When the snow hits, how do theaters decide whether to pull the plug on a weekend of shows? How much money do they lose? And how can they possibly catch up?
The snow came, the snow went and arts organizations — mostly nonprofits, which tend to run on hyper-thin or nonexistent margins — had to temporarily close shop. They lost money.
Sounds simple enough. But it isn’t.
How do theaters decide to pull the plug on a weekend of shows? How much money do they lose? And how can they possibly catch up?
“Everybody,” a weird and wonderful play running at Strawberry Theatre Workshop, was originally scheduled for 16 performances at 12th Avenue Arts on Capitol Hill, but had to cancel three in the penultimate week of its run — losing roughly one-fifth of its seats.
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Compounding matters, artistic director Greg Carter said, is the fact that Strawberry’s shows typically sell 60 percent of their tickets during the final two weekends of a run: “For smaller theaters, I think that’s really common.” He listed a few reasons: Early weekends get more audience members with free tickets (family, colleagues, some press). Later in the run, word of mouth from people who’ve already seen the show can rival the power of paid advertising. And audiences tend to procrastinate.
“When I see a museum exhibit is closing in nine months, it usually means I’ll never go,” Carter said, chuckling. “I get excited, then put it off. But if Johnny Mathis is playing this Friday only at the Paramount, I’ll put it in my book and be there.”
Strawberry productions, he said, tend to cost $45,000 a pop and recoup $30,000 in ticket sales. Carter guesses those three canceled “Everybody” shows would have brought in $10,000 — one-fifth of the total seats, but nearly one-quarter of its budget and one-third of its projected revenue.
Bigger theaters took a dent, too. The 5th Avenue didn’t cancel any performances of its musical “Rock of Ages,” but encouraged far-flung patrons to err on the side of caution in rugged weather, while simultaneously trying to attract downtown folks with zip-code-specific email blasts. “We said: ‘If you’re here, we’re open for business and we’ve got a hell of a show,'” said managing director Bernadine Griffin.
Meanwhile, the 5th provided housing for its staff and artists to stay safely downtown, with some performers doubling and tripling up in hotel rooms. During the snowstorm, the theater’s 1,800-capacity house saw audiences in the 500-800 range. And some 2,200 tickets were exchanged, meaning those tickets aren’t available for sale later in the run.
“I think we lost about $200,000” in potential ticket sales, Griffin said. “That’s a big nut for us, and really hard to make up.”
Annex Theatre, currently running “The Devil and Sarah Blackwater,” took a proportionately tougher hit.
“Annex lost something in the order of several grand,” said Stephen McCandless, Annex’s managing director since 2001. “Given that our operating margin is zero, everything lost needs to be actively replaced. It’s a real blow.” (Annex produces around eight shows per year and is home to many more — variety, comedy, etc. — but staff members, including artistic and managing directors, get a token stipend of $15 per month.)
Annex’s decision to cancel shows was less about getting audiences to the theater than simply getting far-flung artists and volunteers to Capitol Hill. (Strawberry Theatre Workshop had the same problem. One actor in “Everybody,” Carter said, lives in Milton, just east of Tacoma.)
“Back in the day, the artists could afford to live on Capitol Hill,” McCandless said. “A few years ago, we could have done counterprogramming, which is always a sexy angle: You’re going stir crazy, you’ve done Netflix, you’re finished bingeing on ‘Russian Doll,’ so walk on over and see a show. But if you can’t get the artists there safely, you can’t do that.”
Seattle’s scrappier theaters have wrangled with those income-versus-geography issues for over a decade, McCandless said, but the snowstorm put a fine point on the problem.
“Annex runs on stolen time,” he explained. “Everything we’ve ever accomplished came from the slack in somebody’s life. Annex came up when we got to be slackers, back when people could be young and poor in Seattle, opt out of money, be shiftless kids who had time to sleep with each other and make art. Now we have a new batch of kids, but there’s no slack — these kids have two or three jobs, don’t have money or time. So this is the problem: have an enforced week off while telling our already-stressed volunteers to do more marketing work than they’d expected, explaining to people that our shows are being canceled, or feel bad for letting the whole team down.”
Volunteer-powered theaters like Annex, he said, are already running with no fat: “And I’m sitting here, shaving off every penny I can, trying to sell theater tickets to the best-entertained population in recorded history.”
But for all their frustrations, McCandless, Griffin and Carter keep a wry sense of humor and almost fatalistic optimism. Without being asked, Annex cast members self-organized and carved out time to add another performance to the schedule. People at the 5th Avenue soldiered through bunking together to keep “Rock of Ages” running. Strawberry Theatre Workshop launched a quick “snow relief” fundraiser on Facebook, pulling in $6,400 in just two days.
Griffin was emblematically sanguine. “Theaters, local shops, local restaurants: We’ve all taken a big hit,” she said. “But it’s just, like: Mother Nature! What are you going to do?”
“Everybody” by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Extended by two performances through Feb. 18; Strawberry Theatre Workshop at 12th Avenue Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle; $24-$36; 800-838-3006, strawshop.org
“Rock of Ages,” book by Chris D’Arienzo, arrangements and orchestrations by Ethan Popp. Through Feb. 24; 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; tickets start at $29; 206-625-1900, 5th avenue.org
“The Devil and Sarah Blackwater,” by Anthea Carns, music and lyrics by Lauren Freman. Through March 2; Annex Theatre, 1100 E. Pike St., Seattle; $10-$40; 206-728-0933, annextheatre.org