As a group of stagehands assembled train cars for the set of “Murder on the Orient Express,” Ken Martin looked grimly at his email. His first year as artistic director at the Clarence Brown Theater in Knoxville, Tenn., was coming to an end, and the theater had missed its income goals by several hundred thousand dollars, largely because it had lost about half its subscribers since the start of the pandemic.
“I’ve already had to tear up one show, because of a combination of cost and I don’t think it’s going to sell,” he said. “I’m in the same boat as a lot of theater companies: How do I get the audience back, and once I get them in the door, how do I keep them for the next show?”
The nonprofit theater world’s industrywide crisis, which has led to closings, layoffs and a reduction in the number of shows being staged, is being exacerbated by a steep drop in the number of people who buy theater subscriptions, in which they pay upfront to see most or all of a season’s shows. The once-lucrative subscription model had been waning for years, but it has fallen off a cliff since the pandemic struck.
It is happening across the nation. Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theater had 13,566 subscribers last season, down from 19,770 before the pandemic. In Atlanta, the Alliance Theater ended last season with 3,208, down from a prepandemic 5,086, while Northlight Theater, in Skokie, Ill., is at about 3,200, down from 5,700.
Theaters are losing people like Joanne Guerriero, 61, who dropped her subscription to Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J., after realizing she only liked some of the productions there, and would rather be more selective about when and where she saw shows.
“We haven’t missed it,” she said, “which is unfortunate, I suppose, for them.”
Subscribers were long the lifeblood of many performing arts organizations — a reliable income stream, and a guarantee that many seats would be filled. The pandemic hastened their disappearance for a number of reasons, according to interviews with theater executives around the country and theatergoers who let their subscriptions lapse. Many longtime subscribers simply got out of the habit while theaters were closed. Others grew to appreciate the ease and flexibility of streamed entertainment at home. Some found the recent programming too didactic. And the slow return to offices meant fewer people were commuting into the downtown areas where regional theaters are often located.
Many artistic leaders believe the change is permanent.
“The strategic conversation is no longer ‘What version of a membership brochure is going to bring in more members,’ but how do we replace that revenue, and replenish the relationship with audiences,” said Jeremy Blocker, the executive director of New York Theater Workshop, an Off Broadway nonprofit that has seen its average number of members (its term for subscribers) drop by 50 percent since before the pandemic.
Why do subscribers matter?
“No. 1, it reduces your cost of marketing hugely — you’re selling three or five tickets for the cost of one,” said Michael M. Kaiser, the chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland. “No. 2, you get the cash up front, which helps fund the rehearsal period and the producing period. And No. 3, subscriptions give you artistic flexibility — if people are willing to buy all the shows, some subset of the total can be less familiar and more challenging, but if you don’t have subscribers, every production is sold on its own merits, and that makes taking artistic risk much more difficult.”
There’s also a strong connection between subscriptions and contributions. “Most donors are subscribers,” said Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill, the producing artistic director of Capital Repertory Theater in Albany, N.Y., “so there’s a cycle here.”
Theaters are simultaneously trying to retain — or reclaim — subscribers, and also reduce their dependence on them. Many are experimenting with ways to make subscriptions more flexible, or more attractive, but also seeing an upside in the need to find new patrons.
“For some theaters, a reliance on an existing homogeneous group of patrons has really shaped the work they’re doing,” said Erica Ezold, managing director of People’s Light, a nonprofit theater in Malvern, Pa. “Ultimately it’s going to be really positive to be not as reliant on subscriber income and have greater diversity in our audiences.”
Programming is clearly on the mind of lapsed subscribers around the country. Even as subscriptions have fallen sharply at regional nonprofits whose mission is to develop new voices and present noncommercial work, they have remained steadier at venues that present touring Broadway shows with highly recognizable titles.
“There’s so much going on with the ‘ought-to-see-this-because-you’re-going-to-be-taught-a-lesson’ stuff, and I’m OK with that, but part of me thinks we’re going a little overboard, and I need to have some fun,” said Melissa Ortuno, 61, of Queens. She describes herself as a frequent theatergoer — she has already seen 17 shows this year — but finds herself now preferring to purchase tickets for individual shows, rather than subscriptions. “I want to take a shot, but I don’t want to be dictated to. And this way I can buy what I want.”
But there are other reasons subscribers have stepped away, including age. “We’re all old, that’s the problem,” said Happy Shipley, 77, of Erwinna, Pa., who decided to renew her subscription at the Bucks County Playhouse, but sees others making a different choice. “Many of them don’t stay up late anymore; they’re anxious about parking, walking, crime, public transportation, increased need of restrooms, you name it.”
Arts administrators say that many people who were previously frequent theatergoers remain fans of the art form, but now attend less frequently, a phenomenon confirmed in interviews with supersubscribers — culture vultures who had multiple subscriptions — who say they are scaling back.
Lisa-Karyn Davidoff, 63, of Manhattan, subscribed to 10 theaters before the pandemic; now she is far more choosy, citing a combination of health concerns and reassessed priorities. “If there’s a great cast or something I can’t miss,” she said, “I will go.” Rena Tobey, a 64-year-old New Yorker, had at least 12 theater subscriptions before the pandemic, and now has none, citing an ongoing concern about catching Covid in crowds, a new appreciation for television and streaming, and a sense that theaters are programming shows for people other than her. “For many years, I’ve pushed my boundaries, and I’m just at a point where I don’t want to do it anymore.”
And Jeanne Ryan Wolfson, a 67-year-old from Rockville, Md., who had four performing arts subscriptions prepandemic, is just finding she likes an à la carte approach to ticket purchasing; she kept two of her previous subscriptions, dropped two, and added a new one. “I was paying a lot of money for the subscriptions, and some of the productions within those packages were a bit disappointing or might not have the wow factor I was looking for,” she said. “I think what I want to do is pick and choose.”
Martin said the Knoxville theater’s staff has spent much of the summer discussing the drop in subscriber numbers — the theater had about 3,000 before the pandemic, but 1,500 last season — and hired a marketing firm to study the situation.
Now he is picking productions carefully. He has set aside his dream of staging William Congreve’s “The Way of the World,” worried that the Restoration comedy wouldn’t find an audience. This season he’s starting with “Murder on the Orient Express,” which should do well, followed by a war horse — the annual production of “A Christmas Carol” — and “The Giver,” which Martin hopes will appeal to younger audiences because it was adapted from a popular young adult novel.
Then comes “Kinky Boots,” the kind of uplifting musical comedy many of today’s audiences seem to want. (“Kinky Boots,” with a plot that involves drag queens, also makes a statement for a theater in Tennessee, where lawmakers have attempted to restrict drag shows.) There will be more adventurous productions, but in a smaller theater: “The Moors” by Jen Silverman, and “Anon(ymous)” by Naomi Iizuka.
But selling tickets show by show, instead of as a package, is challenging and expensive.
“It takes three times as much money, time and effort to bring in someone new,” said Tom Cervone, the theater’s managing director. He said the theater is trying everything it can — print advertising, public radio sponsorships, social media posts, plus appearances at local street fairs and festivals where the theater’s staff will hand out brochures and swag (branded train whistles to promote “Murder on the Orient Express,” for example) while trying to persuade passers-by to come see a show.
The theater, which is on the flagship campus of the University of Tennessee, is less dependent than some on ticket revenue, because, like a number of other regional nonprofits, it is affiliated with a university that subsidizes its operations. Still, the money it earns from ticket sales is essential to balancing the budget.
“It’s been scary some days,” Cervone said, “like, where is everybody?”