The same scenario is playing out nationwide for both theater and opera companies now facing shutdowns, season cancellation, layoffs and shrinking audiences
Beginning in 1603, the Globe Theatre in London shut down for extended periods three times in a 10-year period due to two outbreaks of the black plague and a disastrous fire.
Yet despite poison-pen critics’ predictions at the time that theater as an art form was dead, it recovered — just as it has repeatedly over the past 400 years of wars, famine, recessions, artistic suppression, terrorist attacks, pandemics and changing technology. But now, an alarming number of American theater and opera companies are on the ropes, if not down for the count.
Many local producers say attendance is down by half from pre-pandemic times, but the reasons why remain elusive
Since March 2020, 35 American theater companies have permanently closed, including San Diego Repertory Theatre in June 2022. Many theaters have canceled entire seasons, including CTG’s Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, Cal Shakes in the Bay Area and Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company. And dozens of others have announced layoffs, like the recent 19 percent staff reduction at New York City’s venerable The Public Theater.
Meanwhile, every American opera company — from the Metropolitan Opera in New York to San Diego Opera — has announced budget cuts and fewer productions and performances. In June, Tulsa Opera canceled its 2023-24 season, and in July Chautauqua Institution in Washington, D.C., announced it will shutter its 94-year-old opera company next year.
While theater has had the Lazarus-like ability to revive itself many times over the centuries, this time feels different.
Although theaters were shut down for more than a year during the pandemic, federal paycheck protection and shuttered venue operating grants kept them on life support. But when they reopened and the government subsidies ran out, many of the theaters’ donors, subscribers and audience members failed to return in their previous numbers. Add to that an unprecedented rise in production costs due to inflation; an aging audience that’s not being replaced fast enough by younger theatergoers; the rise of high-quality streaming content available to watch at home; and ticket-buyer resistance to darker, more social justice-oriented shows. All these factors have combined to brew the perfect storm of problems that are now raining down on the industry.
Over the past two months, we surveyed and interviewed San Diego County theater leaders about the many challenges they’re facing today and the solutions they’re mulling for the future. Many expressed optimism that theater will return to its former glory, but some expressed pessimism, saying there are too many obstacles to overcome this time and some companies will not survive the current shakeup.
Here are three of their stories.
Scripps Ranch Theatre
Founded in 1978 and based since 1992 on the campus of Alliant International University, Scripps Ranch Theatre has been under the artistic leadership of La Jolla resident Jill Drexler since 2002.
Drexler said that before the pandemic, the company produced well-subscribed five- and six-show seasons each year. Since reopening in 2021, the seasons have shrunk, subscriptions have plummeted and costs have skyrocketed.
One of SRT’s biggest challenges, she said, has been navigating California’s AB 5 gig-worker law, which requires theaters to hire actors, directors and designers as hourly employees with benefits. As a result, cast expenses have nearly tripled over the past two years.
“Basically AB 5 is killing us,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong. I want actors and directors and designers to be paid as much as we can afford. It still won’t be what they’re worth. But I don’t know that it’s in their best interests if we’re out of business.”
Casey Tibbitts, board president at SRT, did a cost comparison of the company’s last full season before the pandemic, 2018-19, and the 2022-23 season that ended June 30. The results were sobering.
The 2018-19 season had five shows with a combined total of 75 performances and a net income of about $650 per show. By comparison, the 2022-23 season had just 60 total performances that each lost about $1,050. If not for sharing expenses on two of this past season’s productions with other companies, Oceanside Theatre Company and Loud Fridge Theatre Group, the net losses would have been even higher.
Over that four-year period, total revenue fell 12 percent; season ticket sales fell 43 percent; production expenses rose 43 percent; and actor compensation rose 187 percent. The company closed its 2018-19 season with a net income of $50,000, and its 2022-23 season with an anticipated loss of $70,000.
“Should we give them the tried-and-true standards that they want to see or try to broaden their horizons and bring new people in with more diverse programming?”
— Casey Tibbitts, board president at Scripps Ranch Theatre
Tibbitts said some of the company’s future plans to improve the balance sheet include reducing future seasons from five shows to four; producing only plays with smaller casts due to AB 5 expenses; cutting rehearsal time; eliminating musicals, which are more expensive due to the cost of hiring musicians; doing more co-productions with other companies; and adding more matinees, which are preferred by older audience members.
Drexler and Tibbitts say that comedies, musicals and classics — like this past season’s “The Outsider,” “Lucky Stiff” and “Lost in Yonkers” — remain the most popular with audiences. The two darker, more social justice-oriented shows on the 2022-23 season bill — “Extreme Home Makeover” and “Neat” — sold only about 55 percent as many tickets as the other three.
“The social justice movement has brought an entirely new dynamic to the industry, and the debate about whether it’s harming or expanding the audience base is ongoing,” Tibbitts said. “Should we give them the tried-and-true standards that they want to see or try to broaden their horizons and bring new people in with more diverse programming?”
Drexler said SRT strives to attract a more diverse and younger audience, but older audiences are the most loyal.
“I’m convinced an older audience will always be the backbone of live theater and I for one am supremely grateful for them,” Drexler said. “If anyone knows the secret of bringing audiences out of their houses, giving up happily settling down in their sweatsuits with popcorn in hand, please share it with me. But still — I am optimistic. There’s something about the shared experience of live theater that cannot be duplicated. We made it through the dark ages. We can stay alive after COVID.”
Now in its 40th year, Chula Vista-based OnStage Playhouse has worked hard to respond to calls for social justice under the leadership of James P. Darvas, a longtime company volunteer who has served as executive artistic director since 2020. His ambitious and thought-provoking 2022 season earned a 2022 Don Braunagel Award for Outstanding Achievement by a Small Theater from the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle.
Darvas said the company’s financial challenges began to multiply over the past year. Rent rose significantly, ticket sales for the season were down and several board members expressed a desire to move away from presenting the social justice-oriented plays.
“At the time of the pandemic we had board members who were not aligned with the work that represented the neighborhood that Onstage is in. I felt we had to listen to the people who were in pain, and many of them were people of color and queer people. With (the board’s) permission we decided to change our focus, cultivating a new focus and staff that were a diverse representation of San Diego,” Darvas said.
“I think sometimes we jump out of passion and when we realize the amount of footwork it takes to keep going can be daunting. But my goal is to instill in the new board the idea to always look further than what’s happening next.”
— James P. Darvas, artistic director of OnStage Playhouse
In the spring, these issues came to a head when multiple board members resigned, the previously announced 2023-24 season was canceled and Darvas was let go. But that wasn’t the end of the OnStage story.
Over the past five months, Darvas has continued to volunteer his time as artistic director and a diverse and mostly new board of directors has signed on. On Sept. 1, OnStage will open the world premiere play “Mugre,” its second fundraising production of the summer. All tickets will be sold for a minimum $20 donation to benefit theater operations.
Darvas said one of the biggest misperceptions people have about OnStage is that it no longer needs donations and grants because it received federal and state grants during the pandemic. But philanthropy is more important than ever, Darvas said, because rent at OnStage’s Third Avenue theater space rises significantly every year.
On Oct. 1, OnStage will need to confirm the renewal of its theater lease, which ends in the spring. He said that space at 291 Third Ave. may no longer be affordable due to the growing popularity of Third Avenue as a culinary district. Instead, he’s hoping to work with the city to find a vacant office space that can be permanently converted into a live theater.
“I’d love to see the city of Chula Vista step up and give us a space. We’re the only live theater in all of the South Bay,” Darvas said, adding that he’s excited about his new board. “A group of people stepped up because something that they cherished was being taken away. I think sometimes we jump out of passion and when we realize the amount of footwork it takes to keep going can be daunting. But my goal is to instill in the new board the idea to always look further than what’s happening next.”
Back in early 2020, regional theater producers Jordan Beck and J. Scott Lapp were hired at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido, to create an in-house professional theater company under the name CCAE Theatricals. Then the pandemic arrived.
Beck, as managing producer, and Lapp, as artistic director, pivoted and began producing concerts and cabaret shows to keep audiences engaged during the pandemic. Then in fall 2021 they launched their first season of musicals at the center that immediately won critical acclaim and a fast-growing audience. During the company’s second season — which ended with the world premiere musical “Bottle Shock!” last month — CCAE Theatricals won the top production awards at the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle’s 2022 Craig Noel Awards. CCAE Theatricals also achieved a company record of $145,000 in ticket sales for “Bottle Shock!” before the show even opened.
“There’s something optimistic about theater folks because we have to be. It’s one of the oldest art forms there are and it has survived so many plagues and changes. We’ll always find a way to adapt.”
— J. Scott Lapp, artistic director of CCA Theatricals
But the economic realities of operating an in-house theater program today aren’t the same as they were in 2020 when Beck and Lapp were hired. So on Aug. 3, the arts center announced it was shutting down the theater program.
Lapp, who before launching CCAE Theatricals was producing theater with Beck in Temecula for several years, said making theater in today’s market is exorbitantly expensive, so starting a new theater is risky and daunting.
For example, when he and Beck were producing musicals at Temecula’s Barn Stage Company, they could build scenery for a show for about $10,000 to $15,000. Now it costs more than $100,000. Add the cost of $40,000 to $50,000 for musicians and salaried performers and a production like “Bottle Shock!” becomes a $450,000 investment for the city-run arts center.
Fortunately, CCAE Theatricals will carry on. Lapp and Beck are planning to relaunch CCAE Theatricals as a nonprofit arts organization and will become the self-funded resident theater company at the Escondido arts center.
Donors have stepped forward to support the duo and Lapp said he and Beck hope to relaunch the company no later than February 2024 with the San Diego premiere of the play “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” followed by another world premiere musical next summer.
Lapp said the national theater landscape is pretty gloomy these days, but he and Beck are optimistic that they will succeed and the theater industry will return with gusto in the not-too-distant future.
“There’s something optimistic about theater folks because we have to be,” Lapp said. “It’s one of the oldest art forms there are and it has survived so many plagues and changes. We’ll always find a way to adapt.”
The state of the art at other local theater and opera companies
San Diego Opera
David Bennett, General Director: “We have to strike a careful balance between traditional grand operas that existing audiences expect and want, and newer works, in a variety of sizes, languages and styles that welcome new audiences and prepare us for the demographic trends that we know will reflect the direction of our community. We are currently in discussions with two production consortiums — one made up of West Coast companies of a variety of sizes, and another made up of similar-sized companies across the country. In both cases, the goal is to explore new models of shared expenses to lower the cost of producing opera for all participating companies. We also are exploring new ways to share existing productions in ways that may not bring as much rental revenue for one company but will bring down production costs for all who participate.”
Lamb’s Players Theatre, Coronado
Robert Smyth, Producing Artistic Director: “I think the situation (in the industry) is serious. There are big changes coming. Business and operational models need major adjustments. Everything is more expensive. We used to be able to use swings to understudy two or three roles. With COVID still able to stop a production, we now hire an understudy for every performer. We’ve seen a gradual decline in subscriptions for years. Many longtime subscribers tell us aging and health issues means they are no longer going out, or only for a special production. But we are fortunate. Our sales and budget will be the same for 2023 as it was for 2019. We have a slightly smaller staff, have trimmed back production costs and have been able to raise hourly, project and salaried staff pay.”
North Coast Repertory Theatre, Solana Beach
David Ellenstein, Artistic Director: “The situation is serious, but I believe it will pass and theater will recover and evolve. We are in the fortunate position of our health being better than ever at present from all standpoints. Our subscriptions have returned to more than 90 percent of pre-pandemic levels, and we hope to get back this season, if not surpass, where we were prior to COVID. We have lost some (customers) to age and not going out at night, but gained a whole bunch of new ones. Three of our highest grossing and best attended shows have come in the past 12 months.”
Genesis Opera Theatre, San Diego
Doug Friedman, Managing Director: “I’m optimistic about the future of theater in San Diego, but realistic about the challenges of reaching people to lure them in. I think the key will be marketing. How do we reach people who have tuned out traditional media? This must be driven virally, using every tool we have with those already inside the tent to reach outside. In our Genesis Opera Theatre productions, everyone involved becomes a marketer, using their social media connections to promote the next show.”
Vantage Theatre, La Jolla
Dori Salois, Executive Director: “During COVID, Vantage Theatre basically went dormant. Risking a full production during the height of COVID was not financially feasible for us. Vantage is starting up again. We are looking to do two productions for 2023-24. Hopefully COVID will have less of an impact and all theater will revive again. Sitting at home watching TV and films can be stagnating. It cannot replace the satisfying communal experience of live theater. I am optimistic based on the current local audience attendance and those that struggled to attend during the worst of COVID.”
Patio Playhouse, Escondido
Peggy Schneider, Trustee: “Struggling doesn’t begin to describe our situation. We are surviving on loans and grants. Not only is the money not there, the talent has withered as well. We are all volunteer-staffed. Our actors, directors, light designers, etc., are now often working two or three small jobs to make ends meet. In 2019, we had 300 dues-paying members and dozens of season ticket holders. Our membership is down to 57 and we have sold only 5 season tickets. I am personally concerned about this trend and I am close to terrified for theater arts worldwide. Each time a theater closes down we lose an opportunity to share our humanity. That can only happen so many times before we see it begin to affect our culture and our ability and willingness to accept the presence and the differences of others.”
Get the Del Mar Times in your inbox
Top stories from Carmel Valley, Del Mar and Solana Beach every Friday for free.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Del Mar Times.