Last Sunday, San Diego Repertory Theatre closed its doors after 46 years and 333 productions.
Many factors contributed to the shutdown of one of San Diego’s oldest and most revered theater companies, including a budget deficit, construction issues above the theater’s underground space and loss of funding from two canceled productions this year. But one of the most shocking revelations in the Rep’s closing announcement June 7 was that since it reopened to the public last October, ticket sales for its productions had plummeted 60 percent to 70 percent compared to pre-pandemic levels.
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San Diego Rep’s ticket-sales slump is not unique. We surveyed the members of the San Diego Performing Arts League’s Theatre Alliance, and nearly a dozen companies — from the city’s largest and oldest theater, the Old Globe, to one of its smallest, Escondido’s 80-seat Patio Playhouse community theater — said that their ticket sales have also declined. For some, the drop has been small, but for most, the average decline is about 50 percent of 2019 sales.
Local theater leaders say they’re not certain why sales have fallen. Some cite the audience’s fear of COVID. Some believe post-shutdown audiences are more particular about what they’ll pay to see. And some say rising ticket prices are at fault.
But one thing all the theaters agree on is that if this decline in theatergoing continues, many companies that survived the pandemic may not survive its aftermath.
Jennifer Eve Thorn, executive artistic director of Moxie Theatre in San Diego, said ticket sales are down 50 percent from before the pandemic, but the company’s production costs have skyrocketed and its earned income has dropped. The need for audience support, she said, has never been greater.
“Theaters often project an image of indomitable spirit and hope,” she said. “We feel compelled to do this to lift up our community. Our organizations did this during the pandemic because we felt it our duty to bring hope to our audiences. And maybe that message has led audiences to believe our organizations will always find a way, even if they aren’t supporting us. Surely someone else will step up. But the truth is that someone is them. Theaters need all hands on deck.”
The safety net drops
While the pandemic itself was devastating for theater workers — actors on unemployment rose from 19.3 percent in 2019 to 33 percent in 2021 — there was a small silver lining for theater companies, which were able to cover some of their basic expenses by applying for federal Shuttered Venue Operators (SVO) grants and Paycheck Protection Program loans during the shutdown in 2020 and 2021.
With stimulus funds covering basic bills, and little or no money expended to produce plays or musicals for 15 to 18 months, many theaters were able to stabilize their finances during the pandemic. But when the stimulus programs ran dry last year and most theaters reopened and began spending production money again, the safety net underneath them evaporated.
At the time, most local theater leaders were optimistic that audiences would pour back into their auditoriums as soon as the doors opened and were surprised when the capacity crowds failed to materialize.
San Diego theaters aren’t unique in their experience.
In January, a national survey of reopening ticket sales released by the research firm JCA Arts Marketing found that overall ticket sales for fall 2021 were down 27 percent compared to fall 2018 and 2019. The survey also found that the drop was even higher for subscription sales, which tumbled 34 percent.
Then on May 25, the Broadway League in New York City announced that Broadway box office grosses for the 2021-22 season were down 54 percent from the 2018-19 season. The league attributed the declines to COVID restrictions and surges, show cancellations and a steep decline in theater tourism.
Bill Schmidt, co-founder and executive director of Cygnet Theatre in Old Town, said ticket sales are only a piece of the complex puzzle of financial challenges that theaters are facing now, amid rising costs and turbulent financial markets.
“Performing arts is one of the industries most affected by the pandemic, and has faced other concurrent challenges such as increased labor and material costs. With a possible recession on the horizon and lower stock market prices having a direct impact on contributed income, theaters must be nimble in the upcoming year. Cygnet is focused on developing plans based on a variety of scenarios if the trends we are seeing get worse,” Schmidt said.
For a shoestring-budget company like Escondido’s Patio Playhouse, the ticket sales slump has threatened the very future of the 56-year-old downtown community theater. Treasurer and box office manager Peggy Schneider said ticket sales for the 2021-22 season are down 56 percent from the 2019-20 season.
If not for the $25,000 in grants Patio Playhouse received during the pandemic, Schneider said the company would have already folded. Now the company’s future hangs on the success of its annual Plays in the Park season, which will include productions of “Rent” and “Frog and Toad” at the outdoor Kit Carson Park Amphitheatre this summer.
“If they want their local theater to be there when we come out the other side of this thing, it is absolutely crucial that audiences come back now, especially to outdoor venues and purchase memberships and just flat out make donations,” Schneider said. “We have borrowed over half of our savings intended for an endowment with no relief in sight if our outdoor summer shows don’t do well. A 56-year-old tradition will die without immediate and sustained support.”
Make ‘em laugh
Most local theaters leaders say there are clear trends on what shows are likely to sell well and those that won’t. Comedies, shows with familiar titles and musicals are a good bet, but dramas are not selling.
Tim Shields, managing director of the Old Globe, said its recent production of “Bob Fosse’s Dancin’” was so successful it was extended by a week, and its summer Shakespeare festival productions, both comedies, are selling well. But its darker dramatic plays during the winter and spring months were not as successful.
“We all know we’re living in uncertain times that are fraught in more ways than the pandemic. It’s hard to say what’s related to the pandemic and the public psyche and mood generally,” Shields said. “Known titles and comedy are the ones most easy for the audience to project themselves into … dramatic work is harder for them to pick up.”
Ticket sales are down overall at Cygnet Theatre, but they vary by show, Schmidt said. The family drama “Mud Row,” which closed June 19, wasn’t a big ticket-seller, but Cygnet’s upcoming production of the popular musical “Cabaret” is doing well at the box office.
“Our musicals and those that have more uplifting themes or humor have done better than our dramas, which are perceived as being heavier or darker. Patrons are looking for uplifting experiences after several intense and stressful years,” Schmidt said.
Although musicals are generally guaranteed to draw a larger audience than plays, New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad had disappointing sales for its spring co-production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” with Oceanside Theatre Co.
New Village executive artistic director Kristianne Kurner said one reason may be that the show was staged at OTC’s home theater in Oceanside and some Carlsbad patrons didn’t want to make the drive north. But Kurner said “Into the Woods” also has dark themes that may not have appealed to a broad audience.
“I don’t know how much people are ready to get into the darker stuff right now. So much depends on the show,” Kurner said.
The COVID factor
When local theaters reopened last fall, all of them followed the state protocols for indoor performances and required ticketholders to show proof of full vaccination and wear secure face masks during performances.
Most theater leaders say that, except for a few angry calls, the vast majority of returning ticket-buyers were grateful for the health safety policies. When the state of California announced the end of indoor event restrictions on March 25, nearly all of the local theaters dropped their vaccine and mask requirements. Again, theater leaders say that despite some angry calls, most theatergoers were fine with the repeal.
But it’s hard to know whether COVID fears have permanently removed a segment of the past theatergoing public.
Jill Drexler, longtime artistic director of Scripps Ranch Theatre, said COVID and mask concerns have come up frequently in conversations with ticket-buyers and subscribers. Ticket sales at the 44-year-old theater have fallen by as much as 50 percent since 2019.
“Many patrons have said they are staying away because of COVID,” Drexler said. “A small percentage has objected to wearing masks. Most of our patrons are OK with masks. Some are grateful. We continue to revisit our mask policy and look to see what other theaters are doing.”
At San Diego Junior Theatre, company officials had to get creative and strategic in returning to production, since its youth performers weren’t eligible for vaccines for a long time. Ticket sales were capped at 50 percent capacity in the Casa del Prado Theater, where it produces, and all of the available seats sold out. Its spring production of “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jones Musical” was particularly successful.
“We attribute this to parents eager to get their kids out and about again, post-shutdown,” said Anthony Zelig, SD Junior Theatre’s patron services and marketing manager. “Even with our strict COVID guidelines earlier this season, families were grateful that Junior Theatre was back in production and they could attend, be entertained and see their children engaged in something outside of the house.”
Even though there haven’t been any reported outbreaks of COVID cases among the audiences at San Diego theaters, cast outbreaks continue to occur around town, and the resulting canceled performances are another stressor on theaters’ bottom lines.
The cost of tickets
Like all consumer goods these days, theater ticket prices have gone up. This has dampened the enthusiasm of the theatergoing audience who are discount ticket buyers.
The JCA Arts Marketing survey on reopening ticket sales in January found that discount ticket buyers represented the sharpest decline in all theater single-ticket sales, compared to fall 2018 and 2019.
In 1983, the San Diego Performing Arts League (SDPAL) opened its Art Tix discount ticket booth at Horton Plaza in downtown San Diego. It offers half-off league members’ tickets that would otherwise go unsold. Jay Henslee, president of the league’s board of directors, said in the pre-pandemic era, Arts Tix sold nearly $10,000 tickets every month. Since the pandemic, Henslee said “we are lucky if we sell $2,000 a month.”
Henslee said there are many reasons for the change. Besides the national decline in ticket sales, theaters are now producing fewer shows and construction at Horton Plaza has diminished foot traffic and reduced access to the Arts Tix booth.
To help lure audiences back and support theaters, the Performing Arts League used grants from the California Arts Council to sell over 1,000 tickets last December at a pay-what-you-can rate but returned full value back to the theaters. And in March, SDPAL hosted a successful Theatre Week promotion in March, selling tickets at $15, $30 and $45 levels.
“These programs are helping bring audiences back, and our goal is to get folks into seats to support our local arts economy,” Henslee said. “One of the challenges is finding a balance. We don’t want to diminish the value of the arts by always discounting tickets, but we know our patrons tend to purchase more tickets when they are offered a deal.
“Do we offer Theatre Week twice a year, and operate it like Restaurant Week? Do we set up mobile ticket centers in underserved areas? There’s so much we are navigating, but we are confident that audiences will continue supporting our world-class arts scene. It may just look different in the next few years,” Henslee said.
Adapt to thrive
To survive the downturn in ticket sales, theater companies have gotten more creative in choosing what shows they produce, how many productions they program each season and how many performances of each show are presented.
San Diego Opera General Director David Bennett said company officials anticipated that their older, more risk-averse audience would be hesitant to return in large numbers for indoor productions last fall. So instead, the company programmed a trio of solo recitals in smaller venues that showed slow and steady attendance growth. The same slow growth trend continued when San Diego Opera began presenting mainstage productions at the San Diego Civic Theatre this past February.
Overall, San Diego Opera ticket sales are down 53 percent from pre-COVID numbers and subscriptions sales have declined at an even higher rate. But Bennett said subscriptions for the 2022-23 season have recently gone on sale and the numbers are looking better.
“We are encouraged by the news that early sales are tracking at or above pre-pandemic levels, buoyed by the popular repertoire, known opera stars, and the excitement surrounding the world premiere of ‘The Last Dream of Frida and Diego,’ ” Bennett said.
Dori Salois, artistic director of Vantage Theatre, said her company has temporarily suspended operations until things improve. In the meantime, she’s trying to help Point Loma Playhouse, which has been on a roller-coaster ride since reopening last fall, with one production shut down by COVID, two streaming shows and a musical that didn’t make a profit and two shows that did very well.
Moxie Theatre’s Thorn said she has programmed shows with smaller cast sizes and the company is now surveying audiences and creating a more robust outreach campaign to bring people back to the theater.
Scripps Ranch Theatre’s Drexler said to accommodate the reduced ticket demand, the company has shortened the runs of its shows this season. But next season, the runs will be extended again in anticipation of higher ticket demand.
Cygnet Theatre has yet to announce its 2022-23 season, but Schmidt said the company is planning a more uplifting lineup of shows in the future: “Our new season is taking that into consideration and we feel we are well positioned for what audiences are looking for.”
Compared to many theaters in San Diego County, the Old Globe has been fortunate, having suffered a decline in ticket sales of just 5 percent since reopening. But managing director Shields said it’s a challenging time and nobody has all the answers.
“It’s a crazy time for everyone to get through no matter what business you’re in. We’re doing our best to navigate the territory as best we can,” he said.