'We're in better shape than many other companies'

STRAIGHT TALK WITH PHILIP C. SNEED

Arvada Center President and CEO

Philip C. Sneed. Photo by Matt Gale.

Philip C. Sneed photo by Matthew Gale.

Welcome to "Straight Talk," our new ongoing series with Arvada Center artistic leaders and others from the local theatre community touching base directly with audiences about the unique challenges they face during this unprecedented time. First up: Arvada Center President and CEO Philip Sneed tells Senior Arts Journalist John Moore: “We're holding on to the possibility of being able to have performances again by late summer or early fall.”

John Moore: It’s May 12 as we speak. What do you want people to know about where things stand at the Arvada Center right now?

Philip Sneed: Most people know that in mid-March, we had to cancel the remainder of our theatre season. As for the upcoming fall season, we have not made any changes to the lineup so far. But we are certainly looking at options for how to potentially restructure the season, scale it back or even change some titles if necessary. We are trying to maintain the musical-theatre season as planned, but we are also making contingency plans in case we can't re-open in September – or if we can't re-open with more than say, half a house. Just like with restaurants, if you can only open to 50 percent capacity, it is very hard to come up with the math that allows you to do a show at anything approaching the scale and quality that our audiences have come to expect.

John Moore: So what happens if you are only allowed to put 250 people in your 526-seat Main Stage theatre?

Philip Sneed: If we have to cut the budget to accommodate the lesser revenue, and that then appreciably affects the quality of the production, then the question becomes: Do we delay, do we reschedule, or do we pick new titles?

"What do we have to do to keep people safe on stage, in the front of house, and in the audience?”

John Moore: What specific questions go into making those decisions?

Philip Sneed: What do we have to do to maintain something approaching the quality that our audiences have become accustomed to? What do we have to do to keep people safe on stage, in the front of house, and in the audience – and make it all work financially? Those are the challenges.

John Moore: How do things stand with the outdoor concert series?

Philip Sneed: Although we haven't canceled any of our outdoor concerts in July, August or September, it's becoming increasingly unlikely that we will be able to have our outdoor concerts at all this summer. Even if we were allowed to bring several hundred people together with some kind of distancing, we just don't think it is going to be feasible. But we're holding out hope that some of our concerts can be moved to later dates and that at least some of the season can be saved.

Philip C. SneedJohn Moore: How do things stand with summer educational programs?

Philip Sneed: We already have canceled all in-person camps in June, but most of those camps can be delivered virtually. And we can actually serve more kids with virtual delivery than we can in-person. Those camps would be shorter hours and thus, lower-cost. A virtual camp has significant disadvantages, but at least we can engage with our young people that way, and hopefully give parents a break from what they have been going through for the past few months during the school year. We think we can provide a meaningful experience – even if somewhat reduced in scope. We're planning for the possibility that classes in July and August might be virtual as well, but we haven't yet made that decision.

John Moore: How would you describe the overall financial health of the Arvada Center right here and now?

Philip Sneed: It's full of uncertainty, and we've tried to be transparent about that. We don't know what the future holds. We're in better shape than many other companies because the City of Arvada is still providing us general support even though we are a private nonprofit now, and they are struggling with their own shortfalls. But there has been no indication of any pullback in city support. In fact, they are looking for ways to add funding to us during this time. 

John Moore: What about staffing?

Philip Sneed: So far, we have been able to move forward without layoffs or salary reductions, but I think something is going to have to give eventually. We don't need to do anything drastic in the next few months, but our fiscal year starts July 1, and I think that’s when some bigger adjustments might have to happen. We just don't know for sure. Now, when I say we have not had any layoffs yet, that’s full-time staff. When we canceled productions in mid-March, all of the actors and crew and seasonal theatre workers had their contracts ended three to six weeks early. But because we were one of the lucky ones to get a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program for slightly more than $1 million, at least we were able to bring our production staff back. We can't make them any promises about the future but we were able to bring them back for now.

John Moore: How does that Paycheck Protection Program work?

Philip Sneed: The Paycheck Protection Program is a loan designed to provide a direct incentive for small businesses to keep their workers on the payroll. The Small Business Administration will forgive loans if all employees are kept on the payroll for eight weeks and the money is used for payroll, rent, mortgage interest or utilities. We think that much of our loan will be able to be forgiven, but the rules on that have been very unclear, and the SBA still hasn't issued clear guidance. Part of our future will really depend on how much of that $1 million loan will be forgiven. If all of it is forgiven, that’s one scenario. If none of it is forgiven and we have to pay it back over two years, that's a different scenario. Unfortunately, we are not going to know for sure for several months. That's among the many uncertainties that we face.

"The future is full of uncertainty, and we've tried to be transparent about that.”

John Moore: From what I understand, season-ticket sales for the fall theatre season are surprisingly strong despite all the uncertainty. What does that tell you?

Philip Sneed: We're so pleased that season-ticket sales have been relatively strong, given the circumstances. We're grateful to our loyal subscribers, many of whom have been attending for decades. Their support ensures that we'll get through this and return to live performance as soon as possible.

John Moore: As for how and when you bring back musicals and plays, what are some of the factors that go into these very difficult decisions that some of your audiences may have no idea about?

Bright Star. Photo by Matthew Gale

Dieter Bierbrauer and Merideth Kaye Clark in 2019's 'Bright Star.' Photo by Matthew Gale.

Philip Sneed: The first one is that not everyone understands how Actors’ Equity Association works. That’s the name of the professional actors' union. We are part of an agreement that is collectively bargained, and while our casts aren't all union members, we are required to hire a certain number of union members before we can start hiring non-union members. There is a ratio. And while I suspect there is going to be pressure on the union to allow for some flexibility with ratios and actor salaries in future negotiations, we can't just arbitrarily decide to pay actors less than union scale, or to hire fewer union actors, just because our revenues over the next year will be significantly lower. It's really an all-or-nothing proposition: We either stick with the current union rules until something gets negotiated at a national level, or we pull the plug and say, “We're no longer a union theatre." And no one here sees that as an option.

John Moore: Tell me more about audience perception of the overall production quality.

Philip Sneed: That is a big, big factor. If our budget is 10 times the budget of a smaller theatre, our production of a certain show may or may not be seen to be 10 times the quality of the organization with the smaller budget. But most people generally would agree that at our level, the quality is higher across the board. When we reduce the (non-actor) budget for musicals or plays, that has an impact on quality. So one of the concerns is this: At what point of budget-cutting does the audience notice a lower quality? If we cut 10 percent, they probably won't notice. If we cut 25 percent or 30 percent or 40 percent, they probably will notice. And then, looking into the crystal ball, if the first few audiences see a show that they perceive is significantly lower in quality, will they tell their friends, and will negative word of mouth spread and hurt ticket sales? If that were to happen, then income becomes even lower, and then we might have to do further cuts that will impact the next show. Then you find yourself in this downward spiral, and we don't want to get into that. We are constantly trying to calculate how far we can reduce expenses in this new world of greatly diminished revenue without that equating to even further revenue losses because we cut into the core quality that people know us for.

John Moore: What about how all of this affects the actors on stage? You can't really socially distance actors whose script calls from them to dance or kiss.

Philip Sneed: We are awaiting guidance from the actors’ union and the government on what is going to be allowed to happen on stage. You can't have a cast of actors who are all wearing masks and never come closer than 6 feet. You just can't do theatre that way. Romeo and Juliet have to kiss. Dancers have to touch. The government may insist on distancing for all employees – and that includes actors. Then there is the union: What are they going to require for safety? And then, just by our own sense of morality and ethics – what do we feel comfortable asking actors to do? So that’s one of the big unknowns.

John Moore: Are there further challenges that you face as a multidisciplinary arts organization that might be appreciably different from companies that are only trying to figure out how to get theatre back up and running with a play as soon as possible?

Philip Sneed: Absolutely. For example, our galleries are free. And while some of our contributed revenue is dedicated to the gallery, that revenue doesn't come close to matching the expense of the galleries. Most nonprofit organizations offer certain programs that generate net revenue that pays for other programs. At the Arvada Center, traditionally the musicals and the education programs have generated net revenue that pays for things like plays, galleries and various other things. The reason we can afford free galleries is because we have a program of popular musicals that a lot of people come to see. So if revenue from musicals suffers, galleries may suffer, or plays may suffer. It's definitely a different financial situation here than for most other theatre companies.

John Moore: How can your loyal audiences who read this and want to help do just that?

Philip Sneed: Certainly donations are at the top of the list, and that can be as simple as a gift to our new campaign, "Reignite the Arts." Or if they have not yet donated their tickets from canceled performances, they certainly can donate that back to the organization. And then, as soon as we announce that things are on sale: Buy tickets. If you have ever wanted to take a class, this is the time to do it.               

John Moore: So while we don't know when, we do know the Arvada Center will be back on the other side of all of this. What do you want to people to know in the meantime?

Philip Sneed: We are certainly going to be back, and we are certainly going to be back with the quality that they are used to. We might not be able to do as much as we have done right away, but our goal is to make sure that our audiences don't notice any compromise in our quality.

Next: Straight talk from Arvada Center Director of Plays Lynne Collins

Contact John Moore at culturewestjohn@gmail.com

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