Outlook 2022: On with the shows – Perseverance pays off for Proctors Collaborative venues

Philip Morris in the Capital Repertory Theatre in March 2021
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Philip Morris in the Capital Repertory Theatre in March 2021

SCHENECTADY — Proctors Collaborative is back. The trio of arts venues — Proctors in Schenectady, Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany and Universal Preservation Hall (UPH) in Saratoga Springs — have worked in collaboration, supporting one another in opening their doors once again to theater fans and music lovers, providing a degree of normalcy in a time that’s anything but normal.

Proctors was allowed to reopen in September 2021, when students in its Broadway Camp performed on the main stage in “Rent.” A few months later, Proctors brought back the touring Broadway shows that are a mainstay for the venue when it hosted “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.” Currently, it continues a full season of touring Broadway shows as well as other music, comedy and literary offerings.

Capital Repertory Theatre began producing and performing shows when it staged “Ethel Waters” in August 2021 in its new $14 million theater at 251 N. Pearl St. in Albany. It renovated a 19th-century building that had once been a Nabisco bakery.

UPH pivoted from performances to exhibitions, opening in July 2020 with a traveling exhibit from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Last November, musical performances resumed at the venue with a full season planned.

The comeback has resulted from the perseverance of the 34 staff members who remained employed to regroup and raise funds after the performance venues were forced to shut their doors in March of 2020.

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“We went from being a $30 million organization a year to $2 million, and we laid off 140 people at all three places,” said Proctors Collaborative CEO Philip Morris.

When the COVID-19 lockdown happened, Proctors, which presents touring Broadway shows as well as “teching tours” — in which performers and technicians of Broadway shows getting ready to hit the road stage their final dress rehearsals — ceased all performances and rehearsals.

Capital Rep, which formed a collaboration with Proctors in 2011, was in the middle of the renovation of the building that would become its new theater, and work on that continued during the shutdown. “We somehow actually managed to move to that new theater,” Morris said.

UPH, which became part of the Proctors Collaborative in 2015, had just completed a renovation of its space, a former Methodist Church in Saratoga Springs, and had to shut down just 10 days after opening.

“We watched an industry collapse,” Morris said. “This has unquestionably been the most grueling time in my professional career, from laying off so many dedicated employees to watching $100 million of community resources be underutilized.” Arts organizations were particularly hard-hit because they had to close completely, with no possibility of pivoting to takeout or curbside pickup services as some other businesses could. Having performances at a limited capacity was not a viable option.

But perseverance has paid off.

Currently, Proctors has been able to bring employees back to work to a current staffing level of 60. “That’s where we’re going to stay for a while while we slowly recover,” Morris said.

The staff that remained at Proctors went about the business of keeping the organization afloat during what would turn out to be a 19-month closure.

In August 2020, Proctors set a goal of raising $15 million in a “Restart Campaign” in order to be able to reopen. With no income, there were still plenty of expenses, including insurance, utilities, repairs and salaries, which cost $330,000 per month, for which the organization had to use its reserves.

Grant writer Justin Knudsen worked to obtain grants from federal and state sources as well as private foundations. Proctors secured almost $9.4 million from the federal government through the Shuttered Venues Operators Grant (SVOG) program. Capital Rep received $709,000 and UPH $608,000.

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“The SVOG was a significant factor in being able to restart,” Knudsen said. Other funds came from the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA). “NYSCA has done a really great job of responding to the pandemic and helping the cultural organizations in the state to get funding,” Knudsen said. Grants are supporting the presentation of live performances, and Proctors has applied for a facilities-related grant as well.

While the theater was required to be closed for performances, as a community service Proctors opened its Apostrophe Café to high school students from Schenectady who were remote learners and did not have access to broadband. Fifty to 60 students a day were able to be safely spaced and have a place to do their homework and receive tutoring.

“We tried very hard to be open for safe activities because we’re a big space,” Morris said.

Now, the organization’s heritage of remaking itself is serving it well as it recovers from a shutdown that devastated the entire industry.

Proctors has a long history of rebuilding itself. It went from being a state-of-the-art facility in 1926 to a rundown movie theater a quarter-century later. By the 1970s, the city of Schenectady took over the property for nonpayment of taxes and the building faced possible demolition. Local residents came together and formed the Arts Center and Theatre of Schenectady, Inc., and raised the funds to save the historic structure and begin the process of bringing it back to life.

Now, Proctors Collaborative, which was thriving pre-COVID, hosting more than 3,000 events annually in Schenectady alone, is reestablishing its financial reserves, all the while navigating the physical requirements of operating safely during a global pandemic.

Proctors installed Minimum Efficiency Reporting Values (MERV) filters that can filter out bacteria and viruses. It also increased its outside air ventilation to 35%. “With a large volume of fresh air, we think we’re as safe as we can be,” Morris said.

In addition, Proctors has a vaccination and mask policy for all theatrical events. “I remind people that might be annoyed that we are seating 2,600 people shoulder to shoulder,” Morris said.

Regarding mask-wearing and vaccination requirements, Michael McCord, Proctors’ annual funds director, noted that the organization often mirrors the COVID precautions Broadway puts in place as well as those of New York state. All staff as well as patrons are required to be masked and vaccinated, and vaccination is required for performers. Proctors also implemented COVID testing.

“We’re trying to get through as best we can and we’re as proactive as we can be,” McCord said.

Morris points out that during the shutdown, the government made decisions about what was safe for a business to do. Now, it is largely up to an individual business.

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“We’ve had to become smart about what is public health and how do you maintain it, and carefully read Centers for Disease Control guidelines and state guidelines,” Morris said. “There has been a strange added responsibility in the midst of it all. Learning to become our own public health officers was a weird part of the equation,” he said, noting that he even reads epidemiologists’ blogs.

Just as patrons are being careful about returning to the theater, Proctors is employing caution with its finances until the organization sees how the community responds to being together again in a large-scale performance venue.

“The strategy is to be very conservative financially, which is a fairly radical shift,” Morris said. “We were an organization that would say ‘yes’ to all kinds of initiatives. Now we’re being more cautious because I don’t want to lay people off again. It’s still unclear if the shows that we have scheduled will do what we want them to do,” he said, noting that Proctors would know more after the next three months. “We’re prepped to see modest numbers to begin with and our fingers are crossed.”

Collaboration with UPH and Cap Rep has been a critical part of the success of each venue and continues to be. Capital Rep and UPH each has its own board of directors, and those boards report to the Proctors board. “The Capital Region is a suburb surrounded by cities,” Morris said. “Proctors needs the entire Capital Region to be successful as its market, its audience. The notion of having a footprint in the city allows us to expand what we can in programming and be part of weaving these three cities into one place.”

When the pandemic hit, that collaboration had a heightened importance. “The idea that our affiliate organizations could work together and share resources was maybe the strongest factor in being able to get through the last couple of years,” Knudsen said. “By working together, we could complement each other’s strengths and mitigate our weaknesses.”

With COVID’s roller coaster of constant change and fluctuation, it’s hard for Proctors to pinpoint how the future will unfold. “We’re expecting that 2022 we’ll be at $14 million, half of what we were in 2019,” Morris said. “We just don’t know what people are going to do. We’ve been conservative with our estimate, but still, it’s all guesses.”

Despite the uncertainty that COVID has brought, Morris’ message is clear: “We intend to stay open. We will be responsive to what happens. If there’s COVID backstage, we may have a one- or two-day cancellation, but our intent is to stay open.”

At a glance
In addition to earned revenue from ticket sales and income from supplying utilities to its Schenectady neighbors, Proctors’ income comes in the form of donations, memberships, grants and corporate sponsorships. Donors were generous during the pandemic shutdown, contributing $4.25 million to the Restart Campaign, which exceeded its goal, reaching $16 million. “People were willing to continue memberships, and some sponsors stayed with us even though we didn’t have events,” Proctors Collaborative CEO Philip Morris said. “That part of the business largely held us together and is what kept us afloat. It was heartening.”

The following figures show how Proctors is recovering from the COVID shutdown:
- 2019 income was $27,234,614 with expenses of $27,042,847
- 2020 income was $9,205,225 with expenses of $9,415,661
- 2021 income was $14,586,750 with expenses of $5,217,903
- 2022 projected income is $16,586,411 with projected expenses of $17,170,005

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Categories: Business, Saratoga Springs, Schenectady

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