As live theater continues its fitful, incremental restart after an all but total absence over the last year and a half, PlayMakers Repertory Company artistic director Vivienne Benesch is uncharacteristically at a loss for words to describe what she’s seeing in regional playhouses.

“I don’t know what to call it yet,” she confesses. “I won’t call it a return, and I won’t call it normalcy, because it isn’t. It’s something else, something different now.”

After venues across the arts went dark in early March 2020, theater companies faced a stress test unlike any they’d ever encountered.

The choices were stark: either enter a total eclipse of unknown duration out of the public eye or attempt to transition into impromptu video production companies in order to present their works online.

And those decisions had to be made as they contemplated catastrophic losses in conventional revenue streams. North Carolina Theatre’s operating budget nosedived last year from $5 million to $1.2 million; Theatre Raleigh’s plunged by over 60 percent. With no shows on offer, ticket and season subscription sales were disastrous across the board: PlayMakers lost $1.2 million last year, while Justice Theatre Project kept only ten percent of its previous year’s ticketing income.

A resulting bloodbath in personnel lead to a 50 percent reduction in full-time staff at NC Theatre, four senior management positions vacated at Theatre Raleigh, and what Benesch calls “a huge administrative loss” that PlayMakers is only now beginning to come back from.

Times being what they are, it’s remarkable that only two of the region’s sixty-three theater companies closed for good during the pandemic lockdown.

Ward Theatre Company, a critically noted hothouse of Meisner-trained actors, closed before the non-COVID-related death of founder Wendy Ward in July.

The accomplished independent company Bartlett Theatre was “sort of” a casualty of the pandemic, according to artistic director Jonathan Brady. “The pandemic put life in perspective,” said Brady, who has since moved to Connecticut.

Under the circumstances, the fact that anything was achieved in 2020 and early 2021 remains an unlikely tribute to human resilience. During all of it, at least a dozen trailblazing local companies produced an unexpectedly diverse range of online programming, from podcasts and talk shows to concerts, staged readings, and full-length plays.

The National Women’s Theatre Festival was the region’s outlier among these, taking last and this year’s festivals, including dozens of panels and presentations, and two virtual theatrical productions, totally online.

But as the pandemic persisted, the inevitable Zoom fatigue began taking its toll.

“People got tired of seeing us try to do virtual performances,” says Tim Locklear, managing artistic director at North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre.

Nor were all attempts at placing live art on video successful: company management at Justice Theatre Project ultimately didn’t like the quality in an expensive filmed version of a Black Nativity production, last December, and have opted to return to live performances this year.

Meanwhile, companies occasionally launched live trial balloon productions (literally, in the case of Raleigh Little Theatre’s Balloonacy, which was staged outdoors in November 2020).

Burning Coal dared to push the envelope with an indoor October production of A Hundred Words for Snow. Each performance played to a maximum audience of four.

With spring’s increasing vaccination rates and falling incidents of infection, more companies planned to return to live productions. After RLT staged an April concert performance of The Last Five Years in Stephenson Amphitheatre, Burning Coal anted up with two indoor second stage productions in June before their Dix Park production of Evita, and Theatre Raleigh produced an opening cabaret at their new venue on Old Wake Forest Road.

Then the Delta variant served notice that the pandemic wasn’t behind us. A COVID scare among the crew at Theatre Raleigh forced the company to cancel multiple performances during the first week of Unto the Breeches, its’ first fully staged post-lockdown production.

Across the region, companies have had to surf changing—and sometimes conflicting—protocols from municipal and state governments, the CDC, and Actors Equity.

Though the Delta variant is now less of a threat,  producers and presenters eye the daily headlines uneasily for word of new variants. Under present circumstances, committing to stage a show a month ahead is risky; planning a season through next summer, a potentially costly exercise in faith.

It’s not so surprising then that ten of the 61 surviving regional theater companies remain on hiatus: still at varying degrees of visibility on the scene and in social media, but with no announced plans for future production.

Bulldog Ensemble Players “will produce something next year,” according to company member Akiva Fox. “We just don’t have the budget levels to take the risks that others can.”

Some in that number, including Archipelago Theatre and Hidden Voices, are actively at work on projects in other mediums, but Bare Theatre, which began a company restructuring during the previous year, will likely not return to production until late 2022 or 2023.

“We’re trying to figure out what it means to come back,” says David Henderson, co-artistic director of the Honest Pint Theatre. “Every theater in this area, big and small, is wrestling with the question: What does coming back even look like?”

At this point, Honest Pint is only scheduling a March 2022 production of the drama Small Mouth Sounds at Raleigh’s Pure Life Theatre. Shows beyond that depend on the pandemic’s progress.

With robust financial assistance from state and federal grant programs including the Paycheck Protection Program, the Economic Injury Disaster Loan, and—finally—the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program (see “Waiting Game,” in the June 22 issue of the INDY), economics don’t pose the same existential threat to most companies that they did earlier in the pandemic. North Carolina Theatre will have received some $2.2 million in aid by mid-2022.

And at least one company thrived during the lockdown. Revenue at the National Women’s Theatre Festival grew 156% last year, from $55,000 to $156,000, as the company’s reputation rose beyond the local level following collaborations online with prominent playwrights, producers, companies, and actors during the lockdown.

“People from across the country wanted to pay for our programs,” says executive director Johannah Maynard Edwards, who notes that the company increased revenues further by implementing a “pay what you can” policy.

Funding sources also came to the rescue, she notes. “United Arts, the North Carolina Arts Council, and Raleigh’s Arts Council worked really, really hard for all of us through the pandemic. I also think we got through by having a great community, and a good mission worthy of support.”

Most companies are contemplating what Burning Coal artistic director Jerry Davis calls a “better safe than sorry” model of cautious budgeting and smaller shows. “We’ve learned a lot of things, and we’ll be holding onto those lessons,” says Theater Raleigh artistic director Lauren Kennedy Brady.

Benesch believes the surviving companies are doing some soul searching, to address issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion, and take better care of each other. “We are literally in rehearsal now, both on stage and off,” she notes. “We’re in rehearsal for who we are becoming.” 

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