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Behind the Scenes : HOW MUCH?!

A few years ago I found myself intervening in a Twitter war.

Photo credit: Craig Fuller

Well, a Twitter conflict at least - a user dared to question the outrage and disappointment associated with the Somerset council's decision to axe funding to a beloved arts venue and was soundly attacked by some very passionate theatre-lovers. Said twitter user felt that if the venue wasn't attracting interest or people to see their shows, then they didn't deserve funding. Except....the venue in question was actually selling out their shows and had huge community support. But the funding decision was made anyway.

After an amicable exchange, and a basic introduction to the economics of making theatre (and, particularly, unfunded theatre), the same user actually came to see my next show. Win!

But it's stuck with me - that disconnect between audiences and perhaps understanding what actually goes into making a show. Heck, I knew very little about it before I went into the industry, and even now I'm learning more and more about the different models under which shows can be created. I also appreciate the difficulty some can have affording the ticket prices to our shows, as much as we try to keep them accessible, so I thought it would be helpful to at least outline our approach, and precisely what it is your ticket is buying.

Getting to opening night

As with any industry that creates a product to sell (apologies in advance for the amount of business-speak I may have to invoke, chaps), the major costs all come in the set up. The man-power involved in creating a show is an incredibly significant figure, and in commercial (or unfunded) theatre these costs are only mitigated by the amount of tickets you can sell. Or, perhaps, the sponsorship or investment you can raise. A secondary expense is the weekly (or daily) running costs once the show is in performance.

So let's consider that set up period. What costs are involved? Here's an uncomprehensive list:

Photo credit: Craig Fuller

- Fees (director, casting director, composer, writer, producer, production manager, stage manager, deputy stage manager, props makers, set constructors, designers, actors, publicists, graphic designers....)

- Casting space hire

- Rehearsal room hire

- Tea & Coffee (and biscuits - never underestimate the power of biscuits in the artistic process)

- Props (hiring, sourcing and making)

- Costumes (hiring, sourcing and making)

- Printing (scripts, CVs, research material, schedules)

- Technical or specialist equipment (hiring, sourcing and making)

- Publicity - printing flyers, posters, banners, making press packs

- Venue hire (this can vary from hiring a space outright, as we often do, agreeing a box office split with a venue or being hired by the venue - very rare!)

- Van hire and transport

Considering the fact we work in found spaces, which rarely include facilities like toilets or dressing rooms, we have to factor in additional set up costs like:

- Hire of portaloos

- Buying toilet roll and cleaning supplies

- Hire of dressing room

- Hire of waterproof cabling

- Outdoor lighting

- Refilling of water tanks and removal of waste

Photo credit: Hannah Drake much?

As a general rule....a small fringe production involving a cast of 2 - 4 and minimal production team, in a fringe theatre venue will cost around £25,000 to make.

When I first started out that seemed an extraordinary amount.

In 2016 our production of Macbeth cost over £56,000 and we had a project planned for summer 2018 that was going to cost £160,000, before we scaled it back to a more "reasonable" £120k for Romeo & Juliet. Although, to be fair, only 60% (or so) of that is a set up cost.

But....yes.....the set up costs are significant.

Photo credit: Justin Palmer

The other half: running costs

Of course, once a show is made (hurray!) there are general running costs to keep it going. These include general wages, replacing broken props, maintenance of set/costume/props/equipment, press night, and the pack-down/get-out once a show finishes. If the show uses consumable products like food, fake blood or props that are deliberately destroyed as part of the action, these need to be replaced. There is also health to consider and some shows employ dedicated physiotherapists to stay with them and treat the company as and when. There's also the front of house staff to consider, and stewards to take care of the audience during the performances. Most of these building-based costs are covered by theatres, but our site-specific performances require an extra level of infrastructure to be covered by us as a company.

Photo credit: Craig Fuller

Balancing the budget

There are a few ways to generate income for a show. The main one (obviously) is through ticket sales - you, the audience, pay a little of that outlay to experience the show we've created. Bearing in mind our average ticket price is £20, to pay for that basic fringe show (of £25k) we have to sell out 1,250 tickets to break even. Our capacity is generally around 40 per show (forget Orpheus, we will probably never do a capacity as small as 12 again!) - meaning we have to sell out more than 30 performances to break even. We typically do two performances a day, 5 days per we need to sell out three weeks of shows just to cover the basic costs involved in creating a show.

Many fringe productions are capped at a week or two's run - perhaps 12 performances? - so a lot of fringe theatre is based on being able to tour a show. Touring itself adds extra costs like transport hire, accommodation, per diems etc etc....the nature of the work we do resists touring at the moment, but we will consider it in the future.

Other types of income include merchandise sales (e.g. programmes, t-shirts, CDs), sponsorship, crowd-funding and grants or investment.

These are all incredibly competitive to acquire. We were fortunate to be successful in being awarded small (less than £15k) Arts Council grants for our two runs of Macbeth, but have yet to achieve Arts Council funding for our other work due to local competition.

Photo credit: Craig Fuller

Our priority as a company is to make high quality shows that are exciting and accessible. There is a pervasive impression of the theatre industry that you are doing it because you love it and therefore should do it for free...But we also all have bills to pay. So far, Justin and I (and now Ellie) have given so much of our time to this company for free - there are meetings, site visits, script work, readings, negotiations....all amounting to hours and hours of work unpaid. To an extent, these are the kind of sacrifices that all entrepreneurs make. We do so gladly, because we believe in the work we are making - and are consistently moved by the effect the shows have on you, our audience. But we don't know how much longer we will be able to sustain this way of working. If we were to pay ourselves for all the work we put in, our ticket prices would have to rise steeply. This is something we, as a company, will address in the new year.

Wow...that was depressing!

I know, right?! But, seriously, the economic reality of making a show can sometimes be a terrifying - or at least a daunting - prospect. I don't write this post to frighten you, but hopefully to open up a window into a part of theatre making that is not often spoken about.

And it's also to have the opportunity to show - in detail! - how important you, the audience, are. When we say that we appreciate your support, it's not lip-service: we literally could not make the work we do if you didn't part with a bit of cash to come to see it.

We hope we can make work for many years to come, and will apply for every grant we can, and maybe one day build up to becoming a part of the Arts Council's 'National Portfolio', which would provide annual funding for a limit of years.

Photo credit: Craig Fuller

But until then (and even after that!) we are so grateful to you for coming to see our shows. And if you enjoy them, please tell your friends... or drag them along with you!

By the way, if you want a glimpse into the even scarier world of commercial theatre making, this is an excellent article: Breakdown of West End Costs and here's one on subsidised theatre (just in case you really like numbers!): Real Cost of a Subsidised Theatre Ticket

Photo credit: Craig Fuller

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