DC-area theatre lovers got some good news and some bad news this week.
The good news is that Washington, D.C. continues to be a robust theatre town. According to data which the Helen Hayes Awards released this week, 2007 saw the dawn of six new theatre companies (and the sunset of three), an increase in the number of shows produced from 434 to 454, and a vigorous 5.3% increase in the number of productions – from 7648 to 8050. Twenty-five theaters reported an increase in attendance, while only twenty-two reported a decline.
The bad news is that for the fifth year in a row, overall attendance declined in 2007. Paid attendance was 1,908,557, a decrease of 36,912, or 1.9%, from 2006, according to the annual Helen Hayes Awards survey. (This number includes audiences for all professional companies but does not include the roughly 19,000 attendees at the Washington Fringe Festival).
Helen Hayes President and CEO laid part of the blame on the recession. “In an uncertain economy,” she noted, “art is often among the first things to be eliminated from discretionary spending.”
We agree, as far as it goes. 2007 was a rough year, for Washington and the country. But can that explain a five-year decline? During the past five years, Washington has experienced a renaissance of sorts, including a noticeable rise in the area-wide standard of living, significant economic and quality-of-life recovery by the City, and a theatrical building boom that has touched Studio, Signature, Olney, Shakespeare, Round House and – soon – Arena. So why hasn’t this been accompanied by an increased interest in theatre?
We don’t think it’s an issue of quality. From what we’ve seen, quality has improved as brilliant new talents like Alexander Strain, Kimberly Gilbert, Aaron Posner and John Vreeke have established themselves. And the proliferation of theatre companies has resulted in coverage of a wide range of niches – including thoughtful Christian (Journeyman Theater) and Jewish (Theater J) productions, new plays (Charter Theater), new musicals (Signature), contemporary Irish theatre (Solas Nua and Keegan’s New Island Project) and cutting-edge drama (Rorschach, Forum, Washington Shakespeare Theatre). We have two theaters devoted to Shakespeare – Folger and Shakespeare Theatre. We now even have a company devoted to plays about science (Active Cultures).
So what’s happening? We thought we’d turn the question over to the experts – you, the Washington theatre-going (and theatre-growing) community. Why do you think attendance has been in a five-year decline? And what do you think ought to be done about it? Let’s generate a conversation – not, please, about gripes you may have with individual productions or individual theatre companies – but about the overall issues which you think are affecting the sustainable life of this community.
Let’s find some solutions. Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.