Where Jewel Theatre Company struggled to revive its audience numbers after the COVID shutdown, Santa Cruz Shakespeare had a banner season in 2022. Indoors vs. outdoors is certainly a factor, but what of shifting demographics, economics, attention spans in the smartphone age? And is there a secret sauce in local audiences’ tolerance for new or unfamiliar styles? Wallace Baine explores.
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The news came down last week that sometime in the spring/summer of 2024, after one more full season of top-quality theater productions, Santa Cruz’s Jewel Theatre Company would be closing up shop.
Almost 20 years ago, when Jewel first sprouted from the local theater scene, it shared the spotlight — and the theater-going audience — with a number of independent shoestring theater companies. While most of those other groups faded away, Jewel grew to take over the tiny Center Stage performing space in downtown Santa Cruz, and then a few years later, it took up residence at the brand-new Colligan Theater at the Tannery Arts Center.
Led by artistic director Julie James, herself an accomplished actor, Jewel’s reputation was built on its ambitions to deliver the kind of serious, impeccably produced theater you might see in big cities to li’l ol’ Santa Cruz. And, since then, alongside Santa Cruz Shakespeare, it has ranked as the dominant source of live theater, and one of the finest theater companies in Santa Cruz’s long cultural history.
A little more than a year from now, Jewel will become part of that history.
What does it mean that Jewel has determined that it’s time to take a bow and exit stage left? What does it say about the future of theater, or the fate of performing arts in general? Can we draw any conclusions from Jewel’s announcement when it comes to the long shadow the COVID pandemic has cast over the arts and people’s willingness to gather in public? Are we able to make any kind of assumptions regarding the slow transition from the graying baby boomer generation to younger demographics with different values and different habits when it comes to the arts?
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None of these questions have a clear or obvious answer. Trends often develop a certain momentum, but they are not deterministic. The pandemic, demographics, economic factors, technology, government policy toward the arts, housing, even climate change could all serve as elements that decide a particular organization’s fate.
But Jewel’s James is a savvy player in the theater business. She knows her audience well enough that if she were to call on Santa Cruz to “save” Jewel, that her subscribers would probably step up and do exactly that. But she was wary of the new normal that “saving” might create. She feared that her company would merely lurch from one existential crisis to another as Jewel became more of a fundraising outfit than a creative arts organization. Then, as the years went on, the company might have to fold anyway, probably in an abrupt and deeply unsatisfying manner. She had seen it happen with other theater companies before.
“We’re already understaffed for what we do, and we already have to worry about fundraising,” she said. “I just think it would be too much. It would kill us, in a different way.”
So Jewel has decided to die a noble death rather than to cling to an increasingly precarious existence that might compromise its artistic integrity.
Why has this come about for Jewel? After the pandemic shutdown, which closed Jewel for a year and a half, audiences came back in robust numbers for the 2021-22 season.
“We had close to 80% of our subscriber base come back,” she said, “which was very exciting because lots of theaters had much less than that.”
From that number, Jewel had something to build on. James figured that the company could climb back to pre-pandemic audience levels. For the following season, she expected some modest growth and, in fact, the worst-case scenario in her mind was a flat number. Instead, to her shock, that number went south, to around 70% of pre-pandemic levels. Some factors were unique to Santa Cruz; some of Jewel’s subscribers were affected by the ruinous fires of 2020 and eventually moved away. But other factors were shared by the industry as a whole. Some subscribers signed up for the new comeback season as a gesture of support but did not actually come out to the performances. And many of those people, out of the habit of seeing live theater, did not re-up for the following season.
There is a stunning contrast to the Jewel situation locally, at Santa Cruz Shakespeare. That organization presented its first “back-to-normal” season last summer, and it was an enormous success, breaking its ticket-sales goals and producing one of its most profitable seasons ever. Jewel and SCS are complementary companies in many ways; people who work in one often work in the other as well, and they both have similar ambitions in producing great work. But there’s one big and obvious difference. While Jewel operates at the Colligan, SCS works under the eucalyptus trees outdoors at the Audrey Stanley Grove at DeLaveaga. (Cabrillo Stage, which produces big Broadway-style musicals, returned to its indoor Crocker Theater in 2022, and struggled with underwhelming crowds, as well as a COVID outbreak in one of its productions.) Is success or failure in performing arts really now just a question of architecture?
“I think that’s huge,” said Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s co-artistic director, Mike Ryan. “I know so many indoor theaters that are in pretty critical condition right now. Even the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the granddaddy of Shakespeare festivals. We heard last time that they were down about 40% on ticket sales because they’re doing their productions indoors. I just think people feel more comfortable being outside, especially the older audiences that theater tends to attract.”
The pandemic only exacerbated a chronic problem that theater and other performing arts organizations were already experiencing. Arts organizations have historically always operated on the thinnest of margins, and earned income — that is, ticket and subscription sales — doesn’t usually cover an organization’s budget. In Jewel’s case, the overhead was even steeper because it was managing and maintaining the Colligan as a facility. Jewel, like many arts organizations, survived the pandemic largely thanks to federal, state and/or local grants, most of those designed as temporary fixes to get through a crisis.
“[Arts organizations] rely on all their income sources to be as stable as possible,” said Jim Brown, the executive director of Arts Council Santa Cruz County. “And so when any of those sources take a hit, it puts the organization pretty close to the edge.”
On top of all these factors is the much-anticipated demographic transition in audience development, as baby boomers and Gen Xers give way to younger audiences, raised in a radically different technological environment.
Live theater has had struggles appealing to younger audiences for several years now, with declines in theater attendance sharpest among young adults. Jewel is not alone in facing a graying of its audience. Though Jewel does not specifically program with older audiences in mind, its plays tend to touch on themes that resonate with older people.
The wealth gap between young and old plays a part in younger people staying away from traditional performing arts as well. Organizations like Jewel find that single-ticket sales are much too volatile to predict and depend instead on season subscriptions to form their revenue base. But for many younger people, laying out a sum for a season subscription is simply out of reach.
Still, a generation that grew up with the internet, social media and smartphones is probably going to have much different behaviors as an audience from a generation that adopted those things as adults. Audience habits — whether it’s the willingness to go out to shows or how to behave once they get there — change generation after generation.
Matthew Swinnerton, who works to appeal to audiences young and old as the CEO of Event Santa Cruz, mentioned a common phenomenon he saw at a recent music concert.
“There’s lots of people there and they’re jumping up and down. But they all have their phones out. I think it must have been about 70% of the audience had their phones, videotaping the show. I mean, it’s sad that we just can’t live in the moment anymore and just enjoy the show. But I’m going to Depeche Mode and I’m super excited about it. But I’ll probably be videotaping a lot of it with my phone, too.”
Such a thing, by longstanding tradition and habit, is taboo in live theater, for largely rational and understandable reasons. But it also might be another factor keeping younger audiences away.
Andrew Smith, as the executive director of the nonprofit performing arts organization Indexical, has been successful in attracting younger audiences to his space at the Tannery. It operates a tiny performance space, with room for about 40 to 50. Indexical, which traffics in largely experimental and avant-garde modes of music and performance art, is also spreading out with co-producing shows at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center and Felton Music Hall.
“I think it’s really important to meet young people where they are,” said Smith, “and not expect them to do things in a particular way or conform to your existing space.”
Smith said his experience is that younger audiences value the setting and experience of seeing live performance nearly as much as the talent of the act on stage itself.
“Younger audiences will go out to see classical music, say, if it’s a fun place that’s accessible,” he said.
One constant that Smith has noticed with younger audiences that has been a hallmark for local audiences going back decades is Santa Cruz’s unique reputation for being tolerant of new and unfamiliar acts or styles. From much of the programming at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, the Kuumbwa Jazz Center and other presenters, Santa Cruz audiences have displayed a uniquely open-minded character.
Indexical is appealing to just that kind of audience, art and music lovers willing to follow their curiosity into unexplored territory. “We’re assuming,” said Smith, “that someone who is interested in more experimental or difficult music, and who might come into it through the lens of electronic music, might also be willing to branch out and listen to avant garde jazz or something like that. And so that thinking about things, not just in terms of specific genres, but also thinking about our audience, generally as curious people, drives a lot of our marketing.”
And, let’s not forget, live theater might be the oldest performance art in human history. It has survived and even thrived for centuries even going up against technologies like the movies and television. Santa Cruz may be losing Jewel, and that’s tragic in a way. But to suggest that theater is threatened by even a worldwide pandemic or a generation raised on the internet is to underestimate its enduring appeal.