Chicago theater forges through recession

By Colin Shively

In the current economic climate, it is simple enough to bear witness to businesses altering their methods in order to save money. Yet, there is one particular industry that goes back and forth straddling the line of the recession—the theater industry.

On Sept. 11, Apple Tree Theatre made an announcement that after 26 years, it will be closing the curtain for good, canceling its entire 2009-2010 season.

According to the now-closed theater, the reasons ranged from lack of financial support to ticket sales, evidence of a weakened economy.

Despite Chicago’s vibrant theater culture, the stress of the financial crisis is threatening the industry.

“People are struggling in the area of corporate donations,” said Deb Clapp, executive director of the League of Chicago

Theatres, 228 S. Wabash St. “Our studies show that people are still buying theater tickets, but no doubt about it, [theaters] are suffering.”

Most theaters, especially those that are the same size as Apple Tree, rely heavily on corporate donations and support, Clapp said. If the financial support is not there then there is no way to make up that financial gain.

There are, however, some theaters that have not been affected by the troubled economy.

Steppenwolf Theater, 1650 N. Halsted St., is one of Chicago’s most well-known theaters and currently they have not felt any significant crunch from the economy.

“We have basically responded [to the economy] by sticking with our core values and strength of our organization,” said Linda Garrison, the director of Marketing and Communications at Steppenwolf. “We didn’t do deep price cuts, did not change programming and continued to [operate] the way we always have.”

A common trend that Steppenwolf recognized amongst their patrons is the gradual decrease in ticket sales, specifically the single-ticket sales.

“In reading the news and various industry journals a lot of theaters did what I would consider a preemptive strick by lowering prices,” Garrison said “We did not do that.”

Steppenwolf is seeing more day-of-performance ticket sales rather than ticket sales for future productions, Garrison said.

“Let’s face it, in this economy there is no one that is not suffering,” Clapp said. “But I think that small theaters are having problems because they can’t grow in the way that they want to.”

Yet theater people are by nature creative, Clapp said. Theaters have become more innovative when it comes to drawing in more patrons than before. Much like other businesses, they have turned to the Internet, specifically social networking.

Earlier this year, Shakespeare Chicago hosted an event where users of the social networking site Twitter tweeted the works of Shakespeare in 140 characters or less, which is the largest size a post to Twitter can be.

“That was really, really clever,” Clapp said. “People are really trying to engage the current and future audiences through social networking like that.”

During the summer, Goodman Theatre attracted patrons and Chicagoans to Grant Park for a viewing of Duck Soup, where the Goodman Theatre wanted to break the  world record for the most Groucho Marx glasses worn in the same area.

The goal was to promote the upcoming production of “Animal Crackers” that premiered on Sept. 18. at the Goodman Theatre.

“There are all kinds of things out there that theaters are trying to do to engage the audience in different ways,” Clapp said. “It is not necessarily about going out and selling the ticket immediately, it is more about going out and engaging the community in what you are doing.”

As time goes on, Clapp and the rest of the artistic community expects to see theaters coming up with new methods of drawing in a new generation of theater lovers reach the generation that has grown up in the digital world.