More than a year after they reopened for business, numerous Boston-area theater companies continue to struggle with substantially diminished ticket sales, creating financial uncertainty for an industry that’s on thin ice in the best of times.
The COVID-19 pandemic dealt a devastating blow to the cultural sector, shuttering theaters nationwide from March 2020 to September 2021. Because their industry relies on live, in-person performances within enclosed spaces, theater executives worried that it would be a particular challenge to recover.
Their fears have largely been borne out this fall. The Globe asked a dozen area theater organizations what their attendance levels have been since the 2022-2023 season began in September. For the most part, their answer was: significantly lower than before the pandemic. Numerous theaters are grappling with audiences that are 25 to 50 percent smaller.
Even powerhouse regional theaters like Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater, Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, and Providence’s Trinity Repertory Company have not been immune.
Contributing to the general feeling of instability is the fact that no-shows and last-minute ticket cancellations have become more common. In addition, some patrons, apparently still in wait-and-see mode, are more reluctant to commit to subscribing to an entire season.
Further complicating the overall picture for live theater, patrons who do buy tickets are doing so much closer to performances of a show, according to theater spokespeople and executives. Where once a theatergoer might have purchased ducats three or four weeks before a performance, now it’s often three or four days. So while directors, actors, and theater management scramble to get ready to present a show on which they have toiled long and hard, they often have little idea how many seats will be filled.
Theaters report hearing anxiety, especially among older patrons, about what COVID might bring in the coming months. And that was before this week’s news that a new subvariant of coronavirus has begun to circulate in the state, fueling concerns of a winter surge.
Of course, other factors besides the coronavirus could be taking a toll on the box office.
A particular show may simply not have wide appeal to the public, or could suffer from negative reviews. Some patrons may have lost the theatergoing habit during the shutdown, even if temporarily. The usual efforts to recruit new audiences — crucial to any theater’s survival — were greatly hobbled by the pandemic.
Whatever the reasons, the overall picture is grim.
The ART — which currently has a production of “1776″ running on Broadway — forecasts that ticket sales this season will be down roughly 20 percent from pre-pandemic levels, according to spokeswoman Rebecca Curtiss.
The Huntington, which recently celebrated the reopening of its mainstage as part of a huge renovation project, is projecting that by the end of this season audiences will be down 35 percent from the 2019-2020 season.
Even though that earlier time period includes part of the shutdown, the Huntington had enough sales data to use that season as a yardstick, according to Temple Gill, the Huntington’s director of public affairs and strategic partnerships.
“It’s still a tricky time for performing arts groups and we still need more support from audiences,” Gill said via e-mail.
Boston’s ArtsEmerson did not provide numbers but acknowledged through spokesman Darren DeLuca that “our attendance numbers are still not where they were pre-pandemic.” Through a spokesperson, Trinity Rep executive director Katie Liberman said attendance is “about 60 percent of our pre-pandemic audiences.”
Midsize theaters, a vital part of the local theater scene, are likewise still battling to win back their audiences. Attendance at Boston’s SpeakEasy Stage Company so far this fall is down an estimated 25 percent from the company’s September-November 2019 numbers, according to director of marketing and communications Jim Torres.
At Lyric Stage Company of Boston, subscriber and single-ticket numbers are down approximately 25 percent from what they were during September-November 2019, according to spokeswoman Heather Darrow. At Cambridge’s Central Square Theater, attendance is expected to be down 20 percent this season compared with the pre-pandemic 2018-2019 season, according to director of marketing Nick Peterson. At Stoneham’s Greater Boston Stage Company, attendance is down roughly 30 percent this fall compared with the same time period before the pandemic, according to spokesman Bryan Miner.
The situation is even more dire at Lowell’s Merrimack Repertory Theatre. Artistic director Courtney Sale said by e-mail that the theater expects overall attendance by the end of this season to be only 50 percent of pre-pandemic levels. Sale added that Merrimack Rep has “lost one-third of subscribers from 18-19 to this fiscal year.”
However, alluding to an upcoming production of “A Christmas Carol,” she said, “We are seeing encouraging trends … which I am hoping will help us turn the tide.’’
When Wheelock Family Theatre at Boston University staged “The Wizard of Oz” in April, audiences were smaller than usual, with numerous last-minute cancellations. But attendance at Wheelock’s just-closed “Roald Dahl’s Matilda, the Musical” has been “comparable” to the theater’s fall 2019 production of “Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka,” according to marketing specialist Jenna Corcoran. “Families seem eager to return to group activities,” Corcoran said by e-mail. “We are curious to see what our audiences will be as we head into the winter and spring.”
So is every other theater company. At this point, the most successful rebounds have been at larger organizations, especially those whose stages are home to well-known shows.
Broadway In Boston, which presents touring productions of Broadway shows, mainly musicals, at Citizens Bank Opera House and the Emerson Colonial Theatre, “is back to pre-pandemic attendance levels,” according to spokeswoman Ann Sheehan.
“We’ve been thrilled to see our audience and fan base return to the theater,” Sheehan said by e-mail. The organization is likely to see packed houses in January, when Broadway In Boston will present an eight-week return engagement of “Hamilton,” the blockbuster musical.
Josiah A. Spaulding Jr., president and chief executive officer of the Boch Center, which operates the Wang Theatre and the Shubert Theatre, said through a spokesman that “We never had this many sold-out shows in our history,” adding that Cirque du Soleil’s “ ‘Twas the Night Before … ,” opening at the Wang this weekend, has generated a level of ticket sales not seen since 2011′s “Radio City Rockettes.”
The Boch Center does not just present theatrical productions; musical and comedy performances make up a considerable chunk of its programming.
At Beverly’s North Shore Music Theatre, sales were slower than expected in June for “Smokey Joe’s Café,” but subsequent productions of “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Kinky Boots” performed “at very strong pre-pandemic levels for those time slots and title types,” according to spokesman Mike Ceceri.
“As it stands today, ‘A Christmas Carol’ is selling at pre-pandemic levels,” Ceceri added.
Optimism being virtually an occupational requirement for working in the theater, few theater professionals sound ready to throw in the towel, no matter how bleak the numbers.
In a telephone interview, Matt Chapuran, executive director of Lyric Stage, struck a doggedly upbeat note. With sales strong for his company’s current production of “The Play That Goes Wrong,” Chapuran predicted that “our December is going to be equivalent to December 2019.”
“We’ve turned a corner,” Chapuran said. “We’re very happy with where we are now. We knew it was a long road.”