Imagine this. At last the great day has arrived. No new cases of the COVID-19 have been reported for twenty days; people are recovering in the tens of thousands; our health system is adequate to treat the remaining sufferers. Schools are open; so are bars and restaurants. America is — at least for the present — back to work. And in Washington and New York, theaters open their doors.
But will audiences return?
They will, according to an extensive survey conducted by the Bethesda-based Shugoll Research last week. But not all at once. And not without assurances.
Theatre companies, looking at 3 months, 6 months or longer without live performances, are facing difficult decisions. Mark Shugoll, CEO of Shugoll Research and well-known arts philanthropist, hopes that having data from audience members, rather than speculation, will be helpful.
Shugoll told DCTS: “This survey is meant to help inform our theater communities about what audiences are thinking today. It’s time to think about the fact that audiences may be smaller. It’s time to think about budgets. It’s time to think about added costs to protect the health of people in the theater. It’s time to start thinking about those things, then planning needs to be dynamic as we get closer to, hopefully, the fall opening of the season.”
How small might those first audiences be? The research discovered that only 31% of those responding thought it would be very likely that they would attend a show immediately after the theaters reopened. Nearly half said they would probably wait a few months.
When Shugoll Research asked the question a different way, 25% said that they would attend right away if there was something they wanted to see. 61% would wait a month or two, but 14% would wait six months or longer.
The hesitance comes, the survey indicates, from worries about whether the theaters, once opened, would be safe. Forty-six percent of those surveyed said that they would be concerned about their health if they returned to the theater.
“What surprised me is that older theatergoers (65+) who are most at risk from the virus did NOT say that they are less likely to return to the theater,” Shugoll said. Thirty-one percent of respondents younger than 65 were very likely to return to theater immediately upon reopening as opposed to thirty percent of the older group. Conversely, twenty-one percent of both groups were highly unlikely to return to theater immediately. The size of the venue made little difference.
Health safety assurances weren’t the only things that audiences would look for. Notwithstanding that the mean annual income of the respondents was $132,400, 48% indicated that the economic impact of the pandemic has affected them and said that theaters could motivate them to return by reducing ticket prices.
“The survey suggests that people do not necessarily want lighter fun fare as a reason to go back to the theater,” Shugoll said. “If they have a loyalty to attending a particular theatre, they’d like to see the type of shows they’re used to seeing.
“It’s not about the type of work, it’s about the size of work and that gets a little bit complicated. You know, Michael Kaiser would say that in difficult times, you need to rise to the occasion and continue to do work that’s important and large enough to command interest from your audience. It’s probably not a time to do small work, you know, one and two character plays for example.
“However, this data suggests that there’s going to be a diminished number of audience members who return to the theater early,” Shugoll said. “If you happen to be doing shows that are smaller or less costly, you’d be in a better position to pay back on that production. And I think that’s something else theatres need to think about.”
If you were Chairman of the Board for a theatre whose 2020-2021 season was already planned and budgets set, we asked, what about these findings might cause you to worry?
“I might ask whether it’s possible that they could rearrange the schedule so that the bigger work appears later in the season when there might be larger audiences. Clearly, theaters must put in place good health practices like cleaning and disinfecting their theater before every performance and having hand sanitizers and masks available (the study clearly showed those could be determining factors.) They must communicate this to their audience so it can have an impact on willingness to attend. Given the smaller anticipated numbers, they should also consider seating that is socially distant. While it, in theory, reduces revenues, that may not be true in practice, since audiences will be smaller.”
A readily available vaccine against COVID-19 would motivate two-thirds of the respondents to come back, meaning that the psychological effect of this pandemic may be so profound that even if a vaccine were available in time for a September, 2020 opening – a scientific impossibility at this point – a third of the survey of regular theatergoers would be reluctant to return immediately.
Do you expect there will be any difference, we asked, if the reality becomes that the first opening night is actually September 2021, or even March, 2022? ” Yes. In March 2022, we will all know a lot more about the virus. And there could (possibly) be a vaccine or treatment. So yes, I think things would be different with a March opening.”
Do you think, we asked, there will be a point in time of continued social isolation after which live theatre, as we know it, will no longer exist? “I have been thinking a lot about this lately and, sorry to say, it is a possibility. Many things in a normal world are likely to change and this is one. Having said that, we all know that there is nothing like the joy of being in an audience with others watching live theater.”
Shugoll Research will continue checking in with its group of theatre attendees. “The situation is very fluid. These questions are important. We’ll probably do one or more surveys before fall,” Shugoll said.
The online survey was conducted between April 8 and 9, 2020. The survey group consisted of 2,762 people, at least 21 years of age and having attended at least two professional productions in the previous year. The survey group represented audiences customarily attending venues from the largest, such as the Kennedy Center, to medium size venues such as Theater J. The mean age of the responding group was 50.6; 21% of the group was 65 or older. 97% of the interviewees were college graduates or beyond. 62% had incomes of $100,000 or more; 36% had incomes of $150,000 or more. The surveyed population was 69% female and 31% male.
A free copy of the Executive Summary or the Full Report is available from Shugoll Research.