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?