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Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s 2019-20 season included the bestselling show in its 41-year history, The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley.
New Schedules due to the Global Pandemic
Due to the global pandemic, Courtney Sale, the Nancy L. Donahue Artistic Director, and Bonnie J. Butkas, Executive Director, today announced major changes to the schedule for the upcoming season at Merrimack Repertory Theatre (MRT). The leaders revealed five of the seven upcoming productions, including the postponed Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End, and said they will announce an audience safety plan in December.
Sale said, “The health of our artists, patrons, staff, and volunteers is our paramount priority. In order to provide a safe place for all our community, we must shift our season. While we are saddened by this change, the well-being and safety of our community must lead our decision making. Covid has brought forth many uncertainties, and we will continue to consider further difficult actions if necessary.”
MRT will produce seven shows beginning in March of 2021. The 279-seat theatre had hoped to begin performances this October. The new schedule will play over 15 months – three in the spring of 2021 and four between November 2021 and May 2022. Seven-show subscriptions already purchased include all of these shows. All three presentations next spring will be one-person plays to allow for flexibility in responding to COVID-19. In a recent audience survey, 65 percent of MRT theatregoers said they would not consider returning to the theatre until March.
“I have the utmost faith in Courtney, Bonnie, and the MRT staff, along with the guidance of a remarkable Board of Trustees, to help us deliver an even stronger and more relevant MRT when we return to Liberty Hall next spring,” Joanne Yestramski, President of the Board of Trustees, said. “We are so fortunate to have the unwavering support of our longtime subscribers, donors and the Lowell and Merrimack Valley community during these extraordinary times!”
Butkas said the $3 million theatre has been forced to make some difficult, and often heartbreaking, decisions to stabilize the 42-year-old non-profit. The pandemic has devasted the entire arts and culture industry, which is 4.5 percent of the US economy. MRT’s losses already tally close to $600,000 with the cancellation of two shows last spring and delayed productions in the fall. Spring shortfalls were offset by extraordinary giving by the Board of Trustees, ticket donations from patrons, and special funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Barr and Klarman Family Foundations. MRT acted quickly to stabilize the organization with a significant reduction in staff, including the elimination of many positions, and the selection of small shows to save costs and allow for scheduling flexibility. The budget has been reduced by 37 percent from $3 million to $1.89 million.
“Our goal is to preserve the organization and return to live theatre in Lowell as soon as it is truly safe to do so,” Butkas said. “To that end, we’ve been making hard choices since March. We’re looking for continued support from all sources—our patrons; the city, state, and federal government; foundations; and corporations.”
The spring 2021 season comprises Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End by Allison Engel and Margaret Engel, March 24 to April 11, 2021; Wild Horses by Allison Gregory, April 21 to May 9, 2021; and Until the Flood by Dael Orlandersmith, May 19 to June 6, 2021.
The remaining four plays – to be presented from November 2021 through May 2022 – will include Every Brilliant Thing by Duncan MacMillan with Jonny Donahoe and Young Americans by Lauren Yee (Cambodian Rock Band). Two more titles will be announced at a later date. The Lowell Offering, postponed from last April, will not be produced during the next 15 months due to the costs of such a large show, but it will remain a potential production for future seasons.
MRT will introduce a “no risk” policy for all theatregoers. The theatre pledges to be flexible and sympathetic in accommodating ticket exchanges, as well as credit and refund requests, for any patron who does not feel safe attending a performance. The company hopes to offer subscribers their usual seats, but if health officials require social distancing, those seat assignments may change temporarily.
“We will continue to put the safety and comfort of our patrons, artists, staff, and volunteers at the center of all our decisions. We hope our patrons will choose to stay with us as we move into this new schedule, but we will fulfill requests for credit or refunds,” Butkas said.
In consultation with a wide range of theatre, health, and government organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the ongoing “Roadmap for Recovery and Resilience for Theater” project by Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the theatre will continue to investigate the necessary protective supplies, such as masks, hand sanitizers, and temperature checks, for theatregoers; social distancing models; ventilation and filtration requirements; the latest in safety recommendations for public buildings; and the screening and testing of staff and volunteers.
In addition, MRT will convert to a fully digital platform for brochures, invitations, and programs/Playbills. MRT will also consider video recordings of select productions during emergency shut down situations. The company will evaluate all options and share a safety plan in December. That plan may still change over time as situations with the virus and a possible vaccine shift.