A funding shortfall forces Bay Area Children’s Theater to suspend the season

BERKELEY – Arts organizations, hit hard by the pandemic, are struggling to survive. Now one of them has had to make a difficult decision.

When COVID-19 shut down Broadway for 18 months, it felt like the curtain fell on the arts community everywhere. Now live theater is back, but – as with the disease – there are lingering problems.

The Bay Area Children’s Theater production of “Giraffes Can’t Dance” is a dazzling musical about a giraffe named Gerald who discovers his potential when he learns to dance, but first he has to overcome some pretty daunting obstacles, just like the other animals that doubt his ability.

“Giraffes Can’t Dance!” they all scream while laughing at him.

Staged in the round at the Osher Studio Theater in Berkeley, everything about the production is professional, from the music to the lighting to the actors themselves. It all combines to create sounds, movements and colors that put a look of awe on the faces of the young children.

“Art itself – be it theatre, be it visual arts or performing arts – it allows people to escape the world, but also see the world from a different perspective,” said Jeffrey May Hyche, who plays Gerald in the production. “It also allows for storytelling through these stories and teaching morals as well.”

As much as they believe the show should go on, it just can’t in the current economic climate. The BACT, which has performed for more than a million kids in its 19-year history, has announced it will be suspending next year’s season until it finds a business model that works.

“Art organizations in particular were hanging by a thread before COVID, especially in the Bay Area. It is expensive to live here,” says BACT interim director Sharon Dolan. “And then there’s a pandemic, you know? And just, kind of, low on low and then this exorbitant inflation is kind of the icing on the cake, you know? It was just too much.”

She said everything costs more, including the actors. AB 5, the state law that designated them as employees rather than independent contractors, made them more expensive to hire.

“I mean, it’s a good thing — it’s a good thing for the actor. So it’s hard to call that, but it’s definitely a factor,” Dolan said.

BACT is now asking for donations to keep “Giraffes Can’t Dance” running until the end of its run in June. Then the board of directors will have to figure out a way to cut costs, which Dolan says entails a form of scaling back.

“Sure, yes,” she said. “Personally, I’ve gotten several emails in the last three weeks from performing arts organizations saying, ‘We have to raise $3 million in the next month or we won’t get another season.’ You know, several organizations are in a similar position.”

For now, they just call it a “break”, but is there any danger of the company going completely bankrupt?

“I mean, I think for any arts organization ever, there’s always danger, you know?” said Dolan. “Because we all live on the edge and this is what we want to change so we don’t live on the edge.”

Unlike some other cultures, Americans have always viewed the performing arts as a luxury, often the first thing a budget cuts. But to see what effect it might have on kids — well, after COVID, it might be just what the doctor ordered.

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