Ashley Chung by Lumosco, courtesy of The Space Movement Project

It didn’t look a lot like Christmas. Not only was the Windy City unusually warm this year, with temperatures reaching the 50s, seasonal staples such as the Joffrey Ballet’s “Nutcracker” and Goodman Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol” had to be canceled due to cases of COVID-19 within the companies and public health conditions per the rapid transmission rate of the surge in December.

“As disappointing as it is to close early, we appreciate our audiences’ understanding that a safe environment for all remains our top priority,” noted Goodman’s Executive Director/CEO Roche Schulfer.

Ticket holders from Goodman and the Joffrey will receive full refunds as these institutions ride out the pandemic. However, many smaller performance companies continue to struggle despite receiving unrestricted grants from the Chicago-based Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation.

In response to COVID-related shutdowns, the foundation’s board met in 2020 and unanimously voted to put in place a series of funding mechanisms for arts organizations with budgets less than $1 million, including expediting a total of $2 million in general operating funds to 175 arts grantees in the Chicago region and 40 in the Lowcountry of South Carolina.

When the foundation surveyed 91 of its performing arts grantees in 2021, it learned that 40 organizations had to temporarily close their doors: 64 percent said they needed to further monitor the COVID-19 health crisis before returning, and 13 percent said they lacked the necessary theater space to accommodate social distancing.

“Throughout the pandemic, we lacked the infrastructure and the physical space to meet the safety standards that Actors Equity Association required for in-person production processes,” explains Margaret McCloskey, executive director of Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, which is slated to launch its in-person season in early 2022.

“Another significant hurdle was the financial necessity of having a robust subscription campaign, which typically takes five to six months to plan and execute. It is a particularly big lift because we have a very small staff and no dedicated box office since we lease our performance space,” continues McCloskey. “Subscribers generally make up about 40 percent of our attendance, so selling subscriptions before we had confidence that we could get Equity approval was a non-starter.”

Because of situations like this, 30 percent of the 40 organizations polled said they expected to resume in-person performances in the spring of 2022; 20 percent anticipated returning in the winter of 2022; and 5 percent didn’t expect to resume live stage performances until summer of 2022.

“The risk of bringing together audiences for in-person performances feels unpredictable,” says Anne Kasdorf, managing director of The Space Movement Project, an all-female contemporary dance collective that has been ineligible or denied relief funds based on its budget size. “Putting financial resources towards an event that may need to be canceled or postponed feels like an impractical use of funds at a time when our capacity for bringing in contributed revenue has been limited.”

According to the foundation’s survey, 56 percent of organizations were able to proceed with in-person productions in 2021 by enforcing safety measures: 15 percent opted for outdoor performances; 30 percent limited audience numbers; and 75 percent required fully-vaccinated audiences.

Thanks to the precautions taken at the McAninch Arts Center (MAC) in Glen Ellyn, the New Philharmonic will ring in 2022 with in-person New Year’s Eve concerts at 1:30, 5 and 8:30 p.m. (Dec. 31) and later perform “A Night at the Movies” (Jan. 15-16).

In addition to providing touchless tickets, digital programs, and hand-sanitizing stations, MAC requires masking of all attendees as well as proof of COVID-19 vaccination or negative test results for those who cannot be vaccinated due to a medical condition or religious belief. Such cases require proof of a negative COVID-19 test by either a third party, a dated PCR test in the past three days, or a negative rapid antigen test.

Similar protocols are being taken by TimeLine Theatre for Tyla Abercrumbie’s “Relentless” (Jan. 27-Feb. 26). Set in the Black Victorian age, the production will finally receive its world premiere after a nearly two-year delay due to COVID-19.

Janet Arvia

Ms. Arvia is a Rebellious columnist and movie critic; entertainment ghostwriter; award-winning artist; and grant-winning filmmaker.