March of the play-goers 

Tracking the theater audience migration

Most playhouses survive on narrow margins, so any bad financial sign is like a cough to a hypochondriac: Is this the onset of double-pneumonia, or just a tickle in the throat? When Horizon Theatre, along with many other Atlanta theater companies, saw a downturn in audience attendance this autumn, artistic director Lisa Adler recalls that the worst thing was not knowing why ticket buyers were staying away. "We didn't know if it was due to Katrina, if it was high gas prices, or something more durable."

Other ominous signs have emerged over the past year, on both the local and national stage. In its annual survey, Theatre Facts 2004, American theater advocacy organization Theatre Communications Group reported a continued decline in attendance from 2003 and 2004. The same survey reported some good news, though, such as an increase in theater companies operating in the black compared to previous years. And while Atlanta playhouses currently enjoy improved business thanks to Christmas cash-cow shows, January and February will provide a more accurate diagnosis of local theater's health.

The performing arts aren't alone in seeing their audiences drift in and out. Low movie attendance made headlines all year long, with cinema earning 8 percent less over the first nine months of 2005 compared to last year. Of the many potential factors that dissuade the arts consumer, some are fleeting, while some promise to be the new normal.

Few theaters emerged unscathed from the leap in gas prices after last summer's hurricanes. The Center for Puppetry Arts pointed specifically to the cost of gas and its effect on school bookings when it rescheduled its 2005-'06 season. The center canceled the world premiere of The Great Mummy Mystery by the ingenious Jon Ludwig and, starting in April, eliminates its Tuesday performances in favor of a Wednesday through Sunday schedule.

There's a probably spurious theory that movie attendance drops because the movies themselves aren't as good. Can that apply to Atlanta theater? At Actor's Express, this fall's Bug wasn't as popular as last fall's Killer Joe, even though playwright Tracy Letts wrote both, and the former proved a much richer work. Perhaps audiences wanted a more fast-paced, funny-ha-ha show like Killer Joe and were put off by Bug's dark, disturbing vision.

Overall, 2005 seemed relatively light on eventful, innovative shows (despite such delights as Theatre in the Square's Take Me Out or 7 Stages' Caryl Churchill Festival). The sheer quantity of material took a modest dip: The Alliance Theatre held only two fall productions where in previous years it often has offered three, and Dad's Garage presented no mainstage show during the summer.

But a critic's tastes seldom tend to be a barometer for popularity. I was no fan of Menopause the Musical, although it's played to about 75,000 people over more than 200 performances at the 14th Street Playhouse and is scheduled to run at least through January. Which broaches the topic of competition. Unquestionably a hot ticket, Menopause nevertheless does not seem to be siphoning the audience from other Atlanta theaters. Offering a kind of 90-minute party for women of a certain age, it attracts people literally from outside the local theater pool. In August, the show booked a single party of 103 from South Carolina.

Theater should worry more about competition from other media, particularly the phenomenon of online-driven consumption. Pop music marks a sharp contrast to live theater: Although album sales dropped 10 percent in the last year, music downloads prove increasingly popular and profitable. Where theater used to rely heavily on subscriptions for income, single-ticket, spur-of-the-moment sales are becoming the norm. Dad's Garage, which comfortably weathered the fall, not only appeals to a wired, youthful audience, but through live improv offers an arts product that can't be replicated online.

The playhouses best equipped to face whatever 2006 throws at them will be the ones that emphasize the old-fashioned immediacy of live performance while providing potential audiences with show information the way they want it -- which is increasingly high-tech. Every playhouse should foster a chatty online community as an extension of its mailing list. When people can watch TV shows on their cell phones, theaters must take every advantage of new media to get their message out. Future fans face increasing demands on their time and attention, no matter how low gas prices get.

Morph This

Next year Georgia Shakespeare promises some fun shows, such as a remount of the flamboyantly silly Comedy of Errors for its free "Shake at the Lake" production at Piedmont Park, and a fall production of Othello, starring Brandon J. Dirden and directed by Alliance associate artistic director Kent Gash. But the big guns come out at summer.

Opening June 7, Hamlet reteams Daniel May (in the title role) and director Jasson Minadakis, who frequently work together at Actor's Express. (Minadakis is no stranger to the Bard, having formerly been the artistic director of the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival.) Hamlet plays in rotating repertory with the comedy Twelfth Night in June and July, then Georgia Shakespeare presents the regional premiere of Mary Zimmerman's acclaimed Metamorphoses (July 27-Aug. 13), which converts the stage into a 24-foot-wide swimming pool -- and explains why the show will not run in repertory with the other two ... unless they come up with aquatic concepts for the other shows -- a men's synchronized swimming version of Hamlet, perhaps?


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