L/A Community Little Theatre Executive Director Eileen Messina reties a piece of caution tape at the front of the performance hall in Auburn on Thursday afternoon. Messina and others were preparing for a group photo with some directors of the board.  From left are board members John Blanchette, Jennifer McClure Groover and Chip Morrison. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — For arts organizations, putting on concerts and theater productions depends on ticket sales and attendance — getting as many people packed in one room as possible.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, they were among the first to close, and will likely be among the last to reopen. Some might not be able to at all.

For the L/A Community Little Theatre in Auburn, its 80th anniversary season was shaping up to be one for the books. After three shows, many with sellout crowds, it was one of the most successful to date.

Theatre President John Blanchette said this week that the organization was “riding a high” until the pandemic hit. It had paid down debt after making improvements to its aging building, and the momentum had members excited about upcoming productions.

Just a few months later, an 81st season is in doubt. Blanchette said 85% of the theater’s income is derived from ticket sales. Due to COVID-19, they’ve had to cancel three productions and two youth productions.

“If we’re not selling tickets, and we’re not performing, we have no income,” he said.

They are estimating that by the end of the nonprofit’s fiscal year, on Sept. 30, they will be in the negative.

Arts organizations throughout the region are facing the same dire outlook. The state’s phased plan for reopening the economy estimates a full reopening in the fall as a best-case scenario. Even if performances were allowed before that, there would likely still be a 50-person limit for gatherings. Some shows have that many people working in the production.

Alison Gibbs, office and communications manager for L/A Arts and Arts & Culture LA, said member organizations — 19 in total — have been holding periodic Zoom meetings to share information and resources.

She said some member organizations have had to furlough or lay off some employees. All have been left scrambling for any sort of relief funding or private fundraising.

Gibbs said that while there are some resources available to apply for, not all organizations are eligible. Community Little Theatre, for instance, is a nonprofit with no paid employees, meaning they can’t apply for payroll protection plan loans through the coronavirus relief bill.

L/A Community Little Theatre board members pose for a photo in front of the Auburn venue Thursday afternoon. From left are John Blanchette, Roger Philippon, Jennifer McClure Groover, Chip Morrison, Executive Director Eileen Messina, Bill Hamilton and Brandon Chaloux. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Blanchette said Community Little Theatre has been looking into other grants, and still plans to host the organization’s annual fundraiser auction virtually in June. They’re also looking into the possibility of hosting outdoor performances.

While the National Endowment for the Arts is also offering grants, Gibbs said L/A Arts was not eligible. However, on Wednesday, L/A Arts was awarded a $5,000 “organizational development grant” from the Maine Arts Commission to support “pandemic-impacted programming.”

“We know our community is hurting,” Gibbs said. “We know we cannot count on the same level of business sponsorship and individual donor support for our work that we’ve relied on in the past. But L/A Arts remains hopeful about the future and committed to our goal to strengthen our community and local economy through arts and culture.”

At the Public Theatre in Lewiston, Executive Director Christopher Schario said they are simply playing a “waiting game” until performances can resume. In March, the company canceled a production on opening night, as well as all scheduled productions since.

As a professional theatre, the Public Theatre has a full-time staff, and has been able to use the payroll protection plan from the coronavirus relief bill during the pandemic.

Schario said for now, they are planning programming for next season and looking at several timelines for reopening, anywhere from the fall to next spring. All will depend on guidelines from the state. The theatre seats 300.

“At what point would they even let us have half the house, and can we sustain that?” he said Thursday.

The company has also been considering other avenues, like streaming events, but those come with their own set of expenses, from salaries for union actors to licensing fees.

Community theaters like Community Little Theatre also have to pay licensing fees for streaming performances.

In the end, Schario said, coming back will depend on the safety of staff and guests.

“Who’s going to come back if they don’t feel safe?” he said.

Elsewhere, the Gendron Franco Center in Lewiston began a fundraiser in May that hopes to bring in $100,000 for the organization. The goal, dubbed the “10K for $10 Challenge,” is to get 10,000 people to donate $10 each.

An online flyer for the fundraiser states, “May Day, May Day…Help save the music.”

On May 3, following Gov. Janet Mills’ orders detailing a phased plan for reopening, the Franco Center announced it would remain closed through the summer season. Since then, the organization has featured livestreams of area musicians on its Facebook page.

Attempts to reach Franco Center staff for this story were unsuccessful.

Despite the sudden pause and uncertain future for live theater, there’s still some optimism.

“When we are ready to come back, people will flock to us,” Schario said. “Live theater has survived everything for 3,000 years. People always have a desire to come together in a communal sense to experience storytelling.”

Eileen Messina, Community Little Theatre executive director, said it is one of the oldest community theaters in New England.

She said many didn’t reopen following World War II, but Community Little Theatre was among those that did.

“It’s amazing to think that World War II didn’t stop us, but COVID-19 is knocking us for a loop,” she said. “We want to be here for our 81st season, and we’re going to need help — and suggestions.”

L/A Community Little Theatre board members pose for a photo in front of the Auburn venue Thursday afternoon. From left are John Blanchette, Jennifer McClure Groover, Chip Morrison, Bill Hamilton, Executive Director Eileen Messina and Roger Philippon. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

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