Wilma Theater asks subscribers to buy into an unknown future

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Wilma Theater

The Wilma Theater on South Broad Street in Philadelphia (Nathaniel Hamilton/WHYY)

Theaters everywhere were forced to close for the COVID-19 pandemic and none of them knows when they can reopen, or when audiences will be confident enough to return and see plays in person.

Nevertheless, the Wilma Theater is going ahead with its next season. It just announced it will produce four plays — including an original world premiere — in the 2020-2021 season, starting in the fall. It is doing so even though the company does not know if or when it can open its doors to the public.

Notably, the new season does not include a schedule of when the plays will be performed.

“Just as we have not announced dates, we are not committed to how they will be happening,” said Managing Director Leigh Goldenberg.

Plays may be performed on stage for a live audience, or they may be streamed online, or they may be some combination of the two. Right now nobody knows. The Wilma has introduced a flexible subscription pass that allows ticket holders to choose how and when they will experience the performances.

“Flexibility is really the driving force right now,” said Goldenberg. “How could we put something in a digital space, and also allow for people to return to the theater when it’s safe? Or, even if it is safe, there might be people who may not feel that way.”

The WilmaPass, for a relatively inexpensive $100, gives the subscriber four tickets for the season which can be divvied up however they choose: toward a live show, virtual show, a party of four to a single show or four singles to each show.

The season subscription model is still one of the most financially sustainable for performing arts. With up-front ticket sales before the season starts, companies know what kind of revenue they can expect for the year and plan accordingly. The pandemic has thrown a wrench into that model.

In the uncertainty, there is a foothold: theater people like theater, even if they can’t be there. They want theater companies to survive this global crisis. The WilmaPass is an investment for an unknown future.

“There’s a critical need for the organization to have people commit to us,” said Goldenberg. “We know there are people who are passionate about seeing our work. So asking them to commit to us now, is really the goal for us.”

A few weeks before the pandemic shut down all theaters, the Wilma announced a unique leadership model, wherein artistic director duties would be performed by a cohort of four people. Each of the four plays next year will be directed by one of these new co-artistic directors.

One of the plays, “Fat Ham,” a premiere retelling of “Hamlet” set on a pig farm in the American South, is written by Co-Artistic Director James Ijames. The others are “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” by Will Arbery, about a reunion of conservative Christians that premiered last year; “Minor Character,” a madcap mashup of different translations of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” (including a nonsensical automated version by Google Translate); and the Pulitzer-winning drama “Fairview,” by Jackie Sibblies Drury.

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