'We're driving straight up the cliff': Theater is back, but recovery proves perilous

Jessica Gelt, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Habits have changed during the pandemic, says Desai.

"I used to see three to five shows a week, and now this week I'm going to two, and that feels like a lot," he says. "I think what we're seeing is our audiences are coming back, but they are being really selective, which makes it hard to stage riskier plays or challenging material — or to do new work or introduce new artists."

Even before the pandemic, a trend was emerging in L.A. in which the hits were getting bigger and attendance to everything else was sinking, says the Pasadena Playhouse's Feldman. The pandemic, he says, exacerbated that trend so that critically praised, highly anticipated shows will still attract large audiences. But after (or before) a mega-hit there can be a drought, with sparse audience attendance and patrons buying low-cost tickets at the very last minute, making it even more difficult for theaters to budget or plan. Rolling COVID cancellations are also likely to become a regular occurrence as shows continue to open.

Take "Slave Play," which reopened the Mark Taper Forum in February and broke the box office record to become the highest-grossing, five-week engagement in the theater's 50-year history. But this coup for Center Theatre Group came just a month after the company was forced to close its run of "A Christmas Carol" at the Ahmanson due to COVID-19 infections in the cast, which resulted in an estimated loss of $1.5 million.

Feldman says that the Playhouse's recent run of "Ann" written by and starring Holland Taylor has been a hit. But the theater is fully anticipating a future lull driven by a new variant or a production that doesn't garner the needed buzz to propel a pandemic-weary public out of their homes and into the theater.

Demson, who is also the artistic director of Open Fist Theatre Company, which is in residence at the Atwater Village Theatre complex, says houses for the company's most recent production of Sarah Ruhl's "In the Next Room: or the vibrator play" were about two-thirds full — a much lighter attendance than she expected. The situation was made more dire, she says, because the theater has implemented checkerboard seating to ensure proper social distancing and is already operating at half-capacity.


Steingraber says that at the Soraya, "We had a canceled January, a great February, and the worst March of any month as an organization, and I can't explain it. Is it just differences in programming? There's no rhyme or reason."

"What we're facing now is really thin audience numbers throughout the run," says Wren T. Brown, producing artistic director and co-founder of Ebony Repertory Theatre, which runs out of the 400-seat Nate Holden Performing Arts Center in Mid-City. "Even when we invite large numbers, they are not there."

Audience hesitancy is greatly exacerbated by a lack of a cohesive policy regarding mask and vaccination mandates. In the early days of reopening, the county public health department required that masks be worn and vaccination status be checked. Those rules evaporated in early March when the omicron surge subsided, leaving individual organizations responsible for implementing their own rules surrounding COVID safety. This has resulted in a patchwork of regulations that vary from venue to venue.

Steingraber says the situation has made audiences anxious and irritable, with some patrons reacting angrily when told to mask up in one place after going mask-free in another.


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