By RUSS OLIVO
WOONSOCKET – They call the Stadium Theatre the engine of the city's nightlife economy.
Can you hear it roar?
These days, probably not so much, says Executive Director Cathy Levesque. But it's purring.
“There's still a bustle of activity,” she says. “Just less of it.”
Since Gov. Gina Raimondo ground most of the economy to a near stop in mid-March due to COVID-19, businesses in nearly every sector have slowly percolated back to life. Though some industries, like restaurants, still worry about long-term sustainability with crowd caps on indoor dining, the most glaring omissions in the almost-reopened economy include the performance venues – places like the Providence Performing Arts Center, Veterans Memorial Auditorium and the Stadium – officially known as The Stadium Theatre & Conservatory for the Performing Arts.
With indoor gatherings still restricted to 125 or fewer, the Stadium has been unable to book concerts and headline performers for the main auditorium, the principal source of revenue for the 1926 theater that was rescued from the wrecker's ball nearly two decades ago.
Operating with a pre-pandemic workforce of about 13 full- and part-time staffers, plus a slew of volunteers, more than half the payroll has been cut and more downsizing is threatened if the Stadium doesn't soon gain readmission to the main auditorium, aka the Grand Hall.
“I feel like the fourth-floor princess in an ivory tower with nothing going on,” quips Levesque. “Where is everybody””
She is exaggerating, but not much. In the absence of talent to showcase in the 1,100-seat hall, the Stadium's chief source of revenue has become the educational programs it offers in the adjacent conservatory in what used to be known as the Stadium Office Building. The nonprofit Stadium organization purchased the site several years ago after voicing strenuous objections to a private developer's proposal to convert it into microloft apartments.
After submitting a pandemic-appropriate operational plan to the state Department of Business Regulation, the conservatory ran at full capacity this summer – in sanctioned, socially-distant fashion.
“Thank goodness we purchased that building,” says Levesque. “We could have never done what we did without it because the classroom pods have to be in separate locations.”
Other components of the Stadium engine, though, are running in second gear, if that. Despite the limits on crowds in the Grand Hall, the Stadium continues to book musical performances and other features there on weekends by lesser known performers, selling no more than 120 tickets.
Given the the prevailing limits on indoor gatherings, the economics of booking headline acts just don't make sense. There's no way the Stadium could sell tickets at the prices necessary to pay major talent.
As Levesque puts it, “You don't have LeAnn Rimes playing in 120-seat venues.”
Lately, performance venues around the country – including the Stadium and others in Rhode Island – are banding together to call attention to the unique hardship foisted upon them by the pandemic. On Tuesday night, for example, the Stadium and scores of performance venues around the country were illuminated in red lights in what was billed as a Red Alert campaign for financial help from Congress.
The effort was designed to call attention to the RESTART Act, a legislative measure proposed by Senator Todd Young of Indiana and Michael Bennett of Colorado. Introduced in May, the measure picks up where the Payroll Protection Act left off, providing various types of financial relief for organizations that have been hardest hit by the pandemic.
Performance venues were among the first hit with the lockdowns, and they'll likely be among the last out, so they see the RESTART as a potential lifesaver.
In July, the National Independent Venue Association wrote a letter to congressional leaders urging them to pass RESTART because its members are fighting for their very survival.
“Beloved venues in all corners of America are already shutting down forever,” NIVA said. “Each venue closing is accompanied by the reality that communities are losing their local economic and cultural hubs.”
For every performance venue that closes, NIVA argued, there will be an economic domino effect on other businesses within their orbit. For every $1
spent on a ticket in a small venue, the organization said, another $12 is generated at restaurant, hotels, transportation and ancillary retail.
NIVA says “the ominous reality” is that many venues will be completely shut down until deep into 2021, after a vaccine for COVID-19 is developed. While organizations like the Stadium are attempting to operate at partial capacity, for others it's just not feasible.
“Without these venues there are no arena acts or major festivals and the music economy will be in further peril,” NIVA said. “Congress must take quick and specific action to address the unique circumstances of this still-shuttered component of the small business sector.”
Echoing the themes sounded by NIVA, Levesque says the challenges facing the Stadium have implications beyond its own fate. When the Stadium is busy, so are the restaurants in the Monument Square area.
“It's not just to this city or this part of the city, it's cities all over the country that venues such as ours take care of,” said Levesque. “The food industry, catering companies, lighting and sound companies. The list goes on.”
How long can the Stadium carry on this way?
The short answer for Levesque is, a long time. The organization may be forced to evolve, but survival is built into the Stadium's DNA.
A classic vaudeville performance house, the Stadium Theater was built by the late Arthur Darman, a Woonsocket industrialist with soft spot in his heart for the arts. The site thrived in the early part of the 20th century, but it fell on hard times and ended up showing X-rated movies in the 1980s before it was shuttered and, at that point, on track for demolition.
But the late Mayor Francis Lanctot had other ideas for the last of the city's vintage movie houses. As mayor in 1991, Lanctot launched the Save Our Stadium (SOS) organization to find a way to reboot the theater, a job he threw himself into as a post-retirement career when he left office four years later. Today, Lanctot is widely credited with spearheading a massive fundraising campaign that oversaw the complete renovation of the theater, now regarded as a historically significant gem of theater architecture.
During the early years of the new Stadium, operations were carried out almost entirely by volunteers. They're still on board – scores of them – and they're more important than ever as paid staff dwindles.
“When we first opened, we had no employees and volunteers did the bulk of the work,” Levesque says “Now we''re going in the other direction and we're just holding down the fort and still running programs.”
But if the restrictions on large indoor gatherings are not eased soon, the Stadium may end up looking like a different organization than the one city has come to know. In some ways, the future is here, it's just a question of how long it lasts, says Levesque, who observes, “We've already changed our business model.”
The Stadium director says there's far too much uncertainty afoot to predict what a worst-case scenario might look like for the Stadium, but she has an idea.
“If we see that the state will not allow us to open the theater with more seats, we're going to cut more staff and cut more hours until there's so little hours we have enough that can sustain us without staff,” she says. “We don't want to have no staff.”
But it's the Stadium's rise from the ashes of yesteryear that gives Levesque confidence it's up for just about anything the pandemic can throw at it.
Somehow, the show will go on.
“In 2002 we grew it from nothing to something,” she says. “If we could do it then, we'll do it again.”
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo