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State funds may have saved Racine Theatre Guild from being another COVID casualty

State funds may have saved Racine Theatre Guild from being another COVID casualty

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Racine Theatre Guild outside photo

The Racine Theatre Guild, 2519 Northwestern Ave., with a dusk sky in the background.

RACINE — Things were looking bleak at the Racine Theatre Guild.

Performers haven’t been on its stage since March. As a nonprofit largely funded through ticket sales, no performances means next-to-no revenue for the Racine Theatre Guild, except for some donations and the gracious season ticket holders who didn’t accept a refund when most of the 2020 shows were indefinitely postponed.

Performances of “Akeelah and the Bee” and “Mamma Mia” were shut down just days or weeks before opening night. The Guild still has all the costumes, sets and actors ready for the spotlight, but won’t give the go-ahead until the coronavirus is no longer perceived as a threat.

While other businesses can turn a focus onto online shopping or find other revenue streams, it’s tough to do live shows when it’s still ill-advised for actors to gather maskless. That’s not even considering the threat posed to theatergoers, who skew older as a demographic and thus are more susceptible to dying or suffering serious complications if they catch COVID-19.

Douglas Instenes

Instenes

“We can’t perform. There’s no way around a mask mandate or limited seating for a theater. Actors can’t perform in masks or sing in masks,” said Doug Instenes, RTG’s managing/artistic director.

According to Americans for the Arts, the estimated total economic impact of the pandemic on U.S. nonprofit arts and cultural organizations from March through November was $14.5 billion.

RTG needed help. Even after the pandemic, the lost revenue can’t really be recouped. 2020 will remain as a near-total loss even if there’s an upturn in 2021 and 2022.

“It’s like an airline. You can’t sell the seats after the plane takes off,” Instenes said.

In the last month, the state government came through.

On Nov. 3, RTG received $112,428 via a COVID-19 Cultural Organization Grant, one of nine Racine County cultural organizations and one of 385 Wisconsin cultural organizations to receive such a grant from the Wisconsin Department of Administration.

Then, on Thursday, Gov. Tony Evers announced that RTG was one of 96 performance venues statewide that would receive a COVID-19 Live Music and Entertainment Venue Grant. This time, RTG received $108,978 out of $15 million total given out by the state in this round of grants, also provided by the DOA and funded via the CARES Act.

“This keeps us afloat as a community theater,” Instenes said of the grants. “The fact that government helps us out and values the arts is amazing … between those two grants, we’re still going to have a loss for this year, but it will keep us afloat.”

Instenes added: “This is a happy moment. It’s thrilling for us.”

Both grants were funded by the $2.2 trillion federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

State support

According to the governor’s office, “the COVID-19 Live Music and Entertainment Venue Grant Program provides grant funding to live entertainment and large meeting venue operators whose facilities have been negatively affected by COVID-19. Grant awards provided eligible recipients up to $500,000 or 25% of 2019 ticket or event sales, whichever was less.”

Joel Brennan

Brennan

In a statement, DOA Secretary Joel Brennan said: “These venues serve as community gathering places and vibrant hubs for culture, art and innovation; however, the continued effects of COVID-19 across the state means they may be the last to fully re-open. These grants will hopefully bring a little hope to this industry as we all continue to push for additional action at the federal level to allow them to survive until we can fully embrace live entertainment in a healthy and recovered Wisconsin.”

Added Evers: “We know large gatherings of people in small spaces can be a catalyst for spread, which is why our folks in the live music and entertainment industry have been doing their part to help keep their communities and people safe … We hope these funds can provide critical support and stabilization to help them get through until we can all gather safely and enjoy entertainment together again.”

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