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Theatre companies look toward period of rebuilding, 3 years into COVID-19

Ava Pukatch

It's been three years since the coronavirus pandemic shut down performing industries. Audiences have returned, yet theatres still face challenges.

Temar Underwood, artistic director at Red House Arts Center, notes the changed behaviors of a post-pandemic audience — saying it made them more like a Netflix audience.

"They're like 'Look at all these options, I can watch what I want to watch and if I don't like the first 10 minutes I can stop it,'" Underwood said. "They're applying same discernment to what shows they choose to go see. So it's like 'Look, I don't know that show, three years ago I might have been like, oh, I'm gonna go check that out. It might be interesting.' Now they're like 'No, I'm not interested in seeing that.'"

Mike Intaglietta, executive director of the Landmark Theatre, said while the Landmark has had some sellouts like Hamilton last year, audiences just haven't returned to pre-pandemic levels.

"People have just grown accustomed to staying at home for their entertainment as opposed to going out," Intaglietta said. "We're working through that and we're all confident that things are going to be returning in some way closer to the way they were pre-pandemic. We're social creatures. We need to get out and we need to enjoy each other, but it's going to take some time to get there."

The Landmark Theatre is one of the 13 Upstate Theatres in the Alive Downtowns coalition which was seeking $20 million in the state budget. Ultimately the coalition received $5 million.

"Obviously we need that sustaining funding because of the relative lack of audience," Intaglietta said. "I know it can be difficult to understand — we did have 123,000 people. But if we're only occupying 55% of the seats, the building doesn't get any less expensive to run."

Operating under COVID has other costs. Many theaters were COVID testing three or more times a week as entire production teams stayed masks through rehearsals. Trying to attract new audience members is an additional marketing cost.

"As materials and labor all go up and we're still 30% behind where we like to be or typically be in attendance — that's a tough spot to be in," Jill Anderson, managing director of Syracuse Stage, said.

Anderson said another cost of operating theatre in the pandemic is understudies.

"We estimated for next season an understudy cost of $270,000 and even that is not one understudy per every actor," Anderson said. "Even if we invested $270,000 to hire understudies, we might still have to cancel. So institutionally weighing what has the ongoing impact been on our patrons of periodically needing to close shows or cancel performances and what is the value and risk associated with that insurance policy of having understudies on board."

Syracuse Stage had its production of "How to Dance in Ohio" close prematurely as COVID-19 cases infiltrated the production.

Underwood said theatre companies need to strike the balance between what they're capable of producing with financial and health barriers and what audiences want to see.

"A lot of the things that audiences are really excited to see are sort of bigger," Underwood said. "I could certainly say, 'Okay, we're only doing two-person plays that don't require understudies or don't require an ensemble.' But making that choice really affects whether or not audiences are going to come see the show."

Intagliatta, Underwood and Anderson all view the next few years in the theatre industry similarly: a period of rebuilding.

"We've got a few years of pretty substantial investments ahead of us in order to rebuild audiences and reimagine the ways in which we can be a vital part of this community, as the whole world recovers still," Anderson said.

Ava Pukatch joined the WRVO news team in September 2022. She previously reported for WCHL in Chapel Hill, NC and earned a degree in Journalism and Media from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At UNC, Ava was a Stembler Scholar and a reporter and producer for the award-winning UNC Hussman broadcast Carolina Connection. In her free time, Ava enjoys theatre, coffee and cheering on Tar Heel sports. Find her on Twitter @apukatch.