After 38 seasons, the Virginia Shakespeare Festival announced this week the decision to suspend the festival's main performance season for the next three years due to a significant decline in attendance.
The festival, an annual summer event at The College of William and Mary, saw a 23 percent drop in attendance this past summer, according to a news release from the college's Department of Theatre, Speech and Dance.
That’s nearly 1,100 less audience members than last year, said festival director Christopher Owens.
The festival has seen a steady decline since 2009, losing 56 percent of audience numbers since that time, and Owens said the festival worked to reverse the trend. This year’s marketing budget, he said, amounted to four times its size in 2013.
But to no avail.
At that point, Owens said the 13 full-time department faculty, as the festival’s governing body, had to evaluate the viability of the festival. He also said a reevaluation of the festival would have come with Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall closing for renovation in 2018.
With that, the department made its decision.
“This (decision) is with the support of the college administration that this is the best route to take for the time being,” said Olivia Levering, festival promotions manager.
However, the festival's popular annual Young Shakespeare Camps will continue next summer, possibly expanding from two to three weeks to meet demand, Owens said. Beyond 2017, with the close of PBK Hall, their continuation will depend on location.
Owens has run four theater companies in his career, and he said he’s never seen a 23 percent drop in attendance in just one year.
Why? One can only speculate.
The Virginia Shakespeare Festival has always relied on a majority local audience, which Owens defined within a 40- to 50-mile radius. He speculated that the decline comes from a combination of an aging audience and decreasing interest in live Shakespeare.
In the past five years, the main Shakespeare festivals of both Georgia and North Carolina have also closed due to declining attendance numbers, according to the release.
“Though I’m looking at our local market as one that has primarily driven our decision here, I think there are national trends at work,” Owens said.
Owens said the department will explore launching a new summer theater program to coincide with the re-opening of Phi Beta Kappa Hall, scheduled at this point for 2020. He said that exploration will include looking at summer theater programs in other areas and other educational institutions.
What that program will look like and whether it will still involve Shakespeare remains to be seen, Levering said.
“I daresay (Shakespeare) won’t be the focus,” Owens said. “It might be a part.”
Of course, the suspension doesn’t come without emotion for Owens who, as festival director for 12 years, has worked with hundreds of other artists to present the festival these past 12 summers.
“We came here, and we told some really good stories,” Owens said. “And I think we told them well.”
But he remains hopeful.
“Even the birth of the Shakespeare Festival was out of the death of another summer theater program that preceded it here,” he said.
“The Common Glory,” an outdoor drama program presented by the department, closed in 1975, replaced by the Shakespeare Festival in 1978.
“I think that a similar situation will exist here: That something has closed, and then it’s reevaluated what else that we can do, and something else will happen,” Owens said. “And I’m hopeful that’ll be exciting.”
Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.