In October, the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) released findings from its study on financial and operating trends among Chicago’s arts and cultural organizations before, during and emerging from the pandemic (2019 – 2022). And while many arts leaders anticipated a quick return to pre-COVID engagement, the study showed otherwise. The Executive Summary concluded that “many organizations are experiencing crisis now: dwindling ticket sales, increased costs, and private donations that failed to keep pace with inflation.”
The statistics revealed average in-person attendance in performing arts declined by 59% from 2019 through 2022, a decrease far more severe than the 14% museums experienced during the same timeframe.
The news is a blow to the performing arts sector. Grim? Yes. Is this the way we want to end the year? No.
Enter BrightSide Theatre (BST), an organization whose mission is “to enlighten, educate, and entertain through comedies and inspirational stories from across the globe.” Co-founder and Executive Director Julie Kornak remains optimistic. Ticket sales for The Odd Couple, presented in early 2023, shattered records for any non-musical production in BST’s 12-year history.
“Our audiences are looking for something familiar and fun,” said Kornak. “We are facing so many serious issues today that people need escapism to add balance to their lives.”
Kornak also noted a robust response to this year’s Summer in the Parks, a free series of hour-long outdoor concerts presented in partnership with Naperville Park District in and around Naperville. The performances featured the Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber and drew hundreds of community members seeking family-friendly entertainment. A holdover from the pandemic, the concert series grew in popularity from three locations in 2021 to eight in 2023 (although one was canceled due to inclement weather). To ensure accessibility to all throughout the area, BST applied for and received a matching grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to purchase a portable stage that can be installed in those parks that are not equipped.
In 2020, BST introduced concert versions of musicals on the cusp of the pandemic. The productions, presented in a black box setting without elaborate sets and costumes, allow audiences to focus on the voices blended with orchestral accompaniment and deliver a rich and complete experience. The series was so successful that BST made it a part of its annual programming.
In February 2024, BTS will bring Chess in Concert, a cabaret-style musical, to North Central College’s Madden Theatre. Written by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of the pop group ABBA, Chess is touted as a modern classic of love and intrigue “where the players, lovers, politicians, and spies all struggle to get the upper hand.”
Hopes are high that creative programming and lighthearted fare will continue to attract lapsed theater goers and subscribers who will rediscover the magic of live performances. And what a joyful gift that would be this holiday season.