ICYMI: Story of the Week: America’s Not-For-Profit Theaters Are in Trouble
"What is happening to America’s not-for-profit theaters? In recent weeks, several venerable organizations have announced their intention to scale back programing, reduce staff, or shutter all together. Story of the Week will look at the impacted theaters and see what their stories have in common," said Zachary Stewart for TheaterMania. "Taken together, it looks like a bad sign of things to come."
In April, Oregon Shakespeare Festival revealed that its 2023 season was in jeopardy and put out a desperate appeal for $2.5 million in donations, which needed to be collected within four months in order to save the season. OSF exceeded that fundraising goal by June, but has since announced that it needs an addition $7.3 million to complete the season as planned. This crucial bit of information was buried in the announcement of Tyler Hokama as new Interim Executive Director of the company. In May, the Festival’s Interim Executive Artistic Director Nataki Garrett resigned (the composite title was the result of the January departure of Executive Director David Schmitz, whom Garrett had hired). On her departure, Garrett released the following statement to the New York Times: “We are at an inflection point in our industry, where outdated business models must evolve in order for our theaters to survive.”
Earlier this month, Los Angeles’s Center Theatre Group suspended performances at the Mark Taper Forum, its second-largest stage. This immediately put into limbo the world premiere of Larissa FastHorse’s Fake It Until You Make It and canceled the touring production of Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band. The Taper will remain without a production until at least 2024. CTG also laid off 10 percent of its staff, citing increased production costs, reduced donations, and sluggish ticket sales as the three factors that prompted this action.
Last week, the board of Greensboro’s Triad Stage announced its decision to end operations after more than two decades. In an unusually candid press statement, the board pointed to reduced donations and severely depressed ticket sales as the primary culprits, “with houses averaging less than half full over the course of the first two mainstage productions.” Those productions were the world premiere of Mike Wiley Rebellious and Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists.
The pandemic disrupted this model by shutting down production for over a year at most theaters, eliminating tickets sales as a revenue stream, spare the occasional online event. It also changed audience behavior, as some theatergoers settled into their couches with no immediate intention to return to the theater. Fear of Covid and confusion over new rules around masking and vaccinations undoubtedly contributed to this trend, with some theatergoers eschewing the hassle of showing up to an 8pm curtain in favor of the on-demand convenience of Netflix. Attendance at in-person events is down everywhere, including in cinemas and on Broadway.
But even though Broadway ticket grosses haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels, the most recent weekly numbers reveal that theatergoers are still willing to shell out for shows they want to see: Hamilton ($1.95 million), Wicked ($1.99 million), and The Lion King ($2.42 million) continue to pack their houses. Meanwhile, & Juliet had its best week ever, grossing $1.4 million, with an average paid admission of $171.61. This is a show without any household-name stars (apologies to Stark Sands, Betsy Wolfe, and Paulo Szot) that is nevertheless thriving via word-of-mouth. It may not have won any Tony Awards, but it’s winning the game of Broadway.
That doesn’t mean live theater is ending, but it does mean that many of the institutions that have become the face of theater in America will close if they don’t reform immediately. It’s a horrible situation for the people who have made these theaters their life’s work. But it is also an opportunity for a new generation of arts leaders to pioneer a model that makes more sense for the realities of this century — one that isn’t so reliant on the whims of the rich.