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As Kevin Copenhaver stood in his costume craft shop on June 3, everything seemed frozen in time. He’d come to retrieve some supplies to bring home—or maybe he’d grab one of his hundreds of books to give him comfort for the next 14 months, he thought. The oversized stage mask that he had been sculpting for an upcoming immersive show, Theater of the Mind, sat on his work table, untouched since March 13—the day when staff at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA) were placed on unpaid leave of absence due to the industry-wide shutdown brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. He didn’t know what to take. It felt like the classic hypothetical: Your house is burning down. What do you grab before you’re forced to leave?
Copenhaver, head costume designer at DCPA for 30 years, was one of 114 Denver Center staff members who were furloughed on May 28—along with an additional 37 staff who were laid off—when the organization announced the cancellation of the Theatre Company’s entire upcoming 2020-2021 season. A total of 25 shows have been canceled or postponed since March 13—nine of which were locally produced, like David Byrne and Mala Gaonkar’s Theater of the Mind and the Colorado-centric Rattlesnake Kate by Neyla Pekarek, former cellist and vocalist for the Lumineers. Along with two fundraisers and hundreds of classes that also had to be canceled, the damage chalks up to an expected loss of over $10 million for the coming fiscal year.
DCPA President and CEO Janice Sinden says the status of traveling Broadway shows still has to be handled on a case-by-case basis (blockbuster Hamilton has been postponed, while the likes of Mean Girls and The SpongeBob Musical have been canceled), but the general shutdown of the Broadway industry meant an unavoidable blow to the organization’s budget. “Without earned income, the smart thing to do is wait and just be conservative in our producing and presenting shows,” Sinden says. Broadway ticket sales account for a majority of the original programming funding for DCPA’s Theatre Company and Off Center, one of its signature lines.
Sinden also emphasized that safety for staff and theatergoers was a major factor in the decision to cancel. “We don’t know what public health orders will be…and part of the beauty of theater is sitting elbow-to-elbow with people from all walks of life and sharing that experience,” Sinden says.
DCPA’s board will reconvene in October to see if there is any chance of reopening for a short spring season according to Sinden, but they ultimately had to operate based on worst case scenario and slash the resulting 55 percent of staffing costs for the remainder of 2020 fiscal year and continuing into 2021 (July 1 through June 30). Many of the positions that were permanently cut included ticketing agents, stage hands, stage managers, production electricians, and other management and communications roles, according to a mandatory notice from DCPA filed with the Colorado Department of Labor & Employment on May 28. The retained staff will have their hours cut.
Bobby Bennett, a part-time ticket agent who was laid off, would have celebrated his first full year with the DCPA the same weekend he was let go. He’s been told he’ll have the chance to reapply for his position again next year, but says he would have gotten “a pretty good raise” after passing that one-year mark—and being hired again would mean starting from scratch. Bennett says he doesn’t want to disparage his appreciation for the mission of DCPA, but he still felt like the layoffs could have been handled more compassionately from the top down in those first few weeks of uncertainty.
“I don’t think they meant for it to come off so cold,” Bennett says, stressing that his direct supervisors handled the announcement of the layoffs graciously, but that the treatment felt different from the fourth floor. “It was very hard to see posts [from DCPA on social media] that were catering to our patrons and not to the people on [DCPA’s] front lines.”
Both Bennett and Copenhaver felt they were fed a sense of false hope leading up to last week’s announcement. “I still feel kind of numb about the whole thing,” Copenhaver says, adding that he doesn’t have any answers to how he’s going to bootstrap it for the time being, in an industry that’s ground to a halt. “I feel about [the] least creative right now as I’ve ever felt in my life.”
In the meantime, DCPA has posted a recovery fund to try to offset the losses from the season’s cancellations and will be covering 80 percent of furloughed staff’s medical coverage through December. Bennett also suggests donating to the Denver Actors Fund (and their COVID-specific DEAR Fund) and smaller local theaters if you’re looking for ways to help members of the creative community who are in need right now. And though DCPA is working on curating several online series like DCPA Memories and an Artist Series with behind-the-scenes content, Copenhaver, Bennett, and Sinden echoed the sentiment that there is no effort—nor likelihood—of ever replacing live theater.
“We are going to have to reinvent ourselves in a lot of ways and reimagine ourselves in a lot of ways, but maybe this will herald another sort of renaissance,” Copenhaver says. “It’s time for us to pause and reflect. Eventually the creativity will strike again, and some really, really amazing things will come out of this.”