Theatre Struggles in Connecticut
Rebound from Pandemic
By: Karen Isaacs - Oct 27, 2023
Los Angeles’ Geffen Theatre reduced staff and shuttered one of its theatres, its Mark Taper Forum will “pause” this year. Williamstown Theatre Festival (MA) produced no full productions this summer with the exception of a production in conjunction with the Berkshire Theatre Festival. The well-known and well-respected Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville was discontinued. The Brooklyn Academy of Music laid off 13 percent of its staff; The Dallas Theatre Center cut its full-time staff nearly in half.
In Connecticut, we have seen Long Wharf Theatre vacate its longtime home in New Haven; with no home, it is presenting what shows it does in a variety of mostly smaller venues.
Weekly, the news of theatre closings, downsizings, and layoffs hit the national news. The New York Times ran two front-page stories on the problems. Even London’s Stage has run articles on the problems in American Theatre.
The pandemic is an easy culprit. But some of the problems facing theaters have been developing over time – as long as a decade.
The aging population, busy lives, alternative entertainment options, location of theaters, costs, and programming are all cited as contributing to these problems.
These affect all types of theaters, from the large theaters that concentrate on national tours of Broadway shows to the larger regional theaters, smaller theaters, and summer theaters.
Connecticut has always been known for its theater.
It was a leader in the 1960s regional theater movement: Hartford Stage was established in 1963; Long Wharf began in 1965; the Yale Rep reinvigorated itself in 1966 under Robert Brustein. The antique Goodspeed Opera House was saved from destruction and began in 1963 to evolve into a showplace for classic musicals, unknown shows, and new shows.
Long before that, Westport Country Playhouse (1937) and Ivoryton Playhouse had been staples on the “straw hat circuit” of touring plays during the summer months, usually featuring lightweight material starring well-known but often over-the-hill Hollywood and television stars. In fact, Ivoryton is believed to be the first self-sustaining summer theater in the US.
New Haven’s Shubert Theatre was, until the ‘70s, one of the three major theaters for pre-Broadway tryouts; theaters in Philadelphia and Boston were the others.
These theaters have racked up an impressive list of awards: Tony Awards for Outstanding Regional Theatre, as well as awards for individual productions throughout the country.
The problems can be categorized as audiences, costs and content.
The core audiences are aging. As Jacqui Hubbard, artistic/executive director of Ivoryton Playhouse. stated many young people have never been in a theater. “The magic of sharing a live theatre experience with a roomful of strangers is alien to them.”
Mark Shanahan, the new artistic director at Westport Country Playhouse, put it another way. “Audiences are out of practice making theatre an event in their lives.” He said they were hearing that those who return find there is nothing like coming together in a shared space to see a good story.
The New York Times reported that 10 percent of adults saw a musical in 2022, down from 16.5 percent in 2017. Even fewer saw a play: 4 percent compared to 9 percent.
Yet, regular theatergoers for decades have consistently been older than the general population. Even 50 years ago, when people talked about theater survival, the aging audience was cited as a problem. They are more apt to have the time and the discretionary funds than a family with younger children.
Some improvement has occurred in the last two years. Playhouse on Park in West Hartford has seen growth in subscriber numbers for 2023-24 over those from 2022-23; the numbers aren’t back to pre-pandemic levels. Other theaters report slight increases or expect to reach higher numbers.
“Singles ticket sales have seen the biggest dip,” Sean Harris, co-founder and co-artistic director of Playhouse on Park, said. That was echoed by other theaters.
Goodspeed has seen a 30 percent dip in subscriptions, which is better than the national average of 50 percent. What they have found challenging is that single ticket sales during the first week or two of a show are slow. Summer Stock did well in the end, but the first weeks were slow, according to David B. Byrd, managing director.
In Connecticut, subscribers have dropped by up to 50 percent at some theaters from pre-pandemic levels. TheaterWorks Hartford’s subscribers have dropped from 5,000 to 2,400; Hartford Stage’s dropped nearly 50 percent. Ivoryton Playhouse’s subscriber base has remained relatively steady.
While many former subscribers say they will buy single tickets, Cynthia Rider, managing director of Hartford Stage, says that has not actually happened. “Current single ticket buyers are those who have always been single ticket buyers.”
Almost all the theaters report that people are waiting longer to purchase tickets.
Making Theater an Experience
During the pandemic, people became used to staying home.
Fewer people are willing to subscribe to an entire season; they prefer to pick and choose the shows they want to see.
“With two years away from theatre and streaming services blowing up,” Harris said, theaters have to provide a reason for audiences to shell out money to go out.
Playhouse on Park is working to make sure patrons feel valued in the space so that it is a pleasant experience from the moment they walk in. “We believe in creating an event, not just a play that someone comes to see, but a moment that cannot be replicated at home, “ Harris said.
Other theater executives repeated that idea. It must become an “experience.”
Costs & Ticket Prices
Keeping costs low is on the mind of Ivoryton’s Jacqui Hubbard. “It is key in attracting younger audiences,” she said. “Making sure that we have price points that are affordable and options for cheap tickets, such as the half price at the box office on Thursdays.
Every theater mentioned the need to keep tickets affordable. Easier said than done with inflation, driving up costs for everything from sets to utilities. Union contracts set salaries for performers and some backstage staff. Transportation expenses and rehearsal space rentals (many shows rehearse at least partly in NYC) are just some of the other expenses no one thinks about.
Marketing is another cost. Theaters acknowledge they are revamping marketing as they find new ways to use social media to reach potential audiences. In addition, many newspapers have dropped or severely cut back the coverage of theater news and reviews. Shore Publications is the rare weekly paper that has kept coverage and expanded it. Some daily papers in Connecticut do not review theaters or provide extremely limited news coverage of even local theaters.
Actors have helped. Corbin Bleu, who starred in Goodspeed’s SummerStock, is well known to teens and young adults from his role in TV’s High School Musical. On matinee days, Bleu took the time to talk with members of school groups and young people; signing autographs and taking selfies.
Annual favorites can also help theatres balance the budget as well as introduce people to live theater. At TheaterWorks, Christmas on the Rocks has seen audience growth in each of its ten years as the holiday show. It is hoped that the trend will continue this holiday season. Rider indicated that tickets for A Christmas Carol – A Ghost Story of Christmas have been selling well. This annual production has not been staged since 2019 and has a loyal following. Some audience members see it every year as a holiday tradition; many families attend.
Almost unanimously, artistic and executive directors of Connecticut theaters say that audiences “just want to be entertained.” McInerney of TheaterWorks said that Clyde’s, which was extended, is an example of an entertaining play that tells a story that matters.
Playhouse on Park’s current season, its 15th, is built around the theme of “Celebration.” “Though we are looking for pieces that are more hopeful and uplifting, [yet] they are still new, relevant and fresh” Harris explained.
Westport wants a good mixture of reinvestigating older plays in a more contemporary fashion as well as offering newer works.
Hartford Stage’s Rider said the season has no theme, but there is a humanity about all the shows. “Not every show is a raucous comedy.” She points to Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, which is a serious drama yet has a cathartic element about it.
Most of the theaters say that audiences have made it very clear they want, first of all, to be entertained.
Goodspeed is taking a risk this fall, which according to Byrd, seems to be paying off. The current show, The 12, about the Apostles, will be a test case. Instead of a typical holiday show, Goodspeed is producing Dreamgirls, a well-known musical. Last year, it presented the premiere of Christmas in Connecticut. Bryd says that ticket sales for Dreamgirls have been strong.
Probably one of the biggest challenges is balancing what audiences want to see with artistic trends that emerged during the pandemic. These revolve around increasing the diversity of all involved, from playwrights and performers to production staff (directors, scenic designers, costume designers, etc.) and subject matter that tackles societal issues.
As McInerney said, TheatreWorks is looking for pieces that entertain but still are stories that matter. Harris said that subscribers at Playhouse on Park were looking forward to “lighter” fare this season. Hubbard said the challenge is finding works that appeal to a broad age range; the production of Sound of Music this summer attracted many families.
While Bryd of Goodspeed admitted they have gotten some pushback from a few audience members, usually over casting or interpretation, these issues haven’t been a lightning rod as they have for some theaters. “Some theatres have chosen to go very far and haven’t brought the audiences along.”
A letter to the editor in The New York Times stated that plays are becoming “narrow, didactic, political propaganda rather than complex, broad-minded and mature explorations of being human, of life itself.”
David Fay, President and CEO of the Bushnell, said audiences want to be entertained and inspired. “They also love to be surprised and delighted by the unexpected. They want to be emotionally touched but with a gentle though sometimes firm hand.” (It is interesting to note that the touring production of To Catch a Mockingbird) was nearly a sellout.
Theatres have to listen to their audiences and learn from them. “Too many theatre artists believe it is their responsibility to educate audiences.” Of course, the vast majority of productions playing the Bushnell and other presenting houses (The Palace Theatre in Waterbury and the Shubert in New Haven) are tours of musicals.
What can be done?
All types of theatres are finding strategies to survive.
Westport Country Playhouse is reimagining itself as a year-round performing arts center offering more types of events – concerts, book launches, and comedy shows. Just recently, the Playhouse announced First Lady of Song: Cherise Coaches Sings Ella Fitzgerald to run from Friday, Oct. 27 to Sunday, Nov. 5. It is more concert than theater presentation. Westport is also expanding its Script in Hand play reading series.
The Script in Hand series has also helped Westport “take the temperature of the audience and hear from them about what kinds of stories they respond to,” Shanahan said. Westport wants to appeal to parents and grandparents to encourage them to take their children to the theater and introduce them to a lifelong love affair with the performing arts.
Theatres are shortening how long shows run. Goodspeed went from 11 or 12-week runs for each show to 9-week runs.
TheaterWorks cut its six-week normal to four weeks. The upside is that 80 percent of the available seats are selling. It was able to extend two shows during the 2022-33 season: Fun Home (a musical) and Clyde’s. As Freddie McInerney, director of marketing and communications, said, it was a good sign that audiences would attend shows that please the crowds.
Theaters are also looking at the number of cast members a show requires. Even larger theaters, such as Hartford Stage and Yale Rep, present more shows with only one or two actors.
Collaboration among theaters is expanding. In the last decades, theaters have pooled resources for productions. Westport’s former Artistic Director, Mark Lamos directed a production of Moliere’s A Flea in Her Ear in Delaware that then moved to Westport. Hartford offered Murder on the Orient Express, a co-production with Princeton’s McCarter Theatre.
The six major producing theaters in Connecticut are continually exploring possible collaborations from set building to marketing or back-of-the-house operations. Rider points are that these are explorations; deadlines and scheduling issues make it more complex than it may seem.
The Long Term
Will the theaters survive?
Personally, I hope so. A world without theatre would be much less interesting and enjoyable.
Theatre will change, just as it always has. Individual theatres may adjust their mission and their target audiences. Some may disappear.
Hubbard doesn’t see any great changes in Ivoryton in the short term. “At Ivoryton, I believe our role is to remain a place of relative safety…the Playhouse has gathered audiences together with music and laughter, love and occasional tears, to remind ourselves of shared humanity.”
Some positive signs are there. Hartford Stage’s production of the new musical, Kiss My Aztec in June 2022 had a large number of first-time ticket buyers.
Three new theatres have opened in Connecticut: The Legacy Theatre in Branford, ACT-CT (A Contemporary Theater -Connecticut) in Ridgefield, and Thrown Stone Theatre, also in Ridgefield.
In 2021, as theatre was beginning to emerge from the shutdown, one theatre leader estimated it would take three to five years to return to prepandemic status. Rider is one of those who thinks it might be as long as six years. The problem, she says is that some theatres “don’t have the pathway to six years.” By that, she means the dollars to survive.
How You Can Help
If we want a robust theatre scene in Connecticut, we need to do our part.
Buy tickets and attend a show. Subscribe if possible.
Encourage family and friends to attend.
And, if you can, donate money.
This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and Zip06.com.