Being a Business Owner During Covid
I feel it’s an understatement to write 2020 has been a wild ride. But honestly, owning a business for the past 13 years has been a crazy roller coaster. We’ve gotten good at dealing with curveballs, and this latest is just more extreme than usual.
I started my business in 2007 – a comedy theater located in Schaumburg, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. One year later, the economy collapsed, and I spent a lot of sleepless nights wondering if this new venture would make it. We were creating an improv theater in the suburbs during incredibly trying economic times. We built things up together with our staff and became a family. We discovered our identity in the comedy community. We hung in there and made it through. I have been keeping that in mind a lot lately; trying to stay hopeful that this too shall pass.
In March, the governor of Illinois closed everything down. It was eerie and strange to have my Friday and Saturday nights back, not having to worry about running out of coke syrup, or the weird flicker in the stage lights, or the drunk bachelorette party that was running late for the 9:30 show. All of the sudden my weekend nights were desolate.
I laid on the couch and cried for a week. Then I got busy applying for any grant that came along (Facebook grant application? Sure! Spanx grant application? Why not?) and then the PPP and EIDL loans. It was a nerve wracking and nail-biting time – would we be able to weather being closed for months?
After much discussion, we opted to NOT take our short-form improv shows online. Improv comedy really makes sense in the room. The audience provides suggestions that the actors take to spin comedic gold, and everyone is involved in the process and watches the gears turn. Have you ever watched a stand-up comedy special on TV and wondered why the audience is laughing so hard? It’s because a majority of the magic is in person, and improv comedy is ten times more likely to be weird over the internet. Not that it’s impossible – we did several custom Zoom improv shows for corporate clients – it’s just very different and doesn’t fit with our identity we discovered all those years ago.
I watched as theaters like the Annoyance pivoted to a terrific twitch streamed quarantine show, and ComedySportz worked to get their short form improv online, and I questioned whether we were making the right decision. After all these months, I believe it was the right choice for us. We spent the time studying how to reopen safely – masks vs face shields, how to reorganize our 118-seat theater, getting rid of the first batch of disgusting smelling hand sanitizer in favor of something better, and webinar after webinar about how to get information out to our audiences and how to operate safely for our patrons, cast and crew. We looked at the silver lining of time off and made changes and improvements that we have been putting off (our new bar design is amazing once we’re able to use it). I leaned heavily on my friend and fellow theater owner, Jennifer Estlin, who was fighting to pilot her theater through this storm (she owns The Annoyance along with her husband and partner, Mick Napier).
We focused on our improv classes over zoom, putting out topics that we thought went with the online format like storytelling and sketch writing, and saw some success with those. I am currently teaching an “Embracing Creativity” class online using the teachings of The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.
Even though we could have reopened at the beginning of July, we opted to push back to mid-September. We let others blaze the trail for mask wearing: Costco, Kroger, Walmart, McDonalds, etc. all made masks mandatory, and then it became a state mandate. We configured our house into two and four-seat groupings and redesigned our website to reflect those changes along with all the safety guidelines.
And we began rehearsing virtually for a show that would “lean in” to mask wearing and came up with 20,000 Laughs Under the Sea. It’s a super goofy concept (“we all have to keep our oxygen masks on as we submerge and begin the onboard entertainment!”) that we have gleefully embraced. We did a preview with friends and family and then opened to the public on September 18. We allow patrons to remove their masks once seated and enjoy any beverages they purchased in our lobby on the way in for a half hour before the show. Once it’s time for the “voyage,” we collect all bottles and cans and everyone wears masks through the end of the show, even the comedians onstage.
Not all of our cast and crew are ready to return, and we have been able to staff the shows with those who feel comfortable right now.
We even have a performer periodically zoom into the live show as the “Captain” of the sub while feeling safe from the comfort of their own home. We have performed for audiences of eight and thirty-eight (our max is fifty), and even the most jaded are won over by the ridiculous nature of the conceit – there’s a SQUID ATTACK! and an undersea dance battle! Everyone that has participated, from people who work at Laugh Out Loud to our patrons, has left in a great mood feeling lighter and relieved to have escaped even for an hour and a half.
We did not reopen for monetary reasons. If anything, we are barely breaking even with these shows. We reopened for morale. People need the arts. They need to laugh (and a drink doesn’t hurt either). We are ready to react and close again if conditions warrant it, but for the time being we are happy to provide a safe, fun night of comedy out of the house.
This article was written collaboratively with Jennifer Estlin. Here is Jennifer’s article on the topic.
I remember starting out the week of March 9th being pretty proud of our theatre (The Annoyance) for being quick to pivot and adapt to the potential threat from this new pandemic we were starting to really hear about. We had sent out mailings to all our patrons describing how we’d cut our seating capacity in half, set all the chairs and tables 6 feet apart, and I had put in an order for disposable microphone covers so we’d be ready for our open mic on Saturday. That was Tuesday. By Friday, we’d closed.
Just 7 days later, I was proud of us for coming up with and quickly implementing the idea of doing a “quarantine show”. We put together a cast of 5 and production staff of 3; everyone got food supplies, bedding, air mattresses, packed up a suitcase and arrived at the theatre on Friday. We were locked-in to live in the theatre. No one left; no one came in. For 14 days we live-streamed our rehearsal process and our daily lives as we created an entirely new sketch show and then broadcast it as a fundraising event on the 14th night. When we finished our show, the reality began to hit. We were leaving our safe bubble to go back into the world that had begun a state-mandated quarantine while we had been locked in. The world we came outside to looked a lot different than when we had gone in.
“The show must go on.” For more than 30 years we’d lived by this standard theatre motto – we’d gotten understudies, made last minute changes, rewritten scenes, songs, added improv… whatever it took to allow a show to go up. In all our 33 years we’d canceled only a handful of shows for extreme reasons. Hanging the sign on our front door that said “Closed until further notice” was a gut punch, but we had no choice; everyone was in the same boat. We had no idea, then, that a much harder decision was soon to come: when to reopen?
My daily routine changed drastically. I watched Governor Cuomo’s daily updates, scoured the internet for results of studies, watched for CDC recommendations and IL Dept. of Health statistics, and hung on Dr. Fauci’s words. At the same time, I was applying for every grant and loan I heard about, writing to legislators to #Save Our Stages, and negotiating with our landlord and two attorneys to try and keep the business from permanently closing. My dear friend Lilly, also a theatre owner, spoke with me almost daily to compare notes and try to figure out what to do, who to listen to, and how to survive.
When Chicago finally achieved Phase 4 “Revitalization” status, instead of celebrating the moment as I had thought I would, I felt terrified. We could legally re-open in a limited way: 50 people or under, masks on, patrons seated at all times (socially-distanced), and limited hours that would have us close at 11pm. But was it safe??
My husband/business partner and I scootered to the theatre (no car; afraid to take the train or an Uber) and set up the chairs in each space to see how many we could fit for a performance or class. Small theatre – too small and the audience would be dangerously close to the actors. In our MainStage theatre, we could fit 20 (10 couples) – possibly more if there were groups of 4 that were quarantined together.
In the bar, we hung plexiglass ‘windows’, thinking the barriers could help keep the bartender and patrons safe. The day after we hung them, renewed findings came out that the most common means of virus transmission was likely airborne. I imagined our HVAC system freely blowing the virus under, over and to the sides of our now ludicrous seeming windows. I looked for guidance from Actors Equity and SAG/AFTRA, discussed it endlessly with Lilly, and watched way too many Zoom webinars. We surveyed our students, teachers and patrons and quickly learned there was a very low appetite for returning to indoor gatherings. We watched as another Chicago theatre announced their opening and then immediately closed amidst a torrent of outrage from the acting community and many audience members.
As of this writing, more restaurants and bars have opened with indoor service and the city has increased the allowed percentages of occupancy. Lilly’s theatre in Chicago’s suburbs has opened in a very limited way and adhering to all guidelines, for small eager audiences that are grateful for the opportunity to come together and laugh again. Not many actors are willing to perform, but enough are, and they’re glad to be back on stage. The Annoyance remains closed.
We were lucky enough to negotiate a rent deferral until November 1 and ultimately made our decision based on the one question we couldn’t get past… is it worth it to risk someone’s health and well being for a show? I second-guess our decision constantly (which is grueling), especially as November draws nearer, threatening to close our doors forever.
I learned that supposedly, the quotation “The show must go on” originally came from the circus world and referred to keeping the show going to distract the audience when someone was injured or an act went wrong. Whoever it was that coined it likely wasn’t imagining a potential threat to both the artists and audience as well; a tiny, invisible threat that could wipe out a multitude of people who might never even have seen the show or been to the theatre. Perhaps the show must not go on… yet.