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Leveraging Social Capital to Revitalize Theater Engagement Post-Pandemic

Utilizing social capital presents an innovative strategy for reigniting theater engagement, emphasizing a crucial question: Who constitutes our audience, and what entices their return?

The decline in theater attendance post-pandemic has left many theaters financially strained. This blog explores how harnessing social capital can invigorate audience engagement, foster community development, and bolster economic growth for struggling theaters.


The COVID-19 pandemic dealt a severe blow to the theater industry, reducing audience numbers by 29% in 2021-22 compared to 2018-19 primarily due to safety concerns, economic downturns, and changing entertainment preferences. The resulting financial strain has threatened the survival of many nonprofit and regional theaters, leading to severe layoffs and the closure of many nonprofit theaters that focus on emerging artists and new work. Despite reopening efforts, the challenge persists as theaters struggle to regain their pre-pandemic audience numbers and revenue streams. Engaging and attracting new audiences has become a pressing challenge, demanding innovative solutions beyond traditional marketing strategies.


Utilizing social capital presents an innovative strategy for reigniting theater engagement, emphasizing a crucial question: Who constitutes our audience, and what entices their return?

A prominent solution lies in the distinction between active and passive theater experiences. Live performances foster community cohesion by uniting individuals in a shared encounter. Prioritizing daring, novel productions that invite audience involvement yields heightened success and engagement levels. Examples like The Donkey Show, a reinvented rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream where the performance unfolds amidst the audience, encouraging participatory dancing, or Oklahoma!, which offers food service during intermissions, exemplify this approach. Establishing communal spaces further amplifies this effect.

Identifying barriers hindering audience engagement is imperative. Tailoring schedules to accommodate parents through matinee performances or providing childcare addresses their needs. To welcome BIPOC communities, historically marginalized within predominantly white-centric theater spaces, initiatives such as neighborhood-based programming where theaters bring their work to communities, inclusive scheduled performances (such as Black Out Nights that encourage black audience members to attend and experience plays without a predominantly white audience), or accessible streaming options offer more inclusive opportunities. Forming partnerships beyond traditional theater institutions with small businesses, community leaders, and cultural institutions also cultivates a broader and fairer network.

At the heart of this endeavor lies the cultivation of trust. Theaters, by harnessing existing connections and forging new ones, can amplify their impact through the use of bridging social capital. This approach enables them to engage diverse communities and attract new audiences, a long sought-after goal. Rethinking accessibility in theater fosters an inclusive and inviting environment, which is crucial in enhancing attendance and engagement. This shift fights against stereotypes and outdated perceptions that audiences are disinterested in participating.


The success of revitalizing theater engagement hinges on a collaborative effort involving various stakeholders. Theater management is pivotal in spearheading innovative programming and outreach strategies that resonate with diverse audiences. Artists contribute by crafting compelling, boundary-pushing productions that encourage active audience participation. Their creative endeavors enrich the theater experience and attract a broader demographic.

Community leaders, cultural institutions, and small businesses hold significant sway in bridging the gap between theaters and local communities. Their involvement in advocating for the cultural significance of theaters and encouraging community participation amplifies outreach efforts through strategic and symbiotic alliances. Moreover, government agencies can provide crucial support through grants, policies fostering arts education, and initiatives that promote cultural development.


The promise of revitalizing theater engagement extends far beyond increased attendance and revenue streams by harnessing social capital and embracing a more inclusive approach. The collaboration among diverse stakeholders fosters a vibrant cultural ecosystem where theaters serve as dynamic community hubs. Theaters become inclusive spaces celebrating diversity and welcoming varied voices, bridging gaps between communities.

Audiences benefit from more diverse and compelling programming, providing enriching experiences catering to their interests and backgrounds. This inclusivity not only breaks down barriers to participation but also fosters a sense of belonging and ownership among audience members. The promise extends to a more resilient theater industry that thrives on innovation, community support, and a renewed passion for live performances. Ultimately, this initiative aims to redefine theaters as vibrant, inclusive spaces that contribute significantly to their communities’ cultural fabric and economic vitality.

Maddie Milligan
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