"In the long run, it's not good because what it means is everybody, the established theaters and the upstarts, are all beginning to fight for the same dwindling amount of resources," said John Green, chairman of the theater department at Butler University.
The study, released in December by the National Endowment for the Arts, found that from 1990 to 2005 the number of not-for-profit theaters with budgets of at least $75,000 doubled, to 1,982. In that span, the percentage of theater budgets coming from ticket sales and other earned income fell from 65 percent to 52 percent.
Yet so far, theaters have been up to the challenge, often by ratcheting up contributions from individuals and foundations to close the gap. Real assets, adjusted for inflation, grew 60 percent over the 15 years, while liabilities stayed flat, the study found.
The picture now may be less rosy, however. The study concluded well before the housing bubble burst, the stock market tanked, and the economy slid into the deepest recession in a generation.
The period studied by the NEA included two recessions with both putting big dents in revenue. Yet theaters managed to survive.
"I don't think we can necessarily find fault with the way theaters are administered," said Bill O'Brien, the NEA's director of theater and musical theater. "They've responded to some of the economic challenges that have cropped up, particularly the recession of the early '90s and the wake of 9/11. They generally came out of those periods with a stronger financial standing."
Those gains occurred even as the size of the overall audience declined. The NEA found in a separate survey that the portion of adults who reported attending at least one musical in the previous 12 months dropped from 17.1 percent in 2002 to 16.7 percent in 2008.
The decline was more drastic for non-musical theater, with the portion of adults who took in a so-called "straight" play dropping from 12.3 percent in 2002 to 9.4 percent in 2008.
"This is not something that's unique to theater," O'Brien said.
After documenting a similar decline in literature consumption, the National Endowment for the Arts launched a campaign called The Big Read. In 2008, the NEA found reading on the upswing again.
Finding the source of audience erosion won't be easy.
High ticket prices often are the presumed culprit, O'Brien said, but statistical models indicate otherwise. The NEA found that a 20-percent price hike in low-end single tickets or subscriptions would result in a relatively minor loss of sales, 2 percent.
"We're at a place in its history where new questions are looming," O'Brien said. "How long are these economic challenges going to exist? What are the root causes in flattening or fall-off in audience participation? Issues with ticket prices are very complex."
Indianapolis' theater scene is full of upstarts, each trying to carve its own niche and survive a recession that appears to deepen by the day.
Don Farrell and his wife, Judy Fitzgerald, left the professional stage-acting world to start a company in Fitzgerald's hometown. Actors Theatre of Indiana launched in 2005.
"Indianapolis is a nice mid-size city with amazing potential for growth," Farrell said. The three-person company, which specializes in musicals, is still venue-hopping and building its base.
"We try to be as accessible to our patrons as possible," Farrell said. "It's grass-roots, really."
Another grass-roots company, Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre, launched in 2007. Managing Director Ben Tebbe said he and his partners, all professional actors, had a list of plays they wanted to perform but felt no established theater would produce.
"A few years ago, the pie had continued to expand," he said. "There was this unlimited supply of corporate and foundation money to fund that."
Tebbe is still raising money for a 2009 season.
"It is nerve-wracking as a producer now," he said.
The overall decline in theater-going is difficult to spot from a local stage.
As a rule, crowds are bigger for musicals, or plays with familiar titles, said Brad Wright, director of theater at the University of Indianapolis. It's common for a company to stage a musical to finance a play, he said. Wright said the lack of crossover between the two has always baffled him. "Same theater, same expectations of quality, why you wouldn't go to see a straight play at the same place, I don't know the answer to that," he said.
Farrell dreams of seeing the crowds who flock to lighter fare, such as "Menopause the Musical," support local theater.
"It was able to target people who have never set foot into a theater before," he said of the hit show. "You had groups and parties of women coming to celebrate birthdays.
"Could you imagine if it was artistic, that it did have a cultural weight to it, and bring in the masses?" Farrell asked. "How wonderful would that be?"
Green said Butler's theater students are eager to stage their own productions. The shows, which use audience participation and borrow from circus acts, have a following of 20-somethings, he said.
"It may well be that we're in a transition phase from one form of traditional theater and merging into something new," he said.
Green hopes the new generation can figure out how to keep people coming, even after they have families, and going out means hiring a baby sitter.
He thinks a new business model-cheaper tickets and heavier promotion of single shows-will help.
"Nothing can be taken for granted to build back that audience," he said.