On Wednesday March 11, the staff at Off-Broadway’s Playwrights Realm gathered for a sensitivity training with James Caverly, the Director of Artistic Sign Language on the theatre’s spring production: Noah Diaz’s, Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally. The play, directed by Taylor Reynolds, had just wrapped up its co-world premiere in Baltimore and The Realm production was set to begin April 3. The atmosphere in the room that morning was one of excitement and anticipation.
By the following morning, Katherine Kovner, The Realm’s founding artistic director, and Roberta Pereira, The Realm’s producing director, had made the painful decision to cancel Diaz’s play. They had been texting late the night before, anxiously monitoring the news and the growing concerns over the rise of COVID-19 cases in New York. “I woke up with a sense of dread,” says Pereira. “I was thinking about the Realm’s values, and the way in which we want to represent unheard voices.” And while this typically applies to the kind of work, and artists, the organization supports, the sudden onslaught of a global pandemic was now a moment in which the leadership of the theatre could live those values, too. “This is about protecting the most vulnerable in our society right now,” says Pereira. “While nobody in our direct staff is in a high-risk group, we’re doing this for the good of the society. It’s exactly in line with our values.”
Before the sweeping Broadway closure had been announced, Kovner and Pereira were already in the midst of making the necessary phone calls—to the production’s partners, Baltimore Center Stage and The Sol Project, and to playwright Diaz—who had been set to make his Off-Broadway debut. “Our mission is to be playwright-centric,” says Kovner. “The thing that I was really focused on was how to deal with the artists and the playwright in a way that was respectful to them and took care of them as much as possible in this really problematic moment.”
Part of “softening the blow” included a conversation with Diaz about how The Realm could continue to support him in spite of the canceled production. As a Page One resident playwright at the Realm, the theatre will go on providing him with necessary resources, including health insurance after he graduates from the Yale School of Drama, and a range of artistic support. There were also frank discussions about compensation with all the artists on the project—Diaz, director Taylor Reynolds, ASL director Caverly, and the design team will be paid their full fees. The cast and stage management will also continue to be paid through the show’s opening night on April 15.
A number of other not-for-profit theatres have maintained that they will continue to pay artists through canceled events, including (but not limited to) WP Theater, Ars Nova, the Vineyard, and New York Theatre Workshop. “We made the decision and ran the numbers afterward, because everything was happening so quickly… [But we did it] because it was the right thing to do,” says Pereira. “Once again, it’s about going back to our values…I think this is going to be a really tough time for artists—it already has been—and we wanted to make sure that people knew this amount of income was guaranteed to them.” Both of the show’s producing partners, Baltimore Center Stage and The Sol Project, were also on board to honor the continued payment of the artists working on the canceled Off-Broadway production.
Part of what made this decision fiscally possible is the fact that The Realm is not a subscription-based theatre. “The way that we budget is that 95 percent of our income is from contributed money,” says Pereira. With a typical programming slate of two shows per season, where a certain number of affordable tickets are guaranteed, the Realm accounts for ticket sales to provide between just 8 to 10 percent of the cost of a production. “Obviously there was a loss of income,” says Pereira, “but it was something we felt that we could absorb.”
Beyond the unearned income from ticket sales, there’s another kind of loss—though harder to quantify—that comes with canceling production in a two-show annual season. “A show gives us great visibility,” says Pereira, “that’s when a lot of donors come and potential new donors come.” And while the cancellation of Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally may not be an immediate financial blow to the company, the cancellation of its gala, which was scheduled for May 19, is likely to be.
For Kovner, this is an opportunity for The Realm to focus on serving the artists who call the theatre home. “We view ourselves as equally a playwrights’ organization and a producing theatre,” says Kovner; and right now, that means starting conversations with playwrights about their needs, hopes, fears, and concerns.
“It’s a moment of instability for theatres but it’s also a moment of instability for artists," says the artistic director. "So as much as we’re able to offer resources, this is a moment for us to be there for our playwrights.”
You can donate to The Realm, or show your support, by visiting playwrightsrealm.org/