Key takeaways

  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, many theaters presented performances online, explored new ways to engage with audiences and attracted unprecedented government funding.
  • A UCLA report says that practices like those could help lead the U.S. theater industry to a more sustainable future.
  • The recommendations could be crucial at a time of declining financial support for the arts, shrinking performance schedules and an aging audience base, as well as the threat of more canceled performances due to extreme weather.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. theater operators began presenting performances online instead of in person, seeking new ways to engage audiences and pursuing more reliable funding from government agencies and other groups. 

Now, the question is: Could those practices point the way toward a more sustainable future for theaters in a post-pandemic world?

A report by UCLA professor Barbara Fuchs and Rhonda Sharrah, a UCLA doctoral candidate in English, contains a range of recommendations that could be critical at a time of declining financial support for the arts, lower ticket revenue, shrinking performance schedules and an aging audience base. 

Barbara Fuchs portrait
Todd Lynch
Barbara Fuchs, UCLA distinguished professor of English and of Spanish.

Adopting lessons learned during the pandemic, Fuchs said, would also prepare arts organizations for dealing with a likely consequence of climate change: more frequent disruptions to live performance schedules caused by severe weather events.

An overriding conclusion from the report: Theater companies, producers and other stakeholders must collaborate to build a cohesive case — and lobbying strength — for attracting greater public and private support. That cooperation would also encourage theater organizations to share successful business strategies with one another.

“There’s a growing long-term crisis around theaters’ traditional subscription model,” said Fuchs, a UCLA distinguished professor of English and of Spanish and director of UCLA’s Diversifying the Classics project. “The pandemic accelerated that crisis yet also led to unprecedented government funding, which demonstrated how much money could be made available for the sector. 

“Crucially, theater organizations that had never before flexed their lobbying muscles saw what could happen if they worked together.”

The report presents recommendations for theater companies, government agencies and funding organizations. It focuses on nonprofit theaters in Los Angeles and New York City but also surveys the larger landscape, offering conclusions that are applicable across the U.S.

The report recognizes how complex it is to innovate from a place of scarcity: “For all its progressive politics,” it states, “the theater sector appears quite conservative when it comes to trying new models. This is partly because it is poorly supported, with little in the way of guidance, and largely because it is difficult to innovate or think long-term from a state of crisis.”

Key recommendations include:

  • Expand access for audiences. Theater organizations should increase outreach to families and young people, as well as those who cannot make their way to the theater, in part offering lower ticket prices and special pricing for those audience members. 
  • Continue leveraging livestreaming. Presenting performances online — even during “normal” times — would help build relationships with new audience members and those in underserved communities.
  • Prepare for climate catastrophes. Fires, smoke, storms and flooding are already disrupting productions and forcing cancellations across the country. Companies should build climate resilience and decarbonization into their organizational models and future goals.

The report also lays out a compelling case for increased government funding for the arts. Two clear benefits would be revitalizing downtowns and supporting workforce development.

“The pandemic threw into sharp relief the precarity of working conditions in the theater industry,” Sharrah said. “Preexisting inequalities and the creative workforce’s unique needs made it one of the hardest-hit economic sectors. But the crisis also inspired important conversations about how to rebuild after the pandemic in ways that center artists’ health and well-being and that recognize the essential economic and cultural impact of their work.”

Fuchs and Sharrah will present the recommendations on a livestream on April 3 (see sidebar). The event will feature a conversation with two key interlocutors: Corinna Schulenburg, director of communications and research for the national service organization Theater Communications Group, and Greg Reiner, theater and musical theater director of the National Endowment for the Arts’ performing arts division.

The report on theater in the U.S. is part of the international study “Pandemic Preparedness in the Live Performing Arts,” which includes researchers from the United Kingdom, U.S., Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan. That study was funded by the British Academy. 

Fuchs is also the author of the 2021 book “Theater of Lockdown: Digital and Distanced Performance in a Time of Pandemic,” which examined the industry’s response to COVID-19.