Jul 28, 2023 - Culture

Some Chicago theaters pushed to financial brink

Illustration of a theater stage, with a dollar bill printed on the curtains.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Lookingglass Theatre Company shocked theatergoers last month when it announced staff cuts and a pause on productions until next spring.

Why it matters: Lookingglass is just one of many local theaters forced to make tough business decisions to cope with dwindling audience numbers following the pandemic shutdown.

What they're saying: "Since reopening, audiences and donations have not returned to 2019 levels, and the American Theatre is struggling to survive," Lookingglass leaders said in a statement announcing the decision, per the Sun-Times.

Context: Many theaters have long relied on their subscription bases for revenue, but those numbers have dropped sharply after COVID.

  • "Over the years we were told we're crazy not to have relied on subscribers," Annoyance Theatre's Jennifer Estlin tells Axios. "It's helping us now that we never did that."

By the numbers: The League of Chicago Theaters says its discounted ticketing program sold about 1,200 tickets per week before the alliance had to temporarily shutter it alongside pandemic theater closings.

  • They sold about 1,000 the week after resuming the program in August 2021. Today, the League says it's selling only about 600 tickets per week.
  • Currently, the League has 185 member theaters, down from 250 pre-pandemic.

Between the lines: "Post-pandemic, it's harder to get people to leave home, and when people do venture out, they're usually looking for the lowest-price ticket at the last minute," league president Marissa Lynn Jones tells Axios.

  • "This makes a lot of the traditional ways that theaters plan budgets and operating costs very difficult."

The intrigue: The State of Illinois is poised to deliver $175 million in recovery grants to hotels, restaurants and arts organizations soon. But the process has been marred by application confusion and delays.

  • Announced in March, the grants were supposed to have been delivered by June.
  • "A lot of decisions are on hold," Estlin tells Axios. "If we don't get the grant, I'll have to cut back in areas that I wish we didn't have to."

Threat level: Arts foundations are calling on the city and state to allocate even more resources as arts organizations continue to struggle.

  • "When we lose small arts and culture organizations and venues, we lose community assets," the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation wrote in a recent Sun-Times op-ed.

What we're watching: City support is part of the recipe for Aurora's Paramount Theatre, which is an anchor for the downtown revitalization efforts for the state's second-largest city.

  • CEO Tim Rater tells Axios that Paramount's $5.5 million deficit last year was picked up by the city. Aurora plans to help cover deficits again this year and down the road.
  • "This industry isn't known for making a ton of money, so we're really fortunate to have the city as a collaborator to make sure that we continue to do what the community needs."
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