2022 started on a hopeful note as theatre companies and other local businesses looked forward to a, well, not quite post-pandemic year – finally. Despite the fact that the virus that shall not be named continued circulating and mutating many felt that after two years of financial catastrophe, things were finally looking up.
Then 2022 actually happened. Reality sets in. Certainly there were people happy to be out and about, searching for entertainment and the vivid experience of live theatre once again. But not as many as theatre companies expected. For example, Post Productions saw average attendance at its plays drop by sixty percent.
Any kind of theatre involves risk. Producers cannot know with certainty whether the stories they’re creating will appeal to a large number of people, whether audiences will respond emotionally (as we all hope they will) to what unfolds in front of them. But some kinds of theatre are inherently riskier than others. Take Three Tall Women by Edward Albee, for instance, which Post Productions opened at The Shadowbox Theatre in February.
The company delayed producing this play for several years because, although it’s a terrific and complex story that should resonate with any living human being, it has a virtually un-sellable title, few people outside the theatre community are familiar with it, and it’s difficult to tell people what to expect without spoiling the story. Fair enough. No one expects Three Tall Women to set box office records, but sales fell far below even modest projections. Then again, live events were just starting to open up at this point, so the producers thought “well, not everyone is certain it’s safe enough to venture outdoors yet”.
However, some productions aren’t as risky in principle. Musicals like West Side Story, produced this year by Arts Collective Theatre, should open to packed houses and continue playing to packed houses throughout their runs.
These are well known musicals beloved by millions of people around the world, familiar even to those who haven’t seen them, with songs that have percolated through popular culture for decades, and which have even been the basis of hit movies. Even people who believe they don’t like theatre will come out to see these musicals. They’re big. They’re fun. They’re full of colour and movement and music and energy.
I have family members who will recognize the names of both of these musicals who don’t even know why they recognize them. That’s how big they are.
But this year, even surefire hits like West Side Story underperformed financially. This had nothing to do with the quality of the productions, since those who saw them readily agree that they were excellent.
Each were created by skilled producers, directors, crew members, and actors. 2022 was full of stories of excellent productions that would have been blockbusters in 2019 yet somehow played to half-empty houses in 2022.
So what’s going on? Live sports events have been well attended throughout the province, as have concerts by popular entertainers such as Taylor Swift and BTS. We know that people are willing to attend live events – even when, as in the case of Taylor Swift, tickets cost hundreds of dollars each – but not theatre.
I’ve been discussing this issue with people involved in nearly all Windsor-Essex theatre companies throughout the year and I’ve heard several possible explanations.
Some have told me they believe the problem is that people aren’t willing to pay to see shows they’ve already seen. If this is true, then it could explain the underperformance of West Side Story and others, which have been produced locally at least once before since 2010.
However, this explanation seems unsatisfactory, since the problem has never plagued such musicals before. The recent movie adaptation of West Side Story did well at the box office, after all, not despite audiences having seen it multiple times over decades, but probably because of that. It’s a story many people love.
If overfamiliarity was the reason for poor sales it wouldn’t apply to many of the live theatre productions in Windsor-Essex in 2022, since many (if not most) of the local productions have been original plays and lesser-known stories that audiences haven’t had the opportunity to get tired of yet.
Some believe that the problem is the cost of theatre tickets. Due to inflation, many theatre companies in 2022 raised their ticket prices by $5 or so, which means the average price of a theatre ticket in Windsor-Essex is now $30-$35. Yet this can’t be the entire explanation either, since as I’ve already mentioned people are willing to buy extraordinarily expensive tickets to large scale concerts where they can barely make out the performers, and sporting events. And while it’s true that if people have to choose between theatre tickets and groceries they’re going to choose groceries, most people aren’t facing choices quite that desperate, especially if they’re buying Taylor Swift tickets. This explanation is also contradicted by the fact that sales of movie tickets seem to be on the upswing. While movie tickets tend to be cheaper than theatre tickets, the cost of food and beverages at movie theatres is typically four-to-five times higher.
It’s still cheaper to buy two tickets to live theatre in Windsor-Essex, along with a snack and beverage for each person, than it is to do the same at a movie theatre – usually.
But maybe it’s not the cost of tickets alone, that’s causing the problem, but that combined with the rising cost of everything else. In other words, maybe the problem is inflation.
If nearly everything is more expensive than it was in 2019, could that explain poor ticket sales for live theatre? It could, at least in part. After all, the recent inflation hits theatre companies and other local businesses just as hard as it does our customers, which is why several companies have opted to raise their ticket prices.
My household has taken to avoiding lettuce and celery – not because we don’t enjoy lettuce and celery, but because it’s far more affordable to make a salad out of nearly anything else. We’re tightening our belts and most others seem to be doing the same. But don’t forget those Taylor Swift tickets, or those tickets to sporting events. If inflation were the reason theatre sales are in decline, then it would have a far more negative impact on sales to more expensive events. Yet that isn’t happening.
While there are surely people who are still afraid to attend live events, I doubt their numbers are large enough to be a concern. It seems to me far more likely that we have spent more than two years, losing the habit of leaving our homes for entertainment, opting instead to stay home and watch Netflix. In fact, if my own experience is any indication, a lot of us are watching the same things on Netflix over and over. Habits, once formed, are notoriously difficult to shake.
That, combined with how easy and comfortable it is to stay home versus all alternatives, suggests to me that it may be quite some time before theatre companies see attendance levels similar to those we saw in 2019.
It may be easier for us to muster up the effort to attend a live event that seems particularly momentous or unique (even though they tend to be neither momentous nor unique) when it’s big, splashy, and expensive – like a Taylor Swift concert or a hockey game.
I’d wager that all of the possible causes mentioned so far are contributing to the sales problem faced by the Windsor-Essex theatre industry. Perhaps the effect of each on its own isn’t significant, though their cumulative effect is.
There’s another cause which people in the local theatre industry talk about only in whispers, if they agree to acknowledge it at all, and it’s considered impolite to bring it up in public. It is this: our region has an impressive number of artists, many of whom do not support the local arts industries. No doubt some of this is economic; the arts are poorly funded locally, provincially, and nationally. But the most significant contributor is something I was warned about when I first joined our arts industry a decade ago, and which has been confirmed repeatedly in the years since: theatre in our region is prone to a self-destructive tribalism that drives companies and independent artists to view each other as rivals instead of colleagues. This leads us to act as though we can succeed only if others fail.
Until the world entered its present state of chaotic atrophy in 2020, it seemed to me that the local theatre industry was pulling together to create the supportive and prosocial culture it required to thrive. Maybe we were making progress. Or maybe I was just misled by my own Pollyanna tendencies.
Two years of pandemic-driven austerity seem to have misled many in the local theatre industry into believing that the best way forward is to reinforce the walls of our cliques to the point that they block our vision, preventing us from seeing and supporting the theatre artists our cliques exclude.
Consequently, many theatre artists now support only the productions they’re a part of or the companies for which they work or volunteer. This narrowness, this choice to collapse our artistic worlds into tiny bubbles with opaque walls is self-defeating because our colleagues are doing the same thing to us. I’ve even heard some theatre artists openly declare that they won’t support productions by other artists and companies. This is madness. It is more destructive to the viability of the local arts than inflation could ever be.
If artists won’t support local theatre, who do we think will do it for us? If our neighbours see that we don’t think local productions are good enough for us, artists, to spend our precious time and money on, then they’ll conclude those productions aren’t worth their time and money. Rational people take their cues from those who are in a position to know best.
Whenever we’re told not to talk about something because it’s impolite it seems to be the very thing we should be talking about. The combination of overfamiliarity, rising ticket prices, inflation, and a self-destructive theatre culture may prove fatal to our regional theatre industry. That is, unless all theatre artists refuse to contribute to the forces that threaten our survival. And it seems to me, the cause over which we have the most control is our attitude toward other artists. We didn’t reach this point through malice. I can’t believe that any theatre artist would willfully harm their colleagues. We reached this point due to fear and anxiety – emotions that lead us to turn our gaze inward and focus only on ourselves. Sometimes people don’t see the path they’ve walked until it’s behind them.
I’ll continue supporting other theatre companies and independent performance artists in Windsor-Essex as much as I possibly can.
In fact, my goal in 2023 is to see as many productions as I can manage by companies whose work I’ve previously not been able to support. I hope my colleagues do the same.