Theater leaders, Board members, and arts marketing experts have been the featured characters in the recent flurry of articles and opinion pieces about the crisis in the American nonprofit theater*. This makes sense, since these articles focus on how the theater institutions are responding to reduced audience demand and the resulting financial pressures.
How can we find out what the audience thinks? There’s one source right at our fingertips: the comments section.
These three pieces**: 1) “A Crisis in America’s Theaters Leaves Prestigious Stages Dark” by Michael Paulson, The New York Times, July 25, 2) “Theater is in freefall, and the pandemic isn’t the only thing to blame” by Peter Marks, Washington Post, July 6, and 3) the opinion piece “American Theater Is Imploding Before Our Eyes” by Isaac Butler, The New York Times, July 19, generated over 1800 comments, many more than other arts articles usually generate in those publications.
Here are my takeaways from this voluminous feedback:
- The commenters have the same concerns theater leaders, staffers, and Board members quoted in the articles.
- The comments confirm fears of theater leaders about decisions they have made. There IS backlash to increasing the diversity in programming (“preachy” was a frequently mentioned descriptor used by commenters). There IS a perception that prices are too high. Audiences DO think that programming is not compelling enough to make the effort to go to the theater. There is NOT widespread support for more federal funding for the arts because theater is seen as for the “elite” or just not essential enough in everyday life. Critical commenters have a strong tone of frustration and exasperation, and they aren’t holding back.
- The comments also affirm the highest hopes of those of us who choose to work in the arts about how our work matters to people. Commenters share stories about how important the theater is to them. They rebut arguments from fellow commenters who say that the shows have become too much about social issues by pointing out that the plays produced by nonprofit theaters have always had social messages: Arthur Miller, Cabaret, Shakespeare, Ibsen. They lament recent attacks on arts education, such as the ones that result in cancelled productions of high school plays and musicals.
- The audience understands the situation more than I think they are given credit for. They understand what the theaters are trying to do with more diverse programming. They understand the financial, human resource, and cultural relevance challenges. They understand the habit changes post-COVID (after all, they’re the ones who have changed).
- They care, but they aren’t giving theaters a pass. The audience wants their expectations met: a highly engaging experience that they can’t get from home at a price that matches the value they perceive (which might not be the price set by the theater).
The value I see in taking the time to read the comments thoroughly is that it makes it impossible to ignore that there is distance between what theaters are doing and what a sizeable portion (but certainly not all, or even the majority) of their pre-pandemic audiences want. It’s time to accept that; no more of the “wait and see” approach from 2021 and 2022. The critical audience members can’t be dismissed as not understanding what’s happening externally and what the organizations are trying to do. That’s a hard pill to swallow as a theater professional giving your blood, sweat, and tears trying to keep a theater afloat. The audience comprehends the challenge, they just don’t like how theaters are handling it. Explaining that rising production costs drive high ticket prices or shifts in society driving programming changes doesn’t cut it for these audience members. “You’re the professionals, figure it out,” they’re saying.
I don’t think this harsh feedback is being ignored by theaters. I noticed in this recent group of articles that the leaders, consultants, and Board members interviewed in the media were willing to say that their changes in programming have turned some people off where in the past they have avoided acknowledging it.
I know, I know. “Don’t read the comments.”
Peter Marks said it himself about his own article. Yes, it is a collection of comments only from people who feel very strongly and the people who are more lukewarm or who just don’t like to comment publicly aren’t represented. No, a collection of comments is not a formal audience study using well established methodology. If you want audience studies with strong methodology, then look to Slover Linett, WolfBrown, and Colleen Dilenschneider. No, it’s not a random sample of Americans. If you want that, then wait for the results of the next big study by the National Endowment for the Arts (coming soon, I’m told). But given the demographics and psychographics of the New York Times, Washington Post Arts & Culture readers, and LA Times readers, there’s a good chance that the people commenting are pretty similar to nonprofit theater audiences.
Feedback is data. That’s all, but that’s a lot.
I’m not advocating that theaters read the comments and then just blindly do what they think will make this group of critics happy. 1800 comments from this particular readership is a valuable – and large – chunk of data. Imperfect data, sure. But there is no perfect data. Of course, comments by trolls, racist comments, and the comments clearly made in bad faith should be ignored. But the rest should be taken seriously as an insight into the mindset of the 15-30% of the audience that has not returned. The people who made these comments are engaged with the arts enough to take the time make thoughtful and substantive criticisms, affirmations, and suggestions about the nonprofit theater. No, the comments aren’t not always stated in a constructive way. As I said above, their comments show that they know more than we give them credit for. After all, they’re arriving at the same diagnoses as the theater professionals.
The level of dissatisfaction is evident. What any one theater, and the nonprofit theater field, does with this feedback is up to them.
*This particular wave of coverage came in response to Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Center Theatre Group, The Public Theater, and Brooklyn Academy of Music have announced major staffing and programming cuts and other theaters have announced closings (Triad Stage in my town of Greensboro, N.C., Book-It Repertory Theatre in Seattle, and Lookingglass Theatre Company in Chicago, and more).
**Other pieces that have been put out recently include these: LA Times, by Charles McNulty, July 1, Theatermania, by Zachary Stewart, June 30), American Theatre, by the entire AT staff, July 24, Broadway World’s Industry Trends Weekly on July 24 and July 10 by Cara Joy David). Other than American Theatre, these publications don’t have comments sections for their articles.