Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Will Your Theatre Survive the Economy?

Great article in yesterday's Cleveland Plain Dealer by Theatre Critic Tony Brown - "Arts to Weather Economic Storm". Tony talks about how some of Cleveland's major arts and cultural institutions have prepared or are preparing for what seems to be an inevitable financial crunch due to the national economic crisis. In a nutshell the prevailing feeling among arts administrators seems to be "so what else is new?". And it's true. All of us involved in the arts are used to living hand to mouth and putting on our best shows even though there may only be 10 people in the audience. As I've watched the national news about dwindling investments, stock market crashes, AIG and everything else, I've said to myself, "This is the only time I think I've felt OK being poor!". I know...I'm very blessed, but seriously, I don't have hundreds of thousands in some investment somewhere being decimated right now. Nothing from nothing leaves nothing. I think we kind of are in the same situation in the arts community. None of us were in this business to get rich anyhow. That being said, we still need to make sure whatever bills we do have get paid so that we can at least continue to do what we do best - make art and present it to art lovers.

So how is your theatre weathering the storm? Lowering unnecessary overhead and other costs is essential right now. Tony states in his article, "...some cultural groups started acting with more financial acumen. They reorganized, grew leaner, paid off debts and put a halt to the long-standing practice of borrowing from the next season's subscription receipts to pay off the current season's shortfalls." Oy...how many of us know that drill?

He also goes on to talk about things like looking at ticket prices and how some companies' practice of lowering prices has paid off by building audiences. How much is your company charging? Will the market bear it? We all know that if you produce a big, splashy feel-good musical with a large cast that all of the cast's family member will buy tickets, filling up the house. In a way, this is giving the community theatre audience (our customer) what they want, which is good business. But it also creates a false sense of security too. Theatre is one of the rare businesses (yes, businesses) in which giving the customer "what they want" isn't always the primary goal - certainly not the only one. We are also charged to enlighten, challenge, provoke and educate as well as entertain. The second we try to produce a smaller cast show or a lesser known or edgier, more challenging piece we notice Aunt Edna isn't in the front row...in fact, nobody is!! So we feel trapped into producing only big, splashy musicals that are not only expensive but also feature the same family member casts (are we becoming the Mormon Tabernacle theatre?) and are being done by every other community theatre in town for the exact same reasons. And that creates a bad economic equation - too much supply and not enough demand. When that happens in the retail world - overstock sales, for instance - prices drop. Are ours? Many theaters do react to market conditions as is indicated by the many BOGO offers and other short-term promotions I see pop up every weekend. I'm not suggesting ticket prices automatically should drop, but we do need to pay attention to what the market will bear and what our competitors are doing - and yes... if someone is buying a ticket to a show at the theatre down the street and not yours, especially if they're producing the same show - they're competitors. Tony brings up some good points and now is the time for all of us to look at how we are doing business and how we can do it smarter, cheaper and more efficiently.

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