There is less theater in America these days. Fewer venues. Fewer productions. Fewer performances.
Cal Shakes, a Bay Area favorite that staged Shakespeare in an outdoor amphitheater, is producing no shows this year. Chicago’s Lookingglass Theater, where Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses” had its premiere before coming to Broadway, has halted programming until next spring. The Williamstown Theater Festival, known for its star-studded summer shows, has no fully staged productions at its Western Massachusetts home this season.
The coronavirus pandemic and its aftermath have left the industry in crisis. Interviews with 72 top-tier regional theaters located outside New York City reveal that they expect, in aggregate, to produce 20 percent fewer productions next season than they did in the last full season before the pandemic, which shuttered theaters across the country, in many cases for 18 months or more. And many of the shows that they are programming will have shorter runs, smaller casts and simpler sets.
Seattle’s ACT Theater has reduced the length of each show’s run by a week. In Los Angeles, the Geffen Playhouse will no longer schedule performances on Tuesdays, its slowest night. Philadelphia’s Arden Theater Company expects to give 363 performances next season, down from 503 performances the season before the pandemic.
Why is this happening? Costs are up, the government assistance that kept many theaters afloat at the height of the pandemic has mostly been spent, and audiences are smaller than they were before the pandemic, a byproduct of shifting lifestyles (less commuting, more streaming), some concern about the downtown neighborhoods in which many large nonprofit theaters are situated (worries about public safety), and broken habits (many former patrons, particularly older people, have not returned).
“It’s impossible not to be distraught about the state of the field,” said Christopher Moses, an artistic director of the Alliance Theater in Atlanta. “It’s clear this is the hardest time to be producing nonprofit theater, maybe in the history of the nonprofit movement.”
Chicago’s Lookingglass Theater has produced many memorable works, including the premiere of Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses” in 1998. Now it has cut staff and halted programming until spring.Liz Lauren/Lookingglass Theater Company
The number of nonprofit theaters in America had grown significantly in the two decades before the pandemic, but many small and midsize companies are now closing. Just last month, Book-It Repertory Theater in Seattle, Triad Stage in Greensboro, N.C., and Unexpected Stage Company in Maryland announced they were closing. Chicago, a city proud of its vibrant storefront theater scene, has lost at least a half-dozen companies.
“We’re seeing two to three organizations closing a month right now,” said Greg Reiner, the director of theater and musical theater at the National Endowment for the Arts.
There are substantial layoffs and cuts taking place at some of the field’s biggest institutions: This month New York’s prestigious Public Theater cut 19 percent of its jobs; just before that the powerhouse Brooklyn Academy of Music cut 13 percent and the sprawling Center Theater Group of Los Angeles cut 10 percent. The Dallas Theater Center has cut its full-time staff nearly in half, to 38 from 70, since last fall.
The pandemic exacerbated many trends that had long challenged nonprofit theaters, including the steady erosions of subscribers — the loyal audience members who sign up in advance to see most or all of a season’s shows. Hartford Stage and Kansas City Repertory Theater have each lost half of their subscribers since the pandemic, leaving them far more reliant on single-ticket buyers, whose purchase patterns are unpredictable and who tend to be less interested in unfamiliar work.
A new survey conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Census Bureau found that 10.3 percent of American adults attended a musical last year, down from 16.5 percent in 2017; just 4.5 percent attended a play, down from 9.4 percent.
At the same time the costs of making theater have risen significantly because of inflation, labor market issues (the Great Resignation led to significant staff turnover, so both recruitment and retention costs have risen), and social justice concerns (many theater workers have successfully argued that they were undercompensated). “As we work toward a more equitable work force, the cost of producing theater goes up,” said Ross Egan, managing director of Asolo Repertory Theater in Sarasota, Fla.
Even as they cut staff positions and hire fewer actors and freelance artists, many theaters are awash in red ink after running through the government aid that helped sustain them during the height of the pandemic. “I’ve been here 20 years, and at some point in the spring I started to realize this would be the greatest and largest deficit in my history,” said Paul R. Tetreault, the director of Ford’s Theater Society in Washington, D.C.
Why cut back on shows? “We don’t have the demand for it, so why would we try to act like we do?” said Ken-Matt Martin, the interim artistic director at Baltimore Center Stage and the Arkansas Repertory Theater. And many nonprofits run shows at a loss, with even strong ticket sales unable to cover production costs, leaving them reliant on philanthropy to make up the difference. “We all lose money by doing productions,” said Angel Ysaguirre, the executive director of Court Theater in Chicago. “We’ll be losing less money by cutting one production.”
The crisis has led to a new spirit of collaboration, and an enormous increase in coproductions in which several theaters come together to produce shows and share the costs of sets, costumes and creative teams. In the season before the pandemic only one of the six shows at Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington, D.C., was a coproduction; next season at least five of its six shows will be coproductions.
“It’s a sea change,” said Simon Godwin, the theater’s artistic director. “There’s an economic imperative, but also a sense of sharing the challenge of making theater now.”
Theaters are looking for other ways to share costs. Several in Connecticut are exploring whether they could consolidate their set-building operations, and a group in Chicago is discussing whether it’s possible to share back-office functions like human resources, finance and marketing.
Many theaters are trying to make money by renting out their buildings. Some are finding other ways to raise funds. Northern Stage, in White River Junction, Vt., decided to get a liquor license. “While this is certainly auxiliary to our mission,” said Jason Smoller, the theater’s managing director, “it will represent a not insignificant revenue stream, and it undoubtedly improves the experience for our patrons.”
“Clearly the financial model for most regional theaters is profoundly in trouble,” said Stuart Carden, the artistic director of Kansas City Repertory Theater.Chase Castor for The New York Times
There are varying reports about how well philanthropy is holding up, but many theater leaders express concern about donor fatigue after the pandemic, and some say foundations are shifting away from support for the arts toward health, human services and social justice. “What’s happening now, just in the last few months, is that really large, steadfast, institutional donors are reprioritizing and moving away from arts funding,” said Nora DeVeau-Rosen, managing director of Two River Theater in Red Bank, N.J. “We’ve lost 11 percent of our institutional support in the last three months, and we anticipate that continuing.”
Nonprofit theaters, many of which strive to produce new work and artistically adventurous fare, are doing far less well than touring Broadway productions, which are often juggernauts and jukebox musicals. Nonprofit theaters are also lagging behind Broadway itself, where attendance levels are now 91 percent of where they were at the same time before the pandemic.
There are a handful of nonprofits that say they are doing just fine, with a variety of theories about why: Some minimized the length of time they were closed during the pandemic; others cite populist programming choices; and some are in midsize cities with a less competitive performing arts market and strong civic support.
But far more say they are facing serious challenges. “Clearly the financial model for most regional theaters is profoundly in trouble,” said Stuart Carden, the artistic director of Kansas City Repertory Theater.
Some artistic directors believe that programming is partly at fault — that some theaters have turned off audiences by choosing shows that are too downbeat or preachily political. “Some theaters have forgotten what audiences want — they want to laugh and to be joyful and to cry, but sometimes we push them too far,” said Timothy J. Evans, executive director of Northlight Theater in Skokie, Ill. But numerous theaters say they are still finding at least occasional success with edgy or challenging titles.
In Kansas City, Carden said audience behavior has been volatile: A new Sherlock Holmes-themed comedy by Kate Hamill called “Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson — Apt. 2B” vastly outsold expectations, but a production of Marco Ramirez’s acclaimed play “The Royale,” about a champion boxer who confronted racism, “barely sold.”
“There’s been so much heartache and pain, a lot of people are looking for a joyous experience and a guaranteed good time,” Carden said.
At California’s Pasadena Playhouse, Martyna Majok’s play “Sanctuary City,” starring Ana Nicolle Chavez and Miles Fowler, was an artistic highlight but struggled at the box office. Jeff Lorch
In California, Pasadena Playhouse saw big demand for a series of Sondheim-related shows, but then struggled with Martyna Majok’s immigration-themed “Sanctuary City.” “It was an artistic high point by every metric possible, but we could not get people to pay attention,” said Danny Feldman, the theater’s producing artistic director.
Meanwhile, theater leaders are grasping for signs of hope, or at least faith.
“I’ve had many dark nights of the soul — who is going to survive, and how is the field going to survive?” said Taibi Magar, one of two artistic directors at Philadelphia Theater Company. “But then some days I wake up and remember that this art form is thousands of years old, and it has survived so many terrible moments. It will move and morph into its next phase.”