Portland Stage received funds from the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program. Seated front row, left to right, are Sophia Diaz, Hannah Cordes, Katherine Searce and Rowan Joyce. Back row seated, left to right, are Donald Smith, Renee Myhaver and Julianne Shea. Standing is Executive and Artistic Director Anita Stewart. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

More than 40 Maine entertainment venues have been awarded over $22 million from a federal grant program intended to help resuscitate one of the industries hit hardest by the pandemic.

The U.S. Small Business Administration is still reviewing applications for a piece of the $16 billion Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program, but has made decisions on about three-quarters of the nearly 15,000 applications received nationally. The SBA could not provide application numbers by state.

The 41 grants awarded so far, equal to 45 percent of each venue’s 2019 gross earned revenue, range from $6,196 for an event barn in Surry to $9.7 million for a major statewide concert promoter, and include theaters, concert venues, museums, talent representatives and movie cinemas. Venues can use the money for various needs, such as rent, mortgage, tax, insurance and debt payments, or other capital expenditures.

The program, signed into law more than six months ago, was hampered by technical difficulties and delays at the start, leaving Maine’s venues uncertain whether they would receive the funds necessary to survive.

But in the past few weeks, the SBA started announcing the awards, though few venues have received the money yet.

Now, for venues across Maine that have seen almost no income in the past year and have scraped by on federal funding, the long-awaited grants are becoming a key part of their transition back to operating as normal.

Nonprofit theater company Portland Stage, which was awarded a $461,000 grant, plans to use the funds to map out a full season of shows and programs for the coming year, starting with “Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash,” from Aug. 3-29. 

“We tightened our belt, and we were able to locate funding which helped us eke through this past year,” said Anita Stewart, executive and artistic director of Portland Stage. “But now we’re looking to use the SVOG grant to really help us relaunch, and be a safety net if the bottom does fall out.”

Over the past year, Portland Stage generated only 20 percent of its average revenue and was forced to furlough the majority of its staff in June 2020. As the pandemic stretched on, the theater was able to bring its staff back part time with the help of two PPP loans, Employee Retention Credit and the WorkShare program, which allowed employees to receive unemployment benefits when they weren’t working.

 Sophie Maillet, 11, of Portland reads from her notebook during the “Choose Your Own Adventure” summer camp Wednesday at Portland Stage Company, which was awarded a $461,000 federal relief grant. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

After months of smaller on-demand productions and online programs, Portland Stage is beginning to move back into full-production mode. But with wary crowds and an uncertain future, the transition is not easy.

This has been almost as hard if not harder than that initial rollout, where anything we managed to do was going to be seen as a win,” said Stewart. “People aren’t going to be satisfied with just a one-person show, so a lot of our work has been putting together the necessary budget and rehiring staff.”

With most COVID restrictions and guidelines lifted, venues are feeling the strain of determining what is safe, and what their audience is comfortable with. For many venues, the grants are lifting some of the pressure off for the summer.

“We all want to get back to in-person programming desperately, but we also want people to be safe, that’s always on our mind,” said Shannon Haines, executive director of Waterville Creates, the nonprofit arts organization that runs the Waterville Opera House, the Maine Film Center and the Ticonic Gallery and Studios. “So having the funding available really allows us to continue to make those plans with the confidence that we will be OK financially.”

Waterville Creates’ $356,677 grant will be used to cover artists’ fees, rent, staff and other material expenses. Most important, Haines said, it provides a cushion if revenue is slow to return in the coming months.

“We planned our fall season with the assumption that our typical earned revenue would be down and that this funding would cover certain expenses,” said Haines. “So even if we don’t make the earned revenue that we would normally need to make, we won’t go under.”

The grants will allow other venues to make capital investments in their businesses going into the end of the summer season. Harry Brown’s Farm, a small concert venue in Starks, is looking at purchasing a new sound booth and outdoor tent with its $137,610 grant.

“It’s really allowed us to get out of the panic mode that the pandemic put us in, where everything was unknown,” said Casey O’Connor at Harry Brown’s Farm. “The live events industry is tenuous in the best of times.”

But for some of Maine’s largest venues, now facing a radically different labor economy, rebuilding their staffs has not been easy.

The Ogunquit Playhouse has erected an outdoor pavilion to hold large-scale musicals this summer. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The Ogunquit Playhouse, a nonprofit theater that was awarded a grant of almost $3.5 million, decided in March and April to make considerable operational cuts to meet social-distancing requirements, such as hiring fewer actors and crew, and building simpler sets.

But now, with lifted regulations allowing for beefed-up summer shows, Ogunquit is struggling to hire new staff, according to Kent Bridges, managing director at the playhouse.

One week before its 2020 season was supposed to kick off, Ogunquit had to lay off upwards of 100 seasonal crew members. Through the following year, the playhouse saw revenue drop almost $9 million.

Ogunquit Playhouse plans to use its grant to cover past expenses, such as a recently built outdoor pavilion, which will stage all of this summer’s shows, including “Escape to Margaritaville” kicking off Wednesday. It also plans to use the grant to pay mortgages and cover labor expenses as it expands its crew.

“We spent a lot of our reserves last year, so with this grant we are able to replenish part of that, pay ourselves back, and cover some of the pandemic-related expenses from 2020,” said Bridges.

After almost a year and a half of closed doors, this summer is one of transition – a first step on the road to recovery.

Waterfront Concerts, which runs shows at multiple venues throughout the state including Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion in Bangor and Maine Savings Pavilion in Westbrook and received $9.7 million from the SBA program, the largest grant in the state, has its sights set on next year.

“This grant will really provide us the ability to get ready for 2022, which for us will be a massive year, probably our biggest year ever,” said Alex Gray, owner of Waterfront Concerts.


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