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Report finds theater subscriptions falling

By Mark Kennedy
AP Drama Writer / December 2, 2011
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NEW YORK—A new national survey shows that the way people pay for theater tickets has changed over the past few years, with subscription sales down but single-ticket purchases up.

The Theatre Communications Group issued a report this week that showed average subscription income dropped by 15.1 percent for 113 theaters between 2006 and 2010. But the number of single-ticket buyers rose by 3 percent over the same five-year period.

"I would speculate that the reason is because there's ever increasing kinds of opportunities that people have for leisure time," said Teresa Eyring, executive director of the group, the national association for American theaters.

"People are just busier and there's more stuff to do so people's desire to commit to four or five plays at one theater ahead of time is less," she said. "It may also be because new generations of theatergoers are less inclined to have that particular kind of relationship with theaters."

Sixty-two percent of the theater companies participating in the survey said that they ended the year in the black -- a larger number than the 43 percent in 2008 and the 41 percent in 2009 -- even though contributions fell from corporate and state sources.

"Overall, it was a better year for the theater field," said Eyring, who added that theaters seem to be getting better about managing their resources and financial health.

The overall national economy has a significant impact on the fiscal health of theaters, just as it does on other nonprofits, Eyring said.

National theater attendance also fell last year, but only by 3.6 percent, and the report found that while attendance at main stage productions declined, there was a 28.5 percent jump in attendance at less structured events like workshops and readings over the five-year period.

"Theaters are getting better about realizing that there's value to their communities to make different kinds of opportunities available besides just buy-a-ticket-and-come-see-a-show," Eyring said.

The data came from a subgroup of 1,807 not-for-profit theaters nationwide. According to a separate Theatre Communications Group report, theaters offered 163,000 performances that attracted over 31 million attendees and pumped nearly $1.9 billion into the U.S. economy.

One worrying sign for Eyring is a steady decline in the resources theaters have to meet their financial obligations and day-to-day cash needs, which may inhibit risk and experimentation. "It's not devastating right now, but if it keeps going more and more negative I think it could mean more problems for more theaters."

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