Survey: Most Denver theatregoers aren’t coming back anytime soon

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John Hauser in Miners Alley Playhouse’s ‘Once.’ Photo by John Moore.

Audiences, and artists, express deep concerns over going on with the show

By John Moore
Senior Arts Journalist

The spirit is ready and willing, but when it comes to returning to our local theatre stages during an ongoing pandemic, the flesh is weak.

Local theatre companies are all wondering when they will be allowed to re-open as the  coronavirus rages on. But a major new survey of local theatregoers emphatically shows the profound challenge all theatre companies will face when they do. Because not only are audiences not coming back right away – neither, say the artists, are they.

Golden’s Miners Alley Playhouse polled more than 700 theatregoers last week, and 74 percent told them they aren’t coming back to the theatre – at least not for the next few months. And a full 35 percent said they will return only when there is a vaccine – if ever.

But MAP Producing Artistic Director Len Matheo found hope in the 40 percent who said that “within a few months,” they probably would join the 25 percent who say they are willing to come back right now. That would indicate a potential audience base of about 65 percent of normal if live theatre programming were to return to the metro area in the fall.

“I think that the short-term future is going to be smaller audiences and hopefully some kind of streaming option for our more vulnerable patrons,” Matheo said.

Perhaps even more telling: In a separate survey of more than 100 Denver metro actors, only 34 percent said they would feel comfortable going to work on a play or musical right away, even after all governmental “shelter in place” orders are lifted.

Matheo modeled his survey on a national questionnaire recently issued by the Alamo Drafthouse, which is similarly seeking to learn not only when patrons might be willing to return, but what it will take to make them feel safe coming back into an enclosed and crowded auditorium for an extended period of time. The survey asked patrons what potential new safety procedures they would support, from employees undergoing daily COVID screening (87 percent want this), to requiring all patrons to wear masks (89 percent) to enforcing a tough “no coughing or sneezing” policy (a proposal favored by a whopping 58 percent of respondents). A full 92 percent of audiences said they would be willing to have their temperature taken with a touch-free thermometer upon arriving at the theatre.

But the inherent disconnect between safety and economics was laid bare in one question that revealed 88 percent of all audiences would prefer for theatres to maintain at least 6 feet of empty space between patrons – which would essentially make producing most any live theatre fiscally impractical. However, when MAP asked patrons if they would be willing to pay $20 more per ticket to make up for the theatre’s reduced capacity, a perhaps surprisingly high 50 percent said they would be willing to pay up, at least once.

Respondents were allowed to comment as part of the survey, and here are a few representative opinions:

  • “I’m over 70 and as much as I love live theatre, and Miners Alley Playhouse in particular, I’m simply not planning to go to any theatre in the foreseeable future, sadly.”
  • “I love the arts but with this pandemic, I must stick with the science. I will not be returning to the theatre until there is a vaccine.”
  • “I would want to know what procedures are in place for actors so that we as audience can feel that they are also safe.”

  • “We’re certainly anxious to get back, but we’re very cautious. Cost has little to do with it. We want the family together again.”
  • “These are tough times for everyone. Things are never going back to normal as we knew them yesterday.”

The results from the Golden survey cannot be assumed to translate to all Colorado theatregoers, but they strongly resemble other surveys that have revealed the profound wariness Americans are feeling about spending any prolonged time in enclosed spaces with other people. Shugoll Research recently conducted a study of theatregoers in New York City, and another of theatregoers nationwide, which both showed that well less than half (41 percent) of regular New York theatregoers, and only a little more than a third (36 percent) of theatregoers nationwide, say they plan to return to their previous theatregoing habits when theatres reopen, with the vast majority opting to wait between three and six months before attending plays again.

“The bottom line is we will be back making great theatre in some form or another,” Matheo said. “And our patrons will be able to engage with us safely, in whatever way they feel most comfortable.”

AUDIENCE SURVEY HIGHLIGHTS

Right away 26 percent
Not right away, but probably within a few months 39
Not until there is a vaccine in place 17
I’m not sure when I’d return 18

Go to the next page to see more survey results:

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