Anyone who has ever attended a live theater, dance, or musical performance knows that both the thrill and the poignancy of the experience is that it essentially disappears in the process of its creation.
Now, as we mark the decidedly unhappy two-year anniversary of the day the pandemic shut down playhouses and concert halls, is the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t evanescence of live performance the permanent operational condition of the performing arts?
Given that COVID is almost certainly not done with us, is the cultural sector now doomed to exist in a state of perpetual precariousness, always to be never more than one more variant from another cataclysm? Going forward, will it be a matter of when, not whether, there will be more canceled productions and layoffs and furloughs?
To a significant extent, the answer rests in the hands of the people who are, or are not, in the seats. The age-old division of duties — performers doing their singular stuff on the stage, spectators watching and clapping — is no longer enough.
This is a moment when lovers of the arts need to redefine what it means to be part of that amorphous entity known as an “audience.” The crisis isn’t over, and the art forms they cherish need them to be less passive and more active — to, in short, take a leading role in a recovery that won’t happen without them.
Let’s acknowledge here that many people still have entirely understandable fears about the coronavirus. For any arts patron, the matter of attending a show is an individual decision. You feel comfortable when you feel comfortable, and no one else can tell you when that is.
Let’s also acknowledge that the cultural sector has gone the extra mile to allay those fears, behaving with impressive rationality, conscientiousness, and sense of responsibility. Stringent safety protocols that require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test, plus the wearing of masks, have been maintained at performance venues even after such requirements have been lifted elsewhere.
Yet attendance remains substantially lower at local performances than it was before the pandemic. If the shutdown was the earthquake, what’s happening now amounts to persistent aftershocks.
Catherine Peterson, executive director of ArtsBoston, estimates that audiences are down 20 to 40 percent across the board, based on what she’s heard from arts organizations. Anyone who attends shows in and around the city regularly has had plenty of eyeball evidence to back up that estimate.
As one high-profile illustration of the ongoing uncertainties of theater in the time of COVID, consider Boston’s Tony Award-winning Huntington Theatre Company. According to director of public affairs Temple Gill, who was one of the leaders of the successful effort to get Boston’s theaters to impose mask and vaccination requirements before reopening last fall, productions at the Huntington have still reached only between 50 to 80 percent of capacity.
The Omicron surge slowed sales dramatically in January before they rebounded last month for “The Bluest Eye” and “What the Constitution Means to Me.” But Gill says they are still not near pre-pandemic sales levels. Moreover, the attrition rate of patrons who buy tickets but don’t show up at their purchased performance, which used to be 10 percent at most, now is sometimes nearly twice that.
“We have never been in this situation before,” Gill says. “The whole time during the pandemic, whenever we tried to make predictions about what the next month would look like, it didn’t come to pass. Sadly, it doesn’t surprise me that we are not at full capacity.”
The impact has also been severe on the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where attendance in September, October, and November 2021 and February 2022 was 27 percent lower than those periods in 2018-2019, according to BSO spokeswoman Bernadette Horgan. In January, amid the Omicron wave, attendance was 33 percent lower than the same month in 2019.
At SpeakEasy Stage Company, a leading midsize theater in Boston, audiences have dropped around 25 percent compared with pre-pandemic attendance, according to director of marketing and communications Jim Torres. SpeakEasy has been averaging around 60 percent of capacity at its shows since live performances resumed in September.
Even if your leisure-time interests lie elsewhere, you should care about the fate of the performing arts. Before the COVID shutdown, cultural nonprofits generated $2.3 billion in economic activity across the state, supported more than 71,000 full-time-equivalent jobs, and produced nearly $130 million in revenues for the state, according to the Mass Cultural Council.
Another salient datum: A 2019 study by ArtsBoston found that more than 21 million people attend arts events in Greater Boston each year, which is four times the combined attendance at Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics, and Bruins games.
The question of whether cultural venues are filling up again or not is far from academic. As we finally come out of the pandemic, the arts will function as one of the barometers of the nation’s economic recovery — and its psychological recovery as well. Few metrics are more useful for measuring consumer confidence than the box office revenues of an industry that relies on gathering large numbers of people in indoor spaces for two hours.
That, of course, is the very quality that made the performing arts so vulnerable to COVID fears and dealt the industry such a devastating blow, starting in mid-March 2020. But the communal experience is also the quality that represents the enduring value of the arts, the thing that makes them both the antithesis and the antidote to social distancing. Theater people sometimes use the term “convening” to describe what they do. But that word has a too-bureaucratic ring. Better, perhaps, to say that the arts can unite. And that’s just what’s needed now, in so many ways.
So if they feel safe doing so, it’s time for lovers of theater, music, and dance not just to show up but to commit to continue showing up. For those who can afford it, that means renewing season subscriptions. In the longer term, it means being flexible and open to all forms of performance, while rolling with the inevitable punches.
This doesn’t mean cutting theaters, dance companies, or orchestras any slack artistically — indeed, audiences should pressure them to up their game as the price for continued loyalty — but it does mean taking an ongoing leap of faith. It involves a threshold recognition that change will be part of the equation from now on.
For instance, Watertown’s New Repertory Theatre suspended operations last summer, citing COVID-driven revenue losses. Before reopening, New Rep is retooling to place a greater emphasis on new play development and on dance, music, and spoken-word pieces.
With the path ahead still unclear, arts patrons have to embrace the reality that their favorite company might, in order to survive, adopt innovative approaches to performance that don’t take place beneath a proscenium arch. Boston-area theaters are already reinventing themselves to a degree by filming live performances and making them available online as what Gill calls “digital insurance.”
In terms of tactile immediacy, of course, there’s still no substitute for live performance. But when it comes to being (to borrow a phrase) in the room where it happens, audiences have to adjust their expectations of what the “room” might be. If another severe wave of COVID hits and people are understandably skittish about indoor performances, arts organizations may need to rely more often on outdoor productions and site-specific shows that don’t require large, crowded performance venues.
(By the way, is it time for arts groups to consider rejiggering the usual September-to-June performance calendars to take fuller advantage of the relatively few warm weather months we have in New England?)
So that arts organizations can be on a firmer footing as they plan for the future, audiences need to demonstrate a certain baseline commitment and constancy. For more casual cultural consumers, that means shifting the arts from the nice-to-have column to the need-to-have column. For people who confine their cultural explorations to big touring productions at the major downtown theaters, it means seeing shows put on by small and fringe companies once they reopen — and it’s ominous how few of them have so far. They’re a vital part of the overall theater ecology.
Broadly speaking, the arts, which dangle by a thread financially during the best of times, need more than end-of-show applause from its patrons. To their credit, some audience members have demonstrated that commitment from the beginning. Peterson of ArtsBoston says that many have been “heroic” in their support by, for instance, donating the money from tickets to canceled shows directly to arts organizations — and by showing up for performances now.
“We still have a long way to go,” Peterson says. “But what we do know is that the folks who have returned have been very vocal about how safe they’ve felt — and how fabulous it’s felt to be back.”
Crucial though audiences are, the public sector also has a necessary role to play, on both a symbolic and practical level.
On the level of symbolism, new Boston Mayor Michelle Wu — whom Peterson calls “the most arts-friendly mayor that we’ve had in my time” — needs to become a visible face of the arts recovery by attending shows on a regular basis. “With her leading the way, it will signal how important the arts are to the city,” says Peterson.
On a practical level: From the beginning of its hugely successful “I Love New York” campaign decades ago, the state of New York has made the arts a central part of its pitch to tourists. What is preventing Massachusetts from doing the same, with a catchy slogan of its own? Not a bad question to pose to this year’s gubernatorial candidates, who should also be asked what funding levels they envision for the still-struggling arts sector.
“We really need some marketing dollars from the city and state to let folks know how vital our scene is right now,” Peterson says, underscoring that she means both in terms of the cultural scene’s vitality and its importance to the region’s economic and social welfare.
“Right now downtown Boston is not exactly flourishing with people going to restaurants and shopping,” she observes. “What’s going to make a difference with that? It’s going to be people going to the theater.”
For those ripple effects to fully materialize, a wide array of forces need to be marshaled to get the arts back on their feet.
“Federal funds, state funds, local funds, and also individual contributions and ticket sales are really important right now,” says the Huntington’s Gill, before adding in an e-mail: “Theatres were among the first organizations to shut down and will be among the last to recover — our industry needs help and support.”