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Some Maine Performance Venues Struggle To Obtain Relief From Federal Grant Program

Gary Ng
Ogunquit Playhouse
A 2019 performance of Kinky Boots at Ogunquit Playhouse.

Like other industries that rely on the gathering of people, performance venues have struggled over the past year.

Last week venues were promised relief as the Federal Government announced the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant. The $16 billion program, operated by the Small Business Administration, is offering grants of up to $10 million.

But so far, some venues aren't seeing much relief.

In a normal season, the Ogunquit Playhouse stage is teaming with bright lights, colorful costumes and big sounds.

And the seats are usually pretty packed as well. The Playhouse is one of Maine’s leading performance venues, but Executive Director Bradford Kenny says during the last year, the theater’s lost more than $8 million in ticket sales due to the pandemic.

"I think we've been through 16 different budget scenarios. How do you manage, and how do you budget for a season when that's how people make a living? You know, we have full time year round staff, union members come to work at the Ogunquit Playhouse, and this is how these folks feed their families and pay their rents and their mortgages," Kenny says.

The Playhouse and other venues worked with Maine’s congressional delegation to help craft aspects of the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program.

And last Thursday the federal government announced the grant would be available through an online portal and could be used to cover payroll, rent, utility payments, worker protection expenses and more.

But shortly after the site went live, it crashed. And it has yet to be reopened.

Anita Steward of Portland Stage says that's left venue operators in limbo, wondering where they stand in a first-come-first-serve scramble.

portland stage.jpg
Mical Hutson
Portland Stage
A performance of "Almost, Maine" at Portland Stage from early 2020, shortly before the coronavirus shuttered many venues..

"Everybody I know was sitting at their computer ready to go, ready to type in all the answers. And the system, after four hours, they recognized that it had just crashed. So it was a lot of nail biting, and then it's still on hold. And we'll see what they come up with as a system that will operate," Stewart says.

Stewart says the grant program provides venues with the hope to continue on. Portland Stage is currently working to produce a show for a limited audience that complies with COVID-19 restrictions. She says it’s important to remain connected to the audience.

"It's a way of staying in touch and staying involved with the community. I'm not making money doing it. I'm trying not to lose my shirt doing it. But it seems important to be here and be a part of the community," Stewart says.

Representatives with the Small Business Administration, which oversees the grant, declined an interview but said in an email that portal was shuttered after numerous technical issues were identified that hindered the processing of applications. The statement said, "We understand the need to get relief quickly to this hard-hit industry.”

Kenny, of the Ogunquit Playhouse, says ensuring that performance venues receive support isn’t just a question of survival for the arts.

"It's really how you're going to strengthen your main streets. You know, the theaters I'm talking about even there are these long-term institutions that we call historic, and certainly, not only in their buildings, but in their cultural impact. And they've been feeding and upholding a lot of these small towns in Maine for a long time," Kenny says.

Venue operators are still able to register for the portal and the SBA says it will let participants know when the grant process reopens.