The Ad We Need to Actually Bring Broadway Back

Campaigns to get audiences back to the theatre have—so far—fallen short, leaving too many seats empty and the future tentative.

Photo by Anthony Rosset on Unsplash

“Broadway Is Back!”

Billboards scream it. Texts from well-meaning friends who see my theatre posts ping it. An official Broadway League campaign declares it. But when I go to the theatre, particularly one of the 41 designated as the “glittering gulch,” it doesn’t totally feel “back.”

Yes, theatre is happening on Broadway. Curtains go up. Lights light. Ushers greet me with a “Welcome back to Broadway!” — which I love. But the theatres I’ve sat in have not been full — and keep in mind I almost always go on a press night designed to be full. Broadway and New York theatre at large has gradually rolled out its re-openings, which I fully support. But not since the re-opening night of Moulin Rouge! The Musical and a Saturday evening performance of SIX have I been in a packed house, thrumming with the energy of an audience ecstatic to be back at the theatre.

The Broadway League reports collective grosses (which they restarted October 26), so we don’t know for sure which individual shows are selling out or close to doing so. Anecdotally, SIX, Hamilton, and Wicked are the only tough tickets. (And “tough” is nothing like the months-long-wait near-impossibility pre-COVID.)

I’ve been in half-empty orchestras more than once. Half-empty. According to Forbes’ correspondent Lee Seymour, Broadway grosses overall are 79 percent of where they should be, comparing receipts to the corresponding week of 2019.

This isn’t because the productions on Broadway and Off aren’t great. (They are.) It isn’t because audiences don’t have disposable income. (They do.) I argue it’s because the industry hasn’t done a sufficient job in conveying to audiences that it’s not only worthwhile to come and “see a show!” it is safe to do so.

For 18 months, we told the world the theatre was the exact place you do not want to be in a pandemic of airborne illness. You cannot tell people repeatedly for a year-and-a-half that a theatre is the most dangerous place on Earth and then proclaim “we’re open” and expect them to flock without telling them what’s been done to eliminate — or at least minimize — danger.

At the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, gathering inside a theatre was dangerous. Hence, the shutdown. Now, with adjustments to buildings and new protocols based in scientific findings, theatre—and Broadway, specifically—is safe. Audiences just don’t know it.

Right now, many theatre-going regulars say they’re “not ready yet” to go back into a crowded space for that long.

A survey of TDF members conducted in mid-November 2021 by WolfBrown shows only 49 percent of TDF members (a vested group of theatregoers) have returned to the theatre. Only an additional 20 percent said they would go between now and January (and that was before Omicron), 8 percent said they’d return between February and March, and a whopping 24 percent said they would not be willing until April 2022 or later.

This isn’t a reaction to a known lack of safety in a theatre, but, rather, the inaccurate perception of the lack of safety. People fly on full-capacity flights. Why? In October 2020, researchers investigated the factors that affect passengers’ willingness to fly and concluded airlines and government authorities should use their findings to “control the message” of a safe flying experience. Over the past year, the TSA and individual carriers — like Emirates and American Airlines — have prioritized that message. In videos, posters, and public announcements, airlines assured the public that planes do not circulate recycled air, that flight attendants wipe seats down between trips, that masks are mandatory.

The TDF research shows that in the two weeks prior to their survey, 76 percent of respondents had been to a restaurant, but only 46 percent had attended live performance, and 20 percent went to the movies. While this is an increase from responses in June to the same survey — which had only 9 percent attending live performance or movies — respondents focused on the ability to distance in restaurants, perception that there was better air flow, that one could leave a restaurant if uncomfortable, and one could eat outdoors.

When it comes to air travel, distance between parties, the ability to leave if uncomfortable, and the ability to move outdoors are not options. And yet, according to TSA data, airlines have recovered to 88 percent of their pre-pandemic capacity (by number of passengers, not revenue).

Dining and flying are very different activities; despite different obstacles and, therefore, solutions to decrease the risk of COVID-19 infection, both industries have rebounded faster and better than theatre. Airflow appears to be the common denominator.

The fact of the matter is that theatres are actually safer than indoor restaurants and as safe as planes for many reasons — but nobody knows it.

Broadway shows require proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test result within 72 hours for every audience member. Audiences must wear masks for the duration of the show except when actively sipping or taking a bite. (I argue that concessions should have been eliminated to further mitigate risk, but this is comparable to flying and indoor dining and should be considered equally safe.) Ushers monitor mask-wearing. Crew members backstage wear masks for the duration of the show and for many productions, performers must put on a mask when they exit the stage. On top of all this, theatres have updated their HVAC systems to improve air circulation and filtration to meet CDC guidelineswhich is a requirement of all producers and theatres that employ Actors Equity members, which all Broadway houses do.

The thing is: You would never know this. Broadway and New York theatres have done a poor job touting these safety precautions.

Theatre houses should post the HVAC/filter rating on the door to the box office (for which I advocated in my March 2021 piece about Broadway’s return). More to the point: We are losing the messaging battle. There are too few ads about the process of Broadway’s return. The “This Is Broadway” campaign appeals to the joy and excitement of seeing a live Broadway show.

But the jubilation of seeing theatre isn’t what audiences question. We know we’ve missed the theatre in all its glitz and nuance and bombast and subtlety. We don’t know that it is safe.

Many have referenced the “I Love New York” campaign that began airing commercials in 1977 and brought big crowds to a fragile Broadway or the 2001 commercial after 9/11 with Broadway’s royalty packed into Times Square. In my estimation, these campaigns worked because they addressed the specific pain point for audiences. In the ’70s and ’80s, people didn’t come to New York (including Broadway) because the city’s reputation was one of dirt, darkness, and crime. “I Love New York” showed bright streets, vibrant culture, relaxed and safe parks, and delicious food you couldn’t get anywhere else. After September 11, the concern was “Is it safe to populate Times Square? Do crowds make Times Square a bomb target?” So we showed a mob of stars singing and dancing to prove they were willing to gather en masse. Nothing to be afraid of.

The ad we need must address the concern of COVID safety. Broadway’s Come From Away is the only show I’ve seen that published a video demonstrating health and safety protocols (i.e. proof of vaccination and masking), but we need to go further. We need to include and go beyond audience behavior to highlight the theatre’s actions and demonstrate uniformity across Broadway productions.

To get audiences back at the level they were, we need a one-two punch: 1. A reminder of the dazzle, the emotion, the singularity of the theatrical experience to rouse that desire to come back (which is what has been produced — though we could always use another, perhaps with clips solely from Broadway’s current offerings) and then 2. A visual reassurance that it is safe to act on that desire.

Imagine: Onstage, a masked crew member wheels the ghost light off the stage and a masked stage manager calls a light cue while a masked board operator turns on the brights. An engineer on a ladder screws in a new vent cover. Front-of-house staff wipe down arm rests and bathroom areas. The air safety rating poster gleams in a close-up of the box office door. Outside, neon-shirted COVID safety officers check proof of vaccination and ID at the entrance. An usher holds their “Mask Up” sign in the aisle and we witness a sea of audience members all wearing their masks over their mouths and noses. Show, don’t tell, us that we are safe.

That is how Broadway will come back.

Ruthie Fierberg is a freelance writer, editor, moderator, and on-camera host. Find ways to work with her and subscribe to her newsletter at ruthiefierberg.com. Listen to her free podcast Why We Theater. Follow Ruthie Fierberg on Twitter (@RuthiesATrain) and Instagram (@ruthiefierceberg).

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Ruthie Fierberg

Ruthie Fierberg is an arts journalist and creator and host of the podcast Why We Theater. She is the former Executive Editor of Features at Playbill.