L.A. theaters' spirits up despite recession

Administrators finding new ways to keep selling tickets

The Los Angeles theater scene? It, too, has been buffeted by the economic downturn. The phrase "ticket sales are off 10%" rolls easily off the lips of playhouse administrators. But spirits and resolve remain determinedly high, and there is no talk of converting to dinner theater.

Bigger venues have responded by focusing more precisely on target audiences, stretching budgets as far and creatively as possible, tinkering with pricing strategies and compelling season-ticket campaigns, and using the Internet not only for sales but also for creating buzz on such social networking sites as Facebook and Twitter.

There's also luck of the draw.

The Pantages began selling season tickets to Broadway/L.A. in spring 2008, before the brunt of the financial collapse. Using a "Welcome Home to the Pantages!" theme, inviting back existing subscribers after two years of "Wicked," Broadway/L.A.'s parade of mainstream moneymakers through November lists "Rain," "Mamma Mia!" "Dirty Dancing," "Topol in Fiddler on the Roof," "Legally Blonde" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas."

"The same thing happened when 'Lion King' closed," Broadway/L.A. vp marketing Wayne McWorter says. "Pantages has become a top-of-mind location. We have sold more season tickets than for any other season in our history."

The Ahmanson Theatre's 2009-10 season already focused on major-league theatrical thrills, headlined by Tony and Pulitzer winners "Monty Python's Spamalot," "August: Osage County," "Mary Poppins," "Dreamgirls" and "South Pacific," with a bonus option of "An Evening With Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin."

Customers are responding.

Jim Royce, director of marketing and communications at the Center Theatre Group, cites ticket sales "45% above" last year's pace. The challenge, he says, will be bringing in newcomers and single-ticket buyers.

No 2009-10 plans have been announced by the Mark Taper Forum, but two productions could create excitement this spring: Octavio Solis' border tragedy "Lydia," which opens this month, and David Mamet's "Oleanna," starring Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles, which is set to open in late May.

In Westwood, Geffen Playhouse producing director Gil Cates admits the current season has been difficult "in terms of adjusting to different projections we had anticipated: our subscription numbers (which remained pretty high), single-ticket sales (down a bit) and earned income (down a bit). The concern now is the uncertainty."

Cates is responding to the uncertainty with what he learned from Michael Kaiser at Washington's John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: "When things in the performing arts are hard, program aggressively and take the biggest risks. Let your audiences know you care. Otherwise, they can disappear."

It's apparent Cates is headed toward big names and hot topics in the new season. The Geffen's 2009-10 slate includes Blair Singer's "Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas," a Hollywood parody of Matthew Modine -- starring Modine; Jonathan Brielle's musical version of "Nightmare Alley," which Cates seductively calls "dark and expensive," with similarities to the Daniel Day-Lewis-toplined movie "There Will Be Blood"; Joanna Murray-Smith's Annette Bening star vehicle "The Female of the Species," inspired loosely by a real-life incident involving Germaine Greer; and George Stevens Jr.'s "Thurgood," a look at former Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, starring Laurence Fishburne.

In Costa Mesa, the economic downturn has the South Coast Repertory biting the bullet. Managing director Paula Tomei says the company has cut about 10% of its budget "by looking really hard at how we were going to produce the rest of the season without changing titles."

Although single-ticket sales have picked up since January, Tomei anticipates a decline in new-season subscriptions. On the South Coast Rep's roster for 2009-10 are works by Stephen Sondheim and promising newcomer Adam Gwon, three world premieres and revivals of Beth Henley's "Crimes of the Heart" and August Wilson's "Fences."

Smaller and equity theaters such as the Fountain and Odyssey are scrambling, balancing limited production resources with challenging demographics. It's not great at the fringes, either, where experimental theaters relentlessly play roles as hot-house dream incubators.

At the core of positive energy surrounding the Los Angeles theater scene is a widespread belief, expressed by Royce and others, that "people enjoy entertainment in down economies. People who regularly attend the theater do not stay home during a recession, although they might buy less-expensive tickets or see fewer plays."

Still, one might want to refrain from encouraging one's best friends in the theater to break a leg, at least until the economy picks up.