As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced theaters and performance venues to close their doors, many once-vibrant organizations have struggled to survive, and often the people behind the scenes have felt nearly forgotten, said Christine Gradl Seitz, executive director of the Duluth Playhouse.

“It’s really frightening how little attention has been focused on the arts and cultural groups,” she said.

But that’s about to change with Congress’ recent approval of the Save Our Stages Act — legislation that promises to provide struggling theaters and arts groups with $15 billion in aid.

In terms of accessing some of those relief funds, Gradl Seitz said: "Of course, we’re holding our breath.”

The Duluth Playhouse joined with hundreds of other organizations across the nation, writing in support of the COVID-19 relief package, but Gradl Seitz said the program to be overseen by the Small Business Administration is still too new to know exactly how it will work.

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NorShor Theatre box office manager Abby McLaughlin posts information on the Jan. 15-18 virtual staged reading of Katori Hall’s play “The Mountaintop” below the theater’s marquee Wednesday. The play is a fictional depiction of Martin Luther King Jr.'s last night alive. (Steve Kuchera /
NorShor Theatre box office manager Abby McLaughlin posts information on the Jan. 15-18 virtual staged reading of Katori Hall’s play “The Mountaintop” below the theater’s marquee Wednesday. The play is a fictional depiction of Martin Luther King Jr.'s last night alive. (Steve Kuchera /

“We’re kind of in limbo here, waiting to understand what’s going to happen,” she said.

Yet Roger Reinert, interim executive director of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, expects the SOS Act funding will help his organization. The program offers grants equivalent to as much as 45% of the recipient’s 2019 gross earned revenue.

“We certainly qualify,” Reinert said. “It’s just a matter of: Is it Bayfront and Amsoil and DECC Arena events plus the auditorium that would count toward the aid we receive? It’s just a matter of how does that shake out once the SBA develops the guidelines. But we 100% should qualify for a grant.”

Tony Cuneo, executive director of Zeitgeist, a Duluth nonprofit arts organization, said he’s still waiting to see the official criteria for the SOS aid but remains optimistic based on what he has heard of the act.

“Four of our five main programs have been deeply affected by COVID: a performance theater, a restaurant, a movie theater and a theater company. COVID has had a profound impact on all of them,” Cuneo said.

The SBA is expected to roll out the details of the SOS program within a couple of weeks, said Sheila Smith, executive director of the Minnesota Citizens For the Arts.

The SOS Act is designed to put some of the neediest arts and theater organizations first in line to receive help. In the first 14 days after the program launches, the highest priority will be given to organizations that saw earned revenue declines of 90% or more between April 1, 2020, and the end of the year. The following couple of weeks the prioritized group will expand to include organizations that experienced earning declines of 70% or more during the same period.

Smith said she considers the approach “really smart, noting that the arts community has been devastated by the pandemic and many organizations already have quietly disappeared.

“So, every dollar they can get from the COVID-relief fund will hopefully help them survive to the other side of it. But, man, it’s going to be a rough road,” she said.

Smith said health authorities predict it may be nine months before the pandemic is under control.

Some theaters and arts organizations in great need likely will not qualify for SOS help, however.

Bob Boone opened the West Theatre in West Duluth in the fall of 2019, just months before the pandemic hit.

“We set out to build the best movie theater we could, and it ran overbudget, and it took too long,” he said but noted that the nearly $2 million project began with only the rough shell of a theater that had been closed for 40 years.

“We opened up losing money and so poor that I couldn’t buy letters for the marquee,” Boone said, adding that eventually he scraped together enough to buy letters for “The Lion King,” adding each character as needed at $15 a pop for subsequent titles.

“I actually had turned the corner about a month before COVID hit, because I’m a lucky charm, and then business fell off the face of the Earth,” he said.

With only a few months of operating revenue data from 2019, he may be ineligible for help through the SOS program, but Boone said it looks like he will qualify for help from the Minnesota Movie Theater Relief Grant Program.

“There’s still a lot of mystery for a couple of different reasons, but there’s all sorts of energy that is positive, if everything goes according to Hoyle,” Boone said.

Cuneo said staff at Zinema has had to be creative to navigate changing rules.

“Suffice it to say that it has required pivots, and our team has been inspirational to me in their ability to achieve those pivots and continue to provide the community with really great programming. But we really miss having people in our space,” he said.

Zeitgeist’s Zinema has offered online access to art films.

“Our performance theater has been streaming live concerts and helping artists raise money, using the Teatro as a safe performance venue with the technical capabilities to stream their work," he said.

Gradl Seitz said the Playhouse has retained a “skeletal staff that is doing a really good job of maintaining our presence and remaining relevant.”

“What would be worse is to do nothing,” she said. “So, we have to continue to do something. We have to continue to be part of this community and part of rebuilding it. To do nothing would only put us in a weaker position to reopen.”

The Playhouse has engaged in some online streaming productions that Gradl Seitz acknowledged have been unprofitable.

“They only cost money. However, that being said, some of our online classes have done well and kept people connected more importantly. It’s kept the communication going between artists and those who want to support the arts. So, I think that’s really critical for the health of the organization, even at a cost,” she said.

With Gov. Tim Walz recently authorizing theaters to reopen at no more than 25% capacity, Gradl Seitz said the NorShor Theatre has mapped out seating to also maintain 6-foot distancing between guest parties, further diminishing the inventory of available seats.

“So, it’s a much deeper hit than is understood,” she said.

Nevertheless, Gradl Seitz expressed confidence.

“We will make it. We wouldn’t make it another year without help. But we’ve made it so far, and of course we’re one of the thousands and thousands of arts groups that are just burning through our reserves. It’s coming at the expense of everything we’ve worked so hard for in order to achieve financial stability for the Playhouse and the NorShor Theatre,” she said.

Cuneo said he wishes aid would have been faster to arrive nationwide, “because we have lost some really unique cultural organizations, independent restaurants and theaters.”

“I know that some have shut their doors, and those are probably permanent losses,” he said. “It takes a lot to start those, and if they had found success previously, finding that success again is not guaranteed.”

But Cuneo remained upbeat.

“I think if we can access some of this support, it will be really important to getting us through the back end of this pandemic and putting us in a position to welcome people back to our building," he said. "But with that support, I think we can be confident that we will.”