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With plenty of empty seats to fill, some theater companies are in a fight for survival

Christopher Edwards, artistic director of Actors' Shakespeare Project, shown outside of Hibernian Hall in Roxbury, where his company is staging its next production.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

It was a weeknight in early September, and the cast of New Repertory Theatre’s “A Raisin in the Sun” were giving a performance to remember.

But precious few spectators were on hand that night to forge those memories. Half of the seats were empty, even though New Rep had hedged its bets by staging “Raisin” in its 90-seat Black Box Theater rather than its 339-seat Main Stage in Watertown.

One month later, New Rep announced it was closing after four decades as one of the most prominent theater organizations in the Boston area.

Its demise was not caused by a single performance playing under capacity. But New Rep’s fate underscored the high stakes Boston-area theater companies are facing as they launch into the second half of the 2023/24 season. For some of them, it’s a battle for survival. If COVID-19 was an earthquake, what theaters are now trying to cope with is an ongoing series of nerve-wracking aftershocks.

“I think we’re going to see other companies going under,” said Christopher V. Edwards, artistic director of Boston-based Actors’ Shakespeare Project, which is wrestling with its own challenge of declining audiences. “The [government] COVID money saved quite a few of us, but now is the reckoning time. Audiences aren’t coming back to where they were before the pandemic.”

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Said Loretta Greco, artistic director of the Huntington, the largest nonprofit theater company in Boston, “It’s a really troubling time.”

Boston’s theater crisis mirrors what is happening in other culture centers across the country. In what American Theatre magazine has called “this extraordinary moment of contraction for the U.S. theatre field,” there have been layoffs, closures, and “pauses” at many nonprofit theaters. Broadway, which draws on a never-ending supply of tourists, is faring better, though attendance is down slightly from this time last year, according to Broadway News.

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Among a dozen Boston-area leaders interviewed by the Globe, none said the demise of their own theater is imminent. But several indicated that if the financial picture doesn’t improve by the end of the 2024/2025 season, their theater’s continued existence could well be in question.

In 2020, in the midst of the COVID shutdown, the empty sidewalks on Washington Street in the theater district told the story. Stan Grossfeld/ Globe Staff

A primary factor driving the downturn is a precipitous decline in full-season subscriptions, the budgetary lifeblood of many theaters. That decline, which was already underway before the pandemic but was greatly accelerated by it, is the result of changes in audience behavior that theaters are still trying to get their arms around.

One damaging change: Theatergoers who once might have been subscribers are now purchasing single tickets a couple of days before a performance, which complicates a theater’s planning.

Empty seats have been a common sight since the fall season began, and the subject of anxious conversations among theater professionals. The numbers tell a stark story.

When fiscal year 2023 ended for the Huntington last June, subscriptions were down a staggering 39 percent compared with fiscal year 2019, though an influx of new subscribers since then means the theater is currently 11 percent below pre-pandemic levels. Meanwhile, subscriptions have declined roughly 30 percent at Boston’s SpeakEasy Stage Company, Lyric Stage Company of Boston, Cambridge’s Central Square Theater, Stoneham’s Greater Boston Stage Company, and Lowell’s Merrimack Repertory Theatre. At Actors’ Shakespeare Project, attendance is down 12 percent from pre-pandemic levels and subscription revenue has dropped 39 percent.

The upshot of these alarming numbers is that, to many people who work in the theater industry, “It feels as if we’re an endangered species,” said Courtney Sale, executive artistic director of Merrimack Rep.

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In what producing artistic director Weylin Symes called “the biggest red flag that we see,” Greater Boston Stage Company’s fund-raising is 25 percent below what it usually is at this time of year. So, for the first time in its 25-year history, his privately run theater is asking the town of Stoneham, where the company is based, for money — $1 million from the town’s share of federal American Rescue Plan funds for what Symes called “urgently needed upkeep.” Symes said Tuesday that he has not received a response yet.

Also struggling are the area’s fringe companies, which usually perform before audiences of fewer than 100 and are key to the overall vitality of the local theater scene. They typically produce nontraditional works by new writers, often with a political edge, while also serving as a showcase for young actors starting their careers.

Juliet Bowler, a member of Watertown-based Flat Earth Theatre Company, a respected fringe theater that describes its mission as staging productions of “neglected and under-performed scripts,” said that since the pandemic hit, Flat Earth has done only a one-night staged reading of a new play and two online productions.

“We have not resumed the consistent 3-show season we were producing pre-pandemic, and it’s unclear if we ever will,” Bowler wrote in an email.

In words that capture the situation and sentiments at theaters of all shapes and sizes, Bowler added: “Between the vast overall increase in what it costs to create theater in a radically altered landscape, physical considerations such as limited rehearsal and performance space, artists leaving in droves to more stable careers, and most forms of financial support drying up, it’s a rough landscape out there and I’m not sure we will reappear in the same form as before.

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“Add on the costs of testing and trying to keep our cast and crew healthy and safe in the face [of] very limited public masking . . . it’s frankly exhausting and every one of us is burned out.”

During the COVID-19 shutdown, local theater executives and artists voiced confidence — or at least hope — that post-pandemic audiences would return to playhouses hungry for the kind of community experience that theater is uniquely equipped to deliver. While many patrons did come back, many others have stayed away.

Why? A spokesperson for Lyric Stage Company of Boston said that when the theater contacted people who dropped their subscriptions, the reasons they gave included “financial decisions, retiring, moving away, growing older, and being not as mobile.” Some of those sentiments were echoed in a survey of patrons at Greater Boston Stage Company; responses there included “I can’t afford to subscribe” and “Not every show appeals to me,” Symes said.

Subscriptions at midsize theaters range from roughly $200 to $400, and, depending on the theater, provide anywhere from 20 to 80 percent of its revenue.

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Theater audiences tend to skew older, and some patrons still have concerns about gathering in a closed space with hundreds of others. In the summer of 2022, Lowell’s Merrimack Repertory Theatre surveyed patrons who had dropped their subscriptions and found, according to Sale, “a lot of folks not ready to return due to COVID, folks who have moved out of the area, and folks who have changed their cultural behavior — going out one or two times a month [compared with] one to two times a week pre-COVID.”

Courtney Sale, executive artistic director of Lowell's Merrimack Repertory Theatre, said that to many people who work in the industry, “it feels as if we’re an endangered species.” Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

A number of theater leaders also said they believe they lost some subscribers to the stay-at-home entertainment provided by streaming platforms such as Netflix.

Whatever the cause, the effect is that financial struggle has become a grim common denominator among theaters with different aesthetic identities and sense of mission.

Catherine Peterson, executive director of ArtsBoston, said that because COVID-related federal and state funds have largely been spent by theaters to keep themselves alive, “This is the first year where it really feels we’re getting to see what the impact has been.”

No sooner were theaters back in business in late 2021 than they were confronted with soaring costs due to inflation, affecting everything from “electricity to labor to insurance to the material we make the sets out of,” said the Huntington’s Greco, creating the double-whammy of “exponentially rising costs and less revenue.”

Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s Edwards said via email that if by the end of next season audiences are not “where they need to be to keep up with ballooning production costs, we would need to do some major pivoting to survive.”

“We know how and when to tighten our belt when things get tough,” he added. “But at the end of the day, there are only so many loops on the belt.”

Two of the area’s most prominent theaters, Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater and Boston’s ArtsEmerson, enjoy a safety net not available to the others: The ART is supported in part by Harvard University and ArtsEmerson operates from within the Emerson College Office of the Arts.

At the ART, subscriptions are 1,906 for the current season, down from 2,542 in the 2018-19 season, but the decline was “intentional,” a spokesperson said. The ART capped the number of subscribers for the 2023-24 season in order to “ensure single-ticket buyers have access to our productions,” the spokesperson said, noting that “the subscription model doesn’t work for every patron.”

As for ArtsEmerson, regarding a comparison of subscribers today to 2019, a spokesperson said: “We are unable to share precise numbers at this time.”

Some theater leaders expressed confidence their theaters will weather the storm, projecting the kind of dogged optimism that is virtually a job requirement for a life in the theater even under normal circumstances.

“Theaters have been going out of business for 2,000 years,” observed Courtney O’Connor, the producing artistic director at Lyric Stage Company, who is bullish about the chances for the theater industry to fully recover.

But O’Connor acknowledged that declining subscriptions put added pressure on the process of choosing which plays or musicals to put on, and that the national theater picture has been disconcerting to watch.

The search for silver linings continues.

At present, according to the Huntington’s Greco, the theater industry is “in this test-balloon mode, trying new things to see what might stick.” For instance, the Huntington plans to do pop-up performances in different neighborhoods around the city of its current production of “Stand Up If You’re Here Tonight.”

Some of the “new things” that other local theaters have implemented or are considering as they cast about for solutions:

  • Stage at least one surefire crowd-pleasing production per season. For example, Cambridge’s Central Square Theater, which is known for cerebral fare, recently presented “The Rocky Horror Show,” a cult musical about a young couple who seek refuge during a storm in the mansion of a mad scientist. It was such a hit that its run was extended, and Catherine Carr Kelly, the theater’s executive director, said a survey found that fully 70 percent of that audience was seeing the company’s work for the first time.
  • Throw a change-up at the audience. Before the pandemic, contemporary plays made up less than 15 percent of Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s programming. Now, according to Edwards, they account for roughly half of what ASP produces. Last year’s production of August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” — about the events that led to the death of a Pittsburgh bluesman in the late 1940s — became the second-best-selling production in the company’s history.
  • Offer a “membership” program, as Lyric Stage Company began to do in November. This approach is more flexible than a subscription program in that members can choose the shows they want to see rather than commit to a three-, four-, or six-show subscription.
  • Intensify efforts to attract younger audiences with the double goal of building the next generation of theatergoers while boosting the box office. Merrimack Rep’s Sale said her theater’s “emphasis on serving young audiences” includes expanding its relationships with Middlesex Community College and UMass Lowell. Greater Boston Stage Company has had success with its new “Theatre for Young Audiences” series, according to Symes.
  • Add more weekday matinees, and start evening performances earlier. London’s prestigious National Theatre has taken that step, moving up the start time for some performances to 6:30 p.m. The theory is that earlier performances will appeal to older people who don’t want to be out late, or patrons of all ages who might enjoy discussing the show they’ve just seen over dinner rather than rush through a meal before the show.

In addition to serving as executive director of Central Square Theater, Kelly is president of New England Area Theatres. So she has both a close-up and panoramic view of the regional theater landscape. Kelly said the recovery from the impact of COVID-19 has been more challenging than she envisioned.

As she and other leaders try to navigate a crisis that is creating a crushing level of stress within Boston-area theaters, her thoughts sometimes turn to a future that could be shaped — and not for the better — by the turmoil of today.

“We’ve had a really rich theater world” in the Boston area, Kelly noted. “I wonder how we will look five years from now.”


Don Aucoin can be reached at donald.aucoin@globe.com. Follow him @GlobeAucoin.