Without more federal money, what will regional theaters do? Subscriptions and ticket sales are down, but theater is needed more than ever. What theaters are doing to survive.

Without more federal money, what will regional theaters do?

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In recent years, Dallas has seen an influx of big corporate headquarters and nearly a million new residents. The draws to the city don't just include the jobs, the Cowboys or the barbecue, but its growing and vibrant cultural scene. In our series on American regional theater, The Next Stage, we turn to the Dallas Theater Center. It's one of the oldest and most financially sound theaters in the country, yet it would have closed during the pandemic, along with hundreds of other theaters, without the help of a very, very big friend. Sonari Glinton reports from Dallas.

TIANA KAYE BLAIR: All right. One more time.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: The best way to talk about theater and the business of theater, well, is to go to one.

BLAIR: While we are spiking a few thoughts for actors...

GLINTON: This is a rehearsal for "Trouble In Mind," a play from the '50s about race and theater. It's playing at the Dallas Theater Center.

JEREMY RISHE: (As Al Manners) Speak your mind, and then sing.

M DENISE LEE: (As Wiletta) I know exactly what you want.

RISHE: (As Al Manners) Blurt out the first thing that enters your mind.

LEE: (As Wiletta, singing) Come and go with me.

GLINTON: This revival by Alice Childress is about the racism Black actors face in a white theater company.

LEE: (As Wiletta, singing) Come and go with me.

BLAIR: I think that there will always be a line to toe. There will always be a balance to find in how to push audiences and how to make them comfortable. And I think that the dance between those two things will always be a thing.

GLINTON: That is Tiana Kaye Blair. She is the director of "Trouble In Mind" and an artist-in-residence at the Dallas Theater Center. She says theater makers and theaters themselves have always faced the fundamental question. What's the purpose of theater?

BLAIR: Sometimes the intention is, we got to make more money on the back end. And sometimes the intention is, do you want to change something? Are you working to create something new that will then, in turn, do something new for audiences?

GLINTON: This is also the very heart of the economic problem for all theaters, even in normal times. But these are not normal times. The pandemic created a crisis for the managers of the country's regional theaters, like Dallas Theater Center's Jeffrey Woodward. Woodward walked me around the old historic building - very much in need of repair.

JEFFREY WOODWARD: If you've seen pictures of the Guggenheim, you'll know immediately, this is a Frank Lloyd Wright building, and this was built at the end of his career.

GLINTON: Maintaining a theater by that most famous of architects, Frank Lloyd Wright, is very expensive. Woodward and the theater team have been able to hold on, even though there's been a nearly 60% drop in theater subscriptions post-pandemic shutdowns, and no one knows if theatergoers will return to pre-pandemic levels. Also, Woodward points out, theaters face a lot more competition - streaming TV, sports and big-budget, for-profit touring shows from Broadway.

WOODWARD: "Hamilton" - "Hamilton" comes in, and that sucks, like, millions of dollars of ticket-buying audience out of our reach for that period of time because people are probably not going to spend $200 or whatever it costs to go see "Hamilton" and then also come here.

GLINTON: What has kept the doors open in the last year? Well, Woodward says his Dallas community and the big-money donors there helped. His theater has gotten more savvy, though, about merchandise, rethinking their business. But the real savior of the theater - the U.S. federal government and what Woodward calls his alphabet soup.

WOODWARD: Payroll Protection Plan, or PPP, Employee Retention Tax Credit, ERTC, Shuttered Venues Operating Grant (ph), SVOG, and now we're getting funds from FEMA.

GLINTON: It might seem obvious to apply for whatever federal money you're eligible for, but it takes time, people and money to do that. During the shutdown, theaters have finally had time to apply for some of the $16 billion from an array of federal programs that became available - more money than at any time since the Great Depression.

WOODWARD: So Shuttered Venues Operating Grant was co-authored by John Cornyn, who is a Republican senator from Texas, and Amy Klobuchar, who's a Democratic senator from Minnesota.

GLINTON: Of all the issues that Amy Klobuchar and John Cornyn could get together on - climate change, immigration - why theater?

AMY KLOBUCHAR: Well, we actually work together fairly well.

GLINTON: It is funny to think of Republican John Cornyn from Texas and Democrat Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota as sort of a modern-day Mickey & Judy - you know, hey, let's put on a show - that save local theaters. But...

KLOBUCHAR: What brought us together on this, which I think brought a lot of people together during the pandemic, was no one wanted to let the music die. No one wanted to let live theater die.

GLINTON: This is one of the few genuine bipartisan victories of the last decade. Klobuchar says what made this bipartisan success was Congress realized that theater and music venues aren't just important to the culture, but vital to the economy.

KLOBUCHAR: This is not just some side industry that, you know, people oh, let's be nice to them. We need we need that for people to go to once a year. It employs people. And it's not just in the venues themselves that work there and the obvious, the lighting people and the like. It also employs people in restaurants and hotels and people that are part of entertainment.

GLINTON: Many nonprofit theaters have lived from hand-to-mouth, and the pandemic forced them to look at their business models, says Teresa Eyring with the Theatre Communications Group.

TERESA EYRING: They began to innovate around the ways that they could continue. So innovation happened in terms of virtual programming, virtual education programs, virtual performances.

GLINTON: Theaters formed new associations. They got a dedicated lobbyist. And thanks to that government money, only one major theater out of nearly 500 across the country has gone out of business. But much of that money was time-limited, and with it going away and audiences slow to return, more theaters could shut down. That's why Eyring says it's crucial for theater leaders to, well, hustle, hopefully without making too many artistic sacrifices.

EYRING: There is at times, when audiences are shrinking, the temptation do try to produce much more popular shows, which could keep us from producing some of the new work.

GLINTON: Keeping them open and being able to stage more challenging new plays or insightful revivals like "Trouble In Mind" requires getting butts back in the seats and a little help from Washington.

LEE: (As Wiletta, singing) Come and go with me to that land where I'm bound.

CLAIRE GREENBERG: (As Judy Sears) Bravo. Magnificent.

GLINTON: For NPR News, I'm Sonari Glinton.


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