Coronavirus may have devastated the theater world. Artists are adapting

Thousands of theaters closed shows midweek and canceled remaining productions.

Last Monday, when the governor of Vermont issued an order banning gatherings of 50 or more people, the leadership team at Northern Stage in White River Junction knew what they had to do.

They had been planning for this incredibly tough moment as COVID-19 spread across the country.

The team called a full company meeting with all the actors, staff and stagehands and alerted the group of 45 that the theater would shut its doors immediately.

"It was just heartbreaking," production manager Jess Johnston said. "It was the worse day of most of our lives … we have all poured so many years into this organization. The company is a linchpin for our town."

Similar scenes have played out on stages across the country over the last two weeks.

Much of the discussion in Washington has focused on the economic impact on restaurants, bars, travel companies and hotels. But the latest stimulus package passed in the Senate this week did include $25 million for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as well an additional $75 million in grants available through the National Endowment for the Arts.

"Theater is about being together, being in community together, experiencing stories together," Simon Godwin, the artistic director at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., told ABC News.

The only remedy prescribed to fight this virus -- so far -- has been an end to socializing.

Like Northern Stage, thousands of theaters closed shows midweek and canceled remaining productions. They suspended upcoming seasons indefinitely. Subscriptions and ticket sales have been refunded and there have been massive lay-offs in all 50 states.

"Basically everyone I know has lost their jobs. All of my loved ones are out of work," Johnston said. "The unemployment in my industry across the country is hard to wrap my brain around."

Johnston's theater is a mid-sized regional nonprofit with about a $4 million annual operating budget. The world premiere of "Citrus," a play about African-American history, debuted at the theater this month.

Johnston and others made the decision to pay the actors in "Citrus" through the end of the show’s scheduled run, but they canceled the contracts for the actors who had already been cast in the next production. The playhouse’s senior staff and department heads took a pay cut. A few other people were kept on, mainly for part-time administrative work. Other than that, all staff stagehands and crews -- dozens of carpenters, electricians, prop masters and dressers, who keep the lights on and get the each shows onstage each week -- were furloughed and advised to file for unemployment with the state.

In a normal year, most of those men and women earn a rather modest salary of about $30,000 from the theater. Many are younger professionals, and, according to Johnston, have left Vermont and scattered across the country to move back in with their parents.

Others who have roots in the community are hunkering down and relying on a sense of togetherness that is unique and profound among artists.

"No one is immune right now and in a way there is something beautiful in that," Johnston said.

Johnston worried about one staff member who had just bought a house.

"People have a good attitude right now, but I worry so much about people on my team who live paycheck to paycheck ... in three weeks, how are they going to be able to afford to eat?" she said.

Artists and theater employees know that convincing theatergoers to come back to see a show could take time.

"If people are scared to be in a room together, you can't just snap your fingers and tell people it is safe," Johnston said.

Jeannie Naughton lives in New Jersey but has worked on Broadway for more than 25 years years as a dresser. She maintains costumes for some of Broadway’s biggest stars and executes the complicated costume changes backstage. She recently took a leave from the Broadway production of "Hamilton" to dress Patti LuPone in her revival of "Company," which was set to open on Broadway last Sunday. Like her colleagues, she is in a holding pattern.

Her husband is an actor and while they have some savings, she is worried he may not qualify for unemployment with the state of New Jersey. Her family is hoping New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy might be able to work out a deal with banks to put mortgage payments on hold.

"There is a residual feeling of being overwhelmed," she said. "We are following everything we have been told to do the best we can, but the uncertainty prays on your head and stress comes out."

Like thousands of other artists who work in theaters across the country, Naughton receives health insurance benefits through her union, New York’s Theatrical Wardrobe Union, Local 764. As is common practice in the industry, artists must work a certain number of weeks per quarter to qualify and be eligible for benefits. With production schedules so uncertain right now, there is added anxiety for all union members.

Naughton’s union worked alongside several others to negotiate a deal last week with the Broadway League of producers and theaters to guarantee a few weeks of emergency wages and health insurance benefits for those who were instantly out of work.

She said her "Ham Fam," a group of colleagues who worked together on "Hamilton," has started a conference call at midnight to gather and talk and offer support.

Amber White, the production stage manager on "Hamilton," said theater people are used to weird hours as well as the inherent uncertainty in their work.

"We are freelancers at heart ... independent contractors, paid for work we do, hours we work – that’s it," she told ABC News.

While White has worked on "Hamilton" for the last several years, she said this moment has been a reminder of a deep truth all artists know well: paid work can come and go.

"No matter how secure you feel, anything can happen any moment," she said. "If this has had happened to me 20 years ago, I don't know where I wold be. I am very fortune we have been doing this for long enough to have a little savings."

At best, most people in theater work show-to-show, season-by-season. Long-term employment can be rare. There is a sensibility and mindset that comes with the business that she and Naughton agree will help artists weather this moment.

"It’s the trick of being an artist: balancing making art with making a living," White said. "We have to figure out how to feed ourselves our way."

"Once we get out of our cloud of fear and anxiety, out of our bouts of depression, which we always do," White added. "We gravitate towards creating life and work for ourselves. We are malleable."

At home, Naughton has put her sewing skills toward a new mission: making surgical masks for a local hospital to extend the lives of disposable masks that doctors and nurses desperately need right now.

"I want to have a purpose, if I can help our people feel on the front lines .... plus, people in theater have a wellspring of creativity and troubleshooting and problem-solving skills," she said.

The Shakespeare Theater Company is experimenting with moving some of its programming online. It is hosting virtual happy hours and will likely offer lectures in the coming weeks. Other artists have launched online dance classes and workshops teaching crafts to kids.

Those artists fortunate enough to work on productions as popular as “Hamilton” can at least expect their shows will reopen and their incomes will return as soon as people can gather safely again. But many others in the business are just not that lucky. Some productions, even ones slated for the big lights of Broadway, are completely up in the air right now.

On Tuesday, the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS’ nonprofit announced that more than 20 producers had offered a $1 million challenge to match donations to a new COVID-19 Emergency Assistance Fund for those in the business.

"With every passing day that theaters remain dark, entertainment professionals face unprecedented health and financial challenges requiring immediate attention and resources," the announcement read.

"The anxiety level across city and country is intense," Tom Viola, executive director of Broadway Cares, said. "We are all looking at an uncertain future that could last months down the road."

He said he worries about the ushers, bartenders and people who sell merchandise in the lobbies.

"Some of the best work we do is help people navigate intense bureaucracy that exists around hospitals and government services," he said.

Back in Vermont, Johnston said her theater could really suffer if donations dried up. More than half of the theater's revenue comes from grants and contributions.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company has found success by asking supporters to give now rather than later. "It’s an act of faith from supporters and a promise from us," Godwin said.

Godwin noted that William Shakespeare's own theater was often closed during the plague.

"He would go to the countryside to write. His vaccine was poetry," Godwin noted. "We have to keep the faith and be creative … there will be a renewed appetite soon enough for a shared experience, that feeling of being present alongside other human beings."