People sit in the theater at Portland Stage for a performance of “How I Learned What I Learned,” by August Wilson, in March. Sofia Aldinio/Staff Photographer

Attendance at Good Theater’s production of the Broadway play “The Lifespan of a Fact” averaged 65% capacity during its four-week run in October at the 100-seat St. Lawrence Arts Center in Portland.

Artistic director Brian Allen was disappointed because reviews were strong.

“We just didn’t sell a lot of tickets beyond our subscribers,” he said.

A mile or so down Congress Street at Portland Stage, capacity 286, the 2022-23 season has seen audiences that are 35%-40% lower than in 2019-20, just before the pandemic. The theater has budgeted conservatively and used funds from the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program to close the revenue gap, but the situation is precarious.

“Things are a little better than our outlook but not significantly so,” said artistic director Anita Stewart. “People aren’t back like gangbusters.”

And at Maine State Music Theatre in Brunswick, the 2022 summer season – the first back at 600-seat Pickard Theater on the Bowdoin College campus since 2019 – averaged 80% capacity. It was a big improvement over pandemic-plagued 2021, when the company temporarily relocated to Westbrook Performing Arts Center, but not nearly as high as artistic director Curt Dale Clark wanted to see.

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“I’m not happy about it. I’m an all-or-nothing guy,” he said. “The only solace is that everyone is in the same boat. Everything from big theaters to the smallest storefronts all have the exact same set of problems, just at different budget levels.”

A Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram analysis of Maine theater attendance data, from 2019 to the current season, confirmed that most organizations continue to struggle – some more than others – to return to where they were before the pandemic leveled the performing arts world. Most theater companies declined to share detailed figures, but the trend is the same: Audiences are 60%-80% of what they were in 2019, on average. Actual numbers fluctuate depending on the show, the time of year and other factors, like weather.

The situation is similar throughout the country. A report this month from the national, member-based Theatre Communications Group suggests audiences are down 20%-50% from 2019 levels. The trend has sparked fears within the industry that things might never return to the way they were, and theaters and arts organizations may have to alter their approach. If the economy worsens, as some predict it will, disposable income for experiences like theater will dry up even more.

“I’m amazed at the ways our theater world has adapted, and there is still that strong desire to make theater and make it available,” said Teresa Eyring, director of the Theatre Communications Group. “One thing we hear about more and more is thinking about programming and audiences in a longer view. How is this going to play out in five years?”

Theatergoers walk through the entrance to Portland Stage in March. Sofia Aldinio/ Staff Photographer

The challenges facing theater organizations are multifaceted and aren’t entirely tied to the pandemic. Audiences, especially in Maine, were getting older even before things shut down. Attention spans have gotten increasingly shorter. Streaming services deliver near-unlimited content.

Shantia Wright-Gray, who has season tickets at Portland Stage, said she started coming back as soon as the theater opened. She’s 73 and was grateful that masks and vaccinations were required, and that the theater invested in an air-purification system. She has friends her age who have started to come back as well, but others who have not.

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“I think the audiences have seemed smaller, but I expected that,” she said.

Those who make their living in live theater say that while things look bleak, they remain patient and hopeful. People might be able to recreate the movie theater experience in their living room, but can they really do that with live theater?

“I know people who are great supporters of the arts, but when you talk to them, they sort of admit that they haven’t really thought about theater. That’s like a knife through the heart,” said Jen Shepard, executive director at Penobscot Theatre in Bangor.

There, audiences in 2022 were only about half what they were in 2019, when a fall production of “Gaslight” filled the theater to 60% capacity. For the show “Matt & Ben” during the same period last year, that dropped to 26%.

The number of season subscribers has fallen from 1,046 in 2019 to 623 last year.

“The biggest question seems to be: How do you get them back into the habit?” Shepard said. “If I had the answer, I could start my own consulting firm for all American theaters.”

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MAKING ADJUSTMENTS

Although many industries were shut down by the pandemic, few stayed closed as long as live theater did.

Venues on Broadway were shuttered for 18 months, and many regional and local theaters lost the same amount of time. Organizations that did open in 2021 did so carefully.

Maine State Music Theatre moved its shows to the Westbrook Performing Arts Center in the second year of the pandemic, with the slightly bigger venue allowing patrons to space out. Most shows failed to crack 50%, said Clark of Maine State Music Theatre. Eighty percent capacity last year back at Pickard Theater was a step in the right direction but still well short of the 95% capacity from 2019.

The Ogunquit Playhouse erected an outdoor pavilion to hold large-scale musicals in 2021. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

At Ogunquit Playhouse, staff invested in a pavilion and produced its 2021 shows outdoors to help keep customers safe. Director Brad Kenney said audiences that year averaged about half what the playhouse saw in 2019, but more important than the numbers was keeping doors open and actors working.

Productions moved back inside the 668-seat playhouse last year, and audiences returned at 77% of 2019 levels. On the positive side, it was an increase of 26% year over year, but there were still a lot of empty seats.

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Kenney said the 2023 season, which opens in May with the return of one of 2022’s most popular shows, “Carole King: The Musical,” looks promising. Season subscriptions have returned to 2019 levels, he said, and he hopes single-ticket sales follow suit.

“What we’re finding is that audiences are responding to brands they recognize,” he said. That was part of the calculus behind choosing the Carole King show and “Singin’ in the Rain” this summer. “We’re learning lessons and maybe playing it a little more conservatively, but I think if we can hang on, we’ll see the other side.”

With an annual budget of $14 million, Ogunquit’s losses over the last three years have been in the millions. They stayed afloat, like so many, with pandemic relief funding, but that public support has evaporated and is unlikely to return.

“We can’t continue to live with a 20% loss unless we do things differently,” Kenney said.

Stewart said Portland Stage has perhaps been more conservative in picking shows.

“What we’re finding is that people want more commercial products, things that are more lightweight, which makes sense,” she said. “For us, it becomes, how do we follow our mission and present the right mix?”

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Ezra Barnes as Sherlock Holmes, Brian Lee Huynh as Dr. Watson and Isabelle Van Vleet as Irene Adler in “Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure” at Portland Stage. Photos by No Umbrella Media, LLC

A Sherlock Holmes play last year at Portland Stage did well. A lesser-known show, called “The Great Leap,” came in below expectations.

Wright-Gray, the season ticket holder, said she had been feeling even before the pandemic that some shows were heavier than she preferred.

“I talked about that with my sister-in-law (also a season ticket holder), about how it’s hard to go and see things that are depressing all the time,” she said.

Good Theater has made a point of offering lighter shows, too.

The next show after last fall’s “The Lifespan of a Fact” was the classic musical “Carousel,” in November and December. Tickets sold at 98% – a hopeful but not unexpected sign. Well-known shows with big music numbers typically do well, said Allen, the theater’s director.

“Now, I think if people go out, they want more of a guarantee,” he said.

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Smaller theaters have more flexibility to be nimble, but they have struggled just the same.

At South Portland’s Mad Horse Theatre Co., which seats 50 people, the 2019 season averaged between 32 and 37 patrons per show. Last year’s shows started at an average of 26 in February but climbed back to 37 for the final show, “Straight White Men,” in November-December.

Whip Hubley, Jake Cote, Joe Bearor and Nick Schroeder in “Straight White Men” at Mad Horse. Photo by Noli French, French’s Fotos

“Even though we have smaller audiences, we do have to make certain marks to break even, and that’s our goal. Any profit we make is through donations and foundation support,” artistic director Mark Rubin said. “So, the numbers do matter to us. Those seven to eight seats per show could be the difference to us breaking even.”

Because of its size and reputation for producing riskier shows, Rubin said, Mad Horse hasn’t altered its thinking there, even though it’s tempting to bring obvious crowd-pleasers.

“I’m feeling optimistic, but cautious, too,” he said. “And the caution comes from the fact that actors still have to test (for COVID-19) every week. We’re always one positive test from canceling a show.”

Theaters that employ equity, or professional, actors, must adhere to certain rules, which include regular testing. The rules remain strict even three years after COVID-19 first surfaced here.

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Michael Tobin, the founder and director of Footlights Theater, a 75-seat venue in Falmouth, said he’s struggling to get back to 2019 numbers. His was the first theater to open in Maine coming out of the pandemic. Even if only 20 people showed up, he was producing live theater.

“Now, if we can get to 40% or 50% of capacity, that feels like a win,” he said. “There is just no rhyme or reason to what works anymore. I think everybody hopes we can ride it out. But I think you need to be honest with patrons that we’re still struggling.”

LOOKING AHEAD

There is some recognition among theater companies that, even though 2019 was a strong year for audiences, signs that the industry might be headed for a downturn existed before COVID-19. The pandemic just accelerated things.

Theater audiences, generally speaking, are older. That population was at greatest risk of getting sick from or dying of COVID-19, so they stayed home.

“It was sort of projected that theaters were the most dangerous places to be,” said Shepard, with Penobscot Theatre.

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In 2021 and even into 2022, theaters were often still requiring patrons to wear masks and many were requiring vaccinations as well. There’s no way to quantify if those mandates affected attendance, but even in 2023 theaters are struggling with the best way to accommodate all patrons.

Tickets are scanned at Portland Stage for a play in March. Sofia Aldinio/ Staff Photographer

One change some theaters made during the pandemic was in providing a way for audiences to digitally stream shows and watch them from the safety of their homes. That shift, borne out of necessity, has continued for some, but it’s not a huge moneymaker. Theaters charge a small fee ($10 or $15) for customers to stream.

On one hand, it’s reaching audiences who wouldn’t come, but on the other, it conditions them that it’s OK to stay home.

Some theaters have moved to a “pay what you decide” model for tickets, as a way to encourage audiences and remove barriers.

“We’ve been forced to adapt, and I think the way we do business has had to change,” said Rubin at Mad Horse Theatre, which now offers shows exclusively on a “pay what you decide” basis. “So maybe this will work for us going forward, or maybe we’ll have to reinvent again.”

Eyring, with the national Theatre Communications Group, said the industry has lived through lean periods before and rebounded. The years immediately following the 2008 recession were difficult.

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“I ran theaters for a very long time and have been in trenches, so I know that when you are struggling with cash flow and deficits, it’s stressful,” she said. “But given what we’ve gone through, I think it’s actually pretty remarkable when I see how much attendance there actually is. The fact that people have come back, albeit gradually, is good. You can build on that.”

Some national surveys are showing signs that the recovery is happening.

Spektrix, a ticketing and marketing firm for arts organizations across North America and in Ireland and the United Kingdom, has been conducting regular surveys comparing ticket sales and revenue with 2019.

In January, tickets sales were at 80% of 2019 levels and in February, it increased to 90%.

Throughout 2022, sales fluctuated month to month, from a low of 68% of 2019 levels to a high of 98%.

A survey from TRG Arts, which collects data from performing arts organizations in the U.S. and U.K., found that in June 2022, admissions were still down as much as 50% from 2019 levels. By December, that had shrunk to 33%.

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Other surveys suggest it could still be years before things return fully. A report last fall by the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. warned that it could take five years or more for the most affected sectors of the U.S. economy to get back to 2019 levels.

Although Eyring said she’s heard few stories of theaters closing for good because of the pandemic, a survey last year by the National Endowment for the Arts found that, in the pandemic’s first year, the arts economy lost more than a half-million jobs.

“Arts are a business. I think people forget that sometimes,” said Shepard at Penobscot Theatre. “But they create business, too. Here in Bangor, we attract people from the coast who don’t have a theater. They come to town, go out to dinner.”

Curt Dale Clark, artistic director at Maine State Music Theatre in Brunswick, before the start of the 2022 season, when shows returned to Pickard Theater. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Clark at Maine State Music Theatre is bullish about a return to pre-pandemic levels. For the upcoming 2023 season, which includes big-name musicals “Titanic” and “9 to 5,” subscriptions are up substantially and single-ticket sales, too.

“One thing that’s been hard to plan for is that people seem to be waiting until the last minute to buy single tickets, whereas before they’d want to make sure they got them before it sold out,” he said.

Clark said it might take one more year of waiting.

Stewart at Portland Stage said she’s excited about the theater’s next season of shows, which will be announced Monday. They are already talking about ways to broaden their outreach.

“We’re finding every way we can to persuade people that this is an invaluable thing,” she said. “And I do think people are starting to recognize what we lost culturally during the pandemic and what we’re still losing in some ways by doing so much over a screen.

“We’ve gotten used to being in a cave, but theater is really the perfect way for people to start to reconnect.”

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