Virus and racism have dramatically reshaped local audience views on theater

New study finds DC-area theatergoers reluctant to attend in person, ho-hum about online options, and in favor of diversity efforts.

The findings of a new study of DC-area theatergoers reveal a dramatic shift in attitudes toward theater as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. The study has important implications for theaters planning live and online performance seasons and attempting to be anti-racist.

Image: DC Theater Arts

The study was conduced online with 1,013 DC-area theatergoers by Limelight Insights by Shugoll, a national marketing research company in Rockville, Maryland. The survey asked respondents asked about their intent to return to theaters, their viewing habits of online theater content, and their attitudes on systemic racism in theaters.

This is the third wave of this study for DC that has been tracking these issues since the pandemic began. The first and second wave studies (see reports below) were done by Shugoll Research, whose work continues in Limelight Insights by Shugoll, founded by Cara Shugoll Wilkin and Rick Seale.

The key findings:

• DC-area theatergoers are unlikely to return to live theater in significant numbers until December 2021.

• For theaters planning a September reopening, fewer than 4 in 10 theatergoers are very likely to attend at that time.

• Although some in the press as well as theater administrators believe virtual programming will become a part of future seasons even after theaters reopen, audiences say their interest in watching online content will decrease significantly once live theater returns.

• Many audience members perceive there to be systemic racism in area theaters and support efforts to improve equity, diversity, inclusion, and access in these theaters.

Slow vaccine rollout and virus variants likely mean most theatergoers will not return until December

Eight months ago, after assessing the status of the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of DC-area theatergoers predicted they would be ready to return to the theater in May or June 2021. Now, with the slow rollout of vaccines and growing COVID variants the likely culprits, a majority of theatergoers are not willing to return until December (52%). This rises to 60% in January 2022. It does not reach at least two-thirds of the audience being very willing to attend shows until March/April 2022 (67%).

Theaters hoping for a fall reopening can expect that just 38% of audiences are very likely to return in September, 43% in October, and 48% in November. Study author Cara Shugoll Wilken says, “December appears to be a good target for reopening given theatergoers’ health concerns about returning earlier, but there are some rays of hope for late fall openings.” For example, more frequent theatergoers, who will be heavily depended on to fill seats, have a somewhat earlier timeframe for return with more than half being very willing to attend starting in October. Also, with socially distanced seating (something that 83% of audiences expect in the fall), theater seating capacity would be reduced to levels that may match the size of the audience willing to return. In addition, this wave of the research reflects current expectations about the pandemic. As vaccines become more available and more is known about the control of variants, theatergoers may in the near future, once again, adjust their timeframe for return, this time to something earlier.

While socially distanced seating in the fall would limit earned income, at this point it appears necessary. Just 18% would attend the theater in the fall if seats were not socially distanced, about half the number that otherwise said they would return then.

The major reason for not returning to the theater earlier is health concerns (51%). Only 18% are willing to attend before a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available to the public, and just 19% would attend before personally receiving the vaccine. In terms of safety protocols to gain admission when theaters reopen, almost all say they would be willing to have their temperature taken at the door (94%), wear a mask (91%), have their tickets scanned rather than using a paper ticket (91%), enter the theater at a specified time to avoid overcrowding (91%), and follow a staggered exit procedure (90%). Three in four are willing to show proof of a COVID-9 vaccine (75%), but fewer would be willing to show recent proof of a negative test to gain admission (57%). The majority of theatergoers (50%) do not expect to be able to attend theater without wearing a mask until January 2021. It is not until March/April 2022 that at least two-thirds (68%) anticipate the end of mask wearing in theaters.

There is no difference in how comfortable audiences would be in attending theaters of differing size if they opened in the fall. If anything, contrary to the expectations of some, there is somewhat less comfort in going to the smallest theaters of under 125 seats (29%), perhaps because they are less confident these theaters can follow appropriate safety protocols. For other size theaters, the percent very comfortable varies from 34% to 38%. Parents and grandparents have similar feelings about attending theaters for family and youth with 34% very willing to attend in the fall. Just 30% of DC theatergoers who attend shows on Broadway said they would feel comfortable attending a Broadway theater in fall 2021. The one area where confidence rises significantly in attending this fall is theater staged outdoors (69%).

Audiences tend to expect higher prices when they return to the theater (57%), perhaps to compensate for the income lost when theaters were closed. Only 6% predict lower prices, perhaps as an inducement to get them back in the building. Around a third (34%) expect prices to be about the same.

Once theaters reopen, the size of the audience should eventually grow back to pre-pandemic levels, although it could be slightly smaller initially. While 53% say they will attend the theater about the same amount as before after reopening, a slightly larger number say they will go less (26%) than more (21%).

Online content has filled the void of no live theater, although few will continue to watch when live theater returns

About two-thirds of theatergoers (68%) have watched online programming from theaters during the pandemic, a very positive result. However, few watch this content frequently (2% daily, 6% a few times a week). They are more likely to watch a few times a month (16%), once a month (11%), or less than once a month (33%). Only 37% have paid for online content, a percentage that theaters must build to generate more earned income during the time of closure. This percentage has increased from 24% in the last wave. But theaters may have reached their peak on the number purchasing paid content as only 30% would pay for content if theaters continued to produce online programming, even if the costs were reasonable. A very positive finding is that 20% who have watched programming online have done so from a theater they do not usually attend. This presents opportunities to convert these people into attenders once theaters reopen.

While many critics predict online programming will be part of future seasons even after theaters reopen, few theatergoers express interest in continuing to watch. Only 19% say that when live theater returns, they would be very interested in continuing to watch online programming. “This reduced interest in online programming when theaters reopen should be a caution for theaters planning to invest heavily in this new mode of content delivery,” says Shugoll Wilken.

Most theatergoers feel theaters must respond to charges of institutional racism and improve equality for Black and Brown artists and staff

One third of theatergoers (33%) highly agree that there is systemic racism in DC-area theaters, which impacts hiring and the type of work seen on stage. Another 13% somewhat agree for a net of 46% agreeing. There is large difference by race as 50% of African Americans strongly agree systemic racism exits in theaters versus 28% of whites. Many say they do not know enough to answer. Among those with an opinion, the number who strongly agree that systemic racism exists in area theaters rises to 44%.

Creating a more diverse theater structure is very important to area theatergoers regardless of whether they believe there is systemic racism. Almost two-thirds (65%) strongly support the idea that area theaters must respond to the concerns expressed by Black and Brown artists that have come out of the Black Lives Matter movement. A similar percentage (64%) strongly feel theaters must take specific steps to fight racism through actionable change in their industry and beyond. Only slightly fewer (57%) strongly agree it is important that area theaters more greatly reflect racial diversity in all ways than they do now. “Even with the differences between whites and African Americans, these are significant numbers of theatergoers who believe that anti-racism must be a value of theaters,” says Shugoll Wilken.

Despite any efforts theaters have been undertaking to address systematic racism, a challenge is getting the message out to audiences. Only 22% strongly agree that in the last several months many area theaters have tried to address the issue of racism.  A possible result for theaters that work to end racism, and successfully communicate that to audiences, is that some theatergoers will be more likely to attend them (38% strongly agree) or contribute to that theater (37%). 

Methodology and additional information

This study was conducted using Limelight Insights by Shugoll’s proprietary panel. A total of 1,013 surveys were completed between February 5 and 11, 2021. Data are accurate within +/- 3% at a 95% confidence level. Participants were required to attend at least two professional theater productions in a typical year, at least one of which must be at a nonprofit theater other than those that primarily present touring companies. A copy of the Full Report or the Executive Summary is downloadable online.


Image credit: DC Theater Arts.

New study: Theatergoers are averse to returning but woke to racism July 18, 2020 (wave two)

Graphic: DC Theater Arts.

When shows go on again, audiences across America will be slow to show up, says new survey May 11, 2020

Image: DC Theater Arts.

Many theatergoers in no hurry to go back to Broadway, new survey finds May 6, 2020

Graphic: DC Theater Arts

When theaters reopen, will DMV audiences return? Survey says it’s iffy. April 15, 2020 (wave one)


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here