by Sam Hurwitt
When COVID-19 pandemic precautions started closing venues in March of 2020, theaters were hungry for any information about what they could expect. That’s when consulting firm WolfBrown began to put together the Audience Outlook Monitor, an international research project reporting back on shifting attitudes and concerns of theater audiences over time.
“Last March, when our country started shutting down and our venues started closing abruptly, it quickly became clear to me that our sector would need a mechanism for hearing from audiences about how they feel about coming back, because ultimately audiences vote with their feet,” says WolfBrown principal Alan Brown. “Whatever policies are in place or not in place, the audience members ultimately will make up their own minds about whether they’re ready to go out. So I had to conceptualize this study in the period of a couple of weeks, a process that would normally take months. We designed a longitudinal tracking study, which means that data is collected at regular time intervals. And of course then we thought COVID would be over in like five or six months.”
WolfBrown partnered with performing arts service organizations across the country, including Theatre Bay Area and others such as Arts Boston and the League of Chicago Theatres, to poll theater audiences in their regions and disseminate the resulting data to local arts organizations. Its final report came in mid-November.
“It was unlike any study I’ve ever done before, in that there was no time for statistical analysis and report writing,” Brown says. “We had to get the results into the hands of arts managers in real time.”
That timely information proved vital for participating organizations.
“Early on, this sense of isolation hit very hard. It was so unclear what was unique to any of us and what was universal,” says Berkeley Repertory Theatre Managing Director Susie Medak. “I think we were all struggling with the fact that we were living in a universe where you couldn’t make any assumptions. And not having information was compounding the problems we were having. I felt I couldn’t manage from a position of instinct, of learned experience, because everything was new.”
“I’ve heard anecdotally that it informed a number of companies about when they would reopen,” says Theatre Bay Area Executive Director Brad Erickson. “And also, when we were working with performing arts groups around a common protocol around COVID, we could point to these surveys to say, if we all go together and say that you have to show a vaccine card and you have to wear a mask the whole time you’re in there, this is going to actually encourage people to come back.”
The researchers adapted the study and its polling questions in each round to adapt to new conversations around topics such as distancing, proof of vaccination once it was available, and participation in digital programs.
“Between December and April, 90 to 95% of all arts audiences got vaccinated. And then it became, okay, now that you’re vaccinated, what are your issues?” says Brown. “Because we discovered that a lot of vaccinated folks were not ready to go out yet. One of the things we learned is that arts audiences are consuming media and are very influenced by the media. And when the New York Times writes stories about breakthrough infections and vaccinated people getting long COVID, people are influenced, because arts audiences are voracious readers. And then Delta variant hit and knocked the wind out of demand. Between July and August, we lost about 20% of demand. Delta variant set back our sector by five months.”
There were also a few international partners involved, in countries such as Australia and Canada, which provides some interesting contrasts in terms of the impacts of completely different governmental policies on the attitudes of arts audiences. Certainly different messaging and policies in different states and cities around the US have also had a noticeable impact.
“Generally we found art patrons in the Bay Area to be on the more cautious side of the spectrum, very supportive of proof of vaccine admittance policies, very supportive of mask policies,” says Brown. “Whereas in some other cities we saw maybe 20% of people objecting to those policies, in the Bay Area it was like 5%.”
“When I would listen to my colleagues in Texas or in Milwaukee talking about when they were going to open, and I had to determine when were we going to open, I realized that I could not use their information,” says Medak. “Milwaukeeans were going to go back to the theatre long before people from the Bay Area. I could see it in the data. What our information was saying to us is that while we were the most heavily vaccinated community, it also meant that we were the most cautious. It helped us know when we shouldn’t be opening, and that was actually really useful.”
There were definitely some noticeable shifts over time, such as distanced seating becoming less of a concern next to masking and proof of vaccination. But each new wave or variant renewed concerns or introduced new ones.
“It took us months to understand the underlying reasons and concerns that people had,” Brown says. “And they shifted. When we first got our vaccines, there was a sense of liberation and relief. And then it was like, wait a minute, there are strings attached to your protection level. People started learning about breakthrough infections and that vaccinated people could actually carry the virus and transmit it to others, which caused parents to be concerned and caregivers to be concerned. There’s a group of people who are just very, very cautious. And there’s a million reasons for that. Ultimately we cannot know if that’s rational or irrational, and it really doesn’t matter. The fact is they’re not going to darken the door of a theater until they’re comfortable going out.”
Instead of just strategizing how to best to woo holdouts back inside theater doors, Brown suggests arts organizations should also be thinking about how best to meet people where they are.
“One of the big takeaways for me is that the notion of accessibility has really changed under our feet,” he says. “There’s a whole new group of people who now find arts-going to be inaccessible for health reasons. And instead of just pushing them out of the picture in the great unwashed category of lapsed buyers, we actually need to think of them as constituents who have difficulties managing the experience and offer experiences that they can manage. Offering performances with strict health precautions, for example, like distancing. I do think that that accessibility has changed, and we need to respond to that as a sector.”
The latest and last report came out just before news of the latest Omicron variant hit. But even then the upshot was that the outlook is gradually improving, but it will probably be quite some time before audience confidence returns to anything like pre-pandemic levels.
“I’ve always imagined that there would be a sea change in positive movement towards going out,” Brown says. “When kids could get vaccinated, when booster shot were available, when new treatments were being announced, I thought, okay, things, things could really turn around here. And then Omicron. We still have 20 to 30 percent of folks who are not ready to go out yet and may not be ready for quite some time.”
“I kept imagining that there was going to be a time, whether it was October of 2020 or October of 2021, where we declared mission accomplished and we walked back into the Geary Theater to a thousand people seeing a show,” agrees Erickson. “And I don’t think it’s going to be like that. I think it’s going to continue to be a little tentative. We’re going to continue to wear masks, or at least some people will be wearing masks. This is going to go on for a while, and it’s not going to be as free and easy as we just assumed life was before the pandemic. Maybe at some point, but not in the foreseeable future that I can see. And that’s surprising. I really was thinking there was going to be a time when it was over.”
Sam Hurwitt is a freelance journalist and playwright based in the Bay Area. Follow him at