Monday, June 14

Sending out an SOS: Valley performance venues go red to shine light on struggling entertainment industry | News

Since the shows can’t go on right now, a new cliché aphorism has emerged in the world of live entertainment: First to close, last to open.

An industry that hinges on audiences gathering, the performing arts are among the sectors hurting the most in the era of COVID-19.

On Tuesday night, performance venues in the valley joined more than 1,000 others across the U.S. in shining a light — literally — on the economic distress currently wreaking havoc on the entertainment industry. Known as Red Alert, venues shined a red light on their stages and/or outside their buildings to signal their own SOS. The Red Alert movement is also a call to action for the U.S. Congress to pass the RESTART Act, which would provide economic relief to the entertainment industry, as soon as possible.

“This movement is to raise awareness that there is this huge segment of the population that was really hit hard,” John Czechowicz, co-owner of the Carbondale-based audio visual company Alchemy Concert System, said Friday. He noted that people often think about the food and beverage industry in terms of industries most affected by the pandemic — but the reality is that restaurants are still open, albeit in a limited capacity.

“I don’t think that the general public realizes how this is affecting people, and I think that’s the whole idea of this,” Czechowicz said.

Since March, more than 95% of events were canceled, and 62% of entertainment workers in the U.S. are unemployed, according to the nonprofit Americans for the Arts. Founded in 1960, Americans for the Arts aims to advance the arts and arts education across the nation.

Morale seemed low in conversations with other local venues that participated in the movement this week. The Wheeler Opera House, Thunder River Theatre Company and Alchemy are among the buildings in the valley that went red Tuesday.

As with other sectors of the economy, immense uncertainty about the future — and specifically in the entertainment industry as to when venues will be allowed to reopen — plague any ability to financially forecast or anticipate when the lights may go dark for good.

While some organizations boast healthy savings, draining rainy-day funds is not a viable business model.

“We’re dipping into our reserves more than is comfortable, but we’ve been able to build them up by being incredibly fiscally responsible basically since our existence,” Thunder River Theatre Company’s Sean Jeffries said Friday. In that same vein, Jeffries’ role with the 25-year-old local theater company — which employs three full-time staffers — includes technical director, production designer and facilities manager.

For Jeffries, the Red Alert movement represents the millions of Americans who are itching to return to not only their livelihood but also their passion.

“There’s a lot of people hurting right now,” Jeffries said, noting friends and colleagues whose gigs, and thus revenue, evaporated overnight in March.

Jeffries also pointed to the trickle-down economic effect of the entertainment industry: It’s not just about the venues and performers but also the event planners, bartenders, caterers, costume designers and other professions who play a part in the multibillion-dollar industry.

All told, live entertainment employs more than 12 million people and provides nearly $1 trillion in economic impact — more than the transportation, agriculture and tourism industries, according to a statement from the Wheeler Opera House, which went red from 9 p.m. to midnight Tuesday. Wheeler interim executive director Nancy Lesley could not be reached for comment by press time.

“I just hope that people keep us in mind as we move ahead,” Jeffries said. “And if fiscally, they’re able to help out the people around them who have dedicated their lives to improving others’ [lives], that would be pretty sweet.”

Erica Robbie is the editor-in-chief of Local Magazine and Local Weekly as well as the arts & culture editor for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at or on Twitter @ericarobbie.

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