Ghost Light Recovery Fund burns brightly until theater returns safely

by Nancy Peevy ([email protected]) 1,432 views 

Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville has postponed Broadway shows and performances with audiences of more than 200 and launched the Ghost Light Recovery Fund to help cover a nearly $1 million shortfall to keep the organization operational.

In theaters all over the country, a bare light bulb attached to a pole shines brightly on an otherwise dark stage. From Broadway theaters to the Walton Arts Center (WAC) in Fayetteville, the “ghost light” symbolizes one thing: The theater will return.

Since March, the COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered theaters all across the country, putting tens of thousands of actors, stagehands, designers, ushers and other theater professionals out of work.

A long-held theater tradition, the ghost light is put on the stage at the end of the night, when the show is over and everybody has gone home.

“You have one stagehand who goes out there and puts it in place because of the occupational hazard of someone falling off the stage,” said Taylor Speegle, WAC vice president of development. “So, it represents safety and a safe return until somebody can go turn the lights back on, and the show begins again.”

At the WAC and across the country, the ghost light represents coming back to “having lots of people in the hall,” said Peter Lane, WAC president and CEO. “In light of what has happened, and being one of the first industries to close on March 13 and likely one of the last to re-open, we’ve used it as a metaphor to light the way back to our stages.”

“This is an absolutely devastating time for art. It’s probably the most difficult time I’ve seen in my 30-plus years in this business in terms of where artists are today,” Lane said. “If you look at our resident companies, the local symphony, SONA, TheatreSquared, Trike Theater, the Community Creative Center, the NWA Ballet Company, the NWA Jazz Society — all of these groups rely on live performances before a group of people, and they are unable to do that. Sometimes they can’t even practice together because of the airborne illness. Two trombones blowing at each other isn’t good.”

In a typical year, Arkansas’ largest and busiest performing arts presenter hosts 215,000 patrons from Arkansas and beyond who attend more than 300 public events. Approximately 35,000 students and teachers participate annually in arts learning programs. The WAC’s sister venue, the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion (AMP) in Rogers, averages annual attendance of 129,000 during its six-month concert season.

A study by Americans for the Arts found that patrons who attended arts and culture events in Benton and Washington counties spend on average $35.89 per person per event, excluding the ticket price. That’s above the national average. Spending by non-locals increased to $71.20 per person per event.

Ticket sales typically make up 70% of the Walton Arts Center’s revenue, with 30% coming from fundraising, Lane said. Due to the pandemic, people aren’t buying tickets, so the model is upside down. Right now, his organization must rely on fundraising for 90% of its revenue.

In March, Broadway in New York, considered the heart of the American commercial theatrical industry, canceled all shows until at least June 2021. WAC’s staff realized all its large format shows would be canceled for the season so they launched the Ghost Light Recovery Fund in the summer. It will continue until full-scale programming is again in place. The fund helps maintain facilities, keeps staff employed, provides “intermission programming,” including virtual performances and educational programs, and offsets lost revenue from canceled performances.

More than $1 million has been raised so far, with 593 ticket holders donating back their tickets to the WAC when shows were canceled, at a $61,600 value. Nearly 900 businesses or households have donated to the recovery fund, with 170 being first-time donations.

“This community is known for taking care of itself, and it has proven, very quickly, to help,” Lane said. “They’ve shown they care about arts and culture. Our community has said, ‘The Walton Arts Center is an important part of our community, and we’re going to find a way to help them survive.’ Even if people don’t have money. We’ve received phone calls, letters, emails or notes to say, ‘You are important to us, and we have a history together.’

“It’s been extremely gratifying. So we have confidence that we’re going to get through it. It isn’t without a lot of tears, a lot of sweat equity and a lot of very difficult decisions, but it’s remarkable to see this community support us this way.”

Although much of the regular programming has been canceled since the pandemic began, the WAC has offered “intermission” programming and community support to stay connected, used resources to assist others and find a balance between serving the community, helping artists and creating safe art experiences for artists, patrons and staff.

In the spring, the venue offered virtual performances. And from April through June, “heARTS to homes” webisodes featured local restaurants, local and national artists and arts organizations.

In September and October, 4,000 people enjoyed free live music at happy hours at the AMP. Movie screenings began in September at the WAC and the AMP and will run through year’s end. In October, the fifth annual AMP Fest fundraiser — a beer, tech and music festival — raised more than $71,000 in a virtual event. The WAC hosted three blood drives with local musicians entertaining. Additional drives are scheduled for Dec. 8 and 9.

Holidaze — a 40-day fundraiser at the WAC with drinks, holiday decor and entertainment — began Nov. 20 and will continue through Dec. 31, supporting WAC’s Ghost Light Recovery Fund and other nonprofits.

The goal is to employ as many local artists and hospitality workers as possible through these events.

Lane hopes the 2021 Broadway season will be in place “either for late next year or maybe mid-next year.” But, citing the challenges COVID-19 brings, he said industry experts predict that eight out of 10 nonprofits will not come back after the pandemic. To survive until they can again offer large format programs, the WAC will need continued donations from the community.

“As they plan their year-end gifts, I hope people will consider adding Walton Arts Center to their list of most important charities,” Lane said.

Support from the community is critical. “Essentially, they are the ghost light. They are the light leading the way for that safe return,” Speegle said.

And the WAC will be ready when it’s safe to return.

“All we can do is communicate as clearly as we can to our audiences, ticket holders, subscribers and donors that, when it’s safe, we will be back and ready to go,” Lane said. “I think when the gate is open — the Walton Arts Center and the Walmart AMP — we’re going to be the first ones through it. Ready to rock. This is a most unusual time, but we’re going to make it. There’s a lone light. We’re waiting, and we hope you can wait with us. Help us transition and get through this intermission.”