As the Broadway season wrapped this year, the Broadway League announced record attendance of more than 14 million for productions in New York City and Touring Broadway reported 18.5 million attendees across the U.S. and Canada. Meanwhile the most recent Theatre Facts report from Theatre Communications Group estimated gross attendance in not-for-profit resident theatres at 44 million. Combined, these stats suggest there are, give or take, 75 million admissions to professional theatre offerings in North America annually. That’s impressive!
While the bulk of growth in Broadway attendance may well be attributed to a fraction of all productions running, the more-or-less steady attendance in the resident theatre field represents a mix of theatres where attendance increased, temporarily declined, or stayed simply flat.
Indeed a pressing topic in the resident theatre community this year has been audience unpredictability. Productions that once would have been surefire hits are often selling poorly. One theatre leader described audiences as increasingly fickle; another noted the first subscription decline in years—with no obvious reason. Shows that receive great reviews and word of mouth are struggling to sell. A number of possible causes have been raised by leaders facing these trends:
1. The rise of on-demand streaming content. Over the last several years, Netflix and other web-based original content providers took off, adding to apps, games, and other forms of online entertainment. These have given many playwrights their pick of writing jobs, which in turn means great storytelling for these small screens. Many of these new series are water-cooler conversation pieces, with badges of honor for binge watching. Between these options, plus computers and social media, people in the U.S. spend 11 hours a day in front of screens, with a bulk of that time watching TV.
2. The decline of arts coverage in the mainstream press. The decimation of arts journalism in mainstream news outlets continues apace. Articles about theatre typically don’t generate enough click-throughs to warrant publications’ space and resources. There are thus fewer venues for informing audiences about productions, or to tell the story of local theatres, let alone the national theatre ecology.
3. The Hamilton effect. When Lin-Manuel Miranda’s remarkable musical began touring nationwide, presenters from D.C. to Dallas required one- or two-year subscription commitments for tickets. Some theatre leaders have reported a collateral effect, as audiences spent discretionary dollars they might have spread around multiple shows at multiple theatres to see just Hamilton. Was there an effect on attendance for locally made shows in some cities? Possibly.
4. Recession fear. We are in the midst of the longest economic expansion in history. Economists warn that it will slow down eventually. While there are no firm predictions of a new recession, there is concern about a correction. Recent swings in the stock market have caused great unease. Even with historically low unemployment, wage growth has been slow, and theatre is a discretionary expense for many. With the increasing unaffordability of tickets, theatre has become a special annual event, rather than a monthly or weekly habit.
5. The Zeitgeist. The times we are in are conflict-ridden, divisive, exhausting. People are tired and seek ways to regain energy and optimism. This may mean staying home or enjoying nature or friends and fellowship. It may mean seeking out stories that are absorbing and affirming. Is theatre offering a place for reflection and rejuvenation?
When the National Endowment for the Arts issued its 2015 study “When Going Gets Tough: Barriers and Motivations Affecting Arts Attendance,” the top reason given for attending arts events was socializing with friends and family. Lack of time was the most regularly cited barrier to attendance, along with the cost. Additional factors included accessibility of the venue—and not having people to go with.
While we can’t add hours to people’s schedules or slow the rapid escalation of television and online content, there are a few avenues being explored by our theatres. Though these may not seem like news, they are still core strategies that are working in various locales:
Pricing: Keep prices as low as possible, so that the widest number of folks can attend.
Engagement and relationships: Deep, customized interactions with audiences and donors make a difference. Theatres committing themselves to scalable relationship strategies are seeing results.
New ways of marketing, including data-driven marketing toward single-ticket sales and loyalty. Are existing marketing and promotional plans reflective of current best practices? If not, commit to revisiting your marketing approach.
Providing artistic work to meet different communities where they are, whether physically in terms of space or in terms of the content.
Working to increase the volume of arts writing in communities across the U.S., something American Theatre is deeply committed to. How can community be built around “talking about theatre”?
At TCG we do our best to track and share successful strategies and research in areas such as audience building. Let’s work together across the theatre community to take on these challenges, and to ensure the vitality and impact of theatre for years to come.