It’s no secret that virtual theatre has exploded as a medium in the past 20 months. Last March, theatre companies large and small had to hastily close down their brick-and-mortar operations to comply with coronavirus protocols and precautions, and turned to the internet to produce work and engage audiences. Today, in-person theatre is back across the country, but the pandemic is (sigh) far from over, and virtual theatre remains a mainstream choice, whether driven by necessity, innovation, or both.
But have companies been able to turn these virtual offerings into revenue streams in an appreciable way? Are audiences and artists excited about the possibilities of virtual theatre? And what happens once COVID is finally behind us?
A group of 64 mostly managing and artistic directors representing as many companies in 25 states and Washington, D.C., responded to a survey asking what virtual theatre has meant, economically and artistically, for their companies. Together, these companies amassed a wealth of experience in the virtual realm: 84 percent produced pre-recorded virtual offerings in the past 20 months (for example, a Zoom reading that was captured and later broadcast), while 58 percent had produced live virtual offerings (similar to the category above, except these were broadcast live), and 60 percent had broadcast filmed productions of plays made with actors in the same physical space, whether made during or well before the COVID shutdown. While the companies varied wildly in size, union status, location, and operating budget (from over $50 million to under $50 thousand), together they presented a remarkably congruous outlook on the triumphs and perils of producing virtually.
First, the not-so-good news. With a few exceptions, all three categories of digital offerings (pre-recorded in-person, pre-recorded virtual, and live virtual) failed to deliver at the box office. Many experienced a promising initial swell of audience interest in the early months of 2020, but also a disappointing and steady subsequent decline in interest over the past year or so. Companies that sold tickets at pre-pandemic prices almost uniformly experienced a significant dip both in number of tickets sold and box-office revenue compared to the outcomes of similar in-person plays produced during previous seasons; some companies experienced only moderate drops, while for others, the change was drastic. Indeed, many reported a decrease in revenue of 90 percent or greater. Producing artistic director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj (he/him) of American Stage in Florida noted that a typical virtual play garnered about 50 tickets sold for the entire run, while a typical in-person play averaged 1,700. Even with companies that offered free or pay-what-you-will virtual productions, most experienced a decline in viewership.
Notably, a very small number of companies reported that they met or even exceeded prior box-office standards: WAM Theatre in Massachusetts, for instance, found success by driving down their usual ticket prices, while Cherry Arts in Ithaca, N.Y., was able to maintain its numbers by attracting an international audience, due at least in part to an institutional focus on rarely produced international works.
But those success stories were the exception among theatres surveyed. Theatres that conducted their own surveys to gauge audience feedback on virtual offerings found that while the quality of the work was typically quite appreciated, audiences consistently expressed a strong preference for live, in-person theatre and saw the virtual version as a better-than-nothing alternative to no theatre at all.
Fortunately for companies’ bottom lines, this box-office disappointment was typically offset at least somewhat by reduced budgets for digital productions. The survey showed the 85 percent of companies that produced live or pre-recorded virtual theatre spent less, and in many cases a small fraction, of what they might spend to produce comparable in-person plays. Unfortunately, though, these reductions in expenditures usually came in the form of salary savings. In addition to diminished venue, material, and other operating costs, companies most often saved money by hiring fewer designers, actors, production, and front-of-house staff, and by truncating the number of weeks worked.
Pre-recorded in-person productions, on the other hand, were relatively costly to produce. In 53 percent of cases, these productions cost companies as much or more than they might typically spend on an in-person play despite lower revenue, with the bulk of the additional outflow going to filming equipment, hosting platforms, and personnel not historically associated with theatrical production, including camera operators and editors.
Still, several respondents saw upsides to virtual theatre that outweighed or balanced out paltry box office returns. Many noted that virtual offerings served as an important way to engage their core audience base and maintain donor interest during a time when this would not be possible without the internet, producing ripple effects that cannot always easily be quantified: Most theatre companies reported increased donor support in the early months of the pandemic, and it’s possible though hard to measure whether a sustained virtual presence may have bolstered donor interest. Other companies who may not have seen an overall increase in ticket sales nonetheless reported a promising increase in viewership from younger virtual audiences, while still others were excited by the number of new out-of-state patrons tuning in. Kumu Kahua Theatre in Hawaii, despite lower box-office revenue for virtual plays, drew viewers from 36 states and eight countries.
Absent a question that asked directly about access, more than a third of respondents praised virtual theatre for increasing accessibility for those not able to attend in person, whether due to disability, health issues, transportation barriers, or living in rural areas far from the nearest theatre company. As Liz Lisle (she/her), managing director of Shotgun Players in San Francisco, put it, “For us, it is not an economic question—it is an accessibility and engagement question.” Measuring by revenue is “the wrong frame. Virtual theatre brings greater engagement.”
For David Jenkins (he/him) of Jobsite Theater in Tampa, Fla., however, resources might be better spent on increasing access to productions people actually attend.
“The extensive amount of time and money that goes into creating these is in no way well spent on a tiny handful of views,” said Jenkins. “We sincerely hoped to consider this as a way for those with other barriers to participate in live theatre to be included, but those numbers are in no way significant enough to justify the heavy investment for a theatre our size.” (Jobsite’s operating budget hovers around $350,000 in a non-pandemic year.)
Several respondents also found that producing virtual plays, while erasing barriers for some, creates barriers for others. The theatregoing public is heavily populated by seniors, who often either had difficulty engaging online, or did not have access to computers or the internet at all.
Many landed on a hybrid, best-of-both-worlds model: Instead of producing plays that exist exclusively online, these companies planned to continue producing in the “traditional” model while finding more cost-effective ways to stream their productions for those who cannot attend in person or who would rather watch from home.
Two major foundational points of disagreement emerged among respondents: whether virtual theatre is in fact theatre at all, and whether it holds inherent artistic value above and beyond that of a placeholder. Respondents were sharply split on both of these questions.
“I cringe when people say theatre is only theatre if it’s live and in person,” said Pesha Rudnick (she/her), artistic director of Local Theater Company in Colorado. “We are an evolving art form, and I’ve always been inspired by my colleagues who play within, beyond, and around four walls and a stage. I find it exhilarating that our field was forced to play in the virtual world last year. Creatively and economically, I am excited about what’s possible moving forward.”
Kim Greenwalt (she/her), director of development of Gamut Theatre Group in Pennsylvania, deeply disagreed, saying, “While virtual theatre may increase accessibility, there is something about it that is inherently not theatre. There is no direct actor-to-audience contact in live virtual theatre, pre-recorded virtual theatre, or the releasing of archival footage. Actors cannot relate to an audience and audience members cannot relate to actors as they could in person.”
Carrie Van Hallgren (she/her), managing director of American Players Theatre in Wisconsin, expressed a similar sentiment: “I find that virtual theatre, Zoom theatre, really leaves me wanting. And it feels too technical, too much like movie-making to have the energy and connection that theatre offers.”
For Charlie Miller (he/him) of Denver Center for the Performing Arts, virtual theatre is a unique art form that can be very successful, but only when it forges its own path forward, “embraces the medium, and doesn’t try to be a recording of a traditional show or a movie.”
Companies were likewise split on whether they plan on further virtual productions of plays after COVID is no longer a concern, given low audience interest and mixed opinions on its artistic value. A few were eager to continue producing plays that exist solely in the virtual realm, while others who share this enthusiasm expressed concern about license holders and, to a lesser extent, unions, making it cost-prohibitive to do so or disallowing the practice entirely. Market-related hesitations abounded, as did mentions of major streaming services.
“When creating virtual content, we are in competition with Netflix, Hulu, HBO, etc., who are all creating streaming content as well,” said Jake Nice (he/him) of Dallas’s Undermain Theatre. “This is a challenge for many small theatres (us included) who have had to shift to essentially operating as small film production houses. This is not necessarily our strength, as we have spent many years honing the craft of creating live theatre. Different mediums require different skills, attention to different details, etc.” Melissa Ferlaak (she/her) of Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis noted that, for many companies, the price of a single ticket to a virtual production is higher than the cost of a month of unlimited streaming from the likes of Netflix or Hulu.
Eschewing online-only plays, then, but finding a budget-friendly way to stream most or all in-person productions, as in the hybrid model mentioned above, has emerged as a popular, middle-of-the-road choice that seemed to deliver on many of the promises of digital theatre while avoiding its pitfalls.
As for virtual-only theatre? Its brightest future may lie not in the standard four-week run of a two-act play, but in supplemental programming to mainstage seasons. The consensus of those surveyed was that these types of events worked as well or even better online than in person, in terms of audience interest, artistic potential, and revenue. Many found that virtual staged readings, for instance, and new-play development series drew a large, diverse group of artists and audiences that in person versions of the same programming simply did not, and further, that the absence of travel and housing costs would enable them to do more of this kind of programming. Fundraisers, galas, special one-time events, talkbacks, and educational offerings all fared very well online during the past 20 months, and typically cost far less to produce than their in-person counterparts, with educational programming in particular able to expand its reach to more far-flung schools while allowing teaching artists to hold class from the comfort of their own homes. Companies of all sizes remain enthusiastic about keeping this content online and growing its potential.
So while survey answers suggest that we won’t be booting up our laptops to watch costumed actors perform rehearsed plays in Zoom squares for too much longer, it certainly reveals other, enduring possibilities in the virtual realm. Only time will tell what realities might emerge.
Rosie Brownlow-Calkin (she/her) is an Equity actor and assistant professor of theatre at the University of Nevada, Reno.
A note on the survey: All current TCG member theatres were polled with these questions:
The list of theatres who responded by deadline is here:
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