Getting Real

I never fail to be excited about going to see a show. It doesn’t matter if I know the play, or if it’s a piece that’s brand new to me. My guess is that it’s my anticipation at traveling to new places and meeting new people. For that is a great part of theatre. And much like going on a vacation, my expectations are adjusted to the amount of time and money I have to invest to get there, and what will be the quality of the accommodations when I do get wherever I’m going.

Yes it’s true, it doesn’t matter what we want or what we’d like to do, it costs money. I have some friends, that recently took a vacation to Peru. Upon their return, we saw their slides and the souvenirs they bought, and then Sally (not her real name) sheepishly told me that she felt guilty paying as little as she did for some of the things she bought. My immediate response, was but the price is set high, and you’re supposed to bargain. Sally said, “but it’s worth more than they were asking to me!”

Now let me confess, I love to haggle, or to be more precise, I love to haggle to my advantage. I’m always looking for the “deal”, what’s the way to shave the price? But in reality, what is the ramification of that bit of entertainment. I save a couple of bucks, and feel like I’m a victor in the fiscal battle. To my opponent, the vanquished, they have a little less than they hoped for but can take a win as they made some money. Or, did they?

Let’s take that model to going to a play. Whether we aware of it or not, there is a mired of costs that go into producing a play. Even if the actors are earning a minimal stipend, (around $15 per performance,) multiply that by the size of the cast and the number of performances, and the figure adds up very quickly. And that’s just the tail end of the costs. Just as a cursory look, there’s the rent, the royalties, the insurance, the utilities, the costumes, the sets, the lighting equipment, the sound equipment, the artistic staff, the operation staff, the production staff right down to the person that sweeps up after we leave our trash under the seats, and last but not least marketing.

Now lets take a low guesstimate as to what all that might run, and to be really conservative, let’s say a show manages to produce a show all in for $10,000. This is an incredibly low figure, but let’s just for the sake of argument call that the number. If a house has 99 seats, and if they charge the maximum allowed by the unions and still pay ridiculously low wages to actors which would by $39.99, and the show sold out every performance in it’s three shows a week with a 6 week run, voila, the show is a success. The initial cost would provide a return of a little over $70,000. Tada! Now that’s a working business model.

But wait, we have to throw in a couple of reality factors. First the average asking price of tickets in Los Angeles is only $20. That’s ok we’re still making money. But only half of what the model calls for. Oh, and then there’s the fact that a 60% seat occupancy for the run is considered a successful show, that now brings the total earnings of the show to just over $20,000. Ok, so they’re only doubling their money. But we’re not quite there yet, because one of the perks for being a part of the show is by union decree, and the largess of producers, there’s the comps. Then theirs the awards voters, they get in free, the reviewers get in free, industry professionals get in free, all of which consumes at least another 10% of your seats, so now we’re down to a profit of less than $9,000.

And then comes the whopper, here’s the one that you have a part in, the ticket buying audience wants a discount. So let’s be really generous, the “reality is far sadder,” If you offer the discount demanded by marketers, 50% off face value, to just 30% of the balance, and you have now reduced your $9000 profit by an additional $6,000. Leaving you a slush fund of three grand.

Here’s the rest of the realities, The actual cost of the average production in LA is now probably around $25,000, and the actual number of seats being discounted is probably somewhere around 50%. That would mean, that by using the information noted here, the actual balance sheet for most shows in LA is a considerable loss. In most cases, it means that when all is said and done the producer is out of pocket about $16,000.

And yet, this model is the standard in LA. Invest $40,000 and if you’re lucky you’ll get about $24,000 back. Now unless you’re a billionaire, that probably doesn’t seem sustainable. Theatres respond by finding where they can make cuts. Generally the first cut is in marketing and as the labor cost is fixed everything else comes under scrutiny.

So, when I book a vacation to Hawaii, and I insist upon paying only $40 a night for my room, I probably shouldn’t be surprised that I’m not quite as happy as I was when I first dreamt of my sojourn to paradise. All of the variables I could have controlled with paying a reasonable price were cut by me, so that someone could strive to fulfill my dreams.

That is precisely what theatre does, the collected wisdom and talents of all the people involved in a show are offered at unlivable wage levels, while these people are still committing with every ounce of their passion for the art available.

Is this an admonishment to pony up the cost of tickets? Yes! If you can afford it, pay for it. Afford is not after all of your bills are paid, it is with the thought in mind of what it is worth to yourself.

Audiences often whisper that it was a good show, but somehow they expected a little more. Help to make that happen, it really is up to you.

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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