How Do You Sustain the Theatregoing Habit? (It’s Complicated…)
Brian Eugenio Herrera's #TheatreClique Newsletter for July 11, 2023
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This Week's #TheatreCliquery:
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This week’s entry experiments with a "column” approach, wherein I embed a selected handful of the most clickable recent links along the way (rather than aggregating everything as a concentrated infoblast). Not sure I’ll do this kind of thing often — it’s way too long, it’s a little cranky — but I’ll be very interested to know whether this kind of entry is of interest to y’all. So, without further ado, let’s get to it…
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How Do You Sustain the Theatregoing Habit? (It’s Complicated…)
The last few weeks have amplified the rising thrum of precarity within the theatre industry — what with another legacy institution closing or pausing or canceling every week or so — all while some sectors of the broader entertainment industry are on strike (or might soon be), while others are under attack by policymakers or local scolds, and while corporate media mega-mergers indulge in a spree of platform-killing and content-dumping, suggesting that the streaming bubble might have actually burst.
Amidst this roiling uncertainty, two primary topics have been spinning heavily in my mind. First, I find myself especially alert to the ways “the audience” is being talked about and, next, I’m mildly obsessed with the ways this current coincidence of theatre closures and culture war casualties is giving me near-daily flashbacks to the early 1990s — when iconic theatre organizations were also closing (or pausing or canceling) and when works by non-white, non-male, and non-straight artists were also being attacked (from without) as obscene and artless and (from within) as being “too politically correct”… I may take up history’s rhymes in a future newsletter, but I find I kinda urgently need to stop “the audience” discourse from buzzing in my brain. So, lucky you, dear reader…
The Theatregoing Habit
I was particularly glad for the framing of Charles McNulty’s recent column in the Los Angeles Times, “The Theatergoing Habit Is Broken: How Do Venues Get People Back in Seats?” This idea that theatregoing can be a habit — or something one does on the regular — definitely captures how I go to the theatre. It’s just something I do, albeit much more regularly than most. (My current count confirms that, in the first six months of 2023, I’ve gone to the theatre 83 times, which is roughly equivalent to number of times I’ve gone to the gym in the same period.)
McNulty begins his column with the impossible question of “what do audiences want?” but quickly pivots to what he thinks audiences need. (To wit, McNulty wishes for audiences to appreciate themselves as part of theatre’s “ancient alchemy” in using public storytelling to transform a “group of strangers” into “a collective thinking and feeling organism” and for the theatre industry to NOT hold audiences responsible for its “broken business model.”) Meanwhile, The Washington Post’s Peter Marks — in a strangely similar but totally different piece — highlights “a change in cultural habits during the pandemic” while noting that “Experts in theater management say that 25 percent to 30 percent of theater audiences have not returned.” Meanwhile, in a recent New York Times interview, Sarah Benson (the outgoing Artistic Director of Soho Rep) seemed to agree that “it’s all falling apart… the old model of tourists and all of that, it’s gone, the subscription model is gone. There’s a lot of second-guessing that doesn’t put any trust in the audience — it’s really patronizing.”
Benson’s invocation of a failure of trust is potent.
When dedicated theatregoers don’t feel respected or engaged as a valued presence in the theatremaking experience, it’s all too easy for them (for me? for us?) to become consumers…and begin to behave as such, in sometimes the worst of ways. Writer and arts advocate Gwydion Suilebhan — in a blazingly incisive critique that immediately became a widely-shared Facebook post — broke it down plainly, explaining that — post-pandemic — “I care a lot more now about the things I do and the things I make, along with the people I do and make them with, than the things I watch.” And as a particular twitter account that I hate-follow (its tagline: “EDI = DIE. Follow the DIE charlatans and watch your theatre DIE HARD”) recently insisted “The most important question in the American Theatre right now is: why have people stopped going? And to find the answer you have to ask the people. Not the heads of theatres that have driven them away.” I find this particular framing as superficial in its populism as it is cynical in its partisanship. In this formulation, “the people” who really matter are the disaffected “swing” or “undecided” theatergoers — not those like me who are dedicatedly attending theatre regularly. But the central provocation remains a salient one: why have some previously dedicated theatregoers stopped their theatregoing? And what might the legion of lapsed theatregoers still have in common with those like me who have made the decision not to stop? Aren’t both types of theatregoers part of “the audience” that these arts leaders, journalists, and advocates are ostensibly talking about?
The Complex Calculation of Theatregoing
A couple weeks ago, I was the lucky “+1” for a colleague attending a sold-out, limited-run event. The experience was instructive for me, not simply because the truly extraordinary performance came with a “premium” audience experience — having great seats at no cost to me, picking them up from a concierge rather than will-call, being seated immediately adjacent some major theatre luminaries — but mostly because of the unexpected sojourn taken in our requisite pre-show conversation about “shows we’ve seen lately.”
Somehow my colleague and I began to talk about why I ended up subscribing to so many theatres in the 2022/23 season. I explained that, in principle, I subscribed to however many because I wanted to support the industry in its first full season “back” after the pandemic but, in practice, my rationale was more self-serving. On the one hand, I knew that having pre-booked tickets would scaffold my effort to reboot my out-of-shape theatregoing habit. On the other, I valued the amenities — cost-savings, regular reminders, ticket exchange flexibility — that most not-for-profit theatres afford “subscribers” or “members.”
When my colleague asked me how I decided which companies to subscribe to, I surmised they expected my response to be mostly inflected by matters of curation and programming, which is not the case. As I mustered my reply, I delineated, for perhaps the first time, my actual subscription criteria, which tracks roughly as follows.
When I see a company announce 2-3 shows that I anticipate almost certainly wanting to see, I quickly do the math to assess the cost-effectiveness of purchasing 2-3 single tickets at retail (or, less reliably, at discount through TDF or TodayTix) versus buying a bundled subscription for the full season. If the cost balances anywhere close to evenly, I then review the theatre’s ticket exchange/transfer policy for flexibility, noting whether the tickets will be assigned on a recurring date (ie ”second Thursday”) or whether I am to book each ticket individually. If the balance of cost-effectiveness and convenience/flexibility feels sensible, and if that balance is fortified at all by my active interest in the company (its recent history, its geographic location, its place in the theatre ecosystem), I typically find myself more inclined to take on the subscription.
My colleague marveled a bit at my cascade of quantitative and qualitative calculations, noting that — as a member of the press — they hadn’t really had to think through the nuances of ticketing logistics in such detail for some while. To which I replied: EXACTLY. And that’s kind of the problem in most conversations about “the audience” in the industry-engaged press.
Because make no mistake: actually buying a ticket to the theatre is almost always surprisingly costly and/or complicated. The most conspicuous points of purchase are typically the most expensive (an entrenched habit for which August Wilson excoriated the industry nearly thirty years ago). Meanwhile, finding affordable workarounds requires practice, planning, and foreknowledge. Being an avid theatregoer for the past decade has helped me identify not only my strategies for ticket-buying but also my personal priorities, in both principle and practice. So I kinda sorta know some of the ways to get tickets at a relatively sensible cost. But I can’t help but wonder… If it’s been this complicated for ME — a seasoned and dedicated theatregoer who happens to also be a well-employed, well-informed, middle-aged professional who lives both within walking distance of several noteworthy venues and also within commuting distance of two major theatre cities, who has no regular caregiving responsibilities and no chronic health or mobility challenges, who has ready access to both public and private transportation, who can pass for white/cis, whose professional duties allow for many theatregoing expenses to be claimed as tax deductions — well, extract any of these points of privilege and the complications of sustaining a “theatregoing habit” expand exponentially…
This, in a nut, is my take on the question of why “the audience” of previously dedicated theatregoers might not be reliably rushing back. It’s the complications — not simply the content or the cost — that make theatregoing such an exacting habit to sustain.
The Complicated Logistics of Theatregoing
Going to the theatre has always been a speculative investment of time, attention, money, and energy and, in 2023, it obliges an increasingly complicated calculus. In order to pre-commit to a particular ticket, even an avid theatregoer must assess whether it’s worth the expense and effort of getting off one’s very convenient and often quite comfortable couch to trek to some less reliably convenient/comfortable theatre for what one can only hope will be a gratifying experience.
What are these complications, you ask? Well, here’s a handy provisional list of some points of concern that might inform any theatergoer’s speculative investment in joining the audience at any particular performance.
CONVENIENCE: where is the theatre? what are the parking or mass-transit options? what time does the show start? what time does the show end? what are the pre- or post-show dinner/drinks options? how long will it take to get there? how long to get home (or wherever) after?
COST [to be calculated in terms of both time and money spent]: tickets? parking? commuting? caregiving? refreshments? etcetera?
CONFIDENCE: will it be worth the expenditure of time/energy/money? will it be a gratifying experience? will the theatre feel welcoming and/or accommodating? will the other members of the audience be people I feel comfortable being in close proximity with? will I feel judged by other patrons? by the theatre staff? will anyone be masked? will I have a good seat? will I be physically comfortable in my seat? will I be able to get to my seat without encountering embarrassing or challenging obstacles? will I be able to get to the bathroom when I need to? will I be able to exchange my tickets if it turns out I can’t make it that night? will I have a ticket or some digital code send by email? would I rather just do something else?
COMMITMENT: why am I going? am I actively interested in this particular show? am I subscriber? a donor? a volunteer? a (recovering) theatrekid? a fan of a particular artist involved in the show? am I going because I’m the kind of person who sees all the things? because someone gave me a ticket? because I want to see-and-be-seen? because I want bragging rights? because I have a friend or family member involved in the show? because I want to see a celebrity? because I consider it my civic duty? because I am affiliated with the industry? because I want to avoid FOMO? because I want to hatewatch this thing? because I’m excited for dinner before/after? Is seeing this show a family tradition? part of my job or other professional duties? for research/homework? something fun to do with friends? something I do once or twice a year? Is it some combination of some of above?
CONTENT: what’s the show? what kind of show is it (new play/musical, revival/revisal, touring production, Shakespeare, holiday show, kids show, etc)? does the plot summary activate my interest? does it remind me of shows I’ve dis/liked in the past?
If you’ve been to the particular venue before, you might have ready answers to some of these questions but, if not, the uncertainties can be many. The process of acquiring your ticket might answer some questions but those or others might recur in the days immediately prior to the performance. Still others might not be known (let alone answerable) until you’re actually at the theatre. And some answers may change, depending on the unpredictabilities of our current moment. But all of these considerations (among many others) are on the table for any theatregoer making the decision to pre-commit to attending a theatre event.
Additional complexities of attending theatre in 2023 only add to the snarl of complications. I mentioned above that I attended 83 shows in the first half of 2023. I also experienced a number of (often very last minute) cancellations of performances, sometimes due to health issues among the company, sometimes for other reasons. In total, eight performances were canceled — typically within hours of curtain when I was already on my way to the venue — and, of those eight, I was only able to rebook five for another performance. It might also be worth noting that some empty seats in the theatre have been “mine.” Sometimes I just wasn’t up to going, other times I encountered disruptions (ie a failure of public transit) that made it impossible for me to get to the theatre. By my preliminary count, I let at least eight tickets go in the first six months of 2023 — occasionally routing them back to the theatre as a donation, sometimes finding someone to use my seat, but often just letting the seat sit empty because either the timing or the theatre’s policies prevented me from doing anything else. So, it’s not just that “the audience” isn’t filling the seats, but sometimes theatregoers are finding their paid-for tickets unusable.
Being a regular theatregoer is complicated and, had I not made a commitment to reactivate my theatregoing practice at the beginning of this calendar year, it would have saved me a lot of time, effort, and money. So much so that, when the always unwelcome upcharge of a “convenience fee” gets added to my ticket purchase, I often wonder what/whether theatres would learn if theatregoers had the option to backcharge “inconvenience fees” to the theatres for the hassles they experience as theatregoers. (For informational purposes only, of course…)
Being a Theatregoer vs. Being Part of an Audience
In a recent, remarkable post at CultureBot, critic, curator and creative producer Andy Horwitz took a lucid inventory of some of the many issues confronting theatres today and how these problems might reveal what is actually needed from theatre/s right now. It’s an extraordinary, must-read piece but one line in it has haunted me. “I think that this is what every audience everywhere wants when they come to the theater,” Horwitz insists, “We want to feel like we are meeting up with friends.”
Every time I read this line have a visceral (and very GenX) response of “dude, that’s so not what I want.” Here again, I’m tempted to draw a distinction between “the audience” and the experience of being a theatregoer. Because, honestly, there are two parts of being a theatregoer that make me most tired. First, and perhaps most understandably, the grind of commuting to NYC (or Philly or Whereversville NJ) to see the shows I want to see can be a lot. But a close second “most tiring” part of being a theatregoer? Having to deal with the other theatregoers in “the audience” with me.
Sure, sometimes one does have unexpected experiences of collective wonder. Thinking back over only the last couple months, I’m reminded of what a privilege it was to be a part of the audiences experiencing Sancocho, Vámonos, and Bees & Honey; the laughter, knowing sighs, the general exuberance of an audience recognizing Afro-latina characters and experiences rarely afforded the spotlight of centerstage made for an indelible experience of three compelling plays. I’m still savoring the collective intake of breath that came at the final moment of ClubbedThumb’s Grief Hotel. And to share the communal breathstopping gasp that witnessed that last twist of the set in Wet Brain at Playwrights? To be surrounded by the sounds of weeping at the end of Parade? Or the vicarious thrill I took from the genderqueer millennial couple in front of me experiencing successive waves of giddy recognition at the start of each song in &Juliet? I treasure each of these experiences of being part of an audience.
Still, I notice a lot of fellow theatregoers wielding a possessive investment in their personal theatregoing experience, irrespective of (though immediately adjacent to) the experiences of others. Sometimes it’s the weird sniffs and sneers that come when someone clocks my choice to be double-masked in the theatre. Sometimes it’s the seeming incapacity of theatregoers to follow simple instructions (two lines! phones off please!). Sometimes it’s the going to and from the bar during the show. Sometimes it’s (usually white) patrons of a certain age taking it upon themselves to reprove other theatregoers for doing something wrong — as when a particular patron at a matinee preview of a new Broadway musical took it upon themselves to scold my companion for entering the aisle “incorrectly” (requiring the scolding patron to stand) only to have the scolding patron rise moments later and cross to us, forcing several other patrons to stand, in order to demand loudly of my companion “where are you from!” (My companion’s stunned reply of “New York City” frustrated our scold who huffed and muttered past the other still-standing patrons as they returned to their seat.) Such oddly aggressive behaviors aren’t unique to theatre audiences but they can drain my confidence in “the audience” as an ideal.
So, when I hear Horwitz and McNulty invoke the classical ideal of “the audience” as community, I’m reminded that my fellow theatregoers can sometimes be the most exhausting part of my theatregoing habit. I find it difficult to “tune out” those around me. It’s just part of my cognitive reality, whether in a restaurant or in a classroom or in an airport or in a theater. I tend to notice not only what’s going immediately near me but also what’s happening a dozen seats or rows away. This capacity to take it all in serves me well as a theatregoer. I may not catch everything, but I do notice a lot, about the shows I see and about the audiences I see them with — and I don’t generally see audiences relishing the experience of sharing space and time together. Moreover, in 2023 I don’t know that “the theatre” is solely to blame for any theatregoer’s reluctance to trust “the audience” they happen to be seated with.
To Value Those Who Practice the Habit of Theatregoing
A writer friend of mine happens to work in subscription sales for one of the industry’s most beleaguered legacy theatres. (Always a tough gig, but a particularly unenviable job right now.) I’m often struck by their accounts of how patron complaints sometimes start with that one show they hated, which might have been presented years ago or even by a different theatre company. I’m also impressed by how frequently my friend notes these patron interactions turning to gripes about traffic, about parking, about the restrictive ticket packages being offered. When I hear these second-hand complaints, I recognize fellow theatregoers reporting on the particular complications that have caused their current crisis of confidence around sustaining their prior practice of theatregoing. But the theatre my friend works for registers such feedback as another “lost subscriber” or as part of “the audience” that’s not coming back, rather than theatregoers questioning the habit.
Because please understand that — even though they sometimes tire me out — I admire the fortitude of my fellow theatregoers, especially now. We are a hardy and dedicated crew. We maneuvered untold complications to get to the theatre at all. We somehow showed up in spite of all of the valid reasons not to. We were willing to bet against the odds that this show might actually be worth all the “inconvenience fees” invisibly levied against us. Now if only the contemporary theatre industry (its journalists, its leaders, its advocates) valued us — the current corps of habitual theatregoers — as publicly, as energetically, and attentively as they do that peculiar ideal of “the audience” that somehow got away…
Until next time, dear #TheatreClique, please share this newsletter with those friends, colleagues and students who might appreciate the opportunity to encounter the many voices gathered in each week’s edition. Errors and oversights published in the newsletter will be corrected in the archival versions. And, in the meantime, keep clicking those links — good writing needs good readers, and our theatre clicks count!