How Regional Theaters Are Making it Work in 2023

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By: Jan. 23, 2023
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A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the problems regional theaters are having attracting audiences. As I wrote, the majority of theaters that have returned are doing less shows. I donated to at least one theater in all 50 states in 2022 and, during my review of theater websites, it was depressing to see theaters that used to do six shows, doing three now, especially because those three tended to be more traditional fare. This at a time when development programs have been gutted.

"The audience has sort of withdrawn from risk to a large degree," said HowlRound co-founder David Dower, who is currently executive director of Club Fugazi, a commercial theater in San Francisco. "So things that are familiar are doing better. That's always been true, but for some reason it is true now to a greater degree."

Various theaters are indeed reporting some success with well-known titles, such as CHICAGO, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS and CABARET. Additionally, most of the larger theater companies that are doing well seem to have had at least one tentpole world premiere with big-names attached (typically boosted by enhancement money) since theater returned.

For example, a big hit for Denver Center for the Performing Arts this season was THEATER OF THE MIND, a world premiere interactive experience by David Byrne and Mala Geonkar, which sold approximately 40,000 tickets.

Of course, we want regionals to premiere works from little known artists too. And the good news is, based on anecdotal evidence, a rising tide does seem to lift all boats. Obviously successful productions help fund other productions, but, more than that, theaters that are selling tickets to one big show, also seem to have seasons that are selling better overall.

DCPA Theatre Company Artistic Director Chris Coleman said Alexis Scheer's LAUGHS IN SPANISH and Yussef El Guindi's HOTTER THAN EGYPT, two winter offerings, are on target to reach almost 80% capacity.

"I am thrilled about it in this environment," he said. "It is good news. But we are still very focused on getting people here to the full extent that they were before the pandemic. I feel like the trend lines are encouraging, but we need more, especially with the increasing costs."

Unfortunately, there is no magic formula. Audience members I've spoken to on my trips to regionals have cited all kinds of reasons for being there. There are so many things that are not replicable. The way a certain show takes off. A community's desire to support a specific theater.

Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Florida had a 2021-2022 season studded with new projects, including the world premiere of the Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty musical KNOXVILLE. But its sales have remained strong this season: CABARET was a hit for the company, and current productions of Lauren Gunderson's SILENT SKY and Ken Ludwig'S THE THREE MUSKETEERS are selling well.

Perhaps this season's offerings were buoyed by last season, but there are likely additional factors at play as well. "There is a passion for the arts here and I think that may explain some of our numbers being a little better than the rest of the country," Asolo producing artistic director, Michael Donald Edwards, said.

And, certainly, all theaters need that passion. They need communities that recognize how important theater is. Now more than ever.