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Is August theater’s slowest month for new shows?

Street festivals, vacations, air conditioning—there are a number of reasons theaters avoid late-summer openings.

Photograph: Peter Coombs
Mike Nussbaum and Coburn Goss in Freud's Last Session at the Mercury Theater

I’m often asked by theater makers if there’s anything they can do to increase their chances of getting coverage from TOC and other local media.

A glance at my opening-nights calendar provides one answer: Open your show in August.

The summer months always seem to be a bit lighter on onstage offerings. But while June and July still have a handful of new shows to preview and review each week, every August the well runs dry. A few of those shows that opened earlier in the summer may still be running, but very few new shows open in the eighth month.

And then, après Labor Day, the deluge. As of this writing, there are more shows opening in the single week following that holiday weekend than remain in the entire month of August. And the rest of September keeps up that frantic pace, with a new show opening seemingly every single night—some nights, four or five.

The fall glut is more than even the most dedicated theatergoers could possibly keep up with, and yet those same eager viewers might be twiddling their thumbs this week, wishing for something new to see. So I asked a few theater professionals: Why does the calendar shake out this way year after year?

Some say it’s a simple matter of sales. “The perception is that it’s harder to sell tickets in August, so everything gets bunched up in September,” says Deb Clapp, executive director of the League of Chicago Theatres.

With increased competition from outdoor activities in late summer (street festivals, Lollapalooza, the Air & Water Show), that perception is correct, says Jason Epperson, general manager of the Mercury Theater, where [node:15223776 link=Freud’s Last Session;] has been running since March. “Sales certainly dip. A lot of the affluent audience is often traveling at this time of year,” he notes.

The rest of the calendar could have something to do with the September pileup as well, suggests Mikey Laird, audience services manager at Theater Wit. “One of the things we talk about is where major holidays line up,” he says. “For a four- to six-week run, it makes sense to open in September and close before those holidays come up.”

Many theaters that sell season subscriptions follow that logic, Clapp concurs. “It takes a lot to put a season schedule together. A lot of them would rather not open the same week as all the other midsize theaters, but…” The booking of actors and run crews also contributes to the tendency of theaters’ slates to fall into lockstep.

Unsurprisingly, weather is another factor. Several smaller theater venues have no air conditioning; others have A/C systems that are too noisy to run during a show. That can make conditions miserable for late-summer audiences and actors alike. “A lot of callers flat-out ask us if we have air conditioning,” Epperson says. The Mercury does, but “even if you have it, it’s expensive to run. Our electric bill’s something like $3,000 a month in the summer.”

Still, certain companies have found August openings to be to their advantage. “When we had our own space, we did that all the time and we usually sold better,” says Griffin Theatre Company artistic director Bill Massolia. “I think it was because we had a jump on the rest of the theaters in town.” After Griffin moves into its [node:15390421 link=new permanent home;] at Foster and Damen Avenues next spring, Massolia says, “you can bet that we will open a show in August.”

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