Legit Theater: Why It’s Too Simple Just to Say the Audience is Dwindling

Report findings vary, but behind-the-scenes offerings are growing

Theater Attendance thinning
Jasper Rietman

The theater industry has had a lot of numbers thrown at it recently, and all of them seem to suggest live attendance is on the wane.

Or do they?

First there was the Americans for the Arts report touting that theater, symphony and opera attendance was rising — except that when you looked closer, it was symphony and opera that were gaining steam; theater has been steadily declining since 2003. Then there was the National Endowment for the Arts report that pegged attendance at non-musical plays as the most rapidly declining genre in the performing arts.

But when the Theater Communications Group released its annual survey of member nonprofits, it reported that attendance appears to be climbing back to pre-recession levels. It’s enough to make legiters wonder whether there really is cause for concern.

One thing’s for sure: The reports gather data in different enough ways that it’s tough to draw specific conclusions. But look at the three data sets together … and it’s clear that theater attendance nationwide is slowly eroding.

“These declines preceded the recession in 2008,” says Randy Cohen, vice president of research and policy at the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Americans for the Arts, which released its data in a report it calls the National Arts Index. “For a couple of years, it was easy to say, ‘Gosh, it’s the darn recession.’ But the fact is, these arts organizations have been struggling for years to hang on to their numbers.”

Likely causes for the downturn are numerous. The growth of digital and mobile media consumption is often tagged as a culprit. Cohen adds that the past decade’s cuts in arts education could be having a downstream effect on consumers, fewer of whom have been familiarized with the theater and performing arts at a young age.

The NEA’s survey of public participation in the arts breaks out figures collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. It finds that in 2002, 17.1% of the U.S. population had attended a musical; in 2008, it was 16.7%, and in 2012, it was 15.2%. The drop is even more significant for plays, starting at 12.3% in 2002, and sliding to 8.3% last year.

“Theater is one of the art forms that we’ve seen a consistent decline in,” says NEA research director Sunil Iyengar. Attendance at plays has been down consistently since 1992, he adds, and in the 2012 numbers, there were worrying dips among some of the theater industry’s target demos, including 55- to 64-year-olds and auds who have reached high levels of education.

Broadway seems to behave according to its own commercial rules, with attendance hovering since 2006 at around 12 million or over it, notably higher than a decade ago and seemingly undented by the recession.

But in the nonprofit world, the Theater Facts 2012 report from national nonprofit network TCG matches the NEA findings: The 112 nonprofit theaters that have responded to TCG’s fiscal surveys since 2008 report, in aggregate, a total attendance of 10.9 million, down 1.8% compared with 2008. But TCG exec director Teresa Eyring takes an upbeat view, noting that the past two years seem to represent an upswing after the lows hit in 2010.

“We’re climbing back toward pre-recession levels,” she says. “For us, the main cause of concern is that working capital and liquidity are still a challenge. We’re still feeling some stress there from the last economic downturn.”

TCG’s numbers come directly from behind-thetheater attendance books, but there’s an element of self-selection to the data as well, since the 112 orgs that voluntarily responded to the survey fall far short of a majority of TCG’s 700 members (and even that membership list isn’t a fully comprehensive roster of all the nonprofit theaters in the country).

In recent years, TCG has seen growth in the popularity of “behind-the-scenes” or developmental offerings including staged readings and workshop productions, which, along with digital distribution in cinemas (a la the National Theater’s NT Live program) and on mobile devices, look ripe for further exploration as alternative means of engaging audiences in the digital age.

In any event, the numbers in these reports aren’t intended as a death sentence for the legit biz, but as a call to action. “These data are meant to be used proactively,” Iyengar says.