How to Save the American Mall — With Live Theatre

Once upon a time, the shopping mall was a kind of Mecca. A pleasant place for people to congregate with convenient access to all kinds of shops, restaurants, and kiosks. Bookstores, clothing stores, cobblers, toy and game stores, all packed together with several massive anchor chains — Macy’s, Sears, JC Penny, and more. Teenagers would flock to the mall to hang out and spend their excess cash, while seniors would go several times a week, if only to walk the circuit of the mall’s interior for exercise.

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Today the story is very different. Shopping malls are suffering. Amazon and other online retailers have upped the convenience game, delivering necessities and frivolities directly to the customer’s door. Movie theatres, once a staple of the mall, have all moved out to command larger spaces with more screens. And due to vulture capitalism and poor management, even Sears is facing bankruptcy.

What malls have going for them now are two things. First, they still hold stores that cater to a specific demand — an Apple Store for when your iPad is on the fritz, a cobbler when you want your boot re-soled. These will always be in demand, as few of us want to mail our footwear or electronics off to a faceless corporation for repairs.

Second, the hold experiences, most notably, restaurants. From high end dining to Sbarro, people still need to eat, and enjoy eating out. The same is true of salons and barbers — you cannot get your nails done or your hair cut online. Some malls have added massage stations, or even more inventive offerings, in the hope of keeping relevant.

The other stores at the mall all depend on foot traffic driven by the Apple Store and the Cheesecake Factory in order to survive. That’s the real key — drawing people to the mall who might be tempted into shopping.

So, in a world where shopping itself is not a consumer’s main goal, only a byproduct, how to draw people to the mall?

Some malls have turned empty store space into offices, creating permanent, if limited, foot traffic every day. Some malls have invested in laser tag, paint-ball, or other indoor sports, hoping to lure in the younger crowds. Some malls are even leasing out space to local hospitals, guaranteeing a crowd, if one unlikely to shop after their visit.

Innovative as these may be, they have a restricted draw. They are stopgaps, not solutions.

However, there is one potential draw that malls have not tried. If it is experience, not retail, that draws people to the mall, offer experience.

The experience of live theatre.

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Imagine an anchor store converted into a multi-space theatre complex, offering professional shows. During the day Theatre For Young Audience shows could offer educational plays to busloads of children, while regular matinees could draw in retirees. Then, in the evenings, theatre-goers could enjoy a meal and a stroll through the mall before attending the play.

There are several studies showing how much of a boon a theatre can be to a neighborhood, sometimes raising revenue up to 180%. From small-town venues like Williamston Theatre in Michigan, where the local bars and restuarants have reported a spike in their sales on show nights, to the city of Stratford, Ontario, where the Shakespeare Festival is the life’s blood of that community.

The best example, however, is Chicago Shakespeare Theatre on Navy Pier. Since moving there in a sweetheart deal 18 years ago, the theatre has been a constant draw to the shops and restaurants on the Pier, paying for itself countless times over by bringing foot traffic of both residents and tourists.

Another example in the same city is Looking Glass Theatre, which sits atop the Water Tower shopping center in downtown Chicago. They pay the city a mere $1 in rent each year, an act of underwriting that keeps them financially viable as they draw in thousands of patrons every year — patrons who must pass through the mall in order to reach their seats.

Chicago realized long ago that investing in its theatre was investing in tourism. A well-supported theatre draws in thousands of patrons, often with disposable income, and draws them in, not once, but time and time again. This amounts to a constant flow of people through the mall.

From the theatrical perspective, this is an ideal solution. Malls have several things theatres are always looking for: infrastructure, such as parking lots and security; restaurants and bars, as most patrons are looking for the experience of dinner and a show; and accessibility, as malls are usually near expressways.

Even better, since most malls are not individually owned but instead owned by corporations with several other malls to manage, the shows could easily tour from city to city, reducing production costs. Say a show is created for a theatre in Old Orchard Mall in Skokie, IL. The costs of rehearsing and designing that show are fixed. But if, once that show has closed in Skokie, it was able to move to, say, The Galleria in Houston, well, it’s already rehearsed and built, and ready for a new audience. Shows could be in constant rotation, with the more popular plays running longer in each venue.

Alternately, there could be a resident company performing repertory theatre, something which most actors love, but has fallen out of favor in the States. But ask any British actor, or any American with experience doing three plays at the same time, and it is by far the most rewarding and exciting work of their lives. A return of repertory theatre would offer a steady income to actors and technicians, making them part of the community for the length of their contract.

There is so much potential here, not only to revitalize the American mall, but also to offer culture to communities that often lack a performing arts venue. If the theatre has a multi-space design, it could offer classes, or even be rented out to community theatres. True, the mall’s owner would lose the revenue of rent for that square-footage. But by placing theatres within American malls, the owners could ensure the survival of their own businesses, and also bring back a staple of American culture to smaller communities — live theatre.

It would also remove the snobbish stigma of theatre by returning it to its roots as a form of entertainment meant for everyone. Studies have shown that the biggest barrier to going to the theatre is that people don’t know what to wear. Unless it’s a special occasion, theatre is very much a “come as you are” event. The actors wear the costumes, not the audiences. By placing theatres within the mall, they become more accessible to audiences of all ages. And the greatest indicator if an adult goes to see theatre is if they saw theatre when they were young. And seeing theatre often boosts a student’s comprehension of literature in general.

Professional theatres are not only culturally uplifting, they are also good financial sense for a community, drawing patrons into a concentrated area for pleasure and entertainment. Which is exactly the kind of patron the malls of America long for today.

David Blixt is an author, actor, and fight director based in Chicago, where he’s allowed to co-exist with an awesome woman and a pair of really cool kids. He is married to Janice L Blixt, the Artistic Director of the Michigan Shakespeare Festival. His next book, WHAT GIRLS ARE GOOD FOR: A Novel of Nellie Bly, drops on Amazon on November 6th — election day (Vote!). Follow David on Twitter @David_Blixt, on Facebook here, and on his website at www.davidblixt.com.

Actor. Author. Father. Husband. In reverse order. Latest novel: WHAT GIRLS ARE GOOD FOR. www.davidblixt.com.

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