Truths and Dares

02.19.12 | 2 Comments

CATEGORIES #stealthisidea, advocacy, arts administration, audiences, community, conversation starter, corporate sponsors, funding and support, ideas, locavore, major regional theatre, mission, new play development, non-profit theatre, rabble rousing, social profit, the future, theatrical ecosystem

A Series of Questions and Thoughts about Some Real Issues We and Theater Journalists Could Ponder as to Why Theaters Aren’t More Daring

Most of the regional theaters I’ve worked at or freelanced for create their budgets by projecting tickets sales. This creates a need for artistic programming that will sell – or that the artistic director and the board thinks will sell. And sell to large groups all at once – subscribers. This seems to make for a situation where we are right away not being realistic or honest that fewer people subscribe. So then the artistic director has to be a little timid at best, or at worst expect the lowest common denominator in audience taste. However, I’ve also noticed that almost every season some show that no one thought would sell does exactly that, and a show thought to be a sure bet plays to crickets.

What if we could change the model? Budget a coming season with box office numbers from the previous year? Would this give us the ability to be both practical and daring? We could create a budget on the money we actually have which would avoid panic later if a given show doesn’t sell as we’d hoped. And we could respond better in selecting plays by what is actually selling and anticipate the changes and changing of our audiences’ taste. Would this reality check about how much money is actually in the bank force us to be more honest in good ways and hard ways with our audiences in a world where we can no longer rely on subscribers? We have to want the single-ticket buyers and stop mourning the loss of subscribers.

Yes, we would have to hope for boards and foundations and donors to cover the gap at first. That’s scary. And, yes, a poor selling season would impact the following season. But I wonder if we freed ourselves from projections if we could be braver. And if an artistic director isn’t producing shows the audience wants to see, then that is a different problem – perhaps a marketing problem, but more likely a problem in the artistic director’s lack of understanding of his/her (ok, usually his) community of playgoers, and more importantly: potential playgoers.

It’s been 20 years that I have been in the not-for-profit theater world, but I admit I am not a managing director. I took all of one theater business class in grad school, although I did do a lot of grant and marketing writing and box office managing as I was building my career as a dramaturg and a producer. So, those of you who do create and manage budgets, please bring on better ideas to break the hold we have to a model of selling that was so great once, but now holds us back from being bolder. How can we pull ourselves away from a 20th century model of budgeting and programming and live fully and create theater fully in the 21st?

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Julie Felise Dubiner

Julie is the Associate Director of American Revolutions: the United States History Cycle at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.In six seasons as resident dramaturg at Actors Theatre of Louisville, collaborated on more than 40 productions and projects in the regular season and the Humana Festival of New American Plays; co-created Rock & Roll: The Reunion Tour. In Philadelphia, project manager of the musical The Rosenbach Company and dramaturg at the Prince Music Theater. In Chicago, freelance work for Defiant Theatre, blue star performance company, Steppenwolf Theatre Company and others. Guest dramaturg at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the O'Neill Playwrights Conference, the New Harmony Project and elsewhere. Board member, Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas.

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  • Anonymous

    Julie, any theater that doesn’t review its past sales is a theater poorly run.  In all the theaters I’ve worked at, we always look over sales for a period of several years to make informed predictions. 
    Not only do you figure out your average attendance for the year, you have to pay attention to what kinds of shows do well in what kinds of time slots.  There are certain times of the year when people are looking for specific kinds of shows.  Examining your past sales against the type of programming always reveals clear trends. 
    For example, we found that family-friendly musicals always sell well for the Holiday season November through December.  Adult themed plays don’t do as well; our patrons were looking for something to do with the kids on winter break.
    We found that few people ventured out in January, recovering from the holiday spending spree. That was a good spot for small, risky plays.  Since nothing is going draw well, you want to keep costs down, and since you have nothing to lose, you can take a chance. 
    By late March, they’d paid for the holiday gifts and were ready to see something big.  April into May, kids are hard at schoolwork, so do something Mom and Dad will want to pay a babysitter to let them out to see.
    There are no guarantees; our FLOYD COLLINS was a critical hit, and swept our local theatre awards in every category.  But when you subtracted the subscribers, exactly five people paid to see it. It’s a legendary production that no one saw.
    But in general, you should know how many seats you are likely to sell based on past experience, and make sure your costs are covered by some fraction of that figure.  If the numbers don’t work, find a sponsor to cover the difference. Or find another show with different needs.

  • Julie – I love that you wrote this and I think it needs to be said. 

    Do know, however, that as cljahn suggests, it’s definitely more complicated than just projecting future numbers. And the marketing and admin folks don’t always have a say in the major decisions of play selection or final sales goals.

    Historical sales figures are looked at for comparisons based on type of play, time of year, venue, number of performances, number of student matinee performances vs. adult performances, average ticket price then vs. current average ticket price, whether single ticket prices will be raised that year, whether season ticket prices will be raised that year, what shows are in which season ticket package and more.

    Keep in mind, that much of this work is done concurrently with or even after the leadership of the theatre selects the plays. More often than not, in my experience at least, the marketing and business staff are told, here are the plays, set the revenue budget for season tickets and single tickets based on that.

    And, most importantly, even after an incredible amount of work to accurately forecast (as much as possible) what realistic revenue goals are for each show and for season tickets, the board then reviews that against projected expenses and often comes back and asks marketing and admin to push season ticket or single ticket goals further, regardless of whether those increased goals are attainable or not.
    But, the reason those same marketing and admin staff continue to toil over budget projections year after year is that they LOVE the work that the theatre does. Truly.