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Theaters rebuild from canceled, delayed seasons

The pandemic shutdown and resulting loss of performance and other operating revenue has strong and long-lasting financial implications for nonprofit theater groups
Credit: SLBJ
The Muny's Kwofe Coleman (left) and Denny Reagan said season ticket renewals were at 81% before the pandemic hit, a "very good number."

ST. LOUIS — "It was shaping up to be a great year.”

That’s how Kwofe Coleman, managing director of The Muny, summed up what the outdoor theater’s 2020 season looked like before the pandemic shut down operations in mid-March.

Season ticket renewals had wrapped up and new subscriptions had gone on sale March 9, but a week later the city of St. Louis’ stay-at-home order took effect due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Renewals were 81% at that point, a very good number, and we still had a little time,” Denny Reagan, president and CEO of the historic outdoor theater said. That compared with about 78% a year ago. “New sales looked like they were in good shape. For season tickets at least, it looked like we were going to hit that at $8.9 million,” up a bit from last year’s budget. 

The first few days of new season ticket sales, sales to lapsed subscribers and gift card sales “were definitely trending in the right direction,” Coleman said, two months before single-ticket sales would begin for the 11,000-seat theater.

However, The Muny, operated by the nonprofit Municipal Theatre Association of St. Louis, now is facing a nearly $4.5 million deficit after earlier this week announcing the postponement of its seven-show season until summer 2021.

As of late April, The Muny had only planned to delay the start of the 2020 season to July, moving two shows into 2021. But after analyzing a variety of scenarios to accommodate social distancing and health concerns for performers, crew and audience, the theater’s executive committee decided last week not to proceed with the season.

The pandemic shutdown and resulting loss of performance and other operating revenue has strong and long-lasting financial implications for nonprofit theater groups locally and nationwide. That will likely force theater groups such as The Muny and The Repertory Theatre St. Louis to turn even more to members and subscribers, as well as donors with deeper pockets, for increased support. 

“I think you’ll continue to see these reschedules or postponements throughout the summer, and into the fall,” said Chris Hansen, executive director of the Kranzberg Arts Foundation, a St. Louis-based arts-focused nonprofit that’s playing a leading role in reopening arts venues in the region. “Not only because there are safety issues, but also financially, it’s very, very challenged to be viable.” 

PRESERVING A SEASON

Before the pandemic completely shut down operations at The Repertory Theatre St. Louis, it had completed five of six Mainstage productions in its ’19-’20 season, and two of three Studio Series plays. Ticket sales so far were down 4.5% from the prior year, but still on pace to be considered a success. 

“Had we completed the last two shows of the season, it would have been our third highest-selling season in the theater’s history, just behind the 50th anniversary season and (former artistic director) Steve Woolf’s farewell season,” according to Hana Sharif

Sharif is in the midst of reorganizing her second season as The Rep’s artistic director. Before the shutdown, she had launched an ambitious ’20-’21 schedule, adding “A Christmas Carol” as an annual holiday offering, and splitting six Mainstage shows between The Rep’s home on Webster University’s campus and COCA’s new Berges Theatre to extend technical rehearsals and previews.

But it announced to subscribers June 5 that it is pushing the ’20-’21 season back from its usual September start to December with “A Christmas Carol.” The Rep plans to announce Sept. 1 an extended winter-spring season to run into 2021.

“Our goal is to preserve as much of the previously announced 2021 season as possible,” she said.

That isn’t easy. Any planning, she said, is dependent upon whether the region is hit by a second wave of COVID-19 infections. And patrons are in wait-and-see mode, expressing trepidation over returning to live theater too soon. 

“We’re hearing from a lot of patrons that they’re just a little nervous, understandably, about what reopening will look like, what will be happening in terms of COVID-19 in our communities,” she said. “They are waiting until the season launches to really make final decisions around renewals.”

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