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S.F. theater attendance remains to be down. Right here’s how dangerous it’s, and why – SF Chronicle Datebook


PianoFight Inventive Director Rob Prepared tends the Tenderloin venue’s bar on Dec. 8. Picture: Michaela Vatcheva / Particular to The Chronicle

For Rob Ready, one of many bleakest days at PianoFight got here in September, when he’d booked Colorado jam band the Runaway Grooms.

Since reopening PianoFight’s doorways regularly in February, he had lengthy struggled to search out sufficient theater, comedy and music acts to maintain his three-stage Tenderloin venue open three or 4 nights every week, in distinction to a pre-pandemic six nights. However the Runaway Grooms had been particular — by Prepared’s estimation one of the vital gifted teams ever to play PianoFight, with their campfire soundscapes, comfy-blanket vocals, probing guitar solos and virtuoso fingerpicking. He additionally booked an opener, the Golden Plates, to sweeten the deal.

However ultimately, “I don’t suppose they bought one ticket,” Prepared recalled ruefully. “They had been so good, and no person got here to see it.”

The one individuals who confirmed up that night time had been workers, some audiences to a different PianoFight present and the opening band.

“If I might simply get anyone strolling by to listen to the crazy-good music that was popping out of our place, perhaps they’d are available,” Prepared recalled considering because the staff opened the venue’s entrance doorways. “And actually no person walked by for 90 minutes.”

The Taylor Road entrance of PianoFight. Picture: Michaela Vatcheva / Particular to The Chronicle

All through the nation, performing arts producers are struggling to lure audiences again in pre-COVID-19 numbers. Consulting agency TRG Arts has been surveying the attendance of greater than 140 arts theaters, orchestras, performing arts facilities, ballets and operas within the U.S. and Canada for the reason that early days of the pandemic.

Evaluating July 2018 to June 2019 to the identical interval in 2021-22 for theater particularly, attendance was down 51% and income down 50%. However these figures are enhancing over time, TRG Consumer Engagement Officer Eric Nelson mentioned. Evaluating the primary 9 months of 2019 and 2022, TRG discovered that attendance at arts venues as a complete is down 26% and income is down 18%.

“The pattern is we’re getting nearer and nearer,” Nelson mentioned, of pre-pandemic attendance ranges. If numbers proceed enhancing on the similar fee, he predicts that arts attendance will absolutely get well in 2024.

However such a timeline may not work for Prepared, who studies that PianoFight’s bar and ticket gross sales are down 65% in comparison with pre-pandemic ranges.

“It is not sustainable,” he mentioned.

Company discover their seats at PianoFight’s greatest theater. Picture: Michaela Vatcheva / Particular to The Chronicle

Within the Bay Space, theaters report a mixture of attendance numbers. American Conservatory Theater’s subscriptions are down 35%, in keeping with Govt Director Jennifer Bielstein. At TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, they’re down 30%, mentioned Govt Director Debbie Chinn.

But some small corporations report seeing stabilization and even development. In San Francisco, Golden Thread Productions Govt Inventive Director Sahar Assaf studies that attendance has returned to pre-pandemic ranges. Within the East Bay, Bay Space Kids’s Theatre Inventive Director Khalia Davis says ticket gross sales have elevated by 9%. Colin Mandlin, managing director of Oakland Theater Project, mentioned his firm’s attendance is 10% larger now than it was in 2019.

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One probably purpose these small corporations have bucked industry-wide developments is that they every cater to an underserved area of interest. As an illustration, Assaf, of Golden Thread, which produces exhibits in regards to the Center East, mentioned her audiences haven’t got many different native areas the place they will persistently discover content material about themselves.

In Oakland Theater Challenge’s case, Mandlin mentioned, “The ratio of theater corporations to residents in Oakland is far decrease than in Berkeley and San Francisco.”

Director Khalia Davis (middle) works with solid members throughout a rehearsal for Bay Space Kids’s Theatre’s “She Endured, the Musical” on the Osher Studio in Berkeley. Picture: Michael Brief / Particular to The Chronicle 2019

Davis identified that her audiences — households — had been the final who might come again to theater, since kids’s COVID-19 vaccines had been authorized after adults’. She credit her group’s elevated attendance partly to a summer time out of doors manufacturing at Cal Shakes’ Bruns Amphitheater, which helped ease households again into crowds. “They felt like, ‘OK, that is superb as a result of it is exterior,’ ” she mentioned.

She additionally acknowledged it is potential that oldsters see theatergoing as extra of a necessity for his or her kids however as extra of a luxurious for themselves.

Since Might 2020, the humanities analysis agency WolfBrown has been surveying attitudes of audiences who earlier than the pandemic often attended theater, opera and different artwork types about returning to venues. Amongst those that have not come again as a lot or in any respect, prices are an rising concern, particularly for youthful cohorts.

“COVID now could be much less of a priority than the economic system, and far much less of a priority than folks not discovering the applications they need to attend,” Alan Brown, WolfBrown’s managing principal, instructed The Chronicle. “I do not know that the remaining people who find themselves COVID-concerned are ever going to have this psychological epiphany that, ‘OK, it is secure to exit now.’ The people who find themselves coming again are again. The true challenge is the frequency of people that have come again; it is decrease than it was.”

Audiences, he added, are extra risk-averse now; they need to spend cash on artists and titles they already know they will like.

The pattern of declining subscriptions at massive establishments comparable to ACT and TheatreWorks lengthy predates the pandemic. Theatre Communications Group’s annual report Theatre Facts exhibits that from 2016 to 2020, the latest 12 months for which figures can be found, subscription income at 152 theaters throughout the nation steadily decreased as a share of general bills, from 12% to 9.1%. And in-person efficiency confronted stiff competitors earlier than the pandemic compelled theatergoers to turn into sofa potatoes.

In 2017, the analysis group Culture Track revealed a report exhibiting that customers rely a variety of actions underneath the umbrella of “tradition”; foods and drinks are not simply pre-entertainment sustenance however will be the leisure itself.

Meals is without doubt one of the methods PianoFight is making an attempt to draw audiences. In early December, the corporate started internet hosting taco pop-up Mi Morena in its kitchen.

It additionally hopes to search out authorities funding to assist rental subsidies for small outfits hoping to make use of its house. In early 2023, Prepared plans to start out a weekly Open Wednesdays program, the place musicians, improv performers and sketch comedy writers can stroll in to jam or workshop materials.

Beto Salazar of household enterprise Mi Morena serves visitor Mexico Metropolis road meals out of PianoFight’s kitchen. Picture: Michaela Vatcheva / Particular to The Chronicle

Brown believes the {industry} could make extra sweeping adjustments to attract audiences, particularly with subscriptions, which some Bay Space theaters, notably Magic Theatre, have already nixed.

“Loyalty doesn’t accrue to a corporation however to the artwork kind or to an artist or an instrument,” he mentioned. “And we’re asking everybody to be loyal to a corporation.”

He identified that the majority ticket purchases assume a “bilateral relationship” between group and spectator, however in actuality, many spectators need to seek the advice of with mates in shopping for tickets. “We do not facilitate the coordination,” he mentioned.

One different promising mannequin is ClassicCard, an app in Berlin that’s marketed to audiences underneath 30 to assist them discover companions with comparable arts pursuits. One other one is a late consumers’ membership; WolfBrown’s knowledge exhibits that audiences more and more need the choice to buy seats on the final minute — which is smart in a world of COVID symptom monitoring and take a look at taking — and never simply rear-balcony seats, however good seats.

The ClassicCard concept suggests umbrella organizations and native governments might play a a lot bigger position in incentivizing and facilitating theatergoing. Ralph Remington, director of cultural affairs on the San Francisco Arts Fee, mentioned, “We’ll must determine one thing out with bringing folks again downtown.” In the long run, he mentioned, rezoning might assist entice extra foot site visitors by encouraging extra residences and grocery shops blended in with downtown workplaces and business buildings.

PianoFight within the Tenderloin has been struggling to get its attendance to return to pre-pandemic ranges. Picture: Michaela Vatcheva / Particular to The Chronicle

Prepared worries that course of would possibly take too lengthy for PianoFight.

The venue’s location within the Tenderloin used to make it a part of an arts ecosystem: Audiences to close by venues such because the Exit Theatre, the Warfield, the Curran or Chopping Ball would possibly pregame or postgame at PianoFight. However now the Exit has closed, and plenty of different venues are responding to decreased demand by producing fewer exhibits, which suggests fewer feeder exhibits for PianoFight.

Prepared mentioned he is scraping by because of understaffing, together with by often choosing up bar shifts himself.

“One thing that we’re wrestling with proper now could be: How a lot of your reserve cash do you retain burning earlier than you simply say, ‘That is simply not going to work anymore’?”



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