Name: Cynthia Fuhrman
Organization: Portland Center Stage at The Armory
Annual Operating Budget: $10,500,000
Learn more at pcs.org
Cynthia Fuhrman’s interview with Suzanne Nance originally aired on June 3, 2020. Listen below.
How are the arts playing a role during this critical time?
Most immediately, in the way people are turning to movies, music, books, and all forms of storytelling they can still access as a way of navigating through this time. And in my particular friends universe, watching so many actors continuing to create every day in their living rooms, posting everything from monologues to songs to short video stories they’ve created. It’s beautiful to see the arts so quickly adapting to the restrictions of the time and still creating reflective and entertaining art.
What has been the most notable / most unpredictable / most challenging impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on your organization? Biggest financial challenge?
We exist at our core as a place for people to gather closely and share an experience, and our essential art – theater – doesn’t exist without that audience. So the most notable impact is that there is absolutely no way we can do our work, create our art, as it has been performed for thousands of years. And the uncertainty of when we may be able to resume that kind of work is a huge challenge to manage. The biggest financial challenge is that we earn more than 60% of our annual revenue at the box office, through concessions, and through classes and rentals. So immediately, our cash flow became of prime concern in terms of managing our way through a shut down period, where we have no way of knowing its ending date.
To date, what steps have you taken to mitigate that impact?
Once we had to close our two theater spaces and the productions on stage, we furloughed about 80% of our staff, not counting the artists whose productions we closed, and those working on upcoming productions. Since we own and operate our own venue, and needed to maintain some staff to continue to work with our patrons on the closures, communicate with them on what to expect moving forward, and work on securing resources in contributed income support, we still have overhead costs related to those activities if we hope to reemerge as a viable entity and ensure our facility is properly maintained.
What kind of innovation in management has developed for your your organization, and what challenges have you encountered when implementing new innovative ideas?
Clearly, a new way of working related to everyone being at home, utilizing technology tools even more than before, and working hard to ensure that connection and clarity are still present with the team. The challenges are in the same vein; how do we continue to use the strength of collaboration when we are working in isolation?
What are the short-term and potential long-term effects of this shut down for your organization and the arts in general?
Okay, this is a question with thousands of answers! But today, I’ll say short term (and long term): survival. The performing arts sector is going to be among the very last to be able to resume work in any recognizable way to pre-pandemic times (along with professional sports and commercial concerts and conventions). We know it won’t be until we are post-vaccine or post-effective treatment that the public will, or indeed should, gather in large groups in confined spaces. So we will need significant – significant – support to be around until that happens. Some of us won’t make it. What will the arts ecology look like? And how long will it take us to rebuild it? I hope that this crisis will bring a wholesale reevaluation of how the arts and culture sector is supported in the U.S.; but I’m realistic enough to know that it’s going to be a fraught economic time. It will be important for us to be very outspoken about our impact on the modern economy.
What is a positive collaboration or initiative born as a result of this situation within your organization or that you’ve seen from your peers and colleagues in the arts industry?
I think we’ve always been a collegial industry, both within the theater world and across disciplines. I think the way we are uniting in advocacy is coming to the fore, which is a good thing.
What is the biggest lesson learned as a leader during this crisis?
That we have a smart and creative team at PCS, willing to explore hard realities and arrive at difficult and often heart-breaking decisions. That I am more resilient than I knew, and that at this time, my now decades of experience are serving me well.
Understanding that the future is hard to predict, how might the lasting impacts of COVID-19 change your upcoming season? Should the tone of pieces or performances change?
The right question here is when is our upcoming season? I think most of us in the performing arts are grappling with that first; and that will impact programming. But I’m also proud that at PCS we have adopted a practice of always asking ourselves “why this play now?” when programming, and while this pandemic was not in the mix when we planned our 20-21 season originally, I think our intentionality around wanting to elevate more voices means that the work we have been planning will resonate even in light of this current crisis and its aftermath. Perhaps more.
Regarding the creative process, what has been a source of inspiration for you/your organization at this time or how has your creative process changed and evolved? What outlets or channels have you sought out to continue to express your creativity, personally and/or professionally?
These are still early days, of course; it’s 8 weeks since we closed down and needed to pivot. Our inspiration has come from our audiences, who have been so supportive and understanding and caring about our organization, and from continuing conversations with artists locally and around the country. Artistic Director Marissa Wolf and her team are working on several initiatives to keep us artistically active and laying the foundation for when we are able to reopen the theater. We want to use this time to be financially smart, and at the same time invest in art and artists in ways that will make us even stronger when we reopen.
What message do you have for the artists and fellow art leaders in our community today?
The artists and arts leaders in Portland and Oregon are smart, gifted, and resilient. I just send them all admiration and love, and encouragement to be loud, ask for what you need, and don’t be modest about claiming your importance. There are a lot of basic needs in our community right now, and will be for months to come, and we are compassionate people who understand the need to support those needs. Well in fact, we are often the people who help raise resources for those needs, and we provide another basic need, which is to help people connect and feel and process. So we need to be bold in asking for support for our sector, too.
What question do you wish someone would ask?!
How can we help you communicate to elected officials that the arts, culture, and entertainment sector of the economy is larger than agriculture and transportation, and yet will be among the last sector to be able to resume normal operations, and so of course need significant federal relief for the next 24 months?
When looking to the future, what brings you hope?
Our audiences, who have been nothing but encouraging and supportive and sending us messages about how much they are looking forward to the future with us; and from artists, who have been hit so hard by this in terms of their subsistence, but who hold the deep belief that we will get through this and that they will be ready to do their important work with and for us the minute they can; and in the meantime, they are blowing me away with the ways they are continuing to create.
About Cynthia Fuhrman:
As Managing Director, Cynthia leads the teams responsible for the theater’s operations, finance, human resources, patron services and marketing efforts, and works closely with the artistic director and the board of trustees on the overall strategic direction for the company.
After earning her M.A. in English, Cynthia started her theater career at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 1982, working in PR, marketing and education. When OSF agreed to open a branch theater in Portland in 1988, Cynthia was among the OSF staff members who relocated to help open the new company, OSF Portland, which became Portland Center Stage when it spun off to an independent organization in 1994. Cynthia remained with the company until 1998, leaving to become COO at the Portland/San Francisco-based digital marketing company, eyescream interactive. In 2003, she moved to Seattle to become the Director of Marketing and Communications at Seattle Repertory Theatre. She returned to Portland in 2007 as Director of Communications at the City of Portland’s Office of Sustainable Development, but by the summer of 2008 had returned to Portland Center Stage as Director of Marketing and Communications. She became Chief Operating Officer in 2014, and Managing Director in 2017.