By KENDRA SITTON | Uptown News
San Diego Junior Theatre has laid off all but two if its staff members in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The children’s theater group is not alone in struggling financially: San Diego Civic Theatre and Balboa Theatre laid off nearly half their staff and Cygnet Theatre has focused on fundraising to keep its staff employed while instituting a 20% pay cut across the board. A confluence of problems at SDJT led to the decision to go on “intermission.”
The San Diego Junior Theatre’s offices and program venues are inside Balboa Park. Many of the museums, houses of hospitality and recreation centers were closed early in March. When too many people crowded the park just to use the walkways and lawns, access to the entire park and parking lots were blocked, including the offices of SDJT which contained all their scripts, props, and documents.
Initially, Executive Director Jimmy Saba thought he would only need to lay off customer service workers in charge of the box office and everyone else could work from home. He soon realized that although Balboa Park was only officially closed until April 6, the crisis would stretch longer than that, something the organization could not afford without revenue from ticket sales, classes and summer camps.
“We’re a small arts organization [with] about $1.3 million in our budget annually. We do have some reserves, but without any income coming in those reserves, it would go down super quick. We’ve had to put down to put together some sort of reduced budget,” explained Saba. The reduced budget with only Saba and director of operations Carla Corder on the payroll is projected to last until the end of their fiscal year, Sept. 30.
“Our staff is obviously disappointed. I don’t blame them. But I don’t think there’s anger at us for making that decision. I think everyone understands that from the standpoint of, if we don’t have kids [and] we don’t have a space, we don’t have a program. There’s no day-to-day work to really make happen,” Saba said. He also views laying off the staff as the best decision for them financially so they can apply for unemployment benefits and enroll in Covered California instead of being furloughed or having their pay and hours cut.
On Friday, March 27, Saba and Corder met with each of the laid off employees so they could turn in their keys and sign paperwork at Corder’s apartment complex. To maintain social distancing, it was impersonal and never the process they would have wanted to say goodbye.
Artistic director Desha Crownover’s job was eliminated in the cuts. She has been with Junior Theatre for much of the last 25 years, weathering financial downturns, swine flu, and challenges internal and external. When she turned in her key, she said she spent the week overwhelmed with questions about what will happen to the 30,000 kids Junior Theatre touches per year as well as how she will pay her electric bill.
“The thing that really makes me sad is whenever something like this that hits everybody, it affects the nonprofits the most. It affects the artists the most. It affects the kids, the educators because so much of what we do is seen as extra or superfluous or not essential,” Crownover said. What is especially heartbreaking for her was that society was moving in a direction where arts are seen as necessary for survival both individually and as a community.
Unlike other organizations that have called this crisis unprecedented, SDJT went through a similar crisis in its fourth year. In 1948, a polio outbreak in San Diego forced the theater to shutter in July, the height of their programming while children under 10 were banned from playgrounds, movie theaters, and other gatherings.
“That’s probably the closest thing but we persevered through that and we were in our infancy at that time,” Saba said.
Even when social distancing ends, Saba doubts that many people will want to be in small classrooms or crowded theaters for a while which is why they are preparing for a protracted crisis. Once it is safe again, he predicts a resurgence in theater and other live performances because people will crave the feel of warm bodies in a room together.
“A lot of people don’t give that credit. We say there’s an energy in the audience even before the play starts. You’re having a relationship not only with actors on stage, but with sharing the experience in a room,” he said.
Saba is determined that this closure is only an intermission and San Diego Junior Theatre will live on to celebrate its 73rd season. He has also applied for the federal Paycheck Protection Program in order to rehire his staff and pay them through the pandemic.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at email@example.com.