Nonprofit Theaters Are in Trouble. Lawmakers Are Proposing Help.

The financial crisis facing nonprofit theaters in America has captured the attention of Congress, where a group of Democratic lawmakers is introducing legislation that would direct $1 billion annually to the struggling industry for five years.

That money could be used for payroll and workforce development, as well as other expenses like rent, set-building and marketing. But the legislation, which lawmakers plan to introduce on Tuesday, faces long odds at a time when a divided Congress — where Republicans control the House and Democrats lead the Senate — has had trouble agreeing on anything.

Nonprofit theaters around the country have reduced their programming and laid off workers to cope with rising expenses and smaller audiences since the coronavirus pandemic began. There are exceptions — some nonprofit theaters say they are thriving — but several companies, including New Repertory Theater in suburban Boston, Southern Rep Theater in New Orleans, and Book-It Repertory Theater in Seattle, have ceased or suspended operations in response to the crisis.

“It hasn’t been a recovery for the nonprofits — they’re really lagging compared to many other sectors in the economy, and it’s for a lot of reasons,” Senator Peter Welch of Vermont, one of the legislation’s sponsors, said in an interview. “So they do need help.”

Mr. Welch argued that the organizations merit government assistance because they strengthen communities and benefit local economies.

The legislation, which is called the Supporting Theater and the Arts to Galvanize the Economy (STAGE) Act of 2024, is also being sponsored by Senators John Fetterman of Pennsylvania and Jack Reed of Rhode Island. Representative Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon is sponsoring it in the House.

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, who is the majority leader and who led the fight to win government aid for performing arts organizations during the pandemic, is supportive of the proposed legislation and is also open to other ways to assist nonprofit theaters, according to a spokesman.

The pandemic aid package that Mr. Schumer championed serves as a precedent: In 2020, Congress passed the Save Our Stages Act, which led to a $16 billion Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program that made money available to a wide array of commercial and nonprofit performing arts organizations.

Mr. Welch said the earlier aid program succeeded despite initial skepticism.

“With everything else that was going on, the expectation was this would die on the vine, but it didn’t — as this started getting momentum, there was excitement about being about to do something concrete,” he said.

The new legislation is narrower, benefiting only professional nonprofit theaters, and only those that have either seen a decline in revenues or that primarily serve historically underserved communities.

“This is a beginning,” Mr. Welch said. “There are obstacles, but let the effort begin.”

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