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Road show: Is transportation a key to aiding the arts in Downtown Pittsburgh?

A marquee for a theater in downtown Pittsburgh.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

This is WESA Arts, a weekly newsletter by Bill O'Driscoll providing in-depth reporting about the Pittsburgh area art scene. Sign up here to get it every Wednesday afternoon.

Traditionally, performing arts groups have been most interested in a certain kind of audience member: the subscriber. These are patrons so loyal that before the season even starts they’ll buy tickets to all (or at least many) of a particular theater, dance or music troupe’s shows. That means cash in hand for those groups, who can better plan financially than they could if all their business was walk-ups.

Dwindling subscriber bases have been a concern for such troupes for decades; typically, observers have attributed the shrinkage to things like aging audiences. And the pandemic, not surprisingly, didn’t help. Even as in-person events resumed on a large scale, starting in the fall of 2021, more and more groups in Pittsburgh and elsewhere reported that, in the era of streaming video, fewer patrons were willing to commit to attending (or at least paying for) a bunch of nights out months in advance.

Pittsburgh Opera is one example. In the two seasons preceding the pandemic, subscribers accounted for between 56% and 59% of the group’s total ticket sales, said Opera spokesperson Chris Cox. Today, single-ticket and group sales to individual shows have returned to pre-pandemic levels. But subscribers have held back. Since in-person programming resumed, Cox said, subscribers’ share of ticket sales has averaged just 43%.

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Comparing pre-pandemic years to the seasons since the return to in-person shows, that decline in subscriptions drove a nearly 11% drop in average ticket sales for each of the Opera’s big productions at the Benedum Center — classics like “The Magic Flute” and “The Barber of Seville.”

At this point, Cox said, the Opera believes that many lost subscribers simply are not coming back. That brings us to the 85-year-old group’s novel new approach to rebuilding its audience.

The plan, announced this week, is to offer $60 Uber vouchers to up to 75 ticket-buyers at each performance of one of its Downtown productions. The program begins with the Opera’s new staging of Verdi’s “La Traviata,” March 16-24 at the Benedum. (The voucher offer doesn’t apply to non-Downtown productions like “Proving Up,” which opens Saturday at the group’s headquarters in the Strip District.)

The program doesn’t have a formal name. (How about, I don’t know, Ride-Share of the Valkyries?) The goal, Cox said, is to attract new single-ticket buyers, or to get occasional patrons to come more often. It is not immediately to create new subscribers, though performing-arts groups do find that subscribers germinate in the ranks of repeat customers.

Still, perhaps most interesting is the premise of the Uber offer: that people find going Downtown a slog. Cox said that both anecdotal feedback from Opera patrons and results from a 2023 audience survey conducted by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s Shared Services department indicate that “transportation is just always on the list” of things Downtown arts-goers complain about.

The Benedum seats 2,800 people. Even enticing 75 newcomers to each show won’t make a huge difference to the Opera financially. (That’s especially true because, like most opera companies, Pittsburgh Opera relies on earned revenue like ticket sales for only about 20 percent of its $8 million budget, generating the rest from grants and donations.)

But if enough folks accept the voucher offer, it might indicate that traffic and parking play a larger role in the equation than many think.

“Entertainment organizations have long understood that parking and transportation are common barriers to attendance,” said Cultural Trust spokesperson Derek Scalzott in a statement about the voucher program. The Trust’s research suggests “that many are even more selective now with how they spend time and money compared to before the pandemic.”

Cox emphasizes that the voucher initiative, funded by a grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation, is just one piece of a larger strategy to rebuild the Opera’s audience, with further programs in the offing.

In any case, we’ll know more by year’s end, after the vouchers have been offered for all four of those Downtown shows, also including “The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson,” April 27-May 5 at the Byham Theater, and the troupe’s two as-yet-unannounced productions this fall.

“We’re very excited about what they’re going to learn as a neighbor in the District,” said Shaunda McDill, managing director of Pittsburgh Public Theater.

While McDill noted that the Public does field complaints about traffic and parking, she added that when people really want to see a show, they find a way. Still, for potential patrons who might be less excited about a given performance, “We are in a moment in time when we need to remove as many barriers as possible.”

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: