Despite vaccination, theatergoers won’t fill seats soon, says new study

More shots in arms has not spurred locals to return to DC-area theaters. And a trip back to Broadway is a long way off.

Despite a significant increase in vaccinations, DC-area theatergoers will be slow to return to local theaters, according to a new study by Limelight Insights by Shugoll, a national marketing research company in Rockville, Maryland. The company conducted an online survey with 1,259 DC-area theatergoers from March 25 to 29, 2021, on their intent to return to theaters. This is the fourth wave of research has been tracking these issues in DC since the pandemic began. The current survey was conducted because the previous wave in February was during a time of slow vaccine rollout and concerns about variants. Six weeks later, there are many more shots in arms and the project team wanted to see how that changed intent to return to local theaters.

Graphic: DC Metro Theater Arts

More shots in arms since the last study wave but little change in when theatergoers will return to DC theaters

The February wave of this ongoing research was a time of slow vaccine rollout and concerns about variants. Even with expanded vaccinations since then and some data that current vaccines should work against variants, there is little change in this late-March wave on when DC theatergoers will attend area theaters. The first month that at least 50% of theatergoers say they are very likely to attend is November (52%). The number for November was 48% in the last wave, not a statistically significant increase. In addition, the threshold where 60% and two-thirds of theatergoers are very likely to attend local theaters remains January and March, respectively. “Since previous study waves found that access to the vaccine would help determine when people would feel safe in returning to area theaters, it is interesting that more shots in arms have resulted in little change in when they plan to attend again,” says study author Cara Shugoll Wilken.

“December/January feels like a good target date for most theaters to consider reopening,” adds Shugoll Wilken. For theaters hoping for a fall reopening, note that just 44% of audiences are very likely to return in September and 48% in October. However, there are some rays of hope for fall openings. For example, frequent theatergoers, including subscribers, who will be heavily depended on to fill seats initially, have a somewhat earlier timeframe for return. Half of subscribers are very willing to attend starting in September. Also, with socially distanced seating, theater capacity would be reduced to levels that may match the size of the audience willing to return. In addition, as vaccines become more available and more is known about the control of variants, theatergoers may finally adjust their timeframe for return to something earlier.

While socially distanced seating in the fall would limit earned income, at this point it appears necessary. Just 27% would attend the theater in the fall if seats were not socially distanced, although this number is slightly higher than in the previous wave.

Local theatergoers who travel to New York for Broadway shows don’t plan to do so for some time

While some Broadway producers are targeting a reopening this fall, most DC theatergoers who travel to New York for Broadway shows are not planning to do so until sometime later. Only 18% are very likely to attend in September (assuming theaters open at full capacity as is planned) and still just 36% are very likely in January. You do not reach 50% very likely to attend Broadway shows again under the assumption of full capacity seating until May 2022. Shugoll Wilken notes that “while DC audiences may or may not be like others across the country in their views on returning to Broadway shows, tourist audiences are essential to the health of Broadway. DC theatergoers plan to be cautious before travelling to New York to see a Broadway show.”

Almost all DC-area theatergoers plan to get the vaccine

All but 7% of DC theatergoers (theatergoers are a highly educated segment of the population) plan to get vaccinated. Already, 40% are fully vaccinated, 27% have received one dose of a two-dose vaccine, and 26% plan to get vaccinated when it is their turn. Just 4% do not plan to get vaccinated and 3% are not sure.


This study was conducted using Limelight Insights by Shugoll’s proprietary panel. A total of 1,259 surveys were completed between March 25 and 29, 2021. Data are accurate within +/- 3% at a 95% confidence level. Participants were required to attend at least two professional theater productions in a typical year, at least one of which must be at a nonprofit theater other than those that primarily present touring companies. For a copy of the Full Report or the Executive Summary go to


Image: DC Metro Theater Arts

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