Amid audience woes in Dallas, small performing arts groups are the most vulnerable
The worst of the pandemic seems to be behind us, but performing arts groups nationwide are still reporting lower audience numbers.
Large area groups, like the Dallas Theater Center and Dallas Symphony Orchestra, arecertainly feeling the pain. The DTC, for example, saw a dip of 47% in paid attendance between the 2019 fiscal year and the past season. Season subscriptions have dropped 60%.Other numbers spell trouble, too.
But small and medium-sized companies are even more vulnerable during the downturn in audiences.
Here’s how some of those groups are faring in the D-FW area.
Cry Havoc Theater
At the height of its success in 2018, Dallas’ Cry Havoc Theater won a national children’s theater award presented at the Kennedy Center and its 2018 production Babel was featured in a five-part KERA-NPR podcast. But after the ups and downs of the pandemic, the youth theater is shutting down next year.
“If people aren’t coming to the theater, I don’t know [what to do],” said Mara Richards Bim, Cry Havoc Theater’s founder. “At a certain point, do we keep it alive just to keep it alive? I was of the opinion that we don’t.”
The theater’s total audience last season dropped to a third of what it was in the last full season before the pandemic. Summer productions showed an even starker contrast. The largest audience of Cry Havoc’s 2022 summer productions was just a tenth of its largest summer audience in 2019.
A significant factor in the closure is Richards Bim’s decision to leave the company. Other features of Cry Havoc make it difficult to sustain, like its reliance on teen actors who are mostly available during the summer.
“We were sort of already in an unsustainable position before the pandemic,” Richards Bim said. “I’ve never been paid full time and so we were only operating because we had a lot of unpaid labor.”
As Cry Havoc prepares to close its final season, Richards Bim is worried that several small and medium-sized performing arts groups in the area may shut down.
“I think you would see the experimentation go away,” she said. “Organizations, whether they’re dance or theater, they would go with the tried and true. They wouldn’t be willing to take a risk on younger artists. They would go with what they knew could sell tickets — and that would not be good for Dallas.”
Faced with challenges lingering far longer than most foresaw, many arts groups are going as far as to reimagine their programming from the ground up.
Amphibian Stage in Fort Worth, for example, has experimented with programs like an augmented reality art walk and a video series called This Is My Story, which featured Black men sharing stories from their lives.
Kathleen Culebro, Amphibian Stage’s founding artistic director, said the pandemic was an important time for the theater to “examine who we are and how things are working.”
“We also got to ask ourselves on a very fundamental level, what is theater? What do our patrons need? What do our communities need? And how can we serve those needs?”
Still, Amphibian Stage is also seeing fewer audience members than before the pandemic. The theater expects to end the year with roughly 20-25% fewer sales than the $300,000 it made in 2019.
Amphibian’s core audience is buying memberships, Culebro said, but many of them are not showing up to performances.
“So you’ll have a sold-out house with a lot of empty seats — you know those member patron nights. I think it’s going to be a slow return,” she said.
She said single ticket buyers have been even harder to reach. It’s a trend that’s also showing up in research from SMU DataArts, a project at the university that tracked 47 North Texas arts organizations during the pandemic. From 2019 to 2021, individual contributions to D-FW arts organizations decreased over 60%, a significantly bigger drop than the 13% decline in trustee contributions.
Bishop Arts Theatre Center
It centers on a Black upper-middle-class family preparing a birthday party for their grandmother. The family is watched and commented on by a set of white characters — before things get even stranger.
Ticket sales for the production are about 50% higher than usual, saidTeresa Coleman Wash, Bishop Arts Theatre Center’s founder and executive artistic director.
Audience members, particularly millennials, are returning more quickly to theatrical events at the center, she said. It may have something to do with the theater’s commitment to edgier programs and social justice efforts.
“I’m excited that young people are engaging with our theater more,” Coleman Wash said. “I do think the content is a huge attraction.”
For the theater’s previous show, Curse of the Puerto Ricans, more than 50% of the audience had never been to the center before, Coleman Wash said. And audiences have been coming from places as far-flung as Houston, Louisiana and Oklahoma City.
“We are casting a wider net,” Coleman Wash said. “We saw during the pandemic that people from surrounding communities were willing to drive to our venue.”
Still, the center’s jazz series, which sold out months in advance in pre-pandemic times, is seeing a slower audience recovery. At the most recent jazz concert, Coleman Wash said, there were audience members who hadn’t attended in two and a half years. “I feel like as time progresses, those folks will come back more quickly,” she adds.
Arts Access is a partnership between The Dallas Morning News and KERA that expands local arts, music and culture coverage through the lens of access and equity.
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