Regional theaters around the country are continuing to struggle in their recovery from pandemic shutdowns. And while several of the Bay Area's regional theaters appear to be coming back strong, all of them may not make it.

As the economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be felt, nonprofit regional theaters — even some of the most prestigious and acclaimed in the country — are still feeling the pain. In addition to digging out from the financial hole created by 18 or more months being completely dark, without any revenue from ticket sales, theaters are struggling to regain subscriber bases that keep them afloat.

Subscribers to regional theaters, the demographics of which tend to skew older, haven't all returned. Whether they're still too spooked to be in close proximity to strangers for hours at a time inside theaters, or they have underlying health concerns that make such a proposition more risky than they feel it's worth, whole contingents of loyal theater subscribers have vanished. This leaves the theaters struggling to do what they've long tried to do in various ways: attract younger audiences, as well as more loyal converts to the subscription model who were previously just occasional, single-show buyers.

The New York Times noted the troubles in the regional theater scene in a piece several weeks ago, pointing to Chicago's acclaimed Lookingglass Theater and Seattle’s ACT Theater both as examples of theaters curtailing programming amidst financial woes.

The hurt has already been evident in the Bay Area theater scene, with California Shakespeare Theater, a.k.a. CalShakes, announcing earlier this year that it was canceling its 2023 summer season. The outdoor theater has staged Shakespeare plays as well as other classic and occasional new works at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda since 1991, typically doing four productions per season. And the company, which originated as the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival in 1974, came out of the pandemic slowly, with just one production in 2022.

But as the theater explained in a March update to supporters, the huge expenses of 2020 and 2021, combined with lower ticket revenue in 2021 and 2022, made for a major financial deficit that has forced them to reimagine their entire operation. A working group is currently at work to prepare a new season in 2024 which, they hope, will be more financially sustainable, and attract new subscribers.

As they explained, nonprofit theaters like CalShakes are "supported by generous donors who will take risks that for-profit theaters are not as willing to take," and that includes a model in which 50% of revenue comes from donations. But, the theater says, "we’ve seen donor support diminish at the same time that subscribers are aging out faster than they are being replaced (both of these trends are associated with the Baby Boom generation entering its seventh decade), while costs keep climbing."

This week we also learned that TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, which won the 2019 Tony Award for outsanding regional theater and which debuted the Tony-winning musical Memphis over a decade ago, is in a similar financial hole, and may have to shut down completely.

"We have now reached a danger point,” said executive director Debbie Chinn said in a statement. "We have been [making] and continue to make hard decisions, including deep financial cuts within the company. But frankly, without significant additional funding, we will be unable to continue operations."

Chinn said the theater is seeking $3 million in donations by November in order to avoid a shutdown. A new musical, Alice Bliss, slated for a summer premiere at TheatreWorks, was indefinitely postponed in May.

In San Francisco, the American Conservatory Theater (ACT) put on a slightly truncated season for 2022-2023, culminating with the family-oriented Wizard of Oz in June. But they are back doing a more ambitious, full slate of productions for the upcoming season that includes the new, Broadway-bound Soul Train-inspired musical, Hippest Trip: The Soul Train Musical, which begins previews August 25.

"It's so exciting that we get to create this in our own backyard!" says ACT Executive Director Jennifer Bielstein, regarding the Hippest Trip premier. The new season also includes a new production of 2022 Tony winner for Best Musical, A Strange Loop, which is being partially underwritten by Gilead.

"Knowing that peoples’ patterns have changed dramatically because of the pandemic, our strategy at A.C.T. is to program shows that have titles that will have a large draw and feel essential to go out and experience in person," Bielstein tells SFist.

The later part of the season in spring 2024 also includes a production of the acclaimed Lehman Trilogy, directed by star director Sam Medes.

"We’re seeing positive momentum since we returned to mainstage programming in January 2022 and are very optimistic about the future," Bielsten says. "What you read in all of the articles is also true — the gap in revenues and expenses is a real issue for our theaters and our sector needs more public support. We need more runway to rebound from the effects of the pandemic on our businesses, which were the first to be shut down and the last to be able to reopen."

The Bay Area's other very highly acclaimed, large regional theater, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, seems to be in slightly better financial stead — though they're facing the same issue with a significant drop in their subscriber base since 2019.

“At Berkeley Rep, the Board launched a $20M Resilience Campaign shortly after the pandemic began, of which we have raised $15M to date, to help bridge the organization to a time of returned audience demand and financial stability," says Tom Parrish, managing director at Berkeley Rep. "We have seen audiences growing and growing, and for many shows, attendance is largely at or exceeding pre-pandemic levels."

Still, Parrish says the subscriber base is currently "about 30% smaller than it was pre-pandemic."

"We had 12,000 subscribers pre-pandemic, [and that's] down to 8,000 the last two seasons, and next season we are aiming for 9,000."

Parrish explains that while they've been fairly successful in filling the empty seats left by those lost subscribers with single-ticket buyers, "those are more expensive patrons to attract and retain."

"Each organization is structured differently, so the path forward will be unique for each organization. Since Berkeley Rep owns its facilities and still has a relatively robust subscription audience, we are returning to full programming to fully utilize our space, spread risk over more productions, and encourage renewed audience engagement with bold, theatrical productions," Parrish says.

He adds that Berkeley Rep is also investing in more fundraising staff, as they will need more corporate and individual philanthropy going forward.

Subscription packages at Berkeley Rep include their popular seven-show package, which starts at just $31 per ticket. ACT's full-season subscriptions, which includes five shows, start at less than $20 per ticket.

San Francisco Playhouse and The Magic Theatre, which have smaller houses than ACT or Berkeley Rep but still put on equally ambitious and compelling productions, are also competing to attract new subscribers.

SF Playhouse has been putting on a long run of the crowd-pleasing A Chorus Line which opened in late June and has already been extended; and this winter they'll be doing Guys & Dolls, another ambitious musical, as well as a season full of other interesting, provocative productions. (Donate to SF Playhouse here.)

The Magic currently has Josephine's Feast playing, written by and starring Star Finch, and they only have one more show on the docket, Dugo, playing just two nights later this month. An expected production by MacArthur fellow Taylor Mac, titled Love and Pandemic, which had been set for a 2021 premiere, remains postponed. (Donate to the Magic here.)

"The best thing anyone can do to support arts organizations right now is to buy a ticket and go, and certainly to make a donation if they can," says ACT's Bielstein.

Previously: Newly Announced SF Theater Seasons Include 'Company,' Pre-Broadway Preview of 'The Wiz' and World Premiere of 'Galileo'

Top image: From SF Playhouse's 2022 production of Stephen Sondheim's 'Follies.' Photo by Jessica Palopoli