Broadway theatre has announced its total losses due to the extended closures caused by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, estimated at $100m in 2020.
The closures continue, and although all theatres worldwide have been severely affected by this pandemic, the Broadway theatre crisis is completely different from the crisis affecting theatres elsewhere.
This is because arts policy in the US is not based on the idea of direct public subsidies to support arts and culture, as other countries do. Instead, the US has put in place a regime of incentive grants, relying on a principle of decentralisation, and with no single agency or institution controlling more than a small percentage of the funds distributed.
Moreover, theatre, as an art form, is not as deeply embedded in the history of America’s modern culture as it is in Europe. The US has never established a National Theatre.
This makes it unique among the most developed nations in the world, as well as among many developing countries that established national theatres early in their burgeoning histories. Until the present day, unlike most nations, such as the UK, France, Germany, Japan, China, and India among many others, the US has no government-sponsored dramatic company and no single building that houses America’s band of theatre.
Accordingly, Broadway is completely dependent on the box office, and does not receive any direct support from the US government. Neither does it even enjoy any other advantages, despite its long and rich history.
Despite some exceptional grants awarded by the US Congress to support it during the coronavirus pandemic, these grants were not sufficient to support the expenses of a large theatre area, such as Broadway.
In spite of these grants, Broadway was unable to fulfil its financial obligations in light of the preventive measures that required the theatre to give up half of its seats to maintain social distancing and secure viewers.
As a result, Broadway was forced to lower its curtains, turn off its lights, and cancel all shows for a whole year. This has led to the complete disappearance of this art in the US throughout 2020, threatening the industry as a whole.
What makes matters worse is that this closure could extend to May 2021, as theatres will be the last places to open their doors to the public. There is a lot of uncertainty about what Broadway will look like when theatres reopen.
Thus, the theatre production system in America puts theatrical art in a major dilemma, for this total dependence on the box office without adequate direct support from the state leads to undermining this art across the country.
This is in contrast to the efforts made by other countries to support the arts in general, and the theatre in particular. For example, major theatres in other countries, such as the Berliner Anspel in Germany (which was founded by Berthold Brecht with his wife Helen Weigel) and the National Theatre in the UK, have been able to reopen their stage since May by removing half the seats in respect of the rules of social distancing.
This option was possible for these theatres under a government system that sponsors theatres and transforms some of them into public institutions. It also ensures that these entities are provided with annual support, which makes the theatre productions independent of audience revenues and the box office.
Indeed, Broadway deserves to have special ongoing and direct support from the US government. Based in New York City’s Manhattan area, it is not just an important tourist attraction or even a group of professional theatres of great fame.
In fact, it represents the pinnacle of the theatre world in the English-speaking world. Even historian Martin Shifter asserted that most theatre productions on Broadway have become works of great influence in American culture and contributed to making New York City the capital of culture in the US.
Moreover, in 2015, Broadway created a website to bring its interesting shows to the living rooms of individuals, so that it could present its shows to viewers around the world. The site was the first of its kind in the world at that time.
Doubtless, this giant theatre has been able to engrave its name in the minds of theatre fans, until the name of Broadway has become synonymous with the word theatre all over the world.
Most importantly, on the economic level, Broadway theatres constitute an important economic lever for the theatre sector in particular and the American economy in general. According to the Broadway League, the 2018/19 season saw a total attendance of 14,768,254 and a combined box office gross of $1,829,312,140, contributing $14.8bn to the local economy.
By Dr Marwa El-Shinawy, PhD in American Theatre and member of the Higher Committee for the Cairo International Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theatre (CIFCET)