DRIVING STRAIGHT UP THE CLIFF
The Los Angeles Times - May 11. 2022
After nearly two years of pandemic closures, live theater has returned. But attendance is down and operational costs are soaring.
Throughout the first long, agonizing year of the pandemic, leaders in the performing arts united around the hope of safely reopening and resuming live performances. If only that could happen, the reasoning went, things would turn out all right.
Then hot vax summer gave way to the Delta surge, crushing the hopes and meager finances of organizations clinging to the idea of returning to the stage during warmer months. Performances bowed sporadically in the early fall, but curtains did not rise again in earnest until the holidays, just in time for a rash of Omicron-fueled cancellations.
With the spring of 2022 sprung, theaters and other performing arts venues are finally fully open, but everything is not coming up roses. ______________________________________________________________________________________
A recent study conducted by a group of arts organizations found three troubling trends: Both operating capacity and audience attendance are down to almost 50% of pre-pandemic levels, and ticket revenue is about one-third of what it was before COVID-19 struck. Expenses, in the form of COVID safety, as well as general inflation and rent increases, are also way up. Artistic directors say this is not sustainable.
Many arts organizations stayed afloat during the worst of the pandemic shutdowns through government pandemic grants and loans, augmented with generous donor support. That aid has long since dried up.
National surveys reveal that it could take more than five years for the arts to get back to their 2019-level contributions. A survey by the National Endowment for the Arts found that in the first year of the pandemic, “few areas of the U.S. economy were hit harder than the performing arts” — and that, during that time, the arts economy lost more than half a million jobs.
The lack of funding comes at a perilous moment when operating costs have gone through the roof. The continued threat of COVID-19 has made necessary the extra costs of regular testing for cast and crew, dedicated COVID-19 monitors, additional cleaning and sanitizing, increased front-of-house staff and pricey air filtration systems. Then there’s the wildcard of general inflation. Materials for costumes, food, furniture, soap, sanitizer and paper towels have all skyrocketed in price.
The pandemic’s silver lining is that performing arts groups have had to rally around one another in service of mutual survival. Organizations have never been closer or more in tune and are talking about ways they might implement cohesive COVID safety policies now that government oversight has subsided.
Audiences are only one component of recovery.
The nearly 18 months that stages across the country went dark were also marked by uprisings for racial and social justice, for equity of access, for diversity onstage, backstage and in the audience. So the question is no longer about simply returning to stages but, rather, what our organizations want to look like, what kinds of productions they choose to stage and how they want to operate as they seek to regain financial their footing in an uncertain world.
Optimism abounds among arts organizations about what they are capable of and what they are trying to accomplish at this pivotal moment in time.
If they can just hang in long enough to see regular full houses . . .