Dark Star Orchestra playing UC Theatre in 2016. Founder David Mayeri says he doesn’t expect the venue to reopen until fall 2021. Photo: Kelly Owen

As Congress rushed to pass a $900 billion stimulus package Monday night that faced immediate criticism as too little too late, many venues and arts presenters breathed a sigh of relief. Included in the sprawling omnibus legislation is the Save Our Stages (SOS) act, which makes about $15 billion of relief available to independent music venues, theaters and other cultural organizations.

Various Berkeley institutions are still sorting through if and when they might be able to tap into the fund, but for indie venues that have been shuttered for most of 2020, SOS provides some light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel.

“Music venues were the first to be closed and we’ll be the last allowed to reopen,” said David Mayeri, the founder and CEO of Berkeley Music Group, the nonprofit that runs the UC Theatre.

“We don’t expect to start presenting shows again until September or October, 2021. That’s 18 months without any revenue. What this means to the UC is survival, and the survival of arts and culture. It’ll allow us to pay our bills and support the whole arts ecosystem. It’s not only about artists, but managers, sound companies, and most importantly the staff, the sound engineers, lighting designers, and servers all have a place to come back to.”

The East Bay has already lost several treasure venues, including The Uptown and the Starline Social Club. Yoshi’s recently launched a GoFundMe campaign to help cover expenses long enough to reopen. A survey conducted by the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), a recently formed national group representing more than 3,000 venues that led the lobbying for SOS, found that the vast majority of indie venues were close to closing for good.

Berkeley venues unsure if SOS will help them

Metamorphoses at Berkeley Rep in 2019. The theater’s Susie Medak is not optimistic the theater will be eligible for stimulus funds.Photo: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Rep

Co-sponsored in the Senate by Amy Klobuchar (D-Mn.) and John Cornyn (R-Tx.), SOS might arrive in time to save many venues, or ease the path to reentry. But many Berkeley presenters are still uncertain about whether they’ll be covered by the bill.

Louisa Spier, Cal Performances public relations manager, said that they were “still waiting to hear if university-affiliated performing arts organizations will be eligible to apply for the Save our Stages relief.”

Susie Medak, Berkeley Rep’s managing director, didn’t sound optimistic that the theater would be able to partake.

“We can’t apply until the third tranche, as the bill is primarily designed to assist commercial, for-profit performance venues and movie theaters,” she said. “Only after those two categories have been funded and if there is money left in the fund, can we apply.”

With a solid base of devoted supporters who’ve continued to renew their membership, Freight & Salvage is in far better shape than many venues, but government aid will be crucial in regaining financial health. There are still a lot of questions regarding the strings that might come attached with the funds.

“We haven’t seen the actual text,” said Sharon Dolan, the Freight’s executive director. “We’re waiting to see what that says, how it gets distributed, and what exactly we can use it for. Different organizations need different things so the fewer limitations the better. It says in the bill’s original text that it would cover up to 45% of operating costs for six months. If it’s flexible enough that could be close to $1 million, which would really help to ramp up and reopen.”

“Venues that normally compete for acts came together. It’s a great story, because otherwise 90% would have gone out of business.” — David Mayeri

Reopening will likely require far more than dusting off tables and chairs. Even with high unemployment, many long-time employees will have moved or found new situations. Venues might have to reconfigure air circulation.

“We’ll need time to get the staff back before we start producing shows,” Dolan said. “If there are still some safety measures we’ll need to do some staff training. Venues have lost many key staff people due to salary cuts. The thing I care about the most is that small organizations get help and that it’s not too cumbersome a process. I hope that whatever happens benefits small organizations even more than large ones.”

The UC Theatre’s Mayeri said he was grateful for strong support from California’s congressional contingent. Senators Kamala Harris and Diane Feinstein “were both early and passionate supporters,” he said. “In the House, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, DeSaulnier, Swalwell, and Nancy Pelosi were big supporters. Those are the people who went out and made it happen. All the venues in California, people who normally compete for acts, all came together. It’s a great story, because otherwise 90% would have gone out of business.”

Andrew Gilbert

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....