The Challenges Faced by Woke Theater Groups: Declining Audiences and Financial Troubles

Numerous theater organizations across the country who have embraced wokeness and incorporated left-leaning political activism into their work are currently facing severe financial difficulties. These challenges have resulted in layoffs and the cancellation of entire seasons. Additionally, these theater groups are witnessing a significant decrease in their once-devoted audiences and a decline in donations. Some of the non-profit entities struggling include The Public Theater in New York, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre. Even the prestigious Metropolitan Opera in New York has been hit hard, with its supporting guild closing recently after almost a century.

The financial distress experienced by these theater groups has become a subject of national attention and has sparked discussions within the cultural elite. While some theater leaders argue that their problems can be attributed to COVID-related concerns, this explanation falls short as commercial Broadway has managed to rebound to pre-pandemic audience levels while non-profit theaters continue to struggle.

For example, The Public Theater in New York had to lay off nearly 20 percent of its staff and reduce its programming. The theater faced controversy in 2017 for its production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which depicted the assassination of President Donald Trump. Similarly, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival faced challenges due to its former artistic director’s focus on woke themes, diversity, equity, and inclusion. This approach alienated a significant portion of the festival’s loyal audience and donors, leading to the initiation of an emergency fundraising campaign to avoid closure.

In a similar vein, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles had to cancel its entire upcoming season due to what its leaders described as an unprecedented crisis. The theater’s last production, based on the Amazon series Transparent, received negative reviews. Center Theatre Group (CTG), which operates the Taper, has also been impacted and has announced layoffs of about 10 percent of its full-time staff. The company publicly aligned itself with wokeness during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. Snehal Desai, recently appointed as CTG’s artistic director, expressed the organization’s intention to continue incorporating identity politics into its programming.

When questioned about the focus on identity politics, Desai responded in an interview with the L.A. Times, “What alternative would you suggest? Politically incorrect work? All work is political.” Desai’s statement reflects the ongoing debate within the theater community about the role of politics and activism in artistic productions.

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