Can regional theaters bounce back from loss of audiences, canceled seasons?

“[Theater companies are] being extremely, extremely cautious and they only want to go to hit shows that have a track record. They're not being as adventurous as they used to be,” says Susan Loewenberg, the producing director for LA Theatre Works. Photo by Shutterstock.

The Mark Taper Forum, which is run by Center Theatre Group, recently announced it's halting its current season due to the ongoing impact of the COVID pandemic, low ticket sales, and dwindling corporate donations. Elsewhere nationwide, the Public Theater in New York just laid off nearly 20% of its staff, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced that its season would not go on without a multi-million dollar cash infusion. 

Theater companies don’t typically close or pause their programming, says Peter Marks, chief theater critic at the Washington Post.

“It's kind of anathema, and especially since we worry about the loyalty of audiences and the importance of continuing … the connections between the community and the theater. When a company ends or pauses its programming, there's a real fear of attrition and people not coming back,” he tells KCRW. “It reflects how deeply this problem is seeping into the framework of American theater.” 

LA is home to about 200 theaters, ranging from 30 to 3000 seat houses, and less than two dozen have a budget of more than $1 million. Meanwhile, revenues have dropped by at least 50%. That’s all according to Susan Loewenberg, the producing director for LA Theatre Works

She says theater companies are feeling apprehensive as they’ve reopened, due in part to a shift in patrons’ habits. 

“They're very nervous about attracting audiences. … They're being extremely, extremely cautious, and they only want to go to hit shows that have a track record. They're not being as adventurous as they used to be. People are just not willing to take that chance.” 

She adds, “To come back to the theater, for some people, it's a really courageous act.”

LA Theatre Works finally reopened this past spring, Loewenberg explains, and it changed its schedule. Typically, the company puts on seven productions. This year, that number dropped to two.

However, LA Theatre Works’ film series of plays, National Theatre Live, led to many sold-out houses, Loewenberg notes. 

However, theaters struggling to stay afloat isn’t unprecedented. Marks says the pandemic only accelerated problems: “One of them is an aging audience. One of them is a theater world that has not particularly responded to the changing world in which we all live. And I think that many people lost the thread of what interested theatergoers over that time, because people had other pursuits.”

He adds that streaming TV has also whetted the appetite of theatergoers looking for quality storytelling: “You found that you didn't need to go quite as often to the theater to get … that artistic reward that theater supplies.” 

The sluggishness has also hit Broadway, which has experienced about a 30% dip in audiences, Marks says. That market is bolstered by tourism, however.

Now, he says it’s up to theater companies to reexamine how they’re meeting the needs and wants of their communities.

“I've got to believe that vigorous companies that are tuned into their community, that are speaking to their audiences, that are communicating in different ways, that are telling their audiences what they're up to — the more they can do that kind of outreach, through social media, through emails, through whatever ways they are doing that — those are the companies that are going to rebound from this.”