Theater Commentary: When Sorrows Come – Tragedy Befalls Regional Theater Companies

By Christopher Caggiano

Theater companies all over the country are cutting back or shutting down. And the bad news just keeps coming.

“When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.” – Hamlet, Act IV, Scene V

Right now is not exactly the best time to be running a regional theater. In fact, things are getting downright dire in the not-for-profit theater world. It seems that every week, we read about another theater company that is laying off staff, canceling productions, going on hiatus, or closing down entirely.

NYC’s The Public Theater recently laid off nearly 20 percent of its staff. Photo: Wiki Commons

Although many of these theater companies are small- to medium-sized operations, even some of the largest and most notable theater companies are not immune. The renowned Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven vacated the theater space it had occupied for 57 years. The Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles recently announced that it would be canceling its entire 2023-24 season at the Mark Taper Forum. Even New York City’s Public Theater, surely one of the most venerated theater companies in the country, recently laid off nearly 20 percent of its staff.

The precise number of regional theaters that have closed or suspended operations in recent years is not known, but it could very well be in the hundreds. And that number is likely to grow over the next few years, since the forces driving these difficulties show little sign of abating.

The Tempest

It would be easy to pin the blame on the Covid pandemic, and indeed therein lies part of the problem. Some theaters were simply unable to weather an 18-month shutdown and were forced to close permanently. But, even before the pandemic, many regional theaters were struggling financially. Covid merely forced an issue that was already endemic. Blame rising production and operating costs, declining donations, and fierce competition from other forms of entertainment.

Yes, Covid certainly didn’t help matters here. But the fact is the number of people attending live theater had already been on the decline. This is partly due to the rise of streaming services, but it’s also because of changing demographics in the population. As the US becomes more diverse, regional theaters are finding it more difficult to attract audiences. Many of the plays traditionally produced by regional theaters don’t reflect the experiences of these rising demographic groups.

Of course, it would be too easy to blame the woes of every regional theater on external forces. Each case is, of course, different, and there’s no getting around the fact that some theaters have succumbed — or are succumbing — to mismanagement, internal conflict, leadership changes, or a general lack of vision in programming and organizational development.

This decline has a ripple effect. When regional theaters flounder, so too do their local communities. Stage companies contribute to the economic energy of their communities by attracting locals as well as tourists and by stimulating local businesses. Many regional theaters are situated in downtown areas that had been struggling long before the pandemic, although the pandemic and the consequent rise of hybrid work models have further devastated commercial real estate.

The closures and reductions at regional theaters also have a significant impact on theater in general. These stages provide a relatively safe platform for new artists and works, creating a vital and fruitful pipeline of new productions. Many of these productions wind up touring the country or even landing on Broadway. Hit shows often then return to the road, either in tours or stand-alone regional productions at many of these same theaters, thus bringing the economic effect full circle.

Much Ado About Nothing

To remedy the fraught state of regional theater, many armchair theater managers have been calling for increased fundraising campaigns and corporate sponsorships. If I may speak for these theaters for one second … um, no shit, Shylock. This is empty advice. It’s difficult to imagine that regional theaters today wouldn’t already be in full-on development mode. Donations are the lifeblood of any nonprofit, and if fundraising efforts at these theaters weren’t already in full gear, then it’s really no wonder that they’re struggling.

As for corporate sponsorships, again, any regional theater worth its greasepaint would already have been networking up a storm with local businesses. In fact, it might not necessarily be productive for these artistic organizations to become even more beholden to corporate interests than they already are. Taking corporate money often means kowtowing to delicate capitalist sensibilities, which aren’t very comfortable with really edgy material. It would be a shame to let corporate pressures further dilute the artistic ambitions of these vital organizations.

Still others are calling for increased government funding to help these theaters stay afloat. Yeah, well, don’t hold your breath. (Some critics are tossing Hail Marys: Isaac Butler argues for a federal bailout of regional theater in the NYTimes.) The truth is, the current culture war in the US, and the continuing stranglehold that strident, narrow-minded politicians have on the government, make this unlikely to happen any time soon. These are the same people who try, seemingly every year, to defund NPR, PBS, and the National Endowment for the Arts, so the prospect of increased funding for the arts seems dim indeed.

L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum — it is canceling its entire 2023-24 season. Photo: Wiki Commons

Measure for Measure

The most viable way forward would seem to be a combination of inventive partnerships and innovative programming. This could mean partnering with other theaters to co-produce shows, helping to both reduce costs and reach wider audiences. Regional theaters could also share resources, such as rehearsal space, costumes, and props, with other arts organizations.

There also might be opportunities for regional theaters to develop touring productions or co-productions with theater organizations in other cities. This would have the added benefit of spreading the cost burden across multiple budgets.

And partnerships need not be limited to other theater groups. Regional theaters could also partner with other arts organizations — such as museums, dance companies, and symphony orchestras — to share resources and audiences. These organizations could find opportunities to cross-market with each other to attract new audiences and raise awareness. In addition, these groups could co-host events, such as workshops, lectures, and festivals.

Beyond partnerships, there’s also the promise of developing new and innovative programming, creating productions that are more appealing to younger and more diverse audiences. This might involve using new technologies to create more immersive experiences. Until virtual reality headsets and the metaverse successfully infiltrate the home entertainment environment, immersive production values could help distinguish the power of live events from that of virtual ones.

And then there’s streaming. Hey, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, right? Regional theaters could expand into digital programming to reach wider audiences. Long anathema to the theater community, filmed productions became a lifeline for otherwise moribund theater companies during the pandemic. Theater patrons have long desired the opportunity to see high-profile regional productions without having to pay for travel to, and accommodations in, a distant city. Perhaps the unions could find a way to make this work in a way that fairly compensates all parties involved.

All’s Well That Ends Well

Clearly, regional theaters are facing daunting times. Sadly, many of these organizations will not survive. However, by embracing innovative programming, exploring alternative revenue sources, and fostering mutually beneficial partnerships with other organizations, it’s possible that many of these theaters could adapt and even thrive. Creativity is at the very heart of what these theaters do. They should now focus that creativity on finding ways to ensure that their organizations can continue to provide inspiration and insight to future generations.

Christopher Caggiano is a freelance writer and editor living in Boston. He has written about theater for a variety of outlets, including, American Theatre, and Dramatics magazine. He also taught musical-theater history for 16 years and is working on numerous book projects based on his research.

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  1. Bill Marx, Editor of The Arts Fuse on July 19, 2023 at 11:06 am

    A couple of quick thoughts. First, this magazine has been pointing out the economic problems of regional theaters for years. Here is a quote chosen by the late Scott Timberg in his review of Michael M. Kaiser’s 2015 book Curtains?: The Future of the Arts in America, which detailed “fundamental shifts in the arts ecology”:

    economic instability, the Internet explosion, the death of the recording industry, the near-death of subscriptions, the renewed focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and resulting swoon in the liberal arts, the introduction of movie-theater opera, the erosion of newspaper readership and its threat to serious arts criticism, the aging of the donor base, the raiding of endowments, and the search for ‘new models.’

    All of that and much more — too many companies, homogenization of programing — was accelerated by COVID. Now, as Chris points out, some regional theaters are on the ropes. Despite the recent plea in the NYTimes, the notion that Federal funding will come to the rescue is a liberal wet dream. And then there is the semi-serious wish list of reporter Zachary Stewart in Theatremania — that billionaires will toss in bucks while companies ‘give the people they want” (a few more jukebox musicals).

    Chris makes some good points — more corporate money will mean even blander fare. We all would like more innovative shows, but where are they going to come from? From regional theaters that see it as their aim to feed Broadway, stages that have been dedicated to reflecting the Great White Way’s commercial safety? We have had plenty of that already, and the theaters are still failing. I agree that partnerships are important — but must it be cooperation with the rich and comfortable? How about regional theaters working with unions? Or other worker organizations or political organizations, such as Extinction Rebellion? Why not chose scripts that appeal to the concerns of the marginalized, rather than pump out material that protects the world view of the well-heeled?

    I don’t agree with Chris that streaming theater seasons online is part of the answer — it will be the death knell of regional theaters. The large stages, who can afford marketing budgets and big names in the cast, will dominate. Many would prefer to see Robert De Niro in Hamlet while sitting in the comfort of their own home and at a fraction of what they would pay to see a local actor in the same role. More and more people will chose the convenience of staying home over schlepping out to theaters. And streaming will only reinforce what is already happening with the triumph of the screen — diminished public appreciation of the awesome power of live theater. Look at what streaming has done for attendance at cinemas.

    Finally, entirely left out of this discussion, tellingly, is how small theaters are faring during the meltdown. In Boston, not so well. And aren’t they among the places where innovative theater originates? We need the kind of funky companies that give artists an opportunity to experiment, to fail gloriously. Their extinction is, to me, just as frightening as losing regional theaters. Without seeds, there will be no future growth.The question will then become — will there be theater that is serious enough to be worth saving?

  2. Daniel Gewertz on July 22, 2023 at 2:52 pm

    I must compliment Mr. Caggiano for the nimble-witted Sherlock/Shylock line. I laughed out loud. The idea of new technologies — especially if they imitate the private-viewing metaverse — are not the way to go. Extravagant special effects have long been a draw, but are very expensive and too much the stuff of bread and circuses. Somehow, I think the answer will be to focus more adeptly on making an audience feel like a positive, powerful community… to create public experiences that nurture the soul and makes us more of a human family. This does not have to be radical, or even political, though some intellectual component is always worthwhile. It could be primarily an emotional feel-good togetherness coupled with some substantial content. Think of the millions spending many hundreds of dollars a person to be in the same space as Taylor Swift and 20,000 of their Swiftian compatriots. You might just be freaked out at that image, and say it is frightening or mindless. But it shows that there is still tremendous power in the communal experience, and that basic need can be a part of worthwhile theater.

  3. Paul Kuritz on July 22, 2023 at 6:14 pm

    Check your theater’s archive to locate the most successful season of the past 20 years. Repeat it play by play without any “improvements”

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