Before 2020, the average audience member of Connecticut’s Westport Country Playhouse was 62 years old with a graduate degree and roughly $100,000 of disposable income. “Today, the addendum is that she is also very sensitive to COVID case counts, hospitalizations, and death numbers,” says Michael Barker ’10, the theater’s managing director. When cases spike, audiences shrink. “That’s when the ‘I-wouldn’t-come-back-for-any-reason number goes up.’”
The consequences of the pandemic have been profound for theater industry. So too has the national uprising and reckoning around race ignited by the murder of George Floyd. In a recent Yale SOM discussion, Barker was joined by Al Heartley, a 2018 graduate of the Yale School of Drama and the principal of ALJP Consulting, and Chiara Klein ’17, director of producing and artistic planning at The Public Theater, to discuss how the theater is changing in response to the upheavals of the last few years. Florie Seery, associate dean of the David Geffen School of Drama and managing director of Yale Repertory Theatre, moderated the discussion.
“This is a point of both tension and opportunity as these old hierarchical structures from pre-COVID, and pre-George Floyd, are clashing with new modes of working that folks are looking for.”
Like every other industry, Heartley noted, theater has struggled with questions around how much work can be managed remotely. Theatrical organizations are also facing acute questions around how to minimize employee burnout at a time of immense stress, and, in particular, how they can better support parents and people of color.
“These workplaces are very much having to figure out new ways of working, not only because of the physical toll of COVID, but also the psychological and emotional toll,” he says. “This is a point of both tension and opportunity as these old hierarchical structures from pre-COVID, and pre-George Floyd, are clashing with new modes of working that folks are looking for.”
And then there are the critical questions about the sustainability of theater’s audience. Barker explained that when the Westport Country Playhouse put ticket subscriptions on sale this year, 50% of their audience returned without hesitation. That was heartening, knowing that a committed base of customers will sign up for the season no matter what. But it leaves open the question of who will fill the empty seats.
This is not, Klein pointed out, a novel fear. “We’ve been having the new-audience conversation for 60 years,” she says, as fewer people choose to spend their disposable income at the theater. “But COVID did accelerate the change.” That means that COVID is pushing theaters harder than before to clarify their value proposition, to figure out what, precisely, they have on offer that will draw new customers through the door.
For Heartley, these questions are tied not just to the pandemic, but also to issues of racial equity. How are theaters speaking to communities of color? There is some improvement on broader representation within theaters, he said, pointing to Debbie Chinn, the first woman to lead Baltimore’s Center Stage and now executive director of Silicon Valley’s TheatreWorks, but paralleling progress like this is a continuing narrative of adversity. He mentioned the dismissal of Ken-Matt Martin, who is Black, from the position of artistic director at Chicago’s Victory Gardens. In the wake of this event, the board of directors was accused of harboring “white supremacist capitalist patriarchal values” by the playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza.
“There has certainly been progress in terms of the people we consider auteurs and curators, in terms of what and who is prioritized when it comes to storytelling, but this progress is paired with pain,” Heartley says. Even at theaters where people of color are represented on and off the stage, it often remains the case that once you’re on stage “you have a lot of White faces looking at you.”
In short, much work remains to infuse greater diversity into an institution that, for decades, has been dominated by White artists and leaders. Progress is difficult and uneven. At the Westport Country Playhouse, Barker has been working to create a board of directors that better represents the diversity of the surrounding community, he said. He has, as a result, lost a handful of board members who disagree with the principles of the endeavor.
For Klein, the friction generated by these conversations around COVID and race are a source of excitement. She has always been interested in learning about other industries and other business models, she said. COVID turned such curiosity into necessity.
Klein likened theater’s industry-wide introspection to recent development in public libraries, which have become far more than book repositories; they are now spaces that offer legal help, air conditioning, internet access—even Narcan to prevent opioid overdoses. “For those of us in theater, defining what is not theater is no longer helpful,” she says. “We should be figuring out ways to embrace new ideas, new things, new asset classes, new revenue streams in addition to new ways of doing things. This doesn’t mean theater is going to go away. There is a lot of possibility out there as long as we look forward, not backward or inward.”