In every way possible, the Covid pandemic smothered live theater. Broadway shut down. Audiences vanished. Crew and actors clocked in as nonessential.
In compliance with strict lockdowns, professional theater companies went even further than schools and restaurants, with some policing themselves into near nonexistence. Where big theater companies cut back and gobbled up relief funds, smaller ones simply died off.
Three years out, live theater may be clawing its way back. Gross Broadway ticket sales are slightly higher than they were last year. But for regional theaters around the country, and particularly on the West Coast, the recovery is anemic.
The trend of fewer plays, canceled seasons, and closed theaters is now so prominent that even The New York Times is noticing. With worried theater folk mulling culprits — inflation, streamed entertainment, the exodus from cities, pandemic relief running out — few are seeing another, perhaps deadlier factor: regional theaters’ excessive focus on race, social justice, and woke ideology.
Displeased audiences may not be as unified (or viral) as those protesting Bud Light, but they are responding — by not buying tickets. Theaters in New York City, Chicago, and even Kansas City watched this happen in real-time, when plays with obvious social justice-flavored topics (racism in boxing or the daily struggles of immigrant life in a sanctuary city, to name a few) underperformed dramatically. But along the scenic West Coast, that flavoring is a heavy saturation, and the number of popular, destination-driven theater companies nearing collapse is jaw-dropping.
From L.A.’s Center Theater Group, which made headlines for layoffs, to the Bay Area’s California Shakespeare Theater (Cal Shakes) and up I-5 to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), regional theaters that put so-called “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) platitudes centerstage are paying a heavy price. In jarring announcements, neither the OSF nor Cal Shakes is promising another season.
If they survive, it will be with a diminished presence in a region unusually friendly to the performing arts and well-suited to outdoor performance. Though few are asking, regional theater’s lock-stop devotion to far-left ideology raises a hard question — can theater even survive the revolution? Without a broad, paying audience (whose views may lean left but otherwise fall across the political spectrum), how long can cash-strapped stages keep the lights on?
For long-suffering theatergoers, locked down and now pelted with what Center Theater Group calls “social responsibility” in nearly every play, Shakespeare’s description of Scottish tyranny under Macbeth comes to mind.
Alas, our country sinks beneath the yoke;
It weeps, it bleeds, and each new day a gash
Is added to her wounds.
Yes, the lockdowns were regrettable. Yes, live theater suffered. But from here on out, each gash is self-induced.
As it turns out, racial animus and social justice programming aren’t new trends, as far as theater goes. Even before the George Floyd riots — which prompted hundreds of theater professionals (including household names like Lin Manuel-Miranda) to sign a racist initiative demanding “BIPOC” artists, programming, and staffing — the tight-knit community’s reputation for left-wing causes preceded itself.
Left-Wing Oregon Theater Goes Full Woke
But the fact that regional theaters are under immense pressure from Broadway heavyweights to tow the DEI line and make miracles happen doesn’t concern the audience. For them, after lockdowns, fewer plays as well as plays stuffed with racially driven moralizing are further insult.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in particular seems bent on following such racial initiatives to almost certain doom. With a bizarre new mission statement, creative teams reflecting an exhaustive bias toward nonwhite professionals, and production choices that color Shakespeare’s plots and settings with predictable, left-wing dogma, something really is rotten in Denmark.
The consequences spell trouble for Ashland, Oregon, a relaxed college town powered by the OSF’s four stages and nine-month season. The festival’s vast, loyal audience is now a fraction of what it was four years ago. By its own admission, the operating budget flounders.
Artistic Director Nataki Garrett resigned last May, but the administration still boasts its own team of IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility) strategists. With the festival’s broad repertoire of professional actors all but thinned out, swollen production teams now come with “cultural competency” experts.
If few outside left-wing Ashland are applauding, one can’t blame them. With fewer plays, the festival is quickly losing the small-scale advantage it shared with Broadway or London’s West End: many plays happening all at once in a single location. Tourists or backpackers (the town straddles the Siskiyou Mountains) could waltz into town and snag nosebleed seats for as little as $20. Houses filled out in the summer and regularly sold out on weekends.
Shakespeare Companies Sour on Shakespeare
More sadly, the OSF is performing fewer of Shakespeare’s plays than ever before. Along with “Rent” and “The Three Musketeers,” the 2023 season offers “Twelfth Night” and an urban-themed “Romeo and Juliet.” That’s down from a long-running average of four or five Shakespearian works annually. Not staging Shakespeare, or only staging him in a way that thrusts race, national guilt, or LGBT themes centerstage, sends a clear message to theatergoers: Get with the program or don’t bother to come.
Sure enough, they aren’t bothering.
Families who once drove hundreds of miles to see “Hamlet” or “Henry V” in the open-air Elizabethan theater know the tune has changed. OSF board member Diane Yu notes that ticket sales, which previously brought in 70 to 80 percent of the festival’s operating budget, have plummeted.
Even with a purported $39 million endowment, the 88-year-old festival appears to be in poor shape. The OSF website begs visitors to help raise an emergency $2.5 million, without which, (it claims) there may not be another season.
Short of government intervention, which would make the OSF closer to the state-subsidized theater companies of England, or Bertolt Brecht’s lavish, East German propaganda plays, the country’s largest professional repertory company might be ending a wildly successful run.
With loyal fans across the northwest, a long-running “Shakespeare in the Classroom” workshop for educators, and programming that delighted thousands of students annually, the OSF’s shoes will be difficult to fill. But if the woke takeover of the OSF upstages everyone else, it’s not for lack of trying.
South of San Francisco, the beleaguered Santa Cruz Shakespeare is casting a “laser focus” on social justice. Farther north, the Marin Shakespeare Company is fighting so-called systemic racism with “Shakespeare and Social Justice.” In leftist Seattle, theater companies wave the same DEI banner and bemoan the pillage of ancestral, Native American lands.
Whether or not such mea culpas will increase ticket sales is another story.
Collapse of the Cal Shakes
A final case study is the DEI-addled California Shakespeare Theater. Earlier this summer, Cal Shakes announced its 2023 season won’t feature any of its own plays. Rather, and to recover from declining ticket sales and relaunch in 2024, Cal Shakes is lending its splendid outdoor amphitheater in Berkeley Hills to a coterie of outside performers.
Audiences who made a habit of arriving early with food, drink, and picnic blankets before taking their seats can now look forward to an “Animal Liberation Orchestra,” a standup night with Native American comedians, and a “Storytelling Mosaic” focused on peacebuilding, to name a few offerings.
As a lone IV drip, the company’s dramaturge offers an online class: “Shakespeare and the Modern Mind.” Peacebuilding? Animal Liberation? Activists a few BART stops away can hardly wait.
Ironically enough, and before swapping out the 2023 season for a politically correct talent show, Cal Shakes surveyed some 570 of its audience members. Even in the hyper-leftist Bay Area, its summary of findings makes for ironic, even laughable reading:
In the survey we asked you to prioritize what you value most about Cal Shakes. You ranked the Setting (The Bruns Ampitheater) the highest, and Plays second. … [O]ther aspects of Cal Shakes’ offerings, such as education programming, Shakespeare, Equity Diversity and Inclusion … all those other priorities combined are not valued as highly as either the location or the fact that we do theater.
People want plays. They want them onstage and preferably in a good location. Could the Bard himself have made it any plainer?
That a Shakespeare company near a rich, culture-loving region needs its audience to state the obvious might be the comic relief we need right now. That companies like the OSF, after 80 years and 37 cycles through the canon, are crossing a point of no return is a tragedy.