If Remote Work Empties Downtowns, Can Theaters Fill Their Seats?
SAN FRANCISCO — As live performance finally returns after the pandemic shutdown, cultural institutions are confronting a long list of unknowns.
Will audiences feel safe returning to crowded theaters? Have people grown so accustomed to watching screens in their living rooms that they will not return to live events? And how will the advent of work-from-home policies, which have emptied blocks of downtowns and business districts, affect weekday attendance at theaters and concert halls?
Nowhere is that last question more urgent than here in San Francisco, where tech companies have led the way in embracing work-from-home policies and flexible schedules more than in almost any other city in the nation. Going to a weeknight show is no longer a matter of leaving the office and swinging by the War Memorial Opera House or the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall.
“As people work from home, it is going to change our demographics,” said Matthew Shilvock, the general director of the San Francisco Opera. “It’s something that could be a threat. We’re all trying to wait and see whether there’s a surge of interest in live activity again or is there a continuation of just being at home, not coming into the city from the suburbs.”
Arts groups are trying to gauge what the embrace of more flexible work-from-home policies will mean for their ability to draw audiences in a city whose housing crunch has already driven many people to settle far from downtown. Close to 70 percent of the audiences at the San Francisco Opera and the San Francisco Symphony — two nationally recognized symbols of this city’s vibrant network of performing arts institutions — live outside the city, according to data collected by the two organizations.
Some economists see the trend of remote work persisting. “It’s likely we are going to have more people working from home than other places,” said Ted Egan, the chief economist for the city and county of San Francisco. “The tech industry seems to be the most generous for work-from-home policy, and employees are expecting that.”
Twitter announced in the early months of the pandemic that it would allow almost all of its 5,200 employees, most based at its San Francisco office, to work at home permanently. At Salesforce, which has 9,000 employees, employees will only have to come to work one to three days a week; many will be allowed to work at home full time. Dropbox, which has its headquarters in San Francisco, also has adopted a permanent work-from-home policy. Facebook and Google, both of which have a significant presence in San Francisco, have implemented work-from-home policies.
Egan said that the trend might pose more of a problem for the city’s bars and restaurants than for its performing arts institutions. “My suspicion is that performing arts are going to be less sensitive to working from home than other sectors,” he said. “It’s not the kind of purchase you do after work on a whim, like going for happy hour.”
Attendance has been spotty as this city’s art scene climbs back. Just 50 percent of the seats were filled the other night for a performance of “The Displaced,” a “gentrification horror play” by Isaac Gómez, at the Crowded Fire Theater. “We had sold-out houses on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and much lower participation on Wednesday and Thursday night,” said Mina Morita, the artistic director. “It’s hard to tell if this is the new normal.”
There were some patches of empty seats across the Davies Symphony Hall the other night, as the San Francisco Symphony presented the United States premier of a violin concerto by Bryce Dessner, even thought it was the third week of the long-delayed (and long-anticipated) first season for Esa-Pekka Salonen, its new music director. The concerto, with an energetic performance by Pekka Kuusisto, the Finnish violinist, was greeted by repeated standing ovations and glowing reviews.
Attendance in October was down 11 percent compared to before the pandemic, but the symphony said advance sales were strong, suggesting normal audiences might return in spring.
“The audience is back,” Salonen said in an interview before he took the stage. “Not what it was, but they are back. Some nights have been a little thinner than others. By and large, the energy is good. Our worst fears have been dispelled.”
The San Francisco Opera also began its new season with a splashy new hire: a new music director, Eun Sun Kim, who in August became the first woman to hold the position at one of the nation’s largest opera companies. She conducted a new production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” this fall that incorporated chain-link fences and flickering video screens to update the story of the liberation of a political prisoner.
Even so, the opera, which can seat 2,928 with Covid restrictions, sold an average of 1,912 tickets per show for “Fidelio,” its second production of this new season. That’s better than its second production in 2019, Britten’s “Billy Budd,” a searing work that does not always attract big crowds. But it drew fewer people than the opera’s second production in 2018, “Roberto Devereux,” which sold an average of 2,116 tickets a performance.
“The urgency to be bold, to be innovative, to be compelling to get audiences to come back or give us a try for the first time has never been stronger,” Shilvock said. “There will be a hunger for things that have an energy, that have a vitality, that give a reason to come into the city.”
Even before the pandemic, cultural organizations were dealing with challenges that threatened to discourage patrons, including a stressed public transportation system, traffic, parking constraints and the highly visible epidemic of homelessness. And many institutions were struggling to make inroads in attracting audiences and patrons from the tech industry, which now accounts for 19 percent of the private work force.
Now, facing an uncertain future as they try to emerge from the pandemic shutdown, arts organizations are embracing a variety of tactics to fill seats.
Hope Mohr, the co-director of Hope Mohr Dance, said that her organization was spending $1,400 per night to livestream performances, so audiences could choose between coming into San Francisco or watching from their living rooms.
“A hybrid experience — I have to do that from now on,” she said. “My company usually performs in San Francisco, and I have audience coming from all over the bay.”
These calculations are taking place in an atmosphere of uncertainty and anxiety. It is not clear how much these early attendance figures represent a realignment, or are evidence of audiences temporarily trying to balance their hunger for live performances against concerns about the spread of the Delta variant — even in a city where 75 percent of the eligible population is fully vaccinated. Lower attendance figures have been reported by performing halls across the country.
Opening nights have found performers relieved to be playing to real crowds again and audiences delighted to be back. “The convenience of at-home entertainment has made it not as desirable for some folks, ” said Ralph Remington, the director of cultural affairs for the San Francisco Arts Commission. “But that being said, even though the density of the numbers isn’t as great as it was prepandemic, the audiences that are coming are really enthusiastic.”
Advanced sales for “The Nutcracker” at the San Francisco Ballet, with one-third of the tickets going for just $19 a seat to help bring in new patrons (the average ticket price is $136), have been moving briskly.
Danielle St. Germain-Gordon, the ballet’s interim executive director, said she hoped that working from home had made people eager to break out of their increasing isolation. “I would do anything to get out,” she said. “I hope that’s a good sign for our season.”
At the height of the pandemic, about 85 percent of San Francisco-based employees worked from home; that number is about 50 percent now, said Enrico Moretti, an economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
“I think it’s possible that people are not going to commute from Walnut Creek at night to go to downtown San Francisco for the opera to the same extent,” he said. “But I don’t expect those office buildings will sit empty. There will be other people moving into them.”
The Magic Theater, a 145-seat-theater in Fort Mason, just beyond Fisherman’s Wharf, has been experimenting with different kinds of programming, such as a poetry reading, and pay-what-you-can seats to lure patrons who live — and now work — far from the theater.
“This is going to be an interesting year for everyone,” said Sean San José, its artistic director. “Are people going to come back? The zeitgeist is telling us something. Maybe we should listen. This ain’t a pause. We have got to rethink it.”