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Pittsburgh performance troupes still face pandemic challenges

Pittsburgh Public Theater says it had a big success with "Murder on the Orient Express."
Michael Henninger
Pittsburgh Public Theater
Pittsburgh Public Theater says it had a big success with "Murder on the Orient Express."

How are Pittsburgh’s nonprofit performing arts groups doing, nearly two and a half years into the pandemic?

With their first full seasons since the pandemic began now on the books, the answer is a resounding "It depends." Groups and venues across the city characterize this season along a spectrum that ranges from encouraging to worrisome.

Joseph Hall, executive director of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty, painted an optimistic picture. “I think we still have a little bit more work to do, but we’re almost there,” he said.

The Kelly Strayhorn produces dance, music and theater events, and also rents out its two venues to other groups. While overall attendance for the group’s own programming was down from pre-pandemic levels, Hall said, “Our facilities have been incredibly busy.”

He estimated that the number of rental events at the organization's 350-seat theater and its smaller Alloy Studios has at least doubled from pre-pandemic levels.

The Kelly Strayhorn has taken COVID-19 precautions — like operating at half of its seating capacity for most events — but Hall is confident enough that for the first time since 2019, the theater is planning to host its big annual fundraiser, House Party, as an in-person event on July 16.

Adil Monsoor performed his solo show "Amm(i)gone" at the Kelly Strayhorn's Alloy Studios.
Kitoko Chargois
Kelly Strayhorn Theater
Adil Monsoor performed his solo show "Amm(i)gone" at the Kelly Strayhorn's Alloy Studios.

Kevin McMahon, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, the region’s largest performing arts presenter, is also upbeat.

He said the Cultural Trust’s flagship series of touring Broadway shows has done well, with sellout runs of productions like “To Kill A Mockingbird” at the Benedum Center downtown. But attendance at other shows, and at other venues, is down. McMahon said the Cultural Trust is unsure whether patrons who haven’t returned already will do so eventually.

Kevin McMahon
Pittsburgh Cultural Trust
Kevin McMahon

“There’s just that little hesitancy there. Are we going to get that last 10 or 20 percent back?” he said.

Arts attendance is down 10 or 20 percent nationally, said Brett Crawford, a Carnegie Mellon University professor of arts management.

But given the ongoing pandemic, Crawford said, those numbers aren't dire. Some research suggests that 2023 “is going to feel more normal,” she said.

COVID's impacts continue to frustrate

Some performance groups in Pittsburgh report bigger declines. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra sold 25 percent fewer tickets in its 2021/22 season than in a typical season before the pandemic, said chief operating officer Marty Bates. “It has been super challenging,” he said.

Bates said one major obstacle has been the steep fluctuation in local COVID-19 numbers. It’s been a real challenge for groups who hoped patrons would return once they were vaccinated.

“It seems like every four or five months there’s a different variant, or there’s these ebbs and these flows, to the pandemic,” he said. “Just seems like there’s a segment of the population that remains cautious."

The Arcade Comedy Theater, a smaller arts group that's also based Downtown, has had similar struggles.

Abby Fudor, the theater's managing artistic director, said average per-show attendance held steady this season. And its classes in comedy are drawing well.

But the troupe staged just a third of the shows it would normally have on its schedule, due in part to COVID-19 cases among performers and spikes in local cases. Sometimes, Arcade leaders felt that canceling shows, or even shutting down the theater temporarily, was the safest thing to do.

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
The COVID-19 pandemic prompted the Arcade Comedy Theatre to shift its plans several times in the past two years, including shuttering the theater temporarily.

“I want to say to you it’s going better, because it just feels like two-and-half years in, you just want to say that,” said Fudor. “But the reality is, COVID is frustratingly still as impactful in some ways as two years ago.”

If that uncertainty makes it difficult for arts groups to plan, it also creates concern about audience confidence.

Even though it had to cancel just one of the 150 individual performances it scheduled this season, the South Side's City Theatre saw attendance drop by a staggering 40 percent, said managing director James McNeel.

Audiences concerned about the possibility of new spikes in COVID-19 cases, for instance, might be wary of buying tickets to live shows.

“If you’re constantly unsure if the show’s going to go on, you worry that the consumer is going to look elsewhere, for something a little more predictable and reliable,” McNeel said.

And if audiences are going out less, he said, they might also be less likely to buy tickets to City Theatre's program of local premieres than to more familiar titles, like some of those presented by the Cultural Trust.

The pandemic has been especially tough on organizations that rely most heavily on seasonal subscriptions. Since the pandemic began, buying habits have become more a la carte, McNeel said. This time of year, City Theatre and others that rely on season tickets are working hard to get former subscribers to renew.

“We’re really trying to say, ‘Look, we got through this year. We really love for you to come back. We’ll keep you safe. We’ve got a really great season. Come back to City Theatre,’” he said.

The latest “new normal”

Performance groups across the city are adapting to the evolving pandemic in different ways. Bowing to a tighter budget and expectations of a diminished audience, City Theatre scheduled five full productions this past season, compared to the six it typically staged before the pandemic. Downtown's Pittsburgh Public Theater ran its productions for two-and-half weeks instead of its traditional four-and-a-half.

The Public is also venturing into something it hadn’t tried — not for decades, at least — before the summer of 2021: outdoor shows. Last fall, it staged a production of “Barefoot in the Park” at Downtown’s temporary Allegheny Overlook park.

City Theatre struggled to bring back audiences for new plays like "The Garbologists," starring Jason Babinsky and Bria Walker.
Kristi Jan Hoover
City Theatre
City Theatre struggled to bring back audiences for new plays like "The Garbologists," starring Jason Babinsky and Bria Walker.

“The response to that was so positive,” said artistic director Marya Sea Kaminski. This summer, the Public staged a series of free performances of “Robin Hood” in local parks. “How great it is to start building this muscle of outdoor performance,” Kaminski said.

The Public is also retaining some of the online programming it launched during the pandemic, including a play-reading series.

Similarly, Lawrenceville-based Attack Theatre dance troupe has returned to in-person shows but will offer hybrid options going forward.

“We prioritized having [a] virtual livestream for every single one of our shows that we did this season,” said co-artistic director Michele de la Reza.

For performing arts nonprofits, of course, ticket sales are far from the only indicator of financial health: The average arts nonprofit in Pittsburgh earns only about a third of its income from tickets, rentals and merchandise, with the rest coming from grants and donations.

But while most groups actually lose money in the costly process of rehearsing and staging any given show, none wants to cut back too far. Creating art is their mission, after all, and to shrink their footprint might jeopardize their funding from other sources.

Most arts groups say that while both subscriptions and single-ticket sales declined last season, grants and donations held fairly steady.

But many challenges remain.

The next act

Arts groups are facing some of the same stresses as most other businesses right now, including high inflation, which raises production costs and discourages patronage. Arts groups, too, are finding it difficult to retain workers and fill vacant jobs.

“The turnover, the burnout — it’s probably the worst it’s ever been,” said the PSO’s Bates.

Another looming worry is that, for the past couple of years, many groups have relied on federal pandemic-relief programs, like the Paycheck Protection Program and the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant. But as City Theatre’s McNeel puts it, “A lot of that money goes away next year. And so there’s going to be even more pressure on the ticket-sales aspect of things, and how long is it going to take for us to recover?”

Attack Theatre performs "Plus One" in fall 2021.
Joshua Sweeny
Attack Theatre
Attack Theatre performed "Plus One" in fall 2021.

Zannie Voss and her colleagues at Southern Methodist University's DataArts project study the business side of the arts — gathering and analyzing data about attendance, finances and more, for arts groups and others in the field.

“Once the relief funding ends, I think we’re going to see a lot more stress on organizations that haven’t been able to adapt,” Voss said.

To what extent returning patrons' ticket sales can take up that slack is anybody’s guess. Voss said experts predict some patrons will still stay away.

“I think we’re going to be looking at a diminished demand level for indoor events well into the fall, if not beyond,” she said.

Pandemic shifts continue

And while Pittsburgh’s performing arts groups are uncertain how to win back the patrons who are still staying home, many of those patrons can’t quite say when they might return, either.

Take Andrea Musher. Until just before the pandemic, the retired technical journal editor and her partner were regulars on the local arts scene, attending everything from plays and movies to literary readings and ceramics demonstrations.

But when things shut down in March 2020, they shifted their attention to streaming movies, online classes and, especially, tending to the woodsy backyard and garden of their Squirrel Hill home.

“It’s pretty entertaining on its own,” said Musher, sitting on a bench in the shade one morning in mid-June.

Musher got vaccinated as soon as she could. But by last fall, when many former patrons felt safe to return to in-person, indoor events, Musher's own arts-going habit didn't return.

She seems a bit surprised about it, herself. It wasn’t a question of COVID, she said: “Most of it has to do with the fact that I found other things to do.”

There are other factors, she said — including a new aversion to loud environments and a newfound predilection for early bedtimes — but mainly, she just got out of the habit. And apparently, there are many more like her.

“There are some people who are just entrenched non-returners,” said DataArts’ Voss.

National surveys find that the size of that non-returning population is consistent: “People who are not ready to go back have not diminished,” Voss said — and only half of those former patrons cited health concerns.

Like Musher, “some of them have simply shifted their behavior during the pandemic,” Voss said.

For her part, Musher said she does expect to return to the theater at some point. But she has yet to come up with a reason to switch back to her old rhythms: “I can’t tell you. I don’t know what the answer is.”

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: