Filling Seats: Local Theaters' Fight to Bounce Back

“The show must go on,” the saying goes, and despite nearly three years navigating the twists and turns of an unpredictable, disruptive pandemic, Southwest Michigan’s dedicated local theatre professionals have proven it to be true. 


Through lockdown, forced outdoor performances, changing recommendations regarding masking, social distancing, and vaccination, local theaters have safely welcomed back audiences with terrific anniversary seasons, and responded as gracefully as possible to the challenges the pandemic has brought this industry, raising the stakes and their own bar for excellence, ultimately serving the larger community in ways nothing else can.

“There’s something about being in that room with these professionals who are working at a high, high level and seeing that theater magic we talk about all the time come to fruition,” said Robert Weiner, executive director of Farmers Alley Theatre in Kalamazoo. “It’s unique and can’t be replicated except by going out to live theatre.”

But it hasn’t been easy, and it’s come at a cost. And the challenges local theaters have faced are not unique to this area.

According to the New York Times ticket sales were down 40 percent in the 2021-22 season for the performing arts nationwide, compared to before the pandemic, and ticket revenues were down by 31 percent.

“As excited as we all were to come back,” said Kurt Stamm, artistic director of Mason Street Warehouse in Saugatuck, “in order for us to come back we need an audience.”


Before COVID, Mason Street Warehouse was selling tickets to their big summer musicals anywhere from 95 to 98 percent capacity of their 410-seat house. After going dark in 2020, then experimenting with outdoor performances in 2021, things never fully recovered. Despite people raving about the shows, ticket sales were down roughly 30 percent for Mason Street’s 20th anniversary season in 2022.

“One piece of it is they’re fearful because of COVID; another piece of it is since March of 2020, we’ve taught ourselves other ways to entertain ourselves, and getting ourselves off the couch and away from the screen became a challenge,” Stamm said. “The more we accepted that, the harder it got. We got lazy and then we got sort of complacent.”

But nothing can replace the experience of live theater. “It creates community, it creates camaraderie, it brings however many people together for a shared experience, and whether you talk to the person next to you or not, or if you’re solitary in that experience, you’re still energetically and emotionally affected — and I think we need that,” Stamm said. “It’s a piece of our chemical make-up that you can’t replicate sitting in front of a screen. Even going to the movies doesn’t do that.”

That sense of community is a driving force at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, the only remaining summer stock theater in the area, a family-run business that celebrated their 75th Anniversary season in 2021 and has weathered the pandemic tremendously well, returning to full seasons that were well attended in both 2021 and 2022.

“Our patrons consider each other to be a community. It’s not only that they missed seeing the shows, they missed each other. If they don’t have this as a gathering place, they don’t see these people. It was a huge hole in their lives. A lot of their lives are enriched by that,” said Penelope Alex, dean of the Barn Theatre-School and longtime leading lady on its stage. 


It wasn’t just seeing each other that they missed, but also seeing and connecting with the people who create the shows, many of whom they’ve known for years—performers who, in addition to putting on the shows, also park cars, serve food and drinks, sell tickets, and mow the grass. “That’s our thing—our brand,” Alex said. “They get to see us up close and personal. And they claim us.”

Farmers Alley Theatre is celebrating their 15th anniversary season and also takes seriously their role in the community. 

Drawing audiences to a show in downtown Kalamazoo likely means dollars spent in local restaurants and bars, another industry hard hit by the pandemic. “Spending money on a night out is a major choice. It’s very meaningful when the audience comes out because they chose to come out at all. We want to give everyone an incredible experience,” Weiner said. “We love to work synergistically with our community.” 

And the core community has more than responded in kind. “There were moments during the pandemic we just weren’t sure we would make it. The support we received from the community has meant so much,” Weiner said. “Restaurants, businesses have closed all over. That could have been us without the support of our community.”

The support of loyal patrons and donors to local theaters has been universally generous and crucial for their survival. “The audiences aren’t there but our supporters are,” said Lenny Banovez, artistic director of Hope Summer Repertory Theatre in Holland, which is remarkably close to reaching their ambitious goal of raising $500,000 in celebration of their 50th anniversary season this year. 

This is also despite the fact that most theaters haven’t raised ticket prices since 2019, keeping costs to $40-$50 per ticket.

Banovez acknowledged the struggles nearly all theaters are facing to bring audiences back, saying “it’s a rock and a hard place and a fine line to walk to make sure everyone is safe so we’re not having a super spreader event.”


HSRT struggled with unpredictable lakeshore weather conditions with an outdoor season in 2021 and this past summer required masking indoors for their full regular season, a condition that was met, at times, with resistance if not rage. “Front of the house are like airline crew: they’re put in a situation where there could be conflict,” Banovez said, adding that his response to patrons who resented having to wear a mask was “it’s either you or the actors with masks; musicals are better without masks.”

Each theater followed CDC guidelines as they shifted and changed, as well as the rules mandated by Actor’s Equity Association, the governing union for professional actors, including regular COVID-19 testing for actors and revamped HVAC systems to ensure healthy ventilation systems. But last season masking and vaccination mandates were largely up to the theaters themselves to decide. 

While HSRT did require masks, Mason Street Warehouse and The Barn did not, and Farmers Alley, with a black box theater one-quarter of the size of the larger theatre spaces, continues to require proof of vaccination and masks. Each theater had minimal COVID outbreaks and disruptions.

For Banovez the choice is simply the unfortunate reality at the moment. “I see both sides of it. For me it’s not political; we’re stuck in the middle of it. Theatre is the one profession that hasn’t fully come back,” he said. “It’s an overused hashtag but theatre really is for all—and I do mean all. Not just the left but the right too. It’s a moment when we all come together and we shut up because someone else is talking. We sit. And we listen to a story, together. And then we walk out. It may not change you in the moment but it will change you.” 

And part of that change is physical connection beyond proximity. “I love going to shows and hearing people breathe,” Banovez said. “Heartbeats will sync up. You can orchestrate the breath of an audience, it’s all part of the storytelling. That’s what’s palpable to me.”

And that connection, all politics aside, that indescribable effect of being in the room where the magic happens, is why, pandemic or not, live theatre enriches our lives and the show must go on.