Earlier this year, Seattle Opera produced “Blue,” its third full, in-person production since pandemic shutdowns began in March 2020. Despite its timing at the tail end of the omicron variant, “Blue” had the third-highest single-ticket sales of any contemporary work Seattle Opera has produced in the last 20 years.
Seattle Opera spokesperson Josh Gailey said it is difficult to compare the opera’s current season to the last full season pre-pandemic, as they differ in both number of shows and performances per show, but single-ticket sales for last October’s “La Bohème” were comparable to sales for similarly popular operas pre-pandemic.
Subscription sales, on the other hand, are down, and audiences are buying their tickets later than ever, which Gailey said makes planning challenging. Many subscribers, he said, do not yet feel safe returning to the theater in person, so Seattle Opera is offering them an online streaming option.
Seattle’s performing arts organizations have work to do to recover from ticket sales lost to the pandemic, and leaders say they are by no means out of the woods. Shows with name recognition or Broadway status are drawing wider audiences, but some shows with less name recognition are finding that more difficult. In many places, leaders say, season subscription sales are down, with patrons not yet ready to commit to longer-term in-person, communal experiences, especially as the pandemic ebbs and flows.
That’s happening at the 5th Avenue Theatre, where “Beauty and the Beast,” its most recent production, saw pre-pandemic-level success with 30,000 attendees, but subscription numbers are down. The current season has about 10,000 subscribers, compared to 20,000 in 2018-19, its last full season pre-coronavirus, according to managing director Bernie Griffin.
“As we’re coming back out of the pandemic, we have all of the expenses and half of the revenue,” Griffin said. “There is going to be deficit budgeting for this theater as well as for places like the ballet and the opera, the symphony and the Rep, and all of us for the next three years. Because you don’t just pop on back.”
Griffin said investing in a strong subscription base is vital; subscriptions, she said, form relationships with patrons that allow for an organization’s planning.
“We love single-ticket buyers, but that’s more of a transactional thing. Subscribers go on a journey with us. They go on a journey of storytelling that is curated just for them to be part of,” she said.
The 5th Avenue, Griffin said, is gearing up for new subscription campaigns, with a focus on downtown Seattle, a community that tends to produce single-ticket buyers.
“Downtown is the highest concentration of our residential community in the city, and they’re within walking distance,” she said. “I am really interested in getting the word out about what they have, just steps away, that can add to the quality of their life.”
Subscriptions are down for Pacific Northwest Ballet, too, by about 20%, according to spokesperson Gary Tucker.
At Seattle Theatre Group, which runs the Paramount, Moore and Neptune theaters, subscription renewals for the 2022-23 season are on par with renewals at this same time in 2019, according to Josh LaBelle, executive director. LaBelle noted that 2022-23 subscription renewal numbers so far are based solely on the Broadway at the Paramount series, which brings in touring Broadway hits (such as, for next season, Tony Award winners for best musical “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” and “Hadestown”). STG has not yet announced the non-Broadway portion of its 2022-23 season, but LaBelle said it’s not unusual for performing arts centers to obtain 40-50% of their revenue from Broadway tours.
While STG is receiving a strong response to Broadway shows, LaBelle said it has been harder to engage audiences in events that are not as “popular culture-orientated,” such as dance, silent film and family arts.
And ticket sales are behind. Paramount Theatre is averaging 83% in available tickets sold this season, compared to an average of nearly 92% of available tickets sold in the 2018-19 season, and STG’s other theaters are similarly behind, LaBelle said. Overall, from September 2021 to January 2022, STG had $15.6 million in total ticket sales (single-ticket and subscription) for 221 shows, while the same time period in 2018-19 saw $29 million in total ticket sales for 373 shows.
As they work to recover from the pandemic shutdowns, Seattle-area arts organizations are generally centering two practices: maintaining caution around COVID-19 safety and addressing the racial reckoning that coincided with the pandemic.
Part of Seattle Opera’s racial equity plan is prioritizing work by artists of color, and initial reports show that “Blue,” a 2019 opera about contemporary African American life and police brutality, had a very diverse audience, Gailey said.
“‘Blue’ is an opera that touches on topics that are, sadly, relevant today, told from a perspective that is underrepresented on the opera stage,” Gailey said. “The opera’s powerful message and the performers’ emotional portrayals created an experience that resonated deeply with our audiences and drew in new ones.”
Reaching a wider, more diverse audience, while not an immediate cure for low ticket sales, is going to help the health of the performing arts in the long run, LaBelle said.
STG, he said, has committed 10% of its advertising budget to buying ad space in local Black, Indigenous and people of color media outlets and has hired a consultant to conduct a survey with audiences about awareness and perception of STG, as well as barriers to engaging with STG.
“The whole vision of the people’s theater is our driver,” he said. “We know that our investments in racial equity, for example, will ultimately create a broader base of support for us in the Pacific Northwest. And we don’t expect immediate returns on that.”
While large performing arts organizations work to boost their sales, some smaller organizations are wrestling with whether they are ready to produce again at all.
Pork Filled Productions, a Seattle-based Asian American theater company, returned to the in-person stage for the first time this month with three shows hosted at Cafe Nordo the last three Mondays in March. This is not a format they have done before, but executive director Roger Tang said the first show went well and the last two are nearly sold out. They have one full-length production planned this summer, but Tang said he would not be surprised if they had to return to virtual programming once again, which they are prepared to do.
A large concern at Pork Filled Productions is keeping the cast and staff safe, Tang said. They have a stash of COVID tests on hand, and they’re supplying KN95 masks for rehearsals — periods that are extra long to include potential sick time — but dealing with audiences is challenging.
“Too many people will think the pandemic is over, no matter what the caseload actually is,” he said. “We don’t have the clout of a Seattle Rep or Opera … to get audiences masked and vaccinated so we can keep our actors safe.”
As for resources for the show, Tang said Pork Filled is “drawing on all the strings we can.” They’ve applied for new grants from community foundations to increase artistic stipends, and the Society of American Fight Directors is providing the cast with a free stage combat course. Pork Filled is also raising money from individual donors for costumes and ASL interpreters.
As Seattle performing arts organizations practice cautious optimism, LaBelle and Griffin both recognize that the success of their large performing arts organizations is tied to the success of smaller ones, calling for continued support of all organizations.
“Specifically all organizations that are seated, ticketed performances, we have been hand-in-glove through the last two years,” Griffin said. “This will continue to be a journey for the recovery of this sector … and we’ll make it, but we have to get there together.”
This coverage is partially underwritten by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over this and all its coverage.