3 Reasons Why Social Distancing Won’t Work For The Theater. (Updated 2020)

In a two-parter a few weeks ago, I talked about What Broadway’s Recovery Would Look Like and Why I Believe Broadway Will Bounce Back FAST and I came to the conclusion that while we may be out for a few more months than anyone would like, we’ll be better off as a result. Or, to quip it . . . #LongerIsStronger.

One of the reasons I think we’re going to sit on the sidelines as other industries open up is that social distancing doesn’t work for what we do.

Restaurants or airlines might be able to operate effectively with reduced capacity and social-distance between seats, but not theater.

Here are three reasons why:

  1. “It’s the economy, stupid.” Broadway Theater (and theater in general) has a very fragile economic model, because we are a very labor intensive industry.  We require 100 people to show up every single night to make a product that can only exist in those few hours.  Then our product disappears and we have to get those 100 people to come back the next day and make it again . .  to the tune of 8 times a week. And that labor is the BEST labor in the world.  We are the Major Leagues of the theater. And unlike the NBA or movies, there are no other revenue streams other than ticket sales for us to survive on. Take seats out of the equation to allow for space between patrons, and your recoupment chart would be a fantasy novel. Good shows struggle to survive at 65% capacity in a non-pandemic world. Even if we receive favorable deals from our vendors and unions, the #s just don’t add up. And no, we’re not going to raise prices to make up for it. Raising ticket prices in a pandemic is like Oliver asking for more food at the orphanage. “More???? You want MORE?????”
  2. “It’s not just the Audiences, it’s everyone else (including the art).” The questions I get about a reduced capacity model seem fixated on the audiences.  But what about our actors in their cramped dressing rooms? What about the musicians stuck in the pit? Ever try to navigate backstage at a theater with those 100 people running around trying to make a show work? Sure, maybe we could logistically socially distance an audience, but how the heck do you do it backstage. And what about onstage? Are you going to reblock Romeo & Juliet to take out the kiss? Will “Shall We Dance” from King and I be renamed, “Shall we Dance (without touching hands)”? Are singers going to wear plexi masks to catch their spit? Doing so would change the art, which would change the experience. And the experience matters, which brings me to . . .
  3. “It’s also the word-of-mouth.” The theater is a word-of-mouth industry. WOM is the #1 sales motivator we have. It’s not reviews. It’s not advertising. It’s a friend telling another friend, “You must, must, MUST see this show!” Word-of-mouth only works when the experience is extraordinary. And part of what makes that experience extraordinary is a packed theater. Have you ever been to a show that is only half full? It’s just not the same as going to a show that’s sold out. So, while audiences may enjoy a show that is 25% full, they just aren’t going to enjoy it as much as we need them to in order to recommend it to their friends. And not only will the word of mouth from reduced houses be less passionate, those less-sold houses mean fewer actual mouths!  A sold out Phantom in a week puts 13,160 people in the streets talking about the show.  A 50% sold Phantom puts 6,580 people in the streets.  Our economic model needs those extra mouths!  (Digression:  this is one of the reasons why word of mouth takes longer in Off Broadway theaters – they just don’t have anywhere near as many word of mouth advocates.)

Practically speaking, you could socially distance a theater. But it’s a short term fix. It could get (some) butts in seats to get a curtain back up, but it won’t keep the curtain up.

That’s why I’d rather be out longer – to come back stronger.


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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.