Nonprofit theaters in Oregon and around the country are going dark, staff members are being laid off and seasons are being shortened as audiences have failed to return to shows following the pandemic.
In Portland, Artists Repertory Theatre announced in August that it was suspending its entire 2023-24 season — rehearsals had just begun for the first play — because of a lack of money.
In Ashland, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last spring had to put out urgent calls to its donors for $2.5 million to avoid canceling its 2023 performance season — which offers just five plays instead of the pre-pandemic 11. Fortunately, its donors came through.
The situation is so bad nationally that The New York Times has referred to it as “a crisis in America’s theaters.”
One of the nation’s most prestigious regional theaters, Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, announced at the end of August it would be laying off 12 percent of its staff. Meanwhile, Chicago’s Lookingglass Theater has halted programming until next spring. Seattle’s ACT Contemporary Theater has cut a week off the run of each play in its coming season.
That’s mostly not happening, though, around Eugene. A check with the four leading nonprofit theaters in and around town finds most are in good shape, putting on full seasons. Two took advantage of the pandemic break to remodel and expand their facilities. Only one reports making cuts to its performance calendar.
“Eugene in general is having a stronger return of audiences than many places around the country are experiencing,” says Craig Willis, producing artistic director of Oregon Contemporary Theatre in Eugene.
OCT has scheduled six plays for its 2023-24 season, the same number it produced pre-COVID.
Before the pandemic, Willis says, OCT was selling tickets at 90 percent of capacity. The first year after the pandemic, it produced only four shows and sold at 60 percent. “That cut into our box office a lot,” he says.
When it returned to a full, six-play season last year, OCT projected it would again sell at 60 percent. Instead, audiences filled 75 percent of available seats.
“OCT is fortunate that we have enjoyed a very strong return of subscribers,” Willis says. “OCT was bucking national trends pre-COVID, with subscription numbers increasing year over year, so it’s good to see that many of those subscribers are coming back.”
In south Eugene, Very Little Theatre is also doing well, says its executive director, Ron Evans. VLT is planning seven plays for the coming season, with a stream of other income added to the mix. “In addition to our regular production schedules,” Evans says, “we have a variety of other folks who are signing up to rent our 77-seat and 195-seat spaces to produce full runs and one-day performances, dance recitals, stand-up comedy and storytelling, improv — you name it.”
Down I-5 in Cottage Grove, Cottage Theatre is similarly maintaining a full season, with six main productions in the calendar year — the same number as always, says Executive Director Susan Goes.
The rural community theater navigated the pandemic carefully, she says, finishing a long-planned remodeling that expanded its seating capacity by 50 seats in the early lockdown phase and then programming more-popular fare when audiences began to return.
“We have more seats to fill now compared to pre-COVID,” she says. “Despite the national trends, we are indeed filling them. While our 2023 season is not yet complete, we are on track to exceed our pre-COVID attendance levels.”
Cottage Theatre pulled this off by paying careful attention to what its audiences want to see, Goes says. “Since reopening in April 2022, we have concentrated our programming heavily around well-known play and musical titles such as Mamma Mia, Cinderella and Into the Woods. When we’ve done lesser-known titles, for example Big Fish and The Book of Will, we’ve had to market much harder to attract smaller audiences.”
Part of Cottage Theatre’s success in navigating the new reality has come from youth performances, Goes says. Last spring the theater presented a sold-out youth production of Frozen, and is planning a fall youth production of 101 Dalmatians. “Bringing more families through our doors is a central part of our audience development strategy for the future,” Goes says.
Not every local theater is doing so well. Actors Cabaret of Eugene, which normally programs nothing but musicals, may swap in a non-musical comedy for one of the plays, says Jim Roberts, ACE’s executive director, and has cut its coming season back from six shows to four.
“It is more difficult to get audiences in, although it seems to be picking up a little,” he says. “It is also more difficult to get the actors needed to fill the casts. Many have moved, others have decided they didn’t want to spend the time. We are all looking for smaller shows that don’t require as many actors. One of our shows will probably be a comedy instead of a musical, because the costs are not as high to produce a non-musical.”
Other factors than audience numbers have contributed to the national theater crisis, OCT’s Willis says. Many big theaters have seen a steep dropoff in grants and donations as well as ancillary revenue such as concessions and program advertising. It’s also been more difficult, he says, to hire and retain employees in the post-pandemic economy.
The success of local theater may come from close relationships with donors and audiences, he says.
“OCT is extremely fortunate that our business sponsorships, foundation support and especially our individual donor support have remained very strong,” he says. “We set new records for our annual fundraising event in 2023, and our individual donations are way up from pre-COVID level. Clearly, our most loyal patrons get it: The arts need our support now more than before. Such strong continued support isn’t true in a lot of communities. We’re very fortunate.”
Cottage Theatre’s Goes agrees. “The Lane County theater scene is alive and well, despite the many challenges wrought by COVID and the associated long closure of live performing venues,” she says. “There is no question that we’re in a different world now, though, as the old ‘the show must go on no matter what’ mentality has had to yield to new public health realities. I think every major theater in our area has had to cancel performances in 2023 due to COVID outbreaks among cast or crew. But while there are challenges, I think that people are hungry for the excitement and energy of live performances after so much time interacting with the world through our screens.”