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Live Theater Audience Attendance Still Lagging

Marion Charatan

Posted on July 2, 2022 13:00

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The coronavirus pandemic continues to play havoc with the number of people who buy seats for live performances.

Yesterday, I tried to access a couple of tickets for a live performance from a discounted group I belong to. An old friend moved back to the area and we are both theater fans. I was surprised to see that nothing was available--sold out. Was it just for the special rate or is arts attendance on the rise? I did some googling on the subject.

Back in September of 2021, when Chicago's theaters were reopening, Deb Clapp, the Executive Director of the League of Chicago Theatres, said that audience members might have reservations about coming back, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder when you obviously can't socially distance. Not everyone wants to sit through a two-to-three-hour show, wearing a face-covering in close quarters. And if you get a snack or drink in the lobby, you must take your mask off. So, for many, especially those at high risk, going back to a live show is not a viable option.

Even more ominous was a recent LA Time headline (May 11, 2022) that read "We're driving straight off the cliff," regarding audience retention. There are three concerning trends, according to a study done by L.A.'s Performing Arts and Reopening Survey: audience attendance and operating capacity are down by 50 percent from levels before Covid, ticket revenue is one-third of what it was pre-pandemic, and expenses like rent, due to inflation, are up. This is not an encouraging financial forecast for theatre producers, actors, and support staff. 

So how have theatrical organizations stayed afloat since March 2020? The LA Times stated that government grants and generous donor support were lifelines. But those contributions are drying up.

Another survey by the National Endowment for the Arts found that in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, the performing arts sector was hit harder than most industries. More than half a million jobs were lost. Another crushing statistic is that unemployment in the arts almost doubled the national average in the pandemic. At the height of Covid, around 30 percent of those employed in artistic fields found themselves out of work. On top of this, operating costs for theaters, constantly testing employees for Covid, plus expenses for maintaining safety and cleaning protocols have skyrocketed. 

Forbes reported that ticket sales for Broadway dropped by 15 percent this April--a sober commentary when the heart of NYC's culture had shuttered for over two years. That translated to a profit of $29 million in that period: a loss for theaters. One-quarter of the seats were unoccupied. 

I have always enjoyed the theater. There is nothing like the energy of live performances. It's sad to see the genre struggling. I guess the tickets I looked at went fast because they were cheap--not because attendance is up. Local theater can charge $30 a ticket, while Broadway, on average, is $100 a seat. Many theaters offer discounts but are still half empty. Recovery, if possible, could take years.

Marion Charatan

Posted on July 2, 2022 13:00

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Source: CNN

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