Subscriptions Now Come In Many Flavors. What’s Working?

When Amy Kaissar wrote her graduate thesis on the topic of nonprofit theatre subscriptions, her basic argument was: They’re not dead; we just haven’t invested in them. Now, 19 years wiser, and after 15 years in leadership positions, Kaissar, the current co-producing director at Bristol Riverside Theatre in Bristol, Pa., confessed, “I’m not sure I would 100 percent agree” with her earlier assessment.

The hedging is important here—it’s not that her outlook has done a 180. But so much in the intervening years has complicated her earlier certainty, including, of course, the pandemic lockdown of the past few years, which impacted every aspect of the industry. But even without that bumpy chapter and its even rockier aftermath, the outlook for subscriptions has long been multilayered. Even now, for all the public hand-wringing about the state of the theatre, artistic leaders, audiences, and a quantitative survey of 84 companies from across the U.S. conducted by American Theatre presents a remarkably multifarious picture rather than a uniformly bleak one.

The complexity begins with the very definition of subscriptions. Butts in seats is an easy number to measure (How full is the house? Down about 25-30 percent nationwide, on average), but what makes a subscription a subscription? Trinity Rep in Providence, R.I., and Shotgun Players in Berkeley, Calif., to name two examples, have embraced the flexible models that have gained traction in recent years (pay in advance for a set number of tickets and redeem for the best available seat for any performance on any day in the show’s run), while 4th Wall Theatre Company in Houston and Oregon Contemporary Theatre in Eugene are leaning into what many in the industry refer to as the “standard” or “traditional” model (pay in advance for the same seats on the second Thursday of every run, say). The REV Theatre Co. in Auburn, N.Y., has ditched flex passes entirely.

Road Less Traveled Productions in Buffalo, N.Y., and Dobama Theatre in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, like several others in the survey, are rolling out what they call “memberships,” but nearly all of these differ from flex subscriptions in name only—with the notable exception of Open Stage in Harrisburg, Pa., which offers a pay-by-the-month model patrons can cancel any time (and for the record, Open Stage says it’s doing great—subscriptions are up 296 percent since 2019). Omaha Theater Company has a new rolling membership “similar to museums” that allows patrons to jump in at any point in the calendar year. To add to the variety of the picture, Local Theater Company in Boulder, Colo., produces three shows in a season, while Sierra Rep in Sonora, Calif., produces nine, and both offer subscriptions. You’re hardly comparing apples to apples the way you can with single-ticket purchases.

So broadly speaking—if we can speak broadly at all—what are the trends? Are subscriptions in free fall, and if so, what does that mean for the continuing health of theatres? Are subscriptions still a viable model, for either audiences or companies?

Steppenwolf Theatre box office. (Photo by Kyle Flubacker)

On their face, the numbers aren’t great. Of the 66 companies responding to the survey that offer subscriptions and provided complete data, 42 percent said the numbers are way down, with 30 percent or more of their subscribers gone since the pandemic, and 21 percent of companies said they are somewhat down (between 11 and 29 percent subscriber attrition). This is almost a photonegative of numbers for audience attendance in general: As measured in a previous AT survey, many more companies are down moderately in overall attendance than are down significantly.

But the bright spots are brighter too. More companies are doing well with subscribers than are doing well with overall ticket sales: 20 percent of companies report more than a 10 percent subscriber increase since 2019, and 17 percent have held steady (which we’re defining here as staying within a 10 percent increase or decrease). Comparatively, only 26 percent of companies report steady or increased attendance numbers overall.

“There is a lot that keeps me up these days, but subscription plans are not one of them.”

So more than a third of companies in our survey said they’ve weathered the pandemic lockdown and are in stable or better shape, subscriber-wise, since reopening. Burning Coal Theatre Company in Raleigh, N.C., for instance, reported subscription growth of 60 percent over the past five years.

“The subscription model is just fine,” said Burning Coal artistic director Jerome Davis. “Young people aren’t crazy about it, but the nice thing about young people is, they don’t stay young for long.”

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Forward Theatre artistic director Jen Uphoff Gray, Actor’s Express managing director Alex Scollon, and Burning Coal artistic director Jerome Davis.

At Actor’s Express in Atlanta, managing director Alex Scollon said he wonders if the media bias toward well-resourced institutions is the reason there’s been such one-note, sad-sack media coverage about the state of the theatre field. “Often midsize and smaller organizations are left out of these conversations in favor of doom and gloom stories from LORT,” said Scollon, who said that Actor’s Express’s subscription numbers have held steady. “There is a lot that keeps me up these days, but subscription plans are not one of them.”

Added Jen Uphoff Gray, artistic director of Forward Theatre in Madison, Wisc., “Overall, I am feeling exhausted by the messaging that ‘the subscription model is dead,’ which long predated the pandemic. Any such proclamations ignore the wide differences in theatre companies across the country, and the wide variety of audiences we serve.”

Indeed, the notion that the subscription model has been on the wane isn’t supported by the data we gathered. While none of the nine LORT member theatres that completed our survey have grown their base significantly, and only two have held steady (both in Florida, with its never-ending stream of retirees), half of the surveyed companies said their subscriptions were on the rise in the decade preceding the pandemic, with another quarter holding steady. Though the survey didn’t directly probe whether numbers had rebounded since the slump most companies experienced in 2020 or 2021, several volunteered the news that they are now trending in the right direction.

In sum, it feels premature to make any pronouncements about whether the contraction in audiences post-pandemic-lockdown  is also a death knell for the subscription model. The longer-term data doesn’t indicate a gradual or inevitable trend in that direction for the majority of companies.

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Still, if you factor in theatres who consider themselves “holding steady” with subscription losses of under 10 percent, nearly two-thirds of our respondents say they’ve lost subscribers in the past five years. Kaissar’s company, Bristol Riverside, is part of this larger group, with subscriptions down 31 percent since the pre-pandemic idyll of 2019. Though they have regained some subscribers from their lowest point over the last few years, Kaissar said she “wouldn’t call it a recovery at all. The diehards are still here, and we have not succeeded in getting new people in.”

Sheldon Post is one of those diehards. He said via email that he’s stuck with BRT for 35 years because of the variety of programming, “a mix of relatively unknown plays, very well-known plays, and ‘different’ takes on familiar plays,” as well as the perks, including “the ability to change our performance date on the rare occasions that we need to,” and a benefit that “enables subscribers to return on another night to see a play again—no charge.”

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Amy Kaissar.

That seems like a good deal (though the ability to exchange tickets has recently been extended to single-ticket buyers at several companies for free or a nominal fee). So why have so many at BRT flown the coop, and so precipitously? Kaissar was hesitant to make big pronouncements on the subject. “I worry about anyone who claims to understand the actual causes, given the lack of available high-quality research,” she said, but did recall that in conversations with subscribers, “What we hear most consistently is either age-related things, or they moved, or they didn’t like the work we’re doing anymore. They want the work of the previous generation.” She added that, for the record, her company hasn’t pivoted from feel-good musicals to the work of Sarah Kane, but that it has been more focused on attracting Gen X patrons and other recent empty nesters with titles they might recognize, like their upcoming Big The Musical. Viewed through one lens, that may seem like crowd-pleasing programming, but it all depends which crowd you mean: Baby boomers and above were not that movie’s target audience when it came out in 1988.

“The current trend of late purchasing has become a habit. As long as there is a seat available, this is going to plague theatres for quite some time.”

Other artistic leaders are in agreement with Kaissar, with many citing a greying of their subscriber base as a reason for declining subscription rates. The near-universal agreement is that subscribers, especially to the “standard” models, tend to be older. In the four years since Covid hit, these audience members are more likely to have passed, moved away, become infirm, or simply gotten more cautious about their health. And for whatever reason, Gen Xers and millennials tend not to make plans far in advance. Said Lauren Halvorsen of the popular theatre Substack newsletter Nothing for the Group, “Theatres do not embrace the spontaneity of younger generations.”

So between the thinning older audience and the last-minute-planning younger audience, it’s no wonder that traditional subscription numbers are not rising. “The word subscription scares people off post-Covid,” said Tracy Mitchell, executive director of Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, N.Y. “The current trend of late purchasing has become a habit. As long as there is a seat available, this is going to plague theatres for quite some time.”

Several survey respondents, like Kaissar, did say that a perceived distaste for “newer” programming contributed to the decline in numbers. Still, for all the right-wing media’s eagerness to blame “woke theatre” for this phenomenon, no respondent reported that this audience aversion had an especially political bent. Joe Miller, a one-time Bristol Riverside subscriber, said he cut the cord because he and his wife were “seeing plays that we’re just not that interested in. We like comedies, we like musicals, and some of these are plays we’ve never heard of before,” adding that he found the theatre’s programming overly heavy on drama of late.

There are countless soft or unique factors at play for subscribers who call it quits. For Lori Boswell in Portland, Ore., it wasn’t about programming but parking. She traded in her subscription to a LORT theatre for one at a non-union company in the suburbs; both make “okay” work, she said, but she was done with what she considers the inconvenience of coming downtown.

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Guests enjoy The Theater Lover’s Bash at Portland Center Stage, 2023. (Photo by Alec Lugo/courtesy of Portland Center Stage)

One area where there is little agreement: money. On its face, it would seem like an obvious driving factor in subscription trends, because younger people who might replace older subscribers are less likely to have the disposable income necessary for a lump sum upfront payment. Indeed, when we asked for comments on Facebook, the floodgates opened, with reflection after reflection from younger industry folks stating in one way or another that they cannot afford to subscribe. One was Kathryn Huey, former business manager for the Blue Man Group, current general manager of D.C.’s Studio Theatre, who said that subscriptions “are expensive, very true. They were nothing I could dream to do when I was younger.” Perhaps driven by necessity, the current crop of theatregoers “more than ever are looking for a deal, or a way to save,” argued Eric Pugh, director of marketing and communications of Asolo Repertory Theatre in Florida.

Chad Bauman, executive director of Milwaukee Rep, maintained that his company has retained its substantial subscriber base during the pandemic in part because they offer cheap subscription packages and avoid last-minute deals for single-ticket buyers that “undermine the value proposition of subscriptions.” Milwaukee Rep is in the minority on this point; at most companies, paying upfront doesn’t save subscribers much money in the long run. A recent AT survey found that subscribers save just $1 per ticket vs. single-ticket buyers, on average.

Even theatres where subscriptions offer real savings, like Bristol Riverside, haven’t seen a boost because of it, making it unclear whether cost is really a meaningful signal or barrier. According to Kaissar, it hasn’t been “a winning message when we’ve gone hard on how cheap it is.” At Amphibian Stage in Fort Worth, Texas, said outgoing artistic director Kathleen Culebro, “Our most popular subscription package is actually not our cheapest.” Numbers would seem to side with Kaissar and Culebro, at least on a macro level; our earlier survey found no clear link between trends in audience attendance and trends in ticket pricing over the past five years.

Whatever the driving force, Kaissar understandably views Bristol Riverside’s decline in subscribers as a big problem. Fewer subscribers means that her marketing budget has ballooned; loyal subscribers need only a single email every year to remind them to re-up, but “my single ticket buyer, I need to advertise to.” Articulating a version of the reasoning that, in the decades since Danny Newman’s groundbreaking book Subscribe Now! made subscription the dominant model for many performing arts organizations, Kaissar noted that without a significant subscriber bloc ponying up for a whole season in advance, each lesser-known title becomes a massive risk. Without a strong base of subscribers, “I don’t know how we make new work. I don’t know how we push the art form forward. I don’t know how we introduce people to things they don’t know. I don’t know how we support playwrights.”

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Lianna McLernon and Wesley Mouri.

At Theater Mu in the Twin Cities, the subscription numbers aren’t so hot either, but Lianna McLernon, Mu’s marketing and communications director, and Wesley Mouri, the theatre’s development director, don’t see it as a problem. Mu has lost about half of their subscribers since 2019, but single tickets are up twofold. While McLernon is quick to emphasize that the theatre still does offer subscriptions and “they are important to us and we love our subscribers,” Mouri explained that “being an Asian American theatre company is unique in the sense that the Asian diaspora is the most diverse diaspora that exists.” In practical terms that means that Mu audiences are “very specifically keyed into the specific culture of each show. The Hmong audience is not necessarily going to come see the Kung Fu Zombie show, which was about Lao experiences.”

There are many ways to measure growth, and Mu’s recent efforts to diversify their offerings outside the East Asian community have meant a massive influx of new audiences. Their audiences tend to be younger and more economically diverse than the typical theatregoer too; Mu offers a Pay As You Are program to every performance of every play, allowing patrons to purchase tickets for as little as $10. Institutional giving to the theatre has also doubled, a rarity in recent years, which helps release the pressure on ticket revenue to foot the bills.

While a theatre like Bristol Riverside sees subscriptions as a way to subsidize risk taking, at a theatre like Mu, the opposite is true. As Mouri and McLernon put it, Mu’s “focus on the diversifying of stories and representation” wouldn’t be possible if they were catering to “the same 200 people.” As Bay Street’s Tracy Mitchell put it, “Subscriptions are valuable for some of us, and not for others.”

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A family watches a Cincinnati Shakespeare production from the theatre’s Upper Gallery. (Photo courtesy of Cincinnati Shakespeare)

While some survey respondents, like Mu, still offer subscriptions but have begun to direct their marketing strategies away from retaining and gaining subscribers, Chicago’s Congo Square Theatre “shifted away from subscriptions completely” to focus on “a radical generosity model to combat high costs associated with theatre,” as artistic director Ericka Ratcliff put it. People’s Light in Malvern, Pa., has focused its efforts on engaging regular attendees who are not subscribers. Though subscribers “can be terrific brand ambassadors for us,” as former managing director Erica Ezold put it, “our overall marketing strategy has shifted from subscribers as the first priority.”

But even most theatres who have lost subscribers have not abandoned the model, at least not for now. Many companies are offering perks, like drink tickets, subscriber-only events, and parking passes, to entice people to subscribe. City Lights Theater Company in San Jose, Calif., is emphasizing the value of community and belonging as a primary benefit to subscriptions, writing tailored welcome emails to each new subscriber.

American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco is focused first on bringing in single-ticket buyers, then on converting them to subscribers; similarly, ZACH Theatre in Austin waits until the first show of each season has closed to roll out one of their packages. Cadence Theatre Company in Richmond, Va., is offering early-bird discounts; Amphibian Stage has launched an under-40 package. Weston Theater Company in Vermont said they’re “streamlining” the subscription process. Penobscot Theatre Company in Bangor, Maine, is experimenting with a “three-tiered approach,” including a $20-per-seat package for first-time subscribers and a premium-level “true cost of the ticket” package. TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is seeing success with smaller packages. Main Street Theater in Houston is rebranding subscriptions as “season tickets,” because “subscriptions is what the monthly charge for streaming is called,” reasoned executive artistic director Rebecca Greene Udden.

Clive Worsley, executive director of Cal Shakes in Orinda, Calif., said he believes that the “days are numbered for the single-entity subscription model,” and thinks the answer lies in “offering membership packages that could get you in the door to multiple locations, like a passport.”

The sheer multiplicity of opinions and data trends is both exhausting and exhilarating. As there is no clear picture on the state of subscriptions, they are a bit of a black box: They can be a financial barrier or a democratic opportunity. They can be flexible or rigid. They can stifle or empower. They can be a massive financial engine, an ancillary benefit, or a distraction. And there is no clear crystal ball about where they’re headed: Many are up, twice as many are down, plenty are recovering. Amid the dizzying variety of approaches, one universal truth is that every company is moving somewhere on this issue; no one is meeting this extraordinary moment by standing still.

As she struggles to figure out what’s driving the drop in subscriptions, Kaissar said, “The model, whether subscriptions or anything else, is outmoded, and we’ve got to get it up to speed, fast. Long term, people clearly want to come together to hear stories; 10 years from now it will look better than it did before.” Pausing on that bit of hopeful thinking, she added, “In the short term, how we get there is terrifying.”

Rosie Brownlow-Calkin (she/her) is an Equity actor and assistant professor of theatre at the University of Nevada, Reno.

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