A Nimble Theater Guy Ponders the Future

Elliot Fox strides into his empty theater on a recent coronavirus day. He’s never seen it so forlorn. No sounds of clapping. It’s empty for the fourth week in a row. During those four weeks, he has incredulously cancelled or postponed 72 performances between March and May. Now that Governor Cuomo has hit the New York State pause button for another month, he’s thinking: “What do I do about June? ” He reminisces. In the three or four years since he took over direction of the Emelin Theater in Mamaroneck, N.Y., the place has been hopping. “We’ve been on a strong trajectory–ticket sales have hit a new level each season. New programs, new audiences, new members, all were on the rise.” The Emelin presents two film clubs, some 30 partnerships with schools and community organizations and a lively menu of music, dance, comedy and theatrical performances. Now, working remotely, with reduced staff, he is juggling and rescheduling performances and hanging on tight as this COVID-19 wind blows through Westchester. What seemed to many to be a short term disruption is now looking like a much longer process.

As he turns his thoughts to the recovery, he wonders will there be a recovery? When will it come? Will we still need social distancing? His mind races ahead to September, October. Like many arts leaders, he wonders what the new normal will look like? The uncertainty prompts him to count the seats in the Emelin Theater. 275, just as he thought. He ponders whether social distancing will continue to keep audiences 6 feet apart. Under those rules, he estimates the theater could seat 60 to 100 people…. The looming length of the COVID-19 crisis is prompting theater professionals like Fox to rethink the financial model of small arts centers. Survival will favor the nimble and their ability to shift gears quickly to suit the new environment, he concludes. But Elliot Fox holds onto the glimmer of hope that: “In tough times, art survives.”

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