If you’re an avid theatergoer, chances are two things have flooded your inbox over the past few months: season announcements and dire reports on the state of the art form. Regional nonprofit theaters across the country are facing a serious financial pinch, prompting some to lay off staff, some to pause programming, and others to close down entirely. Fortunately, for many theaters in D.C., the show, and the 2023-24 season as a whole, goes on. It’s down to leaders and staff to thread a tricky programmatic needle while balancing the books.
Even in ordinary circumstances, season planning is, as Shakespeare Theatre Company’s artistic director Simon Godwin says, “an aspirational, metamorphosing, fluid process.” Ideally, each season speaks to the organization’s aesthetic character and institutional values. Maria Manuela Goyanes, artistic director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, points to two pillars that shape Woolly’s reputation as a hub for experimental work: aesthetic innovation and civic provocation. Shakespeare Theatre Company, on the other hand, has a commitment to the classics, even if the term can be broadly, and productively, construed.
While missions are essential guideposts, interpreting and advancing them is far from straightforward. The civic provocation Goyanes champions, for example, can rub some audience members the wrong way. “Sometimes I am told in surveys by our audience members—it’s few and far between, but it does happen—that folks sort of see the way I program as having some kind of agenda around people of color,” she says. While giving special credence to D.C.’s rich history of Black culture is a priority, Goyanes insists her primary goal is to expand the cultural reach of the organization as much as possible. “I want to live in a world where people—like in my community, the Latinx community, and all the different communities—are all welcome and included in the conversation here.”
This upcoming season, part of expanding the conversation means focusing on the real-life political consequences affecting the creative minds behind Woolly. “There are over 500 pieces of anti-LGBTQIA legislation that have been introduced this year in our country, and it will be a major focus area in our season,” Goyanes says. “Progressive theaters like Woolly, we tend to do one gay play a year; next year, we’re going to do four.” Among them are Shayok Misha’s intercultural drama Public Obscenities (opening in November) and Adil Mansoor’s Greek tragedy adaptation Amm(I)gone (coming in April).
For Shakespeare Theatre Company, season planning is partly about tangling with what it means to be Shakespearean. “I think that a good Shakespearean company embraces complexity and embraces diversity as an aspect of its identity, rather than seeking to define the essence of what it means to be Shakespearean,” says resident dramaturg Drew Lichtenberg. For Godwin, part of the solution is looking for stories of “audacious size and emotional reach” while cultivating a bias for expanding the canon, rather than contracting it. Godwin points to the company’s 2020 production of James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner as a play of such scope and stature.
Apart from meeting the mission, the considerations that go into puzzling out a season are endless. A play might fit the mission perfectly, but it also has to be available. For a world premiere, that might mean committing to the prolonged development of a new play with no clear debut date; for established work, that means licensing the piece for performance, which is often limited by other professional productions in the region. In a scene as dense as D.C.’s, getting that license first is easier said than done. Bethesda’s Round House Theatre, for example, often finds its interests overlapping with the likes of Studio Theatre and Arena Stage, and has lost out on shows to both. Part of the problem today, according to Round House artistic director Ryan Rilette and managing director Ed Zakreski, is that theaters are often going after the same plays, partly to fulfill their promises to diversity and inclusion. (Round House commits to hiring 50 percent artists of color and 50 percent artists who are women, trans, nonbinary, or members of other marginalized gender identities.) In their experience, the historical marginalization of writers who do not fit the White, male, cisgender mold means scripts by those writers are less likely to be vetted by notable developmental programs or available through publishers and well-connected agents.
For organizations like Theater J, housed in the Edlavitch Jewish Community Center on 16th Street NW, there’s the additional risk of being squeezed out by larger peers. Despite operating with a smaller staff and space than the likes of Woolly Mammoth or Shakespeare Theatre Company, license holders still worry that Theater J’s stature draws significant enough attention to be a competitor. “Sometimes an east coast theater, even in New York or on Broadway, will prevent us from doing a production of the play,” explains David Lloyd Olson, Theater J’s managing director. “For whatever reason, those playwrights, agents, producers—whoever is tied to the title—feel that a Theater J production could potentially be competing with them.”
Of course, finances are a dominant force in season planning, and always have been. The problem now is that the same math that allegedly worked pre-pandemic no longer applies. “It’s harder now, to be candid,” says Alicia Sells, general manager at Arena Stage, a hub for new and high-profile American plays located in the palatial Mead Center near the Southwest waterfront. “Our expenses are greater, both in terms of the COVID expenses we’ve had but also in terms of the economic climate, in terms of inflation in both pay and goods.”
This year, Rilette and Zakreski went through nine versions of their season budget—three times the usual amount of drafts. In some cases, entire shows had to be cut. “A world premiere musical that we had been working on for quite some time, we had to jettison once we got to the budgeting process because the numbers were just so stark,” Rilette says.
By and large, the drain on finances is driven by two factors: a decrease in ticket sales and an increase in costs. The latter is heavily influenced by long overdue changes in labor conditions, one of many facets of the field called into question by the likes of the anti-racist principles outlined in We See You White American Theater, a manifesto developed by a collective of BIPOC artists at the height of the pandemic. “There have been a lot of conversations over the last three years about pay equity, about living wages, and a shift in our industry from a ‘starving artist, the show must go on’ [mindset],” says Olson. Many theaters are now challenged to post salaried positions that meet living wage standards, while intern and apprenticeship positions, long a source of inexpensive labor, have been heavily revised or even paused entirely.
While changes have been made, many theaters are still struggling to bring workers back, particularly in production, front of house, and backstage technical positions where long hours remain the norm. “We have moved from being able to pay $18 an hour to people who do backstage work, to now $25 an hour, and we still can’t find folks,” says Rilette. A lack of available personnel contributes to the rise in labor costs and is indicative of what many observers believe is a drain on skilled workers prompted by pandemic-disrupted education and training programs, as well as workers’ departure to more stable, lucrative careers.
The rise in costs would not be so detrimental if not for a significant downturn in theater attendance. In many cases, that decline is seen primarily among subscribers, who would ordinarily buy season tickets at a rate consistent enough for theaters to set their budgets. Zakreski, for example, estimates that Round House has lost some 40 percent of subscribers since the start of the pandemic; according to American Theatre editor Rob Weinert-Kendt, theaters around the country report that audiences and revenues are down anywhere from 20 to 50 percent from their pre-pandemic levels. Even before the pandemic, there were widespread concerns that the “subscriber model” was becoming untenable due to steady declines in subscriptions; now, there is an even greater shift toward single-ticket purchases, a source of income for theaters that is not only less dependable but also more expensive to leverage. “Single-ticket buyers, they buy later and you have to hit them many, many, many times with advertising to get them in, so it costs more, and it’s much more fickle,” says Rilette.
But the pandemic didn’t just change how people buy tickets. Several leaders lament that the lockdown, mask mandates, and the fear of getting sick broke their regular audiences’ theatergoing “habit.” Leaders such as Mosaic Theatre Company Managing Director Serge Seiden theorize that with so much work and leisure moving into the home and away from the city center, there is far less incentive to travel downtown for an evening production—particularly when theater is often a comparatively expensive entertainment option. While arts leaders (justifiably) resist comparisons to other entertainment options such as streaming, it’s worth noting that even a relatively inexpensive four-show subscription at Mosaic starts at $191, while single tickets for their season opener—Psalmayene 24’s world premiere comedy Monumental Travesties—start at $42. A comparable package at Arena Stage starts at $235 with single tickets starting at $56, and theaters such as Woolly Mammoth and Shakespeare Theatre Company offer a variety of packages at similar rates. Granted, many theaters—even small ones, like Theater Alliance—offer a range of discounts and special pay-what-you-can performances.
Of course, not all theaters are in dire straits. In fact, some smaller local companies have been able to pivot and even grow. For Mosaic, a resident partner at Atlas Performing Arts Center soon to enter its ninth season, the pandemic, coupled with the arrival of new leadership in the form of artistic director Reginald Douglas, was something of a reset. As Seiden observes, the young company was so new, they effectively had to start building their audience and profile all over again after COVID restrictions were lifted. Thankfully, Mosaic benefited from having already committed to present Ifa Bayeza’s The Till Trilogy prior to Douglas joining the team—a project which suited him nicely. “We were able to restart that project with a lot of money and interest and visibility, and then Reg was able to really parlay that with the reflection series and use it as a way of getting our name out into the world again,” says Seiden.
This year, Theater Alliance, the company in residence at Anacostia Playhouse, has been able to lean on a core group of donors and grants in order to bring on just their second full-time staff member, managing director Jen Clements, who was previously engaged in a part-time capacity. Artistic director Raymond O. Caldwell credits the organization’s small size for helping it remain flexible even as it has chased growth. “What are plans when the world is what it is?” he says with a laugh. “We make hordes of plans, tons and tons of plans, and we also are, organizationally, in a place where our plans are constantly shifting and changing.” He further credits ongoing experiments with digital theater as one of many programs that sustained Theater Alliance during the height of the pandemic; today, it continues to be a creative outlet. The company is soon to close its 20th season with the world premiere of Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks, adapted by Caldwell and playwright El Chelito from Jason Reynolds’ book.
For others, being a small company means surviving on a show-by-show basis. “I’m not doing a season,” says Jason Tamborini, the artistic director and sole full-time staffer at Prologue Theatre Company. “What I’m trying to do is plan one or two shows at a time, but also find other elements that can be incorporated as complementary to the production of the play.” (The Prologue-hosted series of classic horror films accompanying their recent world premiere production of Christian St. Croix’s Monsters of the American Cinema, also at Atlas Performing Arts Center, is a case in point.) For Tamborini, the onus is always on finding space to perform in: Prologue, like many small companies in the area, does not own or even lease a venue. While he has hopes for the future—a semipermanent home, some part-time staffers—low turnout is a constant worry. “If people don’t come, then there’s not a way to go forward from that,” he says. “It’s not about the ticket sales, it’s about having people there and sharing in this.”
Ultimately, getting people in the door is every theater’s objective, and nearly everyone is adopting a variety of new tactics to do it. In some cases, that requires reinterpreting their mission. “Suddenly everybody is doing socially conscious works of thought-provoking theater,” says Clements. “So things that we had previously looked to as a quintessential Theater Alliance production are trending in a big way, which is wonderful for some things, and also has caused us to examine what our differentiator should be in this moment.” For her and Caldwell, that has meant moving away from “challenging, difficult, sometimes darker shows” and toward intergenerational theater that reaches younger audiences as well as caregivers with small children.
Theater J, too, is looking for ways to tap into its community more effectively. “The thing that is so great about Theater J is that it is a theater in the center of a community!” says Hayley Finn, who took over as artistic director in April. “That is kind of the essence of the regional theater model.” Finn points to family programming and a series of “Creative Connections” events curated around each play as ways to engage audiences of all ages and generate interest in an upcoming season full of world premieres, two of which—Irish Bahr’s See You Tomorrow and Michelle Low’s Moses—will debut as part of a trio of one-person plays.
In addition to engaging communities, many theaters are also leaning on partnerships with other organizations, including other theaters. Mosaic, for example, will partner with the National Museum of the American Indian, Georgetown University’s Racial Justice Institute, and GALA Hispanic Theatre to help shape the plays in their upcoming 2023-24 season. The goal is to not only help publicize the productions but ensure these partners’ expertise is brought to bear on the shows themselves. “The why [of these partnerships] has to have an artistic engine behind it, and to me nothing’s more artistic than growing and expanding the audience that takes in the art,” says Douglas.
Mosaic is also one of many theaters that will co-produce a show with another playhouse in the region this season. The world premiere musical Mexodus by Brian Quijada and Nygel D. Robinson, co-produced with Baltimore Center Stage, opens in Baltimore next March before transferring to D.C. in May. For Douglas, “sharing is caring”: co-productions allow companies to share resources and audiences, and artists get to share their work multiple times with multiple viewers. Round House, meanwhile, will present a pair of back-to-back co-productions with Olney Theatre Center: the musical Fela!, written by Bill T. Jones and Jim Lewis and featuring music by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, which recently closed at Olney; and James Graham’s world premiere drama Ink, which opened at Round House on Aug. 30. Shakespeare Theatre Company enjoyed several successful co-productions last season, and will produce three shows in association with theaters from across the United States this season, including Whitney White’s Macbeth in Stride, presented with Philadelphia Theatre Company.
While many leaders champion the artistic possibility of co-productions, there are practical reasons, too. “The old days where Shakespeare Theatre Company would produce six shows of its own are well and truly over,” admits Godwin. Many large theaters in the region and across the country are also scaling back. “There was a conversation very early on in season planning where we said, ‘yeah, we’re not talking about 10 plays anymore, we’re talking about seven or eight,’” says Teresa Sapien, Arena Stage’s associate artistic director. “Part of reducing the number was to actually give each show its due,” she adds. “In looking back at the pre-COVID times, there were definitely shows that maybe would have felt short-changed or shoved into the schedule, and we are making an active choice not to engage in that practice right now, which I think is for the better.”
While partnerships, community engagement, and rightsizing may help fight rising costs, many leaders are still looking to program shows that will bring in the money. “The way the finances are now, we’re looking for each production to break even or better,” says Round House’s Zakreski. That objective, coupled with smaller seasons and shows, puts the onus on theater leadership to find that special something. While Sapien laments the idea of “star casting”—putting big names into a production, mostly to boost sales—she admits an interest in what that kind of practice gives a show. “We’ve been talking about our shows in season planning conversations as to what’s that element in them?” she says. “Not the star that we would hire but what is a known quantity about that show and/or what is something a person could get excited about?” By way of example, she cites the obvious proximity of presidential politics and a successful Broadway run as a draw to Arena’s upcoming production of POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive by Selina Fillinger.
Whatever that quantity is, the results of finding a way to pull audiences back to the theater can be significant. “I’ve heard anecdotally from a lot of other people at theaters in D.C. that when a show hits—when a show feels like it’s momentous enough for people to leave their homes and go into town—it hits big,” says STC’s Lichtenberg, whose theater saw consecutive hits earlier this year with King Lear, The Jungle (co-produced with Woolly Mammoth), and Here There Are Blueberries. In December, Round House had a hit of its own with Aaron Posner and Teller’s stage magic-infused version of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a production that had been honed in previous runs around the country but was still a bit of a gamble. “It had a cost that was 2.5 times the average of what a big show would be for us,” says Zakreski. “It was a risk that we were comfortable taking, but there were a couple of sleepless nights before it really started to sell.“
The breadth of strategies devised to combat this generational challenge speaks to a mixture of anxiety and tenacity evinced by many arts leaders in the area. “We have always felt that pinch,” says Caldwell assuredly, citing Theater Alliance’s ability to press on despite its small stature. While limitations are part of a small company’s lifestyle—one such group, 4615 Theatre Company, announced in July that it was sunsetting operations after 10 years—bigger regional theaters can feel the changes on a national scale. “For me, right now, it feels like a scarier time than when we were in lockdown,” admits Goyanes. With all the other static that even a smooth season planning process brings with it, her message to audiences is loud and clear: “We need you now more than ever.”