The Economy… of Theatre

When not focused on the absurd, the news wallows in the plight of the economy. Regardless of how we may be affected personally, our social consciousness tells us that we are having real money problems. But just for a moment, let’s take a look at the reality of our own economics.

While we may all be stalling on spending on the not-so-necessary, for most of us our lives have not been dramatically altered. The vacations aren’t as luxurious, the new car will have to wait, and general concern for the long term is producing anxiety. But we still have a roof over our heads, our meals still come with regularity and we still find the money to pay for a movie or cable or even a play.

For the movie and cable we pay what we’re asked and we grumble, but we pay nonetheless. But for the play, many of us rush to the discount tickets – “we’re saving money.” Let’s look at what you may be saving. If you go to a discount site for your theatre tickets, you are probably paying somewhere near half price for that ticket, plus you are paying a service charge. If a ticket has a face value of $20 you end up paying somewhere around $14-$16. Great, for two people you have saved say $12, maybe even $15. What does that mean to the theatre? It means after service charges and processing, the theatre may get $10, but probably a little less. First, understand that the discounts are extended because the theatre wants you to come see their show. They hope that once you’ve been there you’ll be willing to pay the asking price. This thinking has prompted an industrywide practice of making tickets available for half the value. Because everyone is involved, none can opt out. Add to that the shark factor of some of the brokers, and the theatres have a real problem.

Recently, a forty-five seat theatre went up for sale in North Hollywood. Based upon the asking price, whoever buys that facility will have to sell every seat in the house four times a week at $13.75 a ticket, just to cover the mortgage. Starting to see the problem? We haven’t even gotten to production costs, insurance, utilities and promotion.

Theatre exists because it is a passion for artists. For the community, it is a voice, a consciousness, and entertainment. Artists all over the world continue to perform or present their work at no charge, not because they don’t think it has value, but they put up the work hoping that we the audience will meet the obligation of the social contract and fund them in accordance to our appreciation.

The problem with a social contract is that everyone has to understand their part. We have become such a complex society that in large part, we have given up on the very principal of our participation. We rely on business plans and government to take care of the details. But these entities are neither interested nor suited to fund the arts. Theatre that relies on the largess of business eventually finds itself at the mercy of business. Theatre that relies on government is always susceptible to the interests of those that govern.

The only model that comes close to working for the arts is the culture of organized religion. Those that participate in their church or synagogue or (insert politically correct name here) understand there is a fiscal responsibility to support the institution. Here the contract is that the attendee will support the effort of the institution to impart ethical and moral wisdom and in return receive grace and guidance. Isn’t that essentially what happens in theatre.

Most churches won’t turn you away if you have no money. Likewise, most theatres offer discounts and pay-what-you-can opportunity to see productions. What we have to do is understand that our part is to support the effort. As a member of society, we need to give in the same spirit as those that participate in organized religion, and tithe.

There are several ways this can be accomplished. First and foremost, don’t stop going to theatre. If you must use the discounts, do so, but if at the end of the performance you feel you have received some benefit, be it moral enlightenment or entertainment, think of donating your savings to the theatre. They won’t turn you down. If you find a theatre that resonates with you, offer your services, volunteer. And should none of the above fit your needs, there is always a want of goods. New lighting instruments, computers, office supplies… ask what is needed.

What you will receive in return is untold riches. You will become a committed part of the community. Your presence and interests will be noted. Your contributions, be it money, service or material, will accentuate your applause and let the theatre know you care. Much as the leaders of a religious community serve at the pleasure of the community, theatre too serves at the pleasure of the audience. Your support encourages the tomorrows and makes sure that bills can be paid today.

About Peter Finlayson

Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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