Theatre: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow? Highlights of a recent talk by Buck Busfield of the B Street Theatre on the current state of live theatre and his thoughts on its future.
Buck Busfield, Producing Artistic Director of the B Street Theatre, recently spoke (via Zoom) at a Friday Forum of the Sacramento Renaissance Society. The topic – Theatre: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?
See related blog post: Sacramento Renaissance Society
As a long-time B Street Theatre season ticket-holder, I was very interested to hear Buck’s take on the state of current state of live theatre and his thoughts on its future post-COVID-19.
SacramentoRevealed.com – All Things Sacramento (from a personal perspective)
Theatre: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow? – The State of Live Theatre Today
The answer to the question – How’s Live Theatre Doing? is “not very well”.
Buck made mention of the mega hit “Hamilton”, but also commented that he viewed it as an anomaly in the larger scheme of things. The focus of his talk was on 501 (c) (3) not-for-profit professional theatres – such as B Street Theatre.
While one might think that the primary cause of live theatre’s current state of affairs is the COVID-19 pandemic, Buck says that is not the case. This is not to say that COVID-19 has not been a serious blow to the arts, including live theatre.
The fact of the matter, per Buck, is that not-for-profit professional theatres have witnessed a steady decline in attendance prior to COVID-19.
Impact of Digital Technology
One of the key factors identified was the impact of digital technology. While the music industry has been hit hardest (sale of records, etc. v. streaming) many other industries have likewise been seriously impacted. Specifically mentioned was the steady decline of the newspaper industry and specifically the Sacramento Bee.
Gone is the robust coverage of the Sacramento arts scene. The Sacramento Bee at one point had five reviewers covering the arts, as well as special sections of the paper devoted to the arts and upcoming events. Buck mentioned that new B Street Theatre productions “lived or died” based on its review in the Sacramento Bee.
Now, in this digital age of information overload, individuals cherry-pick what they are going to read. I know that I do, and I bet you do too.
Secondly, Buck mentioned “competition of the couch”. Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Showtime, etc. provide one with entertainment in the comfort of one’s home. No need to get dressed up and hop in the car, pay for parking, etc.
Video games was also mentioned as being a competitor to live theatre. Buck shared the statistic that 49% of individuals who play video games are adults – with an average age of 40. I have to say that I had not thought of video games in this light.
Market Reset Period
Buck observed that various industries are dying off and the market is in a reset period.
We are all familiar with the decline of the publishing industry and the closure of many of our favorite bookstores. Likewise, many stores specializing in music have disappeared. I miss to this day the Tower Records and Tower Books stores on Broadway.
As an aside – the former location of Tower Records and Tower Books on Broadway is now an empty lot, the site of a future mixed development.
See related blog post: Tower Records – A Sacramento Story
Good luck finding a taxi when you want one – taxis have all but disappeared in the face of competition from Uber and Lyft.
Buck also opined that movie theaters are another industry in danger. We have all, I am sure, noticed movie theaters downsizing their space and adding luxury seating, etc. to attract customers. For that matter, even the iconic Tower Theater upped their game.
See related blog post: Tower Theatre – Sacramento Landmarks
B Street Theatre Today & Tomorrow
Buck shared with Renaissance members what the leadership and staff have been doing since they closed their doors on March 13, 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
B Street Theatre had to lay off 40 of 50 staff, but federal funding as well as donations from the public helped keep the lights on. During the closure they have made some physical improvements to the building, and have kept the remaining staff busy with virtual programming.
See related blog posts: Dirty Cello Concert and Re-Imagine Series at B Street Theatre and New Comedies Festival Script Club and Stella & Ian Duo Concert and Virtual New Play Brunch II and Virtual New Play Brunch and Shelly Burns Virtual Concert
Looking forward, B Street Theatre expects a phased re-opening – live music first, followed by plays on the Mainstage. Fall 2021 was mentioned.
The B Street Theatre leadership has been giving a lot of thought to the future of B Street. This includes strategies for connecting with millennials. Unlike baby boomers, for example, millennials are far less likely to commit to a season subscription.
Mentioned as part of the recipe for success were: high quality productions, professional acting, high-touch marketing, customer service, and keeping prices reasonable i.e. “price matters.”
Buck also discussed the edge The Sofia provides as there is the ability to have three different shows (music, dance, theatre, comedy, etc.) taking place simultaneously, with patrons mingling in the lobby/bar area – thus making the venue “a destination.”
The B Street Children’s Theatre has grown over 20% in the last five years! Exposure to high-quality children’s theatre featuring professional actors is the gateway to adult theatre – and future patrons.
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