At the Intersection of Optimism and Uncertainty
A continued recovery harbors some worrisome omens
By Celia Wren
Sidebar 1: Reaching Audiences: Something Old and Something New
Sidebar 2: Working Capital: The Cloud's Silver Lining
Sidebar 3: Younger than Springtime (and Much Too Busy)
Sidebar 4: Just Live with It: Flexible Subscriptions and Small Packages
Is the glass half full or half empty? That's the question one might ask after skimming through Theatre Facts 2005, the latest edition of TCG's annual report on the not-for-profit theatre's fiscal health. On the one hand, the document bears some glad tidings: The financial turnaround that was detectable in the industry in 2004, after a notably rocky period following 9/11, has in some respects continued. The majority of theatres ended the year in the black, and most of those that didn't sustained deficits that were less severe than in the previous two years. After adjusting for inflation, income is up 15.5 percent over the past half decade, while contributed income shot up an impressive 21.8 percent. And, for the first time in this millennium, five-year earned income growth surpassed expense growth.
But don't pop those champagne corks yet: The data also contains some unnerving signs. Attendance has dropped in nearly every performance category. Subscription numbers have flagged, as have subscription renewal rates. Moreover, working capital hit a five-year low in 2005, suggesting that theatres are strapped for cash to meet their day-to-day needs, a trend that is "cause for serious concern," according to the report's authors.
Written by Zannie Giraud Voss and Glenn B. Voss, with Christopher Shuff and Ilana B. Rose, Theatre Facts 2005 takes a hard look at financial and attendance statistics furnished by theatres for fiscal years that ended between Sept. 30, 2004, and Aug. 31, 2005. Fleshed out with charts and graphs designed to make the numbers comprehensible, the analysis was issued in June, and it's available as a PDF.
The report zooms in on its topic from several angles. To convey the big picture, the section titled "Universe" draws on information provided to the IRS by 1,490 not-for-profit professional theatres across the country. On a more detailed level, the "Trend Theatres" section chronicles developments at 100 companies whose data TCG has tracked over the past five years.
Finally, "Profiled Theatres" gives the scoop on 202 institutions that completed TCG's long-form fiscal survey in 2005. At this point, the numbers are broken out by budget size: Theatres with a budget of $10 million or more constitute Group 6; those with budgets ranging from $5 million to $9,999,999 million make up Group 5; and so on, down to Group 1, the smallest theatres, whose budgets clock in at $499,999 or less.
Starting with the broadest panorama, Theatre Facts 2005 notes that the Universe Theatres staged 169,000 performances of 12,000 productions, relying on a workforce of 111,000, of whom 63 percent were artistic personnel. In the process, the industry contributed significantly to the U.S. economy, funneling nearly $1.53 billion in direct expenditures into the nation's pecuniary bloodstream. The impact of not-for-profit theatre is arguably even greater, since the figure just cited does not include the dollars that theatregoers are forking over to babysitters and restaurants, for example, or payments the babysitters and restaurant owners are making, in turn. That's presumably all money that benefits Uncle Sam.
Also on a positive note, there's some good news about the industry's bottom line: 54 percent of Universe Theatres finished the year in the black—the same as last year, admittedly, but still a pleasant contrast to 2003, when more than half the theatres incurred a deficit. In fact, in 2005, CUNA (Change in Unrestricted Net Assets) as a percentage of expenses reached its highest level since 2000.
What, you may ask, is CUNA? Well, it's the most helpful measurement of an institution's economic welfare over the course of a year, calculated as the institution's total unrestricted income minus its total unrestricted expenses. Jettisoning the high-finance jargon, one might say a positive CUNA means an end-of-the-year surplus, while a negative CUNA signifies a deficit. (Restricted assets, like funds that are designated and held for a capital campaign, are not factored into CUNA.) As we'll see, CUNA at the theatres assessed in Theatre Facts 2005 tended to climb in a "healthy" way, in the opinion of the authors.
So far, so good. But before we leave the Universe section, let's point to a development that former TCG executive director Ben Cameron, addressing the 2006 TCG conference in Atlanta, called "potentially frightening": Universe Theatres derived 51 percent of their income from earned sources—ticket sales and other lucrative activities—and 49 percent from contributions. That's a striking change from five years ago, when 59 percent of income was earned and 41 percent contributed. Combined with data assessed in other parts of Theatre Facts 2005, the shift prompted Cameron to warn that "Our field is increasingly reliant on contributed income and we are witnessing a steady erosion in earned revenues."
This phenomenon, together with factors like the aforementioned drop in attendance and subscriptions, indicate that the not-for-profit theatre has arrived at a recovery that's also a period of significant transition—a time that's full of possibility, but rife with omens that bear watching. Interviews with managing directors and other theatre leaders across the country bear out this view: The mood tends toward a wary hopefulness tempered by strains of stoicism and anxiety.
"It's guarded optimism I have right now," says Ron Clark, co-artistic director of Iowa City's Riverside Theatre, recalling that while his theatre hit a sluggish stretch in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks, things are now looking up. "There was such a lethargy after 9/11," Clark notes. "People just hunkered down. The mood of our community now is more optimistic. There's more of a sense that people have the energy and willingness to go out and enjoy some entertainment."
David Frank, producing artistic director of American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wis., says the "palpable excitement and hunger" he senses for the company's work makes him think that "if we stick with it, and think ahead and act conscientiously and not selfishly, the future looks very promising," albeit "not without its challenges."
Others are less sanguine. "There's rarely been a time of so much uncertainty," states Berkeley Repertory Theatre managing director Susan Medak. She thinks that the "niche structure of the marketplace"—the modern vogue for personalized news and entertainment options, and the corresponding dearth of shared cultural touchstones—"has created a new set of problems that so far none of us have been able to solve in terms of audience-building."
And Michael Maso, managing director of Boston's Huntington Theatre Company, sees the moment as "a difficult time." And he adds, "The biggest trend that matters to all of us right now is this decline of audiences—no question that seems to be happening."
It is indeed happening—but let's contemplate the good news first. Looking past the Universe data to the more detailed parts of Theatre Facts, we find that 57 percent of Trend Theatres realized positive CUNA in 2005. That's a slightly smaller percentage than did so in 2004, but it's still a notable improvement on 2002 and 2003, when the majority of theatres were mired in red ink. Of course, the year didn't serve up salad days to everyone: A peek at the Profiled Theatres shows us that some of the smaller theatres, those in Group 2, finished the year with negative CUNA. The same would have been true for Group 1 companies, the Theatre Facts authors note, had the exceptional activity of one institution not distorted the data somewhat.
Wafting this somewhat uneven prosperity along were healthy currents of contributed income. Average federal funding for the Trend Theatres has escalated each year since 2002, and even once one has eliminated from the analysis one particular theatre whose unusual record in 2004 skews the results, federal funding rose 39 percent over inflation over the past five years. In that time period, average state funding spiked 83 percent over inflation, though again the authors observe that an abnormal pattern at one theatre affected the statistics. Local support has fluctuated from year to year, but risen gently overall. And corporate support has been relatively buoyant: Though the number of donors decreased, larger average gifts allowed the funding stream to outpace inflation by 32 percent over five years.
Foundation generosity was more precarious. Although an 18 percent surge between 2004 and 2005 countered the downward slide of the previous three years, the correction was too mild to beat inflation. Average grants are smaller now—$31,600, down from $37,500—and all in all foundation largesse supported 1.4 percent fewer expenses in 2005 than in 2001.
Individual donors are the hero of the hour, as they have been for several years now: Individual gifts (from trustees and other folk) constituted "by far" the largest source of contributed funds in each year since 2001, the Theatre Facts authors point out. In fact, individual donations buttressed 4.2 percent more expenses in 2005 than in 2001.
The earned income outlook is more of a mixed bag. Between 2001 and 2005, the proportion of expenses supported by ticket sales sank 6 percent at Trend Theatres, due to an income hike that failed to beat inflation. Turning to the Profiled section, we see that on average, the smaller the theatre, the lower the proportion of expenses covered by earned income. Group 1 companies met only 36.2 percent of expenses with earned income, as opposed to 69.1 percent for the Group 6 category.
On the other hand, the capital gains/losses figures provide some comfort: Trend Theatres racked up an eye-popping 315-percent growth in capital gains over the last five years. In fact, the unrestricted funds emanating from capital gains almost compensated for the drop in total ticket income, the authors of Theatre Facts observe.
The analysis yields other intriguing informational nuggets, including a remarkable factoid about royalty proceeds. It turns out that average royalty income has lessened each year since 2001, even though—the plot thickens!—theatres are not producing fewer new works. Quite the contrary: In 2005, the number of new properties hitting the limelight—283—was at a five-year high. Mirroring the erosion in royalty income has been a diminution of royalty expense, which, on average, plunged 30 percent below inflation between 2001 and 2005. The ghost in the machine here may simply be the dwindling of audiences, since royalties are generally paid out as a percentage of box office. It's also conceivable that a few high-earning properties wore out their welcome during this time period, leaving a perceptible impact on the money stream.
By contrast, production income (a category that includes both co-production and enhancement income) was up in 2005, reaching a level three times higher than that of 2004—an indication that co-productions continue to be appealing as a way of sharing costs and pooling resources on more expensive shows. Sometimes the co-production approach pays off in terms of relationships, as well as dollar signs, notes Kansas City Repertory Theatre managing director William Prenevost. "You find you work so well together, if you can save 20 or 30 thousand dollars, you want to do it," he says. "So I think that trend will continue. You might see that it's been maxed out, but I don't see it happening less."
Another notable statistic: Average single-ticket income topped subscription income for every budget group of Profiled Theatres in 2005, a change from previous years, in which Group 5 theatres reaped more from subscribers. Other subscription-related indices are also telling: At Trend Theatres, the total number of seats filled by subscribers fell by 10 percent between 2001 and 2005, and the subscription-renewal rate plummeted from 73 percent to 63 percent. "The decline in subscriptions is evident in every analysis," the authors of Theatre Facts note grimly.
Is the subscription model on the skids? It's not a new fear. "Every few years one of the chief concerns of the theatre is that subscriptions are declining and we need to find another model," says Teresa Eyring, managing director of the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis. However, she goes on, "A lot of theatres are ringing the bell that the subscription decline is more serious this time."
The waning of the traditional subscription system is a blow for theatres, since it means less guaranteed income up-front and since single-ticket buyers may turn up their noses at more adventurous fare. Also, marketing a season show-by-show is more costly than marketing subscriptions, and the expense is only increasing: In 2005, theatres shelled out 3.5 cents more on marketing for every dollar of single-ticket income they raked in, by comparison with 2001.
But there may be no way back to the good old days of subscription, given the contemporary individual's apparent unwillingness to plan far ahead—perhaps a symptom of unease bred by security concerns. An even bigger culprit may be the modern vogue for custom-tailored culture—think iPods and play-when-you-like podcasts or even personalized cell phone rings. As Dallas Children's Theater executive artistic director Robyn Flatt puts it with some exasperation, "Everyone's such a darn individual! How do you get people to come to your door?"
Now that we've pondered the "Money In" side of the financial equation, what do we learn from the "Money Out" stream?
We're glad you asked. As it happens, the expense sections of Theatre Facts 2005 share the bittersweet quality that characterizes the document as a whole. On the one hand, it's certainly cheering to see evidence, in the five-year analysis of Trend Theatres, that the field has bounced back from its economic distress in the early part of the decade. In particular, the report detects an employment rebound, stating that "in 2003 and 2004, theatres cut the average number of paid employees, then cautiously added back positions in 2005, resulting in a 9.2 percent increase in total payroll." The tide of pink slips, in other words, has turned.
Also detectable during the time frame has been a shift in resource allocation. The proportion of total expenses spent on artistic payroll at Trend Theatres has declined each year since 2002, while the proportion spent on administrative payroll has risen, surpassing the artistic category in 2005—a first for the five-year period. The authors of Theatre Facts hypothesize that the adjustment reflects the competitiveness of the marketplace, as theatres have sought to keep administrative employees from defecting to better-paying positions in other fields.
Should the ratcheting-up of administrative payroll give us pause, since theatres exist, after all, for the sake of the art, not the administration? One managing director, Marcelle McVay, of Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater, says that, while the trend does cause her a qualm or two, she suspects "it represents, on the positive side, an investment in the future and in growing audiences."
If theatres have been paying somewhat more to administrative staff, they've also been ponying up substantially more in occupancy, building, equipment and maintenance costs. In fact, among Trend Theatres, those expenditures have risen 22 percent above inflation in the past five years—a symptom of the epidemic of construction and facility-renovation within the industry of late. Not surprisingly, there was an accompanying uptick in insurance costs, which jumped 76 percent above inflation. The upside of the building boom is that slightly more companies own their own stages in 2005 than was the case between 2001 and 2003, judging from the information gathered on Trend Theatres.
The crop of new and refurbished buildings helped boost theatres' net assets, which also benefited from endowment growth as the stock market started to stagger back towards pre-recession levels. Both the investments and the fixed assets (e.g., land, buildings and equipment) examined in Theatre Facts 2005 testify to the high number of theatres swept up in capital campaigns in recent years. In 2005, a full 22 percent of Profiled Theatres were engaged in capital campaigns, about half of which had been launched between 2000 and 2003. The phenomenon varies according to theatre size: Over half of the largest companies (Group 6) were forging through a capital campaign, while a mere 6 percent of the smallest ones (Group 1) were doing so.
"Theatres added to both physical capital and invested capital" in 2005, the authors write, and they go on to point out that institutions can use the interest generated by invested capital to meet operational needs. On the other hand, fixed assets like land and buildings don't assist too much with day-to-day cash requirements: You may own a venue with comfortable seats and a to-die-for lobby, but those features won't help you pay the electricity bill. To determine companies' ability to meet such daily obligations, Theatre Facts uses a gauge called "working capital" (the institution's total unrestricted net assets, minus its fixed assets and unrestricted investments). Negative working capital implies that the institution is shouldering accumulated debt and, in order to meet cash-flow needs, is essentially borrowing funds—by delaying payables, say, or taking out loans.
And here's where the bad news sets in: Working capital has been negative at Trend Theatres since 2002, and it hit a new low in 2005. Turning to the budget-sorted data in the Profiled Theatres section, we see that Group 5 and to a lesser extent Group 4 theatres suffered the direst working capital shortage, while only the very largest theatres, in the Group 6 category, achieved positive working capital. Continuing the gloom, the Theatre Facts authors conclude that even the Group 6 achievement was inadequate: When looked at in terms of expenses (the working capital ratio) the positive working capital attained by Group 6 wouldn't even enable the average theatre to operate for a week, if forced to get by on its own resources. "Increasingly negative working capital, an indicator of financial health, may be putting theatres at risk," the authors warn. [See sidebar for more on working capital.]
Even as the mercury rises alarmingly on this financial-health thermometer, audiences seem to be dwindling. Among Trend Theatres, attendance has dipped 5.5 percent over the last five years, even though the total number of performances has actually risen by 4.9 percent. There are a few less somber aspects to the picture: Attendance at children's series swelled by 22.1 percent between 2001 and 2005, and staged readings and workshops attracted a whopping 61 percent more people. But main series attendance had a 6.2-percent decrease during the period and tour attendance sank by 17.6 percent. The attendance outlook was particularly tough for smaller institutions: For the Group 1 category of Profiled Theatres, productions played to only 56 percent capacity, well under the industry average of 70 percent.
What's happening? Some interviewees point to increasing competition for people's attention in the era of Blackberries, webcasts and myriad cable TV options. Others mention a declining interest in real-space community, perhaps paralleling the burgeoning of cyber-communities.
"We're a country at war," commented Alabama Shakespeare Festival producing artistic director Geoffrey Sherman, who had been stranded at Heathrow a day or two previously, when a terrorism scare affected flights to the U.S. "There's an ethos in the country that is preventing people from going out and doing things," he hypothesized, "and one of the things it's preventing them from doing is going to the theatre."
For his part, the Huntington's Maso says that he hasn't encountered any explanations that completely satisfy him. But, he points out, the "not-for-profit" model means that "we are a field that is trying not to depend on ticket sales to define who we are. So we've come to the conclusion here that we simply have to raise more money in order to sustain ourselves. We need to shift the balance so that we are getting more from contributed revenue as a percentage of budget than ever before. And while it's not easy to do that, I think we have a solution. We're not going to close out of town because people aren't coming."
Other theatre leaders felt that, with some adjustments in the industry's modus operandi, audiences could be lured back. Some interviewees speak of making the theatrical experience more interactive—a quality that arguably would appeal to audiences accustomed to the interactive, drag-and-click modality of computers and the Internet.
Along these lines, Michael Ross, managing director of Baltimore's CENTERSTAGE, says his company has made "community engagement" a priority. "After every performance of selected productions, we're doing post-show discussions," he says. "Very, very informal conversations—not us talking to them, but just gathering in the lobby with a cup of coffee." The tactic is already yielding benefits. "We thought about this as a great community service," Ross says, "but it's also an incredible audience-development tool." That's because "if people have a great conversation about the play here, these people are more likely to have a great conversation about the play with friends and colleagues after they leave."
Alabama Shakespeare's Sherman, too, sees communication as a critical strategy at the present time. In order to tempt people from the comfort of their homes during wartime, he argues, theatre has to become "comfortable" as well as challenging—it has to offer what he calls a "concierge experience."
"We need to not only sell tickets, we have to know who these people [the audiences] are," Sherman explains. "We need to talk to them before they come to see the show, whether it's by voice or by e-mail. We need to talk to them while they're at the show—which is what we're doing with curtain speeches after every performance. And we need to talk to them after they leave. We need to be calling them up and saying, 'Thank you very much for coming. We loved having you. What did you think of the show? What can we do to make your experience better?'"
Though he doesn't use the concierge metaphor, Harold Wolpert, managing director of New York's Roundabout Theatre Company, also suggests that theatre must become more of a full-service medium. "Go into Barnes & Noble, and Starbucks is there," he points out, "and they have a reading series and other activity going on." It's a far cry from the days when one entered a bookstore simply to buy a book. In the 21st century, theatres, too, may have to offer a wider range of attractions—whether it be dining options, wine festivals, Internet access or what-have-you—to lure consumers. "It's what they expect from us," Wolpert says, "and we may have to deliver it."
Celia Wren, a former managing editor of this magazine, reviews theatre for the Washington Post.
In case you hadn't noticed, we're in a brave new world of cyber-possibilities—a fact that's high on the radar of theatre leaders, judging by recent interviews. "So many of us, including myself, are just beginning to realize the potential of the Internet," observes Dan Shoemaker, executive director of Actor's Theatre of Charlotte, in North Carolina. At the 2006 TCG Conference, he says, he was "amazed" to encounter "so many people who are using it constantly for almost every aspect of their marketing." In particular, he's intrigued by Internet marketing options that might provide alternatives to prohibitively expensive newspaper advertising rates. "Every year you see the column inch going sky high!" he gripes. "It's not even affordable for us to explore."
Online marketing strategies may appeal greatly to younger audiences, observes Harriet Sheets, managing director of New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, Mass. "If you want to try to change the face of your audience and get younger audiences, electronic media e-mails and websites and online ticketing are the way to do it," Sheets says. "We have experienced online ticketing as the way that people purchase their tickets now—over 50 percent of our ticketing now is online." The situation creates new challenges, of course: Online ticket buyers will often need to pick up their physical ticket at the box office right before the show, increasing the danger of long lines and customer crankiness. "You really have to rethink how you use your personnel in the box office," Sheets says.
Sheets also notes that the New Rep has benefited greatly from Boston's "Big List" database—an initiative that has pooled, cleaned up and analyzed the mailing lists of some 40-odd arts organizations in Bean Town and that allows the organizations to make more informed, targeted selections for direct-mail campaigns. The "Big List" project, which also exists in other cities like Detroit and Philadelphia, sets the tools of the Information Age at the service of a more old-fashioned marketing technique.
The importance of finding a balance between old and new marketing techniques was a refrain that turned up in a number of discussions. While cyber-strategies like e-mail blasts and e-mail newsletters may seem thrillingly up-to-date, as well as convenient, some people warn that it would be a mistake to abandon viable techniques from the age of snail mail.
"We're still trying to do more and more on the Internet," says Kansas City Repertory Theatre managing director William Prenevost. "But the backlash to that is that you forget to do the tried and true things, like subscription parties, which is right out of Subscribe Now!, Danny Newman's book!" Since the surge in two-career couples has made it hard to find a household to host a subscription party, the Rep now holds the events at the theatre. "We might send the invitations out by e-mail and organize it by e-mail, but in the end, it's still selling person-to-person, and it's a very strong way to sell," Prenevost observes. "When you think about it, live theatre is all about the live experience, too, so that's one of the things we like about the technique." —Wren
"Working capital"—it may not be an oft-cited term in most thespians' vocabulary, but theatre leaders know what it is and they know that a lack of it can be scary. "Without working capital you feel just a little bit insecure," says Dan Shoemaker, executive director of Actor's Theatre of Charlotte, in North Carolina. "That's a feeling that a lot of us in the field have right now."
The statistics bear him out. Average working capital—unrestricted funds that a theatre can use to cover quotidian obligations—has taken a nose dive since 2001, clocking in at negative levels in each of the last four years at Trend Theatres. According to the authors of Theatre Facts, this is a matter of "serious concern."
The widespread shortages in working capital can be traced, in part, to the many new and renovated buildings that have cropped up across the country. New facilities show up in the "fixed assets" section of a company's bookkeeping, but such assets don't help too much with daily bills, meaning that the company may need to borrow funds and incur debt in order to keep the wolf from the door.
A few years ago, Actor's Theatre of Charlotte had a chance to move into a new home—a 11,000-square-foot former music store that, after renovations, would house a 200-seat main stage and a 65-seat black box space. It was the realization of a decade-long dream, Shoemaker says.
Obviously, though, you can't overhaul a building without spending money. "We had debt for the outfit of the building," Shoemaker says, but he adds that Actor's Theatre had been prepared for this expenditure and "it's not an expense that is causing a lot of duress." From a fiscal point of view, however, he points out, "Whenever you're adding debt, your working capital is drastically reduced."
The new building, which opened in 2003, has heightened the company's visibility in the community, the executive director says, and there are other benefits. "We've taken the lobby and made it more festive, more open and more inviting," he says. "We want it to be a place where whenever people walk in there, they feel comfortable." After all, he argues, since the 2001 terrorist attacks, "This is what people want to experience—that sense of community, that sense of being secure in an environment of people with like minds." Now, he adds cheerily, "Our seats are comfortable; it's our programming that makes people squirm."
Marcelle McVay, managing director of Victory Gardens Theater, in Chicago, says that her company, too, chose to tolerate a low-working-capital situation as they transitioned to a new facility—a converted neoclassical movie palace known as the Biograph Theater. "Our assumption is that the trend will reverse once we get into the building and there is growth," McVay says, noting that in the Biograph "We are going to have an increased capacity for our playwrights to write for a larger space and we think that will affect the aesthetics in a positive way." A tone of euphoria creeps into her voice when she speaks about the new venue. "It's very exciting—we can hardly stand it!" —Wren
Get them while they're young—it's a rarely disputed tenet of the arts world. Administer ample doses of culture to children early on, the thinking goes, and they're likely to ripen into the audiences of the future. Assuming this logic holds true, there's comfort in realizing that, according to Theatre Facts, attendance at children's series has grown over the past five years, even as attendance at other types of programming dropped.
On the other hand, the number of people served by education and outreach programs in 2005—i.e., 18,477—was down 29 percent from 2004. That's a strikingly precipitous decline. Unfortunately, it's not possible to ascertain the ages of the folks included in this "educational and outreach" total, since the relevant survey question includes adult audiences reached at venues like community centers, prisons and hospitals. Still, since the category embraces arts-in-education and youth services, as well as training initiatives run by theatres, it seems likely that a good portion of that 18,477 number is wet behind the ears.
Are there any significant pressures affecting the flow of children and young people to arts-in-education and youth-services offerings? Executive artistic director Robyn Flatt says climbing gas prices have taken a toll on some of Dallas Children's Theater's programs. "We had a number of schools contact us and say that the gas price was so much higher than their budget for busing students, they couldn't consider taking children out" until the pain at the pump decreased, she said.
But she also points to another phenomenon DCT is grappling with: children with overly hectic schedules. Given the country's current mood, Flatt says, "We're more and more afraid of having our children walk out of the house and play in the neighborhood." As a result, "parents have the kids overcommitted, because they want the kids to be doing something all the time." In the ensuing frenzy of time-consuming extracurricular activities like sports leagues, drama may find itself shut out. "Soccer knows no bounds," Flatt remarks darkly.
Teresa Eyring, managing director of the Children's Theatre Company, agrees that children are increasingly busy. "It's true that kids are really programmed to the minute and in some cases overprogrammed," she says.
At Imagination Stage, in Bethesda, Md., executive director Bonnie Fogel is particularly attuned to the effect such busyness can have on certain summer programs. Three- or four-week summer programs are becoming a harder sell, she thinks, since "parents are doing more with their children than they used to—sending them away more, perhaps; making sure there's not just one summer activity" but several. Fogel takes a stab at what might be running through a typically frazzled parent's head: "Summer vacation is three months, and by golly, every week is going to be filled! If we take a three- or four-week [theatre] program, we can't go hang-gliding in Nova Scotia!" —Wren
"People aren't willing to make long-term commitments right now," observes Ron Clark, co-artistic director of Iowa City's Riverside Theatre. As a response to this problem, Riverside has moved from a traditional subscription package that assigned dates in advance to a flexible pass system—the Riverdog Pass—in which a set price allows the purchaser to attend six events over the course of the season. "We don't require dates. We don't require anything," says Clark. The arrangement presents its own challenges: When people flock to the theatre at the last minute, "it makes our box-office people nuts," Clark says. But he's concluded that "it seems to be the trend and we just have to live with that."
Riverside is not alone in adopting an elastic approach: 9 percent of subscription income stemmed from flexible subscriptions in 2005, according to Theatre Facts—up from 5 percent in 2001. Judging by interviews, smaller subscription packages—admitting the subscriber to three or four plays, say, rather than the whole season—are also a popular option. But offering small packages, too, can be problematic. "The subscribers that are buying the bigger packages—you don't want them to erode," says Harold Wolpert, managing director of New York City's Roundabout Theatre Company. "But subscribers are getting savvy—they know that people are offering smaller packages, so sometimes they will hold out for them." On the other hand, he says, "it's better to have someone buying three plays than no plays."
William Prenevost, managing director of Kansas City Repertory Theatre, says his institution has had some luck luring flexible-subscription buyers into the full-subscription stream. Last year, he says, "a significant number of flex people who were just giving it a try—we were able to convert them into full-season subscribers. In my experience over the years, that's a pattern that comes and goes." Coaxing people in the door may be a step in the right direction, he suggests: "The number of new people you get in and their level of satisfaction, that's your pool for growth in subscriptions." —Wren