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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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In the post-pandemic recovery, local art audiences stay strong

“Come From Away,” the Broadway musical now on tour and playing in Spokane, is about the airline passengers stranded in Canada after Sept. 11 and the community that took them in.  (Matthew Murphy)
“Come From Away,” the Broadway musical now on tour and playing in Spokane, is about the airline passengers stranded in Canada after Sept. 11 and the community that took them in. (Matthew Murphy)

While audiences in New York continue trailing behind pre-pandemic numbers, local performing arts organizations report a steady return to theaters. And in some cases, 2022 sales have exceeded pre-pandemic numbers.

In 2019, Spokane Valley Summer Theater exceeded all of its previous box office records. Meanwhile, ticket sales for the following year were looking even better. They had just met their “season ticket goals in March of 2020 prior to the pandemic,” executive director Yvonne Johnson said.

In other words, the organization was looking forward to a very different year and the subsequent abbreviated seasons than what would go on to unfold.

“But we saw a glimmer of hope and a window of opportunity in 2021,” Johnson said. Successfully organizing outdoor productions of “Under the Stars” and “Rising Stars” made them the first regional company to “come back” to any sort of stage.

And when record heat, smoke and lifting of mask mandates allowed SVST to move back indoors at University High School to produce the regional premiere of “Little House on the Prairie,” the show “became our highest-grossing individual show up to that date, in spite of having only a two-week run,” Johnson said.

Today, their outlook is still bright.

“We already had considerable momentum from 2019 to 2020 … but we have seen a dramatic increase in season ticket sales from 2019 to 2022 of 231 percent,” she said. “We’re already getting inquiries as to when season subscription sales will be open for our 2023 summer season, so we see that as a good and healthy sign for next year.”

Spokane Civic Theatre’s run of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” sold tickets at 84.2% capacity for show dates between January and February 2020. But their summer 2022 production of “Murder on the Orient Express” sold 87%.

“Considering comps and such that’s really good for us,” said Civic’s creative director Jake Schaefer.

Subscriptions have reached about 80% of their goal for the year while individual ticket sales are about where they’d expect.

“I wish I had a bad story for you – but the God’s honest truth is that Civic’s ticketing and membership story – coronavirus to now – is all really positive,” Schaefer said.

And a lot of that, he believes, has to do with how the organization kept channels of communication open over the last few years.

“We honored every request of every member when we reopened,” he said. “We were incredibly transparent about reopening and still remain really pliable.

“And I think that has given our members a reason to be a member – they know we’re gonna treat them right.”

Other arts organization leaders agree their success is the product of continued outreach and the expansion of an engaged community.

“Our marketing plans have continually evolved over the past couple of years but that has been mainly due to our capital campaign throughout the silent and now public phase this past year,” Johnson said, mentioning the development of Spokane Valley Summer Theater’s next phase as the capital campaign continues for the recently named Idaho Central Spokane Valley Performing Arts Center.

Following seasons of tour reschedulings, Broadway Spokane is in a similar boat but optimistic about how sales are increasing.

“The STCU Best of Broadway series is just now coming back into a more normal schedule of shows with ‘Hairspray’ in September,” WestCoast Entertainment director of marketing Peter Rossing said. “About now – a month away from opening – is when we usually expect to see single ticket sales picking up, and it looks like that’s what’s happening.”

In the past, Broadway Spokane hasn’t scheduled shows during the summer months. But when tour reschedulings during the pandemic brought “Hadestown” in July and “Come From Away” in August, “both had a very good response despite being scheduled in summer months and being lesser-known shows,” Rossing said.

Meanwhile, thanks to a groups of ticket buyers, sales for the fall and the 2022-23 season onward are also looking up.

“Ticket sales seem to be coming from three groups in general,” Rossing said. “People who kept coming to shows as soon as things opened up again, people who are just starting to get back out and attend events, and people who moved to the area over the past couple years who are interested in taking part in all the things happening in Spokane.”

Inland Northwest Opera has had a mixed experience. Their annual opera cruise, before only mounted for one night a year, expanded to two nights.

“And we almost sold out,” marketing director Melody Heaton said. “Previously, we had filled three boats tied together on one evening, but in 2021, we filled two boats each night – four boats total.”

On the other hand, for more than one reason, numbers are still down for their indoor mainstage productions.

“We sold nearly half of our pre-pandemic audience size, but this was because we also made the conscious choice to remove every other row of seats from purchases,” she said. “We halved our entire potential audience in order to keep our audience safe.”

Ticket sales for the 2022 cruise were on par with 2021, while sales for this season’s mainstage production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” are doing better than sales for last year’s production of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s “Orpheus and Eurydice.”

“Sales are doing better than last year at this point, but have still not caught up to pre-pandemic years,” Heaton said. ” We have seen less of an immediate influx after putting tickets on-sale in the past couple of years – the pacing of ticket sales is less predictable than before.”

For opera and symphony-goers alike, some still just aren’t comfortable going to shows in-person.

But more than that, “people’s habits have changed,” Spokane Symphony executive director Jeff vom Saal said. And to survive, arts organizations are adapting and changing along with them.

“We see live entertainment as a place where we want to exist and live,” vom Saal said. “That includes the symphony, but it’s not limited to the symphony.

“The shape of this organization is changing a bit … and for that reason, we’re seeing a lot more activity.”

Together, the symphony and Fox Theater are starting the 2023 fiscal year with their largest budget to date.

The organization’s revenues are the highest they’ve ever been, but in terms of seats sold, they’re about where they’ve been in the past.

Vom Saal hopes that driving more mainstream content will ultimately support and provide some buoyancy to the symphony without diluting or distorting the organization’s more traditional offerings.

“The bottom line is it’s just really complicated,” vom Saal said. “A lot of my time is spent on Fox booking, but … it’s exciting. It’s really challenging – there are venues that are winning, big time. And that’s where we’re working really hard to be.”

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