It is perhaps a dubious sign of progress that the third anniversary of the COVID shutdown—which in the theatre field is marked as beginning March 12, 2020, the night Broadway went dark, along with most live performance venues across the U.S.—passed fairly quietly a week ago. While we can’t say we are in a post-pandemic world as long as the virus’s daily death count remains in the hundreds and COVID safety advisors remain on theatres’ payrolls, we are, for better or worse, in a post-pandemic posture as a society. Federal relief money, including the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) and the Shuttered Venues Operating Grant (SVOG), which helped theatres keep many employees on payroll and maintain their operations over more than two years, has evaporated, and nearly all theatres, commercial and nonprofit alike, have lifted mask mandates, let alone vaccine requirements.
Indeed, things seem almost…normal again at many theatres. But are they? For the vast majority of theatres, the 2022-23 season we’re currently in the midst of is as close to a full return to live, in-person programming as they’ve managed since the COVID shutdown. And that’s a step forward, after many theatres’ plans for the 2021-22 season were scotched by the deadly Omicron wave of fall 2021 and winter 2022 (though Broadway got through a season of plays and musicals, and a fairly interesting one at that). But you don’t have to look far for signs of attrition: When, last fall, American Theatre published its first full season preview of TCG member theatres’ programming since fall 2019, the overall quantity of shows submitted for our listings was down more than 40 percent from pre-pandemic levels. It might at least be considered a triumph that most of the shows announced in that issue did make it to the stage, with only a smattering of cancellations and reshufflings, but it’s also clearly an era of diminished expectations.
The more pressing question, now that theatres are back in some kind of business, is: How is business? Are audiences coming back at anything like pre-pandemic levels? And are theatres able to make ends meet? The evidence is mixed, and seems to vary by region, with reports from some theatres in Great Lakes states, including Milwaukee Rep and Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, that subscription levels have held firm and may even be on the rise. Others have reported heartening bumps in single-ticket sales, particularly for last year’s holiday offerings, even as subscriptions have slumped. Broadway League president Charlotte St. Martin recently reported that Main Stem houses are filling 88 percent of their seats.
Some see these bright spots as leading indicators, but it might more accurate to view them as outliers. The theatre administrators and researchers I spoke to, many of whom shared both hard figures and anecdata with me, told me that audiences and income are down from pre-pandemic levels by anywhere from 20 to 50 percent. That’s a wide chasm, over which the fortunes of America’s theatre industry may hang in the balance.
It’s not that trendlines are all heading in the wrong direction. According to Jill Robinson, CEO & owner of TRG Arts, which collects data on performing arts organizations in the U.S. and U.K., the gap is closing. Using 2019 as a pre-pandemic benchmark, TRG data shows June 2022 theatres reporting admissions down by 51 percent from 2019 levels, and income down by 50 percent. By December 2022, those numbers had shrunk to 33 and 35, respectively.
The issue is the pace of improvement.
“It has been coming back since about May 2021…slowly,” said Zannie Voss, director of SMU DataArts, which gathered data from 200-plus performing arts organizations through 2022. “The question mark now is when is it going to plateau, or is it going to continue to slowly rebuild to earlier levels? That remains to be seen.”
Another rising trend line that is more concerning, but which speaks to theatres’ preparation for the worst: Data collected by Theatre Communications Group, the publisher of American Theatre, shows a sharp increase in the number of theatres projecting deficits into their budgets: While for fiscal year 2021, just 10 percent of theatres projected deficits, for fiscal year 2023 that number is 60 percent.
“Overall, I think 99 percent of us are back now only because of the federal funds that we received, the extraordinary fundraising we did, the generosity of our communities, and decisions that are a bit of a slippery slope, like additional draws from an endowment,” said Jennifer Bielstein, executive director of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, whose current budget is around $22 million. “The key thing to me is that we need more runway. It was assumed by all of us that federal funds would be what we needed to get back fully, but we’re seeing that it is a much slower return and rebuild with a lot of our theatres across the country.” That’s why, she said, ACT is planning with a longer recovery in mind. After a long practice of making mostly three-year contingency plans, she said, “Starting with next fiscal year ’24, we’re looking five years out, thinking that it could take that length of time to get back to where we were.”
Chandra Stephens-Albright, managing director at Atlanta’s True Colors Theatre, is also taking the long view.
“Everyone thought we were crazy when we did our strategic plan in 2020, but it has really helped us stay focused,” said Stephens-Albright, who like many theatre leaders reported a big drop in subscriptions, only partly offset by single-ticket spikes. A focus on the theatre’s mission—to support new work and education, as part of the larger aim of remaining a leading Black theatre in the U.S.—has provided a guiding light through a financially precarious time in which cash flow must be managed “very, very carefully” and seven-show performance weeks have been scaled back to five.
That strategic focus has also created some opportunities. “There’s been some spotlight on how small organizations, Black organizations, have been under-resourced,” she said. “That has got some attention, and it’s opened some doors for us to tell our story—doors that weren’t open before. That’s a positive; it isn’t enough to get us back to where we were pre-pandemic, but it certainly does make more people aware of our work and help advance our strategic objective.”
Greg Reiner, who heads the theatre and musical theatre programs for the National Endowment for the Arts, pointed to similarly encouraging signs of new participation. Though general relief funds for the field have dried up, the NEA, which just approved its highest level of appropriations ever, did pump $135 million of American Rescue Plan funding through state, regional, and local arts agencies, in addition to its direct grants to arts organizations, and that seed work is bearing fruit. As a result of what he called “a really broad engagement plan,” the endowment is “reaching folks that weren’t even applying to us before. We’ve brought in new, smaller organizations that are now applying through our regular granting programs.”
The NEA’s purview includes a lot of programming outside the realm of traditional, proscenium-based theatre, including work in correctional facilities and educational theatre. Another non-traditional area that has seen growth, according to Alan Brown of the WolfBrown arts consultancy firm, is immersive, virtual, and augmented theatre. But even when he shows theatres research showing that audiences are increasingly less willing to shell out for live, in-person theatre—a pre-pandemic trend that has only accelerated—he said he meets resistance.
“The public has embraced immersive experiences, and commercial producers are running away with millions of dollars in demand for them. That’s not only going to grow—it’s going to explode over the coming years,” Brown said, citing not only the aesthetic possibilities of this technology but also its utility in closed-captioning and enhanced accessibility. “What are nonprofit theatres going to do? Are they going to say, ‘We don’t do that; we’re about a live, authentic experience,’ or are they going to say, ‘Maybe we should figure out if we have a role to play in augmented, immersive, and virtual reality experience’? The theatre field is is pretty progressive compared to the other fields; there’s a good deal of innovative work going on. But you have artistic directors who still want to do important theatrical work on their mainstages for an audience of critics. When I start breathing fire about immersive experiences, I just get blank stares.”
For some theatres, doubling down on the live theatre experience still makes business sense, even after the stress of the pandemic. Milwaukee Rep, for instance, went into its cancelled 2020-21 season with a subscriber base of 16,000; that dropped off to 14,5000 in the following year, according to managing director Chad Bauman, but has turned back around. When subscription numbers are tallied next fall, Bauman said he expects the count for the 2023-24 season to surpass pre-pandemic levels.
Milwaukee Rep has done all this without reducing the number of performances, opening last fall with a large-cast musical, Titanic, and running 11 productions since. Like many of its peers, the Rep had projected a deficit for this year, but, said Bauman, “It looks like we’re going to have a break-even budget, because our ticket sales have far outpaced our projections. Next year, we have a $15 million budget, and we don’t anticipate any extraordinary fundraising needs.”
His colleague at ACT, Jennifer Bielstein, told me she wondered if the success story in Milwaukee has something to do with how early in the pandemic that theatre was able to reopen—that is, comparatively earlier than theatres in the Bay Area or New York City. Bauman said that the Rep followed the advice of the Medical College of Wisconsin, and that a member of their board, who is the team doctor of the Milwaukee Bucks and Brewers, “had access to all the protocols that professional sports were going through, and if you remember, sports came back way ahead of everybody else. We were watching what they were doing and how it was working. They were basically testing a lot, creating bubbles, creating all these different protocols.”
Ultimately, though, Equity protocols won out, leading Milwaukee Rep, like many large U.S. theatres, including ACT, to cancel some or all of its 2021-22 season. Perhaps more importantly, Bauman noted that Milwaukee Rep was fully ready to reopen when they had the greenlight. They’d kept 80 percent of their staff on payroll, Bauman said, figuring that if they’d laid off staff, they “would leave Wisconsin, and we would never be able to attract that talent back.”
Bauman gives some credence to the early-reopening theory, noting that many performing arts organizations in the South never really shut down at all, and many in the Midwest were similarly unfazed. “Those that reopened faster, and were allowed to do so by their communities, which historically were in the Midwest and the South, are in a much healthier spot today,” he concluded. “I believe that’s because the longer we were closed down, the more out of sight, out of mind we were, people forgot about us and got addicted to Netflix, and it’s harder to get them off their couch.”
Danny Williams, managing director at Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, seconded the sense that the pandemic shattered some folks’ longtime consumption habits.
“Since we’ve come back, we have seen a decline in subscriptions of around 60 percent,” said Williams, who added that single-ticket sales have been strong for such recent production as Dominique Morisseau’s Confederates and A Christmas Carol. He attributed the drop-off to a number of factors: “One is the pandemic breaking the cycle of people just renewing; it just was something that you did—you got your letter in the mail and you sent in your money and you picked your dates. I think the other is that the demographics have changed; there are folks who are aging out of going to the theatre, and the new folks who are joining us aren’t necessarily the ones looking for a subscription. Folks younger than 50 or so definitely are not looking to drop a couple of $100 at once to commit to a season worth of plays. They want to see what they want when they want to see it.”
This change has been a major focus of WolfBrown’s research. Said Alan Brown, “I think COVID accelerated macro trends that existed well before the pandemic—shifts in public tastes and in consumer behavior, like late planning behavior. People can’t make up their minds that they’re gonna go out, often until the last minute now, and that’s wreaking havoc on marketing. People’s lives are more complicated. I don’t think that’s changing. I think that’s more or less a permanent condition. So do we fight that and keep trying to get people to buy in advance, or do we offer a late buyers’ club?”
Jamie Alexander, director of the consulting team at the firm JCA Arts Marketing, has tracked a similar crash in subscriptions, noting that among all performing arts organizations, theatres have been both hardest hit by the dropoff and the most adventurous in trying new substitutes. She pointed to membership options like Steppenwolf’s Black Card, Woolly Mammoth’s Golden Ticket, and ZACH Theatre’s Zach XP, as well as tech-enabled opportunities for “cross-media loyalty programs.”
“Our study shows that there’s definitely growth in the people and number of organizations that are doing those sorts of programs, and there’s growth in those programs,” said Alexander. “I mean, it’s tepid—it’s not the runaway hit that subscriptions once were. But it’s something that’s growing as opposed to shrinking.”
SMU DataArts’s Zannie Voss, whose studies have shown, among other things, a troubling drop-off in corporate support for the arts, also sounded a cautionary note about plans to simply refill theatre seats. The urgency around getting people to return defines the problem the wrong way; in that framing, she said, “The organization is meeting its own need, its own desire to produce work they need people to come see, rather than thinking about, is the work that you’re doing super relevant to the community you’re serving? If it’s a community of artists you’re serving, if that’s your reason for being—great. But a profound sense of relevance is critical at a time like this.”
JCA’s Alexander concurred. “The thing I always say is, just talk to the community. What do they want, not just artistically—what do they want? What is going to speak to them? What will they pay for? Doing the research is really important. I feel like often people will just be like, ‘Oh, let’s just do a new flex package,’ and they haven’t figured out if there’s good evidence or data to promote that, and then they just waste money on promoting it.”
The challenge of marketing individual shows while also creating loyalty and awareness among theatregoers takes constant, even granular attention. Said Stephens-Albright, “We had stopped doing direct mail, but we started doing direct mail again—but very targeted. Now we do direct mail within a two-mile radius of the theatre, because heat maps tell us that people come from a certain set of zip codes.” She said she also focuses on “identifying people that are specific ambassadors, like, ‘I need you to go after these: These are your folks, go get them.’”
Zooming out, the theatres that have fared best, according to TRG’s Jill Robinson, are the ones that were not only aggressive about fundraising but about programming, despite the pandemic—the ones who said, as she put it, “‘We’re going to get back to business as soon as we can—we’re going to be outdoors, we’re going to do it digitally. We’re going to do everything we can to get back going.’ The companies that did that are in the strongest position, because they have databases that are more active, they have staff teams that have not lost momentum and skill. They have the best likelihood of heading into 2024 and ’25 feeling like they’ve got the furnace and the fuel.” Those organizations also were more likely to do what she calls “both-and programming—both programming in ways they know audiences will come back to in volume, as well as things they know that people who really love theatre will show up for, and that they know missionally they want to do for their community.”
Alan Brown is less sanguine.
“It’s curious—what made us so resilient is also what’s making us slow to change,” he said. Looking back on past three years, he marveled, “People doubled down and worked unbelievably long hours, boards of directors came together and worked together like never before, and people homed in on their core work. They didn’t have to think about innovation and new products. They could just focus in—and nearly everyone survived.” But with relief money dried up, the reality of producing again in a changed world is bringing some theatres up short. Brown offered this analogy, “What do you call it when you’re driving on the highway, on mountainous terrain, and they have those escape routes for trucks that can’t go up? We’re on one of those.” Now that the rubber is hitting the road, so to speak, Brown warned, “I think the other shoe has not yet dropped, and it’s about to. There’s going to be a lot of painful downsizing and potentially more paradigmatic change.”
The pain may be unwelcome, but change is not. The NEA’s Reiner, citing the endowment’s current chair, Maria Rosario Jackson, said, “Dr. Jackson has been talking about resisting the instinct to just snap back to the way it was before. There’s an opportunity here for a new reality. The arts ecosystem is demanding new ways of working, new ways of gauging success and progress. So there’s an opportunity here to take stock and figure out what we’ve learned, and to reimagine how we work, to move on from past practices, because a lot of those practices weren’t working before the pandemic. What are the opportunities to make arts participation more relevant and accessible and equitable?”
I asked most of my interviewees about their level of optimism for the field; most were upbeat, relatively speaking, and seemed as eager to face current challenges as they were clear-eyed about the scale of them. True Colors’ Stephens-Albright put it best.
“I’m not nervous and panicked,” she said. “You can’t be nervous and panicked and work in theatre, especially if you got through 2020.” But, succinctly summing up the field’s next mandate, she concluded, “We’re gonna have to change our tactics.”
Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is editor-in-chief of American Theatre. email@example.com
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