As coronavirus numbers continue to rise in most U.S. states, the willingness of theatre patrons to return to their old theatregoing habits has plummeted, two tracking surveys show. In April, Shugoll Research, a national marketing research company in Bethesda, Md., conducted their first online survey with 743 D.C.-area theatregoers on their intent to return to the theatre when it reopens after the coronavirus pandemic, and found that just a quarter percent of respondents would attend “right away” whenever theatres reopen, and that only around half of respondents said they’d wait a few months before returning.
Those numbers were sobering then, but how do they look now? A new follow-up survey from Shugoll delivers the news: not good. Just 16 percent of respondents said they would consider rushing back to reopened theatres, down from 25 percent earlier, and a full 75 percent plan to wait a few months before returning, up from 49 percent in April. The earliest date most theatregoers say they’d be comfortable returning, according to the Shugoll report? May or June of 2021.
Meanwhile, Colleen Dilenschneider of IMPACTS Research & Development, who tracks “intent to visit” across regions and types of cultural institutions, and has begun to break this data into one-week, one-month, and three-month horizons, sees distinct depression in willingness to visit cultural institutions, with positive respondents in every region and timeline rarely or barely breaking above 25 percent.
“This is not good news for theatres hoping to begin generating much needed earned income as soon as possible,” said Mark Shugoll, Ph.D, author of the D.C.-area study, in a statement. “Some theatres are better positioned than others to survive this setback of audiences taking a wait-and-see attitude about returning.” On her blog, Dilenschneider reasoned, “In the absence of national health policies, we’re largely observing shifting regional reactions to the virus driving intentions to visit cultural organizations.”
Though limited to the D.C. area, Shugoll’s study is a chilling bellwether. Very few theatregoers say they are very likely to attend theatres if they open at any time this year, with just 9 percent willing to go in July-August, 15 percent in September-October, and 22 percent in November-December. Even from next January to early spring, fewer than half of theatregoers say they’re very likely to attend: 32 percent say January-February at the earliest, 43 percent March-April. In spring and summer, things finally look up, but not all the way: 55 percent say they’d come back in May-June and 64 percent in July-August. Even if theatres return to full programming by the fall of 2021, though, Shugoll’s survey shows that only 72 percent of respondents say they’d be likely to return as well.
During lockdown, many theatres are using alternative means to engage with patrons online. How are those efforts faring? According to Shugoll, 66 percent of theatregoers have watched online programming from theatres during the pandemic, though only 25 percent say they are “very likely” to pay online content in the future, including full recordings of plays, concerts, films, and interviews with artists.
For this iteration of the survey, Shugoll added questions about respondents’ views of systemic racism in area theatres, and found that 50 percent of respondents agree that there is systemic racism in D.C.-area theatres, and 70 percent support the idea that area theatres must respond to the concerns expressed by artists who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). The same percentage (70 percent) strongly feel theatres must take specific steps to fight racism through actionable change in their industry and beyond.