Sorry, Twin Cities: That second-most-theater-seats-per-capita-outside-New-York stat is total bullshit

Virtually any list of Twin Cities civic boasts includes the claim that our metro area has “the second most theater seats per capita outside of New York.” Google the phrase and you’ll find pages and pages of colleges, businesses, and boosters of all stripes making the claim. But how do they know it’s true? Many of them cite sources, but they’re all just citing each other. Search in vain to find a single one of these mentions that cites an actual study demonstrating the fact.

This mantra is getting embarrassing for us—and for all the other cities that make similar claims. Cleveland claims “the second largest theater district in the nation, outside of New York.” The Houston Theater District says it “ranks second behind New York City for the number of theater seats in a concentrated downtown area.” Detroit “is home to the second largest theatre district in the United States behind only New York City.” The Denver Performing Arts Complex “is the second largest performing arts center in the world after New York City’s Lincoln Center.” Everybody wants to be #2.

The thing is that we actually do have an incredible theater scene—just not necessarily in that particular way. In a 2008 Twin Cities Business article, Camille LeFevre listed several impressive indicators of the size and vitality of our theater scene: we sell more tickets per capita than Chicago or Seattle, the combined annual budgets of our theater companies dwarf those of Philadelphia and Boston, and performing artists make up a 30% larger share of the workforce in the Twin Cities than they do nationally.

In that light, the number-two theater-seat claim seems plausible…but here’s the issue. We’re smaller than New York and Chicago, but we’re not that small. If it really comes down to a per-capita breakdown, it would be easy for small communities to grab the edge over us—and that’s what’s seen in a 2008 National Endowment for the Arts report on growth and challenges in nonprofit theater. Of course not every theater is nonprofit, but locally, almost all of the organizations we’d consider core to “our theater scene” are: the Guthrie Theater, the Hennepin Theatre Trust (which runs the Orpheum, State, Pantages, and New Century theaters), the Children’s Theatre Company, the Jungle Theater, the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, Park Square Theatre, and so on.

“The states with the highest per capita concentration of theaters,” concludes the NEA, “now include: Vermont, Alaska, Maine, Montana, Rhode Island, Oregon, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Minnesota.” That’s a ranked list, which means that we’re in the mix—but we’re number ten. Of course, that stat doesn’t account for theater seats—so if a few of our nonprofit companies are disproportionately large, we might rank higher in number of seats than we do in number of companies. Might.

I’m not the first one to question this claim; for example, Derek Lee Miller at Minnesota Playlist also went in search of verification and came up empty. Where did the manifestly unprovable second-most-seats claim come from?

At this point, it’s essentially an urban legend, but a thread on the now-defunct Callboard discussion site for theater insiders once traced the claim to a questionable interpretation of a study that was made decades ago. Once people started saying it, they just kept right on saying it, and the more people said it, the more other people felt safe repeating it—because how could it be wrong? No one (except grumpy nitpickers on pro-Cleveland discussion boards) had any incentive to question it.

I’m not trying to tear down our theater scene. I love our theater scene, and I’m proud to be a part of this community. When we speak with justifiable pride about our theater scene, though, let’s start saying things we can actually prove. There are more than enough of them to go around.

- Jay Gabler

For more about Minnesota by Jay Gabler, 34 other writers, and nine illustrators and photographers, grab our book Bright Lights, Twin Cities