Unemployment Is Rampant. So This Theater Is Giving Freelancers Money.


The Public Theater, a leading Off Broadway nonprofit, is giving small grants to several hundred freelance artists as many grapple with the impact of joblessness and expiring unemployment benefits.

The theater said it has given $1,000 “financial relief payments” to 368 people including technicians and crew members like carpenters, truck drivers, engineers and programmers; teaching artists, who facilitate classes, workshops and talkbacks; and members of working groups, which support artists as they develop.

“Freelance theater workers are in total economic distress, almost universally,” said Oskar Eustis, the Public’s artistic director. “It feels pathetic — this isn’t enough money — but it’s just what we can do right now.”

The Public, like other nonprofits, has seen its ticket revenue disappear with the closing of theaters; the organization says it faces a shortfall of over $10 million this year. Last month, the theater furloughed 105 of its 232 full-time employees — it is continuing to pay their health insurance through the end of the year — and it has cut the pay of all remaining staff members who make over $100,000 a year.

Eustis said the initial round of relief payments went to freelancers who worked on shows at the Public from September through March, when the coronavirus pandemic prompted a shutdown of in-person performances. The Public said it anticipated giving a second round of grants to actors, stage managers, designers and other creative team members later in the year.

“We’re trying to let them know we see them,” Eustis said, “and we also hope it will inspire other institutions to recognize that preserving the field isn’t just preserving our staffs or our buildings, but the people who do the vast amount of work.”

Several other institutions have also made microgrants to theater artists during the pandemic. The Public said it was inspired to act in part by Artist Relief, a coalition of grant makers funded in part by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, that is giving money to creative workers facing financial emergencies. There have also been individuals who have sought to help: the playwright Jeremy O. Harris, for example, worked with the Bushwick Starr to distribute 152 grants, each $500, to playwrights. And there are a variety of similar efforts around the country: The League of Chicago Theaters, for example, offered $500 grants to Chicago-based theater professionals, and a new organization called the Black Theater Alliance of Philadelphia is offering $200 microgrants to 20 local Black artists.



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