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‘Facing extraordinary headwinds’: Berkeley theaters face closures

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Theater closures after the pandemic are causing remaining businesses to adapt to changing customer habits without deeply reducing programming.


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SEPTEMBER 21, 2023

Following the closure of several local theaters after the pandemic, remaining businesses are working to adapt to changes in customer habits and “deep programmatic cuts,” according to Tom Parrish, managing director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre in an email.

Parrish said theaters are experiencing increased labor costs, workforce shortages, reduced donor enthusiasm and “minimal reserves” from government pandemic relief. These factors contribute to increased structural concerns for theaters and cause them to reduce programming, introduce emergency fundraising efforts or shut down altogether.

“While I cannot speak to the specific reasons for those organizations ceasing operations, I can say that it is an exceptionally challenging time for our industry overall, and we are facing extraordinary headwinds,” Parrish said in an email.

Stephanie Prentice, artistic co-director of TheatreFirst, which will close this month, said since grants are correlated with ongoing productions, theaters shutting down during the pandemic caused them to miss out on funding opportunities.

She noted while theaters with multimillion dollar budgets are able to remain open by laying off staff, fundraising and reducing the number of show seasons, smaller businesses are “more susceptible” to closing down.

“Those of us who create live theatre get pretty good at saying goodbye,” TheatreFirst’s closing press release reads. “That’s not to say that the ‘goodbye’ is easy, but even on the very first day of rehearsal we know that the closing performance is looming out there at the end of the run.”

Bay Area Children’s Theatre, or BACT, which “sparked children’s imagination and creativity” for nearly 20 years through its programming and theatre camps, closed in May due to a lack of financial support, according to a statement from BACT’s Instagram.

Entertaining more than one million audience members, the theater also put on affordable shows for school groups around the Bay Area.

“The past few years have been challenging,” reads the statement from BACT. “We recently launched our Save Our Stage campaign to raise funds to allow BACT to continue. While many people offered to help, growing, insurmountable financial burdens led to the Board’s decision to close the organization.”

Theaters in California, such as those in Berkeley, are subjected to additional financial hardships since non-profit theaters must pay supplemental taxes in accordance with state law, Parrish remarked.

To combat these financial burdens, Parrish said Berkeley Repertory Theatre is increasingly dependent on private support and philanthropy.

The theater is also working on strengthening relationships with potential donors by increasing education and engagement opportunities.

Following the start of the pandemic, the theater’s board launched a $20 million resilience campaign, Parrish noted. So far, they have raised three-fourths of their goal, which he said in an email has been vital in achieving “sustainability and resiliency.”

“Ultimately, the health of Berkeley’s non-profit theatre scene rests with the community,” Parrish said in the email. “If people value the arts scene here, they must patronize the organizations, buy subscriptions, make donations, and encourage government and private support of the arts. Ticket sales generally cover less than half the cost of producing live theatre, so it is important that people support and advocate for broad financial support.”

PianoFight, which closed both its San Francisco and Oakland venues in March, released in a statement that they became associated with the National Independent Venue Association at the start of the pandemic, which helped to grant emergency funding to independent theaters.

PianoFight was successful in securing $35,000 through the San Francisco Music and Entertainment Venue fund. However, a decrease in customer demand for live performances contributed to their eventual closure.

“Almost the entire community was scattered by COVID,” PianoFight operations director Duncan Wold said in the statement. “There’s been a massive restructuring of people’s lives: where they live, their habits, how often they go out, but those Bay Area expenses just keep going up.”

Despite being able to withstand the challenges of the pandemic, Parrish said Berkeley Repertory Theatre is “not immune” to the “vicious cycle of decline” that results from receiving less financial support.

However, he noted, the Bay Area’s live theater scene continues to offer a variety of programming, explaining that the Berkeley Repertory Theatre has maintained a “relatively strong” subscription base and has seen some audiences return to pre-pandemic levels.

“There remain many wonderful theatre companies in Berkeley producing a breadth of work that serves and appeals to a wide range of audiences,” Parrish said in the email. “Many of us are actively working together to find ways to share resources and cross promote, so that we can reengage audiences and bring stability to our operations and organizations.”

Contact Matthew Yoshimoto at 


SEPTEMBER 21, 2023