situation, but if you’re in a home situation where you’re a single mother who’s working as part of a cleaning crew or something and you don’t have supervision and you have nothing else to do, it’s really hard,” she said. “We’ve offered Zoom to get them all up to speed with technology, but they’re not interested in that. What they want is to meet up with their friends and have that sense of being safe at a place that is the theater.”
Medrano said her organization itself is struggling to adapt to the virtual transition that has become the new norm because of Covid-19.
“We’re a small organization. We’re not the Kennedy Center. We don’t have all these platforms.”
To that end, Medrano said she hopes all arts organizations — large and small — are able to weather this crisis.
“We need our niche. We need the culturally specific theaters, we need the Afro-centric theaters, we need all the groups large and small to band together and help one another and create partnerships. That’s the only way we’re going to survive.”
And while the online outreach that arts organizations are doing now has served as a great bridge during the lockdown, Medrano said she hopes that bridge doesn’t become a permanent fixture. A virtual performance, she argues, will simply never be the same as the real thing.
“I just hope that people don’t develop a fear of gathering,” she said, noting the generational divide she sees in her own office. “I like getting dressed, going to an office, and the younger people would like nothing better than to stay in pajamas and telecommute. So I hope this doesn’t lead to people saying, ‘Oh, we can just do theater digitally,’ because that to me is just not the experience.
“I would hope people would go back to wanting to be in a live theater to experience what live theater is. I don’t care what you say. I don’t think you can substitute that by watching a video,” she said. “I find it important to have the personal experience and I hope we can get back to that.”
Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.