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Read the Results of the Industry Survey: Return to the Stage

David J. McGraw, Meg Friedman • Industry NewsTheatre Buzz • March 2, 2021

Standing By! Performing Arts Workers Cautiously Optimistic about 2021

What does 2021 hold for us? Return to the Stage conducted its second wave of research in the first two weeks of January; the survey concluded with two new year’s resolutions: how will the Performing Arts change this year and what do the respondents pledge they will do?

On Tuesday, March 2, 2021, we held a free webinar conversation about the latest results from this 18-month study. Meg Friedman and David J. McGraw included a look at expectations about the future of the field and how employer interactions, employment opportunities, and the impact of coping strategies could reduce future attrition from the field.
The replay of this webinar and the slides from it are available at You can also view the slides here: Return To The Stage AMS webinar – Jan 21 Update. These are provided free-of-charge, but viewers will need to register with an email address to watch the recording of the webinar.

Return to the Stage is an 18-month study measuring the impact of COVID-19 on performing arts workers. Beyond measuring the financial impacts in lost income and cancelled performances, Return looks at the human dimensions: how people are coping and what they imagine for the future. The pandemic has fractured the lines of communication in the Performing Arts and too many workers are not being heard while our industry is paused. We asked 2,000+ survey participants in January what future they saw for the performing arts in 2021. We then coded approximately 850 open-ended essay responses – more than 400 to each part of the question. This exercise revealed themes that were both surprising and deeply reaffirming. You can read the entire survey at the end of this post, but here are some key takeaways:

The big takeaway: Many of us feel the performing arts will recover in 2021, but we need to travel the road ahead with caution.

Specifically, 60% believe this to be true. One participant predicted a future where we “bounce back because we always have, by re-enforcing [sic] our best traditions, and inventing new ways to bring performing arts to the world.” Another 9% were less optimistic and thought that the performing arts would struggle: “Our industry is not like a light switch where you can click back in when we get an all clear (GO) that work as we knew it can return. Program of the likes I worked on takes months to create that will not happen overnight. All the damage and loss that had occurred will make it challenging to return to business as usual.” Finally, 4% believed that our field will worsen in the coming year: “I’m worried that too many theater administrators are going to use this pandemic as an excuse to overwork their staff, cut pay and benefits, and eliminate positions, all while implying that we’d agree to these new work conditions if we were truly passionate about the arts/the organization. I’m not optimistic that this pandemic will create a more equitable industry.”

One of the motivations for creating Return to the Stage was the sudden splintering of industry networks: the pandemic didn’t just halt performances, it also fractured how venues and employers communicated with artists and gig workers. In July 2020, nearly a quarter – 22% of respondents – felt that employers handled COVID-related separations or furloughs “poorly” or “somewhat poorly.” Since the uncertainty of last summer, companies are beginning to reforge ties with their network of artists and staff. According to the January 2021 survey, only 54% of respondents had heard from a previous employer since March 1, 2020 (n=1,925), but of those 74% reported that the information received is useful (n=1,040). Nearly half of respondents hear from employers as often as they want to (49%). Over a third (36%) want to hear from employers more often.

Takeaway #2: Performing arts workers have participated in activism, but it will take deep reserves and fresh commitment to maintain this civic engagement.

Last year saw more than just the pandemic work stoppage. The year also marked an increased awareness of the systemic racism in the performing arts, together with inequitable workplace practices touching range of connected issues. One respondent said, “2020 has been a hard year, but it has also given many of us an opportunity to wake up to the truth that we all need to fight harder against discrimination in the arts, and in the world at large.” In the New Year’s Resolution wishes for the industry, 11% of responses believed that the performing arts would become more equitable. One participant wished the industry would “be more ethical in all its practices. This includes anti-racist work, paying a minimum wage AT LEAST, and working together to fix other systemic problems in our community.”

This was not the first time that the performing arts was forced to reckon with present and past inequity. Will the pandemic be the catalyst for lasting change? We have seen the creation of several arts activism groups this year. Unfortunately, there are indications that the groundswell of energy behind creating change may be at risk, as the pressure to return to work casts a shadow over promises and policies made during the height of the pandemic. While over a third of respondents say they participated in activism in July 2020, that declined 17% in the January survey (from 37% to 20%). When we look through the lens of primary occupations, every category of worker has reduced participation in activism – some more than others.

Takeaway #3: We’re ready to roll up our sleeves – and get vaccinated.

The return of live performances is predicated on convincing audiences that it’s safe to come back. Some sports venues have already begun this process. But before we can return fully, the performing arts must demonstrate a safe environment for its workers. Return respondents showed a strong interest in being vaccinated: 75% will get the vaccine as soon as it is available (compared to 70% of the general population) and only 1% of respondents are opposed to being vaccinated. Many were eager to see vaccinations create herd immunity, but others wondered if their time was already running out: “When it is safe I do hope to return even if part-time or occasional work, if not, I will move on and retire. The time lost during the pandemic lowered my interest level in working in this field. I do have other skills and abilities.” [see graphic 3]

Takeaway #4: We’ve got each other’s backs.

Advocacy for the field was the top response that participants set for themselves in their New Year’s resolutions: 21% of survey participants pledged to advocate for their fellow performing arts workers. Many vowed to fight not just for their own careers: “Advocate more for the support of fellow friends (and now former co-workers) to get back to the field we all love so much and hopefully be able to make a return myself.” In a field known for job competition, this altruism could become our salvation: “Continue to advocate for the recognition of the value of the performing arts and its workers. We must never allow ourselves to be in this place again, the 12M forgotten. Society must be educated as to our value and understand how much we drive the economy as well provide memorable experiences for young and old.”

Takeaway #5: The performing arts are at a crossroads.

“Either build to a thriving renaissance or begin to recede from the cultural landscape….” Renaissance was an image that appeared repeatedly in respondents’ crystal balls. Many cited the rebirth of the arts after earlier plagues and catastrophes. To finish the above quote: “…it will all depend on what and who survives, who has enough capital to weather this catastrophe.”  

Click Here to read the entire Return to the Stage Survey

Meg Friedman is a consultant and former stage manager with over 20 years’ experience in the performing arts. She has stage managed performances in 30+ states, conducted original research into theater volunteerism, and as a consultant has supported strategic planning and feasibility studies for arts organizations across North America.  Meg is a member of Actors’ Equity.  

David J. McGraw is the Program Coordinator for Arts Administration at Elon University and has worked in the performing arts for several decades. He recently worked with the South African State Theatre on a Fulbright Specialist Grant. He is also the creator of the Stage Manager Survey and the SACITS Study.  

Return to the Stage is a longitudinal study of performing arts workers in the United States, designed to understand COVID-19 related impacts and to begin documenting a broad future vision for the field. Return to the Stage is an independent study.  The authors are not in receipt of funding from any agency or organization. A note of thanks does go to Elon University for providing access to the Qualtrics software used to create, distribute, and analyze the survey. 

The survey was taken by performers, managers, directors, choreographers, front-of-house and box office teams, writers, technical and design folx, development and marketing, facility operators, vendors, and anyone else working or volunteering in the performing arts. Input was anonymous, and individual data will never be shared.

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