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Three Years After Pandemic, Theaters Still Navigate Uncertain Waters

Executive Director of Theatre Communications Group shares the struggles and triumphs as theaters focus on brining back audiences
September 6, 2023 15 Min Read
Three Years After Pandemic, Theaters Still Navigate Uncertain Waters

​​​​​​Before the COVID-19 pandemic, theater companies were already concerned about how to get more people in seats. Worries about declining ticket sales and audience retention, on top of economic inflation, have grown even more urgent as performances have safely come back to the stage, but audiences haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels.

"The key question is, what are the things that are being done in order to emerge from the pandemic in a sustainable way," Teresa Eyring, executive director of Theatre Communications Group, said in an interview with NPR earlier this year. We caught up with her to learn more about the creative and innovative solutions that theaters around the country have implemented to address shrinking budgets, accessibility, and audience churn.

This post is the first of an occasional series of conversations with professionals and leaders in the performing arts to help understand the current issues facing the industry and the creative efforts organizations have undertaken in this new environment.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Wallace Foundation: What are some of the specific challenges theaters and performing arts organizations are facing right now, three years after the initial impact of COVID?

Teresa Eyring: While the initial impact of the pandemic was immense, with our Theatre Facts 2021 report revealing an 88 percent one-year drop in total ticket income, a combination of historic federal relief funds and adaptive resilience largely saw theaters through. Now, with those relief funds ending, our theater ecology is facing a series of compounding challenges, many of which predated the pandemic but have been accelerated by it.

Those challenges include the cost of inflation; shuttered performances from the pandemic and climate crisis; conflict between staff and board; staff burnout and hiring difficulties; anti-trans and LGBTQ+ laws; and increasing violence against marginalized communities. On top of all of this, many theaters continue to struggle with the return of audiences.

WF: How has audience behavior (ticket-buying, attendance, desire for in-person vs. virtual programs, etc.) changed over the course of the pandemic to now?

TE: What we’re seeing is that the pandemic has accelerated pre-existing shifts in audience behavior. The gradual decline of subscriptions has intensified, though they remain an important part of the earned income puzzle. The dominance of streaming entertainment continues to grow, with ongoing pandemic fears and the rise of remote work conspiring to keep people at home.

While many theaters pivoted to digital during the worst of the pandemic, only a smaller number continue to invest significantly in digital. Yet we know from Slover Linett’s Rethinking Relevance report that audiences who prefer digital are, on average, more likely to be BIPOC and/or disabled. Theaters seeking to diversify their audiences may want to invest in digital, especially considering the ‘distance cost​’​  that many theaters experience when trying to attract audiences outside of their immediate areas.

The concept of “churn”—the difficulty in getting new-to-file audience members to return a second or third time—has been discussed in almost every working group meeting that we’ve held for folks in the industry. According to Spektrix’s Inflation, Epidemics and Audience Loyalty: Arts Marketing in 2023, in 2018 only 26 percent of audiences were returning annually, down from 35 percent in 2005. This year, our speakers have reported churn rates as high as 90 percent. As with most of the challenges listed above, the pandemic has exacerbated the already daunting hurdle of audience retention.

WF: Can you share any examples of performing arts organizations that have deployed a successful strategy to attract audiences?

TE: Theaters that invested in digital programming during the pandemic fared better than those that went entirely dark. Theatre Facts 2021 revealed a subset of outliers that increased their attendance during the 2020-21 season through digital programming, and these theaters, such as Teatro Vista (Chicago, IL), collectively saw a 28.9 percent total ticket income decline—significantly less than the 88 percent for all theaters.

This positive trend has continued for the smaller number of theaters who’ve continued to invest in digital access. Know Theatre (Cincinnati, OH) and Wilma Theater (Philadelphia, PA) both make significant  revenue from their online streaming access—nearly 10 percent and between 10-25 percent, respectively. These productions have artistic value, as well—Wilma Theater’s digital production of Fat Ham led to the play being awarded the Pulitzer Prize before it had ever received a live production.

Also, the rise of the flexible loyalty model is a sometimes radical way for theaters to encourage audience retention; whether they’re called memberships, choose-your-own subscriptions, or as Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (Washington, DC) has it, a Golden Ticket granting holders entry to every show Woolly produces. Similarly, ZACH Theatre’s (Austin, TX) ZACH XP is an all-access membership to unlimited shows and events. In other words, a Golden Ticket or ZACH XP holder could see any show they wanted as many times as they wanted whenever they wanted—about as close to the flexibility and simplicity of a streaming platform like Netflix as any live, in-person performance can get.

The importance of compelling programming has only increased as the rise of quality streaming competes for audience attention. Portland Center Stage (Portland, OR) noted that starting their season with a big musical has served as a “springboard for both single and subscription ticket sales, and attracts new audiences.” Similarly, African-American Shakespeare Company (San Francisco, CA)  shared how their beloved annual production of Cinderella continues to be a gateway production for their work as a whole.

Theaters are also producing new work that attracts robust audiences by presenting familiar and local stories, such as Miami New Drama’s (Miami, FL) productions about the Elián González custody battle or the notorious Miami cartel godmother, Griselda Ayala.

WF: How about examples of strategies that organizations are deploying to bring audiences back to their theaters?

TE: Children’s Theatre Company (Minneapolis, MN) engaged a cross-departmental task force to identify who their new-to-file patrons were, and what segmented approaches might best persuade them to return. This work led to epiphanies such as the increased ‘stickiness’ of patrons who engaged with their education programs. These patrons were far more likely to return to CTC in the near term. Ballet Austin (Austin, TX) has already seen significant progress by segmenting their audience after an analysis of their single ticket sales revealed that more patrons were returning than they’d realized. What’s more, if they could encourage their audiences to return three times over 18 months—the ‘magic three,’ as they called it—then “we had them for life.” Based on these analyses, they created unique marketing approaches and front-of-house experiences that significantly increased retention.

The importance of an enhanced front-of-house experience was underscored by multiple theaters in our working groups. Portland Center Stage shifted to a patron services model in 2016—where every subscriber has a dedicated person in the box office—and their surveys consistently receive positive feedback.

While none of these strategies are entirely new, what is different now is the scale of urgency and experimentation. With more challenging years ahead, theaters will need to continue data-driven experimentation to build on what works in a rapidly shifting environment.

WF: During the pandemic, we sometimes saw the link between arts and culture organizations and communities become even stronger. Is this something you’ve seen in the theater industry? Or are there any other positive changes that you’ve witnessed in the theater landscape over the past few years?

TE: Yes, and when it comes to community orientation, Black, Indigenous, Theaters of Color (BITOC) have continued to lead the way. Zannie Voss’s findings from The Alchemy of High-Performing Arts Organizations, Part II: A Spotlight on Organizations of Color really synthesizes so much of what we’ve learned through our decades-long work with BITOC, including our current THRIVE! Program. One notable example is Penumbra Theatre’s (Saint Paul, MN) expansion into a Center for Racial Healing. Their president Sarah Bellamy asks, “What if there were one place where you could witness art that fires your imagination, healing practices that restore your sense of balance and possibility, and trainings that could equip you to stand powerfully for social progress?”

There are so many more inspiring examples of BITOC serving their communities in abundant, expansive ways:

  • New Native Theatre (Saint Paul, MN) hosts Two-Spirit Powwows that include mutual aid distribution of food and clothing
  • When TeAda Productions (Los Angeles, CA) traveled to Micronesia to continue their longstanding collaboration with Micronesian artists, they raised funds to bring mosquito nets and tarps with them.
  • El Teatro Campesino (​​San Juan Bautista, CA) leads annual Día de los Muertos processions
  • Karamu Playhouse (Cleveland, OH) leads annual Second Line parades, taking to the streets of their communities.
  • When Typhoon Mawar struck Guam, Breaking Wave Theatre Company organized ways to support the island’s recovery. Junebug Productions’s Junebug Juke Joints bring pop-up parties celebrating Black joy and Black to Black-owned spots across New Orleans.

One last major positive change to note from the pandemic is the ongoing uprisings for racial justice and care-centered processes. From the #WeSeeYouWAT demands to the Bay Area’s collective of theatermakers working on transformative justice, movement-building for accountability and abundance within the theater sector has taken deep root and there is no going back.

WF: What are some key lessons or takeaways for organizations still struggling?

TE: Simply put: you are not alone, and we’re stronger together. People can sign up for our Theater Leader Connectedness meetings and our online Circle listservs or join our Working Groups for Audiences and our Theater for Activism series. Every week, we’re connecting theater people across the country with the resources and relationships they need to thrive.

Beyond that, this moment calls for fractal thinking, meaning: we’ve heard time and time again that theater people are burnt out and overwhelmed. Almost nobody feels like they have the time or the bandwidth to make major changes—yet major changes are exactly what’s needed to meet the challenges of the moment. That’s why making smaller, replicable changes that, over time, can yield radical transformation offers so much promise. If you’re struggling with dwindling subscribers, try out a simpler, more flexible package for a season. If churn is an issue, experiment with sustained, segmented follow-up messages for a production. If your staff continues to turn over rapidly, commit to a trial run of meeting-free days to reduce burnout.

Above all, give yourself and those around you grace. We’ve witnessed far too many artists and theater leaders burning out, leaving their institutions or the field all together. We need to practice self and collective care to get through these years of crisis and chrysalis. If we can, we’ll surely come out the other side stronger than before.

Following the success of “Rest Up,” a virtual gathering to strengthen theater’s self and collective care practices, TCG’s continuing the series over the next year with “Charge Up” this fall and “Rise Up” in June 2024 at their National Conference in Chicago.

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