Readiness Planning Put to the Test at a University Performing Arts Center

The Rialto Center for the Arts located on Georgia State University’s campus is a center piece theatre in Atlanta. The Rialto is not only a pride and joy of the university and its 50,000 plus students – it is also a treasure to the local community and the arts industry it serves. First built in 1916 as a movie theatre, the Rialto was reconstructed in 1994 into a first-class performance hall. After over 20 years of presenting, the Rialto’s resilience was tested when a severe storm threatened the production of two performances scheduled for January 23 and 24, 2016. Dance Canvas, a highly esteemed Atlanta-based company in the performing arts industry, was set to perform their nationally acclaimed series “Introducing the Next Generation” at the Rialto.

Just one day prior to Dance Canvas’ opening performance at the Rialto, warnings of Winter Storm Jonas was announced and states of emergencies were declared in the eastern region. As a national emergency preparedness initiative of South Arts, we at ArtsReady watched how Jonas impacted many arts organizations throughout the east coast. From Atlanta to New York City, we saw presenters and artists lose millions as facilities were shut down and shows cancelled. The Rialto, one of ArtsReady’s good friends and local neighbors was an organization we followed closely as they worked through the impacts of the storm. We are grateful that staffs at the Rialto and Dance Canvas were willing to share their story. This feature takes us through the perfect storm that put ArtsReady’s readiness planning philosophy, the Rialto’s in-house emergency plan, and Dance Canvas’ love for performing, to the test.

College theatres are indispensable to the performing arts industry. Although built to hone the skills of students, many are fully capable of presenting world-class theatrical productions – and do! The Rialto is a jewel to GSU. It is also downtown Atlanta’s go-to venue for outside arts organizations. Performing arts companies and individual artists place college theatres such as the Rialto high on their list of prospective presenters. Theatres like the Rialto contribute beyond the academic and financial benefits of their institutions – they also provide a significant amount of revenue for the entire performing arts industry.

With university performance theatres having such a far reach, developers of campus-wide emergency plans must think more about the unique make-up of their theatres and their entire arts departments. While campus-wide emergency plans typically work well for administrative departments and many academic departments, they can fall short of adequately protecting the distinctive assets within arts departments. It makes sense. Most campus facilities consist of students, faculty, staff, desks, and computers. Arts departments, however, consists of all those elements plus much more – such as theatres, instruments, costumes, lighting, props, ticketing systems, visual artwork…etc. These unique assets are not a part of most campus facilities – and can be overlooked in campus-wide emergency plans.

In all fairness, campus-wide emergency plans today are generally strong and are valuable safeguards for its facilities. However, because most don’t take into full account the complete scope and unique makeup of their arts departments and the continuity steps needed to get operations back up and running following a crisis – we at ArtsReady have strongly advocated that arts departments build in-house readiness plans that incorporate the overall campus-wide emergency plan.

One of the most dreadful scenarios in the performing arts is the cancellation of a show. The build up, and let down alone is a tremendous disappointment. Furthermore, performance cancellations can potentially deal heavy blows to the finances and reputations of presenters and artist – depending on how the crisis is managed. So the question to the performing arts industry is, “If the to the show can’t go on, will you survive to perform another day?”

On Thursday morning, January 22, 2016, just one day prior to Dance Canvas’ opening performance at the Rialto, warnings of severe winter weather was announced for the east coast. Shortly after, states of emergencies were declared in the region. Georgia, however, had not yet joined in declaring an emergency – primarily because the storm was forecasted to hit hardest north of the state.

It wasn’t until Thursday night that Governor Deal of Georgia joined the list of other states to declare a state of emergency. In his announcement Deal suggested that employers allow their workers to telecommute the next day (Friday) if possible. For those that couldn’t, he suggested they close their offices at noon to allow employees to get home early so that roads would be cleared for treatment in advance of the storm.

GSU elected to close their campus at noon on Friday. They sent a campus-wide notification on Thursday at 8:00 pm to students, faculty, and staff. In the campus-wide notification there was also a note stating that a ‘winter weather advisory’ was in effect from Friday at 3:00 pm through Saturday at 7:00 pm, and a ‘winter storm warning’ in North Georgia through Saturday at 7:00 pm. The notification and the side-note at that time did not clearly indicate when the campus would reopen – so the Rialto and Dance Canvas were left in limbo.

Even after we at ArtsReady looked up the National Oceanic/Atmospheric Administration’s and the National Weather Service’s descriptions of ‘winter storm warnings’ and ‘winter weather advisories’ – we’ve come to the conclusion that it’s just not realistic to expect students, faculty, staff, and the general public to understand the differences and implications. Watches? Warnings? Advisories? – no one really knows what’s going on based on the many similar terms. So more than likely, when the campus-wide announcement went out, students, faculty, and staff tuned into their local news to get what they believed would be the best forecast – and most local news channels forecasted the storm to be over in Atlanta by Saturday afternoon. Both the Rialto and Dance Canvas had come to terms on Thursday night that the show would be cancelled for Friday evening. They were also in agreement that all wasn’t lost and the show would still happen on Saturday!

In preparation for Saturday night’s performance, Dance Canvas planned to squeeze in a rehearsal on Friday morning at the Rialto before the campus closure took effect. The 62 member cast arrived at the Rialto Friday morning and began rehearsing for Saturday’s performance. At 11:30 am on Friday however – wham! Dance Canvas was informed that GSU had issued an update. They were closing the campus and cancelling all events on Saturday as well. Not only was the performance cancelled for Friday – it was also cancelled for Saturday! A complete bust!

The Rialto’s staff, the Dance Canvas team, and the 62 member cast had one of the most dreaded scenarios dropped at their feet. They had completely prepared for what was to be two nights of nationally acclaimed performances. They carried out all logistical operations, and at the final hours it was declared that the show wouldn’t happen.

The uncertain impact of the storm had already brought much anxiety to the Rialto, Dance Canvas, and the entire cast. Those in decision-making authority (the Governor of Georgia and senior university officials at GSU) were understandably not in a position to ease anyone’s concerns or demonstrate much sympathy for what the impact of forcing facilities to close would be. GSU’s overriding mission in any emergency is to protect life and secure campus infrastructure. Although the Rialto, Dance Canvas, and the cast understood and concurred with GSU’s priorities – it probably didn’t remove their anxiety as they prepared for the show while still in a state of uncertainty. When final word came down that all shows were cancelled, emotions escalated.

Acceptance is the final stage of recovering from loss. In this instance everyone needed to quickly accelerate to the acceptance stage so that they could move forward with mitigating and assessing losses. Dance Canvas understandably tried to find alternatives to cancellation. Don’t we just lover our artist! Their desire to perform runs deep. They just may be the most determined to let the show go on! Forecasts suggested that getting around central Atlanta wouldn’t be a problem the next day. So Dance Canvas requested that the Rialto wait until Saturday before making a decision. Despite Dance Canvas’ request however, the decision was made by GSU on Friday afternoon to shut down the campus through Saturday – which for the record was completely out of the Rialto’s hands.

In the midst of one of the most dreaded experiences – the Rialto, Dance Canvas, and the cast mustered up the professionalism to exhibit empathy for one another. Everyone was going to take a loss. The question was, “how much?” To figure that out everyone needed to work together to make rational decisions. The challenges were plentiful. To name a few: patrons needed to be contacted; the 62 member cast needed to return home, many by plane; stage props needed to be shipped back; the time-consuming task of issuing refunds to ticket holders had to be carried out; and the huge job of rescheduling performances, if at all possible, needed to be resolved. Some of these continuity steps were addressed in Rialto’s in-house emergency plan and some were not. The lesson is that the Rialto was able to quickly carry out those that were – leaving more time to handle those that weren’t.

So what continuity steps were taken to mitigate losses? As emphasized, ArtsReady strongly encourages arts organizations that are subsidiaries of larger organizations to build customized in-house readiness plans. Those plans should incorporate the umbrella organization’s plan. The Rialto not only had a good grasp of the campus-wide emergency plan developed by GSU (which by the way is strong), they had also identified the unique threats to their facility and programs that were not covered – and they filled those voids.

It is a delight to know that GSU has emergency procedures that the Rialto can turn to and rely on. In this instance the Rialto was relieved of making the ultimate decision of whether or not to shut down its facility and cancel performances. That important decision was decided by senior university officials on the Emergency Management Group team. GSU was also responsible for communicating the announcement to students, faculty, and staff. Once GSU made the announcements to shut down the campus, the Rialto then turned to its in-house plan. The Rialto needed to further communicate with their constituents. They had to confirm with their staff and volunteers not to report to work, who (having only experienced a weather-related performance cancellation once within the last 10 years) were likely in disbelief. The Rialto also needed to contact all ticket holders, post signage outside of the theatre’s lobby, and post announcements on their website and social media pages. They also turned to their in-house facility shut-down procedures, which included the tasks of switching off power and locking doors to the multiple entrances within and around the theatre.

After taking further steps to communicate with their constituents and secure the facility, the Rialto then turned to the task of assessing the financial impacts of the performance cancellations. They worked with Dance Canvas and the cast to soften the blow.

For Dance Canvas it was definitely a trying and learning experience. After more than 100 shows, over eight years, this was a first! The cancellation of a performance was something they were not familiar with. The helpless feeling was real for Dance Canvas. They had no choice in whether to cancel the performances. Furthermore, as with the Rialto, much responsibility also rested on Dance Canvas. The Rialto needed to communicate the message to their ticket holders – as they were in possession of patron’s contact information. Dance Canvas had to rely completely on the Rialto to disseminate careful messages to their fans that would cater to their disappointment while also preserving Dance Canvas’ reputation. There was a great deal of trust Dance Canvas needed to have in the Rialto while ticket holders were contacted.

The Rialto had a cancellation policy in place that was clear and fair to ticket holders: tickets were honored for future performances; and ticket holders were encouraged to continue their support of Dance Canvas. Although there were quite a few disappointed patrons, most were wonderful. Many patrons said they would attend a rescheduled show, and if they couldn’t would allow their ticket payment to be considered a donation.

Rescheduling the performance was not easy. The Rialto, Dance Canvas, and the entire cast all had schedules that were set at least one year in advance. Finding dates within everyone’s schedule was a tedious and cumbersome job. The Rialto worked with Dance Canvas to find dates that would fit everyone’s window – taking into consideration the new money that would need to be raised by Dance Canvas for travel and accommodations. Dance Canvas diligently pulled together the availability of the cast. In the end a rescheduled date for one performance was confirmed.

Dance Canvas took a heavy financial blow as they compensated artists for travel during both the cancelled and rescheduled performances. Five new dancers were hired to replace those who couldn’t reschedule. Some performers props brought from out-of-state were lost as they were unable to return following the storm.

Presenters, performance companies, and artists throughout the east and southern regions lost millions as a result of cancelled shows due to Winter Storm Jonas. According to the Broadway League, which publishes weekly box office grosses, the New York theatre industry alone lost $10 million that weekend compared to the previous weekend’s report. Washington D.C. which was hit by the center of the storm also lost several million. We know that a hefty portion of these losses were at theatres on college campuses.

As expressed, college theatres are jewels for many higher educational institutions and the communities they reside in. This is why campus emergency plans need to take a step further and incorporate the full scope of arts departments. The responsibility of pushing developers of campus-wide emergency plans to include the unique assets of arts departments lies on the staff within those departments.

While we at ArtsReady know that full financial recovery is not possible for all organizations and artists following a performance cancellation – we know that losses can be minimized if a clear policy is in place that outlines to ticket holders what will happen if a show is cancelled. Being able to place attention primarily on rescheduling performances instead of scrambling to calm patrons, can not only sustain operations financially but can also sustain reputations – both of which are critical to keeping your doors open following a crisis.

In addition to a performance cancellation policy for ticket holders and renting companies, presenters should have a force majeure clause for artists and their agents, and a facility shutdown policy for its staff and interns. Event insurance should also be considered, as Dance Canvas, in hindsight, has decided to seriously look in to. Artists and agents should understand all policies associated with the unexpected shutdown of the facility they are contracted to perform in, and should request amendments to contracts whenever the presenters’ policies do not line up with their own, or with the current threats.

Last but not least, the effectiveness of emergency plans is enhanced greatly if adequate training and drills are implemented. After all, we in the performing arts understand that rehearsing is fundamental, right?

Everyone dreads show cancellations – we at ArtsReady fully understand that. What we also understand is that this type of situation has and will continue to happen, and that having a customized comprehensive plan in place will improve the speed and level of recovery.

This feature was written by:
Omar Nelson, ArtsReady Membership Manager
ArtsReady is a National Initiative of South Arts


Omar Nelson



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Winter Storm Jonas, Georgia State University, Rialto, GSU, Dance Canvas, Cancellation Policy, Force Majeaur Clause

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