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Survey Shows Audiences’ Reluctance to Return to the Theatre

Half of D.C. theatregoers surveyed by Shugoll Research say health concerns would keep them away for a while, even after theatres reopen.

BETHESDA, MD.Shugoll Research, a national marketing research firm, has released the results from an online survey of 2,762 Washington, D.C.-area theatregoers about their willingness to return to theatres in the aftermath of the current coronavirus pandemic. Despite the regional specificity of the survey, the findings may be significant for the U.S. theatre field in general.

One major takeaway: Most theatregoers will not immediately be ready to return to theatres even when they reopen. The survey found that around half (49 percent) of those questioned say they will likely wait a few months before returning. Only 25 percent think they would attend right away.

“This will be disappointing news for Washington-area theatres, who already lost their spring and potentially summer seasons,” said Mark Shugoll, author of the study, in a statement. “Many theatres are counting on a strong relaunch to begin to offset the significant losses they suffered during their closures from the pandemic.”

While the study did not find a significant difference in the percentages of theatregoers likely to return based on venue size, the study did conclude that all theatres are likely to see a net audience decline from pre-COVID-19 seasons. Survey results showed that 27 percent said they would attend the theatre less often after this crisis, with just 13 percent saying they would attend more often. The study, which surveyed participants who attend at least two professional theatre productions in a typical year, also found a sign of loyalty among the most frequent theatregoers, 41 percent of whom said they were very likely to attend theatres immediately once they open.

The study also notes that health concerns are a bigger factor in the likelihood of surveyees to return to the theatre than economic factors—even though the study also found significant signs of economic worry (25 percent who fear a recession, 25 percent who have less disposable income, and 21 percent of whom reported taking a salary cut or losing their job entirely). Still, almost half (46 percent) of those surveyed are worried about how returning to the theatre might impact their health, and 42 percent of those surveyed are aware that a COVID-19 vaccine likely won’t yet be available when many theatres reopen.

The existence of a vaccine—which health officials have said would take 12 to 18 months or more to arrive—was the factor most likely to increase interest in  returning to the theatre, with 67 percent saying that would be decisive. In addition, 56 percent said that theatres taking steps to clean and disinfect before each performance would also help get them consider returning to the theatre sooner than later. Theatres making hand sanitizers available throughout the space and leaving every other seat empty for social distancing both saw 43 percent of surveyees saying these safety measures would positively influence their decision to return to the theatre.

“The data in this study are very much impacted by the point in time it was conducted,” noted Shugoll in the study, saying Shugoll Research will continue to track attitudes as the pandemic progresses and views change. “The results of this research may not contain the news theatres were hoping for, but it gives them real data to use in their planning. The arts community is a resilient one, and I feel many companies, though of course not all, will find a way to thrive in the post-pandemic world.”

The survey was completed between April 8 and 9 and was conducted using Shugoll Research’s proprietary panel. Participants were required to attend at least two professional theatre productions in a typical year and at least one of which must be at a theatre other than those primarily presenting touring companies. To view the entire report, go here.

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