Theatre Attendance

We have a very active theatre community in the greater Huntsville area.  Shows are produced at a rapid clip, with an average of almost one show opening every weekend.  The summer is the typical “off-season” for theatre, and yet during the 10-week school break this summer, there is only ONE weekend without a show opening.  The Christmas-to-New Years period is just about the only weekends you can’t find a play running somewhere in the area.  Simply incredible!

The question in the back of the minds of every producer, however, is whether they are getting the audiences they should.  This begs a question, however:  how many people SHOULD be attending?  How do producers know when their shows are hitting the mark, and pulling in all of the people that could reasonably be expected to attend?

I can’t give attendance goals for a specific production or venue, but I can discuss how many theatre attendees there should be in our area.  It is possible to calculate how much of the local population SHOULD be attending theatre events.

The very short answer is, no, the theatre community in the Huntsville area is not attracting the attendance levels that it should.

Based on periodic research by the National Endowment for the Arts, and adjusting for demographics in the greater Huntsville area, it is not unreasonable to expect about 13% of the adult population here to attend at least one musical a year, and about 7% to attend at least one non-musical play a year.

Thus, in the greater Huntsville area, every year, about 69,000 adults should attend at least one musical, and about 37,000 should attend at least one non-musical.

This does NOT include attendance at “school plays”–high school and below.  The number is just attendance at community theatre, college productions, and professional theatre.

Unfortunately, short of commissioning a survey, there is no way of knowing how many people actually DO see theatre productions in the area.  The closest we can come is to look at ticket sales, and extrapolate from there.  With the wonderful assistance of a number of the theatre groups and venues in the area, a fairly solid estimate is that every year residents of the Huntsville area buy approximately 73,000 tickets for musicals and approximately 31,000 tickets for non-musicals.  That counts touring productions passing through the VBC and Princess Theatre, university productions, and local community theatre–everything that the NEA survey covers.

Thus, the current ticket sale numbers for the greater Huntsville area are approximately equal to the number of adults who should be attending theatre productions.

That’s not good news.

  • The NEA survey addresses actual attendance, not ticket sales.  It’s not uncommon for 5-10% of ticket buyers to be no-shows.
  • The survey is solely counting adults, but some of the tickets sold were for youth (again, ticket sales for “school shows” were not counted, but minors do attend the normal evening/weekend performances).
  • And the big one, of course, is that most theatre-goers attend more than one production a year.

Given all of the above, the actual count of adults who attend at least one theatre event in the Huntsville area in a year is likely no higher than 33,000 for musicals, and 6,000 for non-musicals.

That is one-half to one-sixth of the expected number of theatre-goers.

At best.

Those are potentially depressing numbers, but that’s not the way to look at it.  This is not meant to be a downer.  This should excite everyone in the theatre community with the amazing potential for growth that exists here.  With a little work, picture a day in the future when two to six times as many people are attending shows.  The thought should send shivers of excitement down the spine!

Thoughts on WHY attendance is low, and humble suggestions for ways to improve attendance…those are topics for future posts.

See you at the next opening night!


Most readers can stop there.  The above is “the article” for this week.
“Attendance is lower than it should be, so we have huge room for growth.
Great news.  Wonderful opportunities.”
Period.  End of story.

On the other hand, there may be some masochists out there who wish to understand how the numbers above were reached.  If you are one of them, continue reading.  Aside from the below being three times longer than the above, there are a lot of links to follow, if you have all day.  You have been warned…

 1. Define “greater Huntsville area”:

The Census Bureau defines a “combined statistical area” as a grouping of metropolitan (city) and micropolitan (small city) areas, with social and economic ties, and overlapping labor and media markets.  To put that in plain English, a region within which the population tends to mingle for work and play.  We all happen to be in the Huntsville-Decatur-Albertville Combined Statistical Area, basically defined as the counties of Limestone, Madison, Lawrence, Morgan, and Marshal.  It’s the major population centers of Huntsville and Decatur (metropolitan), and Albertville (micropolitan), and the surrounding areas.  It is the 80th-largest statistical area in the U.S, and growing fast.

Hsv-Dec-Albtvl CSA

As you can see from the above portion of the map of all U.S. statistical areas, south is the Birmingham statistical area (which includes Cullman in its sphere), north is Nashville, east is Chattanooga (including Scottsboro), and west is Memphis.  There are intervening counties that are not considered part of any statistical area, because, while people from farther out may travel to a statistical area to work and play, they don’t do it in high enough numbers for that outlying community to really be considered part of the statistical area.

Obviously, there is some “fuzzing” at the edges.  A theatre group near one edge of the statistical area may very well get participation of population from outside the nearby border of the statistical area.  However, that group is also much less likely to get any participation from people IN the statistical area, but living on the far side of it.  In other words, it evens out.

Thus, the theatre groups in the Huntsville-Decatur-Albertville area are what I am considering as “our theatre community”.  To my knowledge, that is the groups listed on the Theatre Companies page, and appearing on the map below.

Likewise, the population in that region is what I am considering the pool for potential audience members.

Hsv-Dec-Albtvl Theatres

2. Define “expected audience attendance”:

Approximately every four years, the National Endowment for the Arts commissions a Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA).  They ask a random sample of adults across the United States about their attendance or participation in a lot of different art forms, from art museums to opera to street fairs.  They also ask other questions, and commission independent studies of the data collected, to try to answer WHY people participate or don’t.  Interesting stuff.

The theatre-related questions specifically exclude counting attendance at “school plays” (high school and below).  The survey also explicitly counts actual attendance–the number of adults who physically sat down in a theatre for a musical or a non-musical in the previous twelve months.

The most recent completed SPPA was in 2012, and it revealed that every year, nationwide, roughly 15% of American adults attend at least one musical, and roughly 8% attend at least one non-musical.

But it’s not as simple as multiplying those percentages by the adult population in our area.  The demographics around here are not necessarily the same as the country as a whole.

And there ARE wide variations across the country in arts participation.  For example, the Performing Arts Research Coalition commissioned a survey  in ten major metropolitan areas that  showed theatre attendance at 46-62% in 2002 (when the SPPA had it pegged at 12-17%).  Surprise, surprise, the national NEA survey includes people living in rural areas, with less access to arts organizations.  Less access=less participation.  So it is important to adjust local expectations based on local demographics.

Luckily, there are a number of correlations that can be gleaned from the SPPA data, most of which should be no real surprise.  The following factors in a given region all correlate strongly with higher arts participation:

  • Higher median income;
  • Higher percentage of the population with at least a Bachelor’s degree;
  • Higher percentage of the population living in an urban setting.

Alabama, as a state, is way below the national averages for participation in performing arts events, which should be no surprise, given the three factors above (low median income, low level of education attainment, low urbanization).

But the Huntsville area is “not Alabama”.  When we compare between national averages  and the greater Huntsville area on those three statistics , we discover that our area matches up pretty well with the country as a whole.  A little lower for all three stats, but still, pretty darn close.

  • By the SPPA, nationwide 15% participation at musicals, and 8% at non-musicals.
  • Adjust downward for a slightly less urban population (66% local vs 71% national).
  • Adjust downward for fewer people with college degrees (28.8% local vs 29.3%).
  • Adjust downward for lower median income ($51,500 local vs $53,500 national).

Those three statistics have varying levels of correlation to theatre attendance (.54 to .79; not that I’m a statistician, and I welcome input from someone who is).  Crunch all that into a calculator, and we get a prediction for this area of  13% attendance at musicals and 7% for non-musicals–a tick or two lower expectations than the national averages.

  • The latest Census estimates for population in our area is about:  692,000
  • Approximately 77% of that number is 18 and over (adults):  533,000
  • Multiply the expected attendance rates by the adult population, and we get roughly 69,000 for musicals and 37,000 for non-musicals (the numbers in the article above).

Just FYI, I do not think they would have much effect on the final conclusions, but there are other correlations in the SPPA data.  Some of them have a potentially strong effect on adult participation in the arts, but for which I could not adjust the numbers:

  • Participation in performing arts classes as a youth.
  • Per-capita availability of performing arts groups.
  • Attendance at theatre performances as a child.

I have no idea what the rate of participation in youth arts training would be for adults in our area.  There are a LOT of music/dance/theatre/etc private classes, teachers, and schools around here, not to mention arts in the schools, but I don’t know how that compares nationwide (the NEA data doesn’t actually give the national participation rates, just the correlation with arts attendance), or what the local participation rate is.  Besides, I would need to know how many of our ADULTS participated in classes when they were kids, which is not the same thing as how many of our current kids are taking classes.

I couldn’t adjust for per capita number of arts groups, even though I can compute that number for the local area (as in, I can count how many arts groups there are, and I know our population).  The problem is that I don’t know how the NEA defines “arts groups”.  Nationally, the stat is “1.2 arts groups per 100,000 population”.  That seems high, if they’re just talking “professional” organizations (depending on how one defines that, I guess), but way low if they’re counting ANY kind of “arts group”.  I could argue a per capita rate for our area of anywhere from 0.2 to 3.0, so I thought it best to just leave this one alone.  Besides, the availability of arts organizations is probably very closely correlated to urbanization–cities have more arts organizations–which has already been accounted for.

The third factor–attendance at theatre performances as a child–was also not adjusted for, because I simply have no idea what that rate is for the adults in our area.

As a side note, the highest correlating factor–in other words, the #1 predictor for whether an adult attends theatre–is that factor:  theatre attendance as a child.  Adults who attended theatre as children are FOUR TIMES more likely to attend as an adult, compared to those who did not, regardless of any other factor.  Sadly, the flip-side is that adults with children in the house are only 70% as likely to attend theatre, compared to adults without young kids.  So, kudos to the groups putting on shows for kids, even if that won’t pump up adult attendance rates for another 5-15 years.

3. Number of tickets sold:

With the incredible assistance of the Broadway Theatre League, Fantasy Playhouse, Theatre Huntsville, Calhoun Community College, and UAH, the actual annual ticket sale numbers (73,000 for musicals, and 31,000 for non-musicals) are fairly solid.  Some groups did not respond to my request for information (which is fine), so those totals are still estimates, but they can’t be off by more than a couple thousand.  If anything they are high, because I was fairly generous in my estimates.  Before putting out the data call, I estimated each theatre’s ticket sales, based on type and number of shows, size of house, and number of performances, and in every case where I received actual sale numbers for the previous twelve months, my estimate had been a little high.

4.  Number of actual adult attendees:

I heard from some groups that the no-show rate is closer to the 10% mark than 5%, but I split the difference, and reduced the ticket sale number by 7.5% in order to estimate the number of people who actually attend.

I truly have no idea how many of the tickets sold in our area go to people under the age of 18, but they are at every show produced.  I tried to be generous with the estimates of adult attendance, and thus assumed fairly low youth attendance rates.  Depending on the type of shows groups produce, and their target audience, I estimated youth ticket sales for each group at anywhere from 50% of the audience (only Fantasy Playhouse) to 2% (almost everyone else).  Again, I think this resulted in an overall low-ball estimate of kid theatre attendance, but I’m trying to be as optimistic as possible about adult attendance.

Guessing how many people attend more than one show a year is a bit harder.  Almost every theatre group has season-ticket holders, but what does that mean for actual attendance?  The best information I could come up with was a survey done of Broadway audiences in the 2014-’15 season.

  • The average person who goes to musicals, sees four of them a year.
  • The average attendance rate for people who go to non-musicals is eight shows a year.
  • About 6% of the attendees account for 30% of the tickets sold (seeing 15+ shows a year, a little more than one show a month).

I know, Huntsville isn’t Broadway, but consider that the survey was not asking about attendance AT Broadway shows, but rather attendance at theatre in general (by people who happened to attend a Broadway show during the survey period).  Half of those surveyed are Americans who do not live in the New York area, so those statistics are still indicative of general American theatre audiences.  I will grant that the people who make the effort to see a Broadway show are probably the more ardent theatre-goers, so I decided to go with half the Broadway survey rates.  Thus, I assumed that the average attendee of musicals in our area sees two shows a year, and the average non-musical attendee goes to four shows a year.  Given that we have 20+ musicals and 30+ non-musicals every year, I don’t consider that to be unreasonable.

Keep in mind that even without that adjustment for multiple attendances, for our current attendance rates to be at the level they should be, audience members would each have to be attending only one show a year.  Every time an audience member for one show attends another production, anywhere in the area that year, that equals one less potential audience member that is actually being reached.

So, that is how I reached the estimates for the article:

  • Expected people attending:  69,000 for musicals, and 37,000 for non-musicals.
  • Actual people attending:  33,000 for musicals, and 6,000 for non-musicals.


I would absolutely love to hear feedback and thoughts on all this.  When I first started looking into all this a couple months ago, I had no idea where the numbers would take me.  I had kind of assumed that the attendance rate in our area is lower than it should be, but I was still shocked when the final results rolled off my calculator.  If someone out there thinks I missed something, I would be more than happy to hear it.

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