By Bobby Bordelon
While both the Greenbrier Valley Theatre (GVT) and Carnegie Hall, two of the Greenbrier Valley’s mainstay arts centers, have been closed due to COVID-19, many have wondered what their present state is, and how it could reflect the future. Kathy Sawyer, Producing Artistic Director of Greenbrier Valley Theatre, and Sara Crickenberger, president and CEO of Carnegie Hall, hosted a virtual town hall to answer the communities’ questions.
Both of the performing arts centers took the opportunity of being closed due to the pandemic to upgrade their facilities. Carnegie Hall removed its old seats and added a new box office, carpet, duct work, lights, paint, and of course seats. GVT also replaced an old HVAC system, allowing for improved airflow throughout the building.
“It went as smoothly as it possibly could with everything going on,” said Crickenberger. “I can’t wait for you all to come see it because it’s beautiful.”
Many of the students typically involved with GVT are doing so primarily through video conferences, with work on solo performances shown to others enrolled in the program. Sawyer noted enrollment had been “up and down,” with many of the enrollees being students that had previously performed or participated in the theatre experience before the pandemic.
With students going online, many hoped performances would continue to be held virtually as well. Carnegie is currently preparing a series of 12 online performances working through the history of classic composers. A number of online classes have been held, including a class on salt rising bread that could appear in a New York Times piece. For GVT however, being able to stream past or present performances comes with a series of hurdles.
“People have asked us about streaming – normally when we do shows we [film] an archival copy and there have been some concessions made by unions about streaming shows that you’ve produced before,” Sawyer explained. “Actor’s equity doesn’t allow us to broadcast anything so we looked into doing that. You still have to pay the royalties on the plays but [the real drawback] is our content wasn’t all that great because it wasn’t filmed professionally. It was just a camera set up in the back of the theatre to archive the movement within the play. Even if we were able to do that, we would have to pay royalties, then there was a lawsuit where the screen actors guild said that theatres were stepping into video and film territory by doing this. … For a while there it was a lot more complicated and expensive and the quality would not have showcased what we do.”
Beyond this however, neither center has been able to host significant performances since the pandemic shut downs in March. Add this to the loss of Carnegie Hall’s two biggest fundraisers, Taste of our Town and the annual gala, both are hurting.
“What we need from supporters, one thing that we definitely need from you, is to continue to give your annual gifts and things that you’ve been doing because we still have to pay bills and we need to start bringing back staff at some level at the first of the year when they run out of unemployment insurance,” Sawyer said.
“About 70 percent of our staff is furloughed at this point,” Crickenberger said. “We have kept everyone on insurance, so we’ve been able to keep everyone insured throughout all of this. My big concern at this point is all of our folks run out of unemployment at the end of December and we’ve got to get them back. We can’t just leave them hanging. Everyone of our employees are waiting to get back. … We really need for the folks who support us to continue to support us. We’re applying for grants for programming. … A lot of granting agencies don’t like to support staff or the electric bill and those are the things we’re trying to pay right now.”
For now the best way to support the arts in the Greenbrier Valley is to call local and national representatives, both Sawyer and Crickenberger noted, and emphasize the need for unemployment extensions and additional support similar to the CARES Act funding that has, so far, helped keep them afloat. Until the COVID-19 pandemic allows for larger gatherings of people however, things won’t be returning to normal. Despite this, both are determined to come back once it’s possible.
“We’ll be here, we’ll be ready to go as soon as it’s possible, as soon as we can get everybody back in the building, out on the lawn,” Crickenberger said.