The Tony Award-winning Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago has announced that it will take a pause from producing shows until spring 2024 and will lay off over 50 percent of its staff. The 35-year-old company won the Regional Theatre Tony Award in 2011, and its production of Metamorphosis transferred to Broadway in 2002.
In a letter posted on its website from Artistic Director Heidi Stillman and Board Chair Diane Whatton, the company explained that this decision was due to financial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. "While the pandemic has been declared over, theatres in our country are still feeling the effects of needing to shut down for so long. Since re-opening, audiences and donations have not returned to 2019 levels, and the American Theatre is struggling to survive." The theatre will lay off 14 people in its 24-member staff, bringing its staff roster down to just 10.
The company is currently producing the new original musical Lucy and Charlie's Honeymoon, which received positive reviews.
During the pause, the company will renovate the lobby of its longtime home at the Water Tower Water Works (it received funding from the State of Illinois for this purpose). It will also gather its resources to mount one new show in spring 2024, and find "a clear path forward." The theatre will continue to workshop new work and continue to run its education program with Chicago Public Schools.
The theatre also launched a fundraiser, with the goal to raise $2.5 million for its work in 2023-24, "so we can become the next version of Lookingglass Theatre Company."
This news from Lookingglass is the latest in a troubling trend in American not-for-profit theatres. Recently, Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City announced layoffs and a reduction in its programming, due to pandemic-induced budget deficits.
For theatres that were forced to pause because of COVID-19 and then reopen again, audience numbers have not gone back to where they were pre-pandemic, leading to loss of ticket revenue. In addition, for non-profit theatres that depend on grants from government entities (like the National Endowment for the Arts) and private philanthropy, those levels of giving have decreased substantially. At the same time, labor costs and cost of materials to mount shows (such as lumber) have increased, making it more expensive to produce theatre. This has led many longtime institutions to cut costs, often drastically.
Off-Broadway's Public Theater previously announced it was putting its annual Under the Radar Festival on hiatus (and laying off the festival's longtime director, Mark Russell), saying, "The Public, like almost every other non-profit theatre in the country, is facing serious financial pressure. We have not returned to pre-pandemic economics, neither in our expenses nor our revenue."
Across the country, Center Theatre Group (the biggest theatre in Los Angeles) announced it was completely cancelling the season at one of its three venues, which was scheduled to present a world premiere by Broadway playwright Larissa Fasthorse. The theatre is also laying off 10 percent of its staff. Say its leaders in a statement: "Center Theatre Group...continues to feel the aftereffects of the pandemic and has been struggling to balance ever-increasing production costs with significantly reduced ticket revenue and donations that remain behind 2019 levels."
Even the Metropolitan Opera is being forced to cut back, with 10 percent fewer shows next season (18 instead of the 22 that were onstage this season). Currently in stages across America, it may look glamorous onstage, but backstage there are mounting challenges.
Lookingglass' letter also noted this unfortunate trend, while adding that "there have been many of these announcements, and more will come."