Hitting Theater Hard: The Loss of Subscribers Who Went to Everything

“There’s so much going on with the ‘ought-to-see-this-because-you’re-going-to-be-taught-a-lesson’ stuff, and I’m OK with that, but part of me thinks we’re going a little overboard, and I need to have some fun,” said Melissa Ortuno, 61, of Queens. She describes herself as a frequent theatergoer — she has already seen 17 shows this year — but finds herself now preferring to purchase tickets for individual shows, rather than subscriptions. “I want to take a shot, but I don’t want to be dictated to. And this way I can buy what I want.”

But there are other reasons subscribers have stepped away, including age. “We’re all old, that’s the problem,” said Happy Shipley, 77, of Erwinna, Pa., who decided to renew her subscription at the Bucks County Playhouse, but sees others making a different choice. “Many of them don’t stay up late anymore; they’re anxious about parking, walking, crime, public transportation, increased need of restrooms, you name it.”

Arts administrators say that many people who were previously frequent theatergoers remain fans of the art form, but now attend less frequently, a phenomenon confirmed in interviews with supersubscribers — culture vultures who had multiple subscriptions — who say they are scaling back.

Lisa-Karyn Davidoff, 63, of Manhattan, subscribed to 10 theaters before the pandemic; now she is far more choosy, citing a combination of health concerns and reassessed priorities. “If there’s a great cast or something I can’t miss,” she said, “I will go.” Rena Tobey, a 64-year-old New Yorker, had at least 12 theater subscriptions before the pandemic, and now has none, citing an ongoing concern about catching Covid in crowds, a new appreciation for television and streaming, and a sense that theaters are programming shows for people other than her. “For many years, I’ve pushed my boundaries, and I’m just at a point where I don’t want to do it anymore.”

And Jeanne Ryan Wolfson, a 67-year-old from Rockville, Md., who had four performing arts subscriptions prepandemic, is just finding she likes an à la carte approach to ticket purchasing; she kept two of her previous subscriptions, dropped two, and added a new one. “I was paying a lot of money for the subscriptions, and some of the productions within those packages were a bit disappointing or might not have the wow factor I was looking for,” she said. “I think what I want to do is pick and choose.”

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