This summer, Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts posted its best season ever for ticket sales, finishing $500,000 ahead of last year's take.
The Washington Performing Arts Society (WPAS), which books plays and concerts in 12 different venues, recorded a 172 percent increase in its sold-out performances for the 2003-04 season.
At Arena Stage, 90 percent of full-season ticket holders renewed their subscriptions for its 2003-04 performances, Arena's highest renewal rate in recent years.
These signs all point to a robust rebound for the region's performing arts after a slump that began with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. A post-9/11 economic and psychological malaise reduced audiences for the 2002 and 2003 seasons, according to officials at several of the Washington area's most prominent theaters, who noted a solid resurgence as they are closing their financial books for the performing season that concluded this summer.
"It was a better climate for what we do," said Neale Perl, the president of WPAS, which has been the area's leading theatrical and concert presenter for nearly 40 years.
The upturn is attributed to the rise in tourism, resumption of school field trips, economic security enjoyed by the theater-going public, and rise of the Internet as an easy way to buy tickets, according to managers of many of the region's 60-plus theatrical companies.
In the past two years, Perl said, several additional grim and stressful events affected how people spent their leisure time. "The sniper, the [Iraq] war, two blizzards, two power outages and the 'tractor man,' " he said. People stayed home, particularly during the sniper rampage, he said, and WPAS lost a total of $250,000 in ticket sales.
But that mind-set appears to have changed in the past year, said Stephen Richard, Arena's executive director. "Post-9/11, people began to rely more on their regional organizations. They were a little less inclined to travel, and more inclined to dig in and enjoy what is here."
During the lull after 9/11, some theater companies seized the opportunity to redefine and expand their specialties, giving their potential audience a wider range of choices. Others were forced to push harder in their fundraising and also rethink previous expansion plans. The past year, for many, marked a return to normalcy as their audiences responded.
The Shakespeare Theatre downtown added more performances and attracted near-capacity audiences. In the 2002-03 season, 141,566 people attended 319 performances. Last season, 164,895 people filled the seats at 351 shows, an attendance increase of 16 percent. Single-ticket sales skyrocketed, even as seasonal subscriptions slipped, observed Nicholas T. Goldsborough, the Shakespeare's managing director, who said the change signaled a generational shift.
"The habit of the older generation has been to be a subscriber. Now the younger generation is becoming the force, and they are less inclined to subscribe. You have husband-wife-partners both working, and it is hard to determine what Tuesday or Thursday to go to the symphony or theater," Goldsborough said.
Most of the region's theaters are nonprofits, which rely heavily on philanthropic organizations and individual donors, particularly in an era when government funding is flat. Theater officials said fundraising also has picked up in the past year. Individual giving at the Kennedy Center increased by more than 4 percent; Shakespeare is estimating a 10 percent increase in contributions, compared with 4 percent the previous year; Signature reached $1.4 million in contributed income, compared with $975,000 the year before.
An encouraging sign for some theaters has been an increase in new customers. At Arena Stage in Southwest Washington, about 6,000 first-time customers, mostly African American women, were drawn to see "Crowns," a musical based on the glory of church hats. The show, which drew 41,000 for its opening run, was brought back for a summertime revival that attracted 20,000 more patrons, netting more than $2 million for Arena. "With the two runs, it was the highest selling show in Arena's total history. It became a community celebration," Richard said.
Some of those first-time customers, he said, might become subscribers, who are vital to the organization's budget. Overall, Arena had 120,000 single-ticket purchasers, its highest level in the past six years.
Signature Theatre, in Arlington, reported a high of 4,337 subscribers for the past season, with a healthy seasonal renewal rate of 87 percent.
The Internet has become a bonanza for ticket sales and fundraising. WPAS reported a 137 percent increase in sales after it updated its Web site. Last season, Arena's online sales increased by 20 percent, reaching nearly $2 million. "It's a theater operator's dream to have a 24-hour box office and not to have to staff it," Richard said.
The resurgence touched the largest organizations and the smallest.
The Kennedy Center, with the financial success of "The Producers" and the Tennessee Williams festival, generated a surplus of $1 million. This year, Wolf Trap's 99 performances grossed more than $15 million. Wolf Trap sold 427,479 tickets, ranking it second in amphitheater sales, behind only the Tweeter Center for the Performing Arts in Massachusetts, according to Pollstar, an industry trade publication. Ford's Theatre, with five shows last season, had $3.4 million in sales.
Wolf Trap President Terrence Jones said he hopes to sustain the momentum by continuing to attract and retain new audiences. "We have been directing the marketing at special audiences, and we try not to do the same thing for the same people every year. We have reached the Latin and black audience through programming and targeted marketing," such as distributing fliers at clubs. "Attendance seemed to rise across the board," he said.
"The population of the area is growing, and it's a highly educated population with good income, much of it discretionary," said Sam Sweet, managing director of Signature Theatre. "That provides more of a base that we can reach. This is a demographic that is looking for something that engages them, gives them something intellectual and smart. They want to be in a room where action is going on, and theater has that sense of community."