There’s nothing like producing a show to teach a lesson on the economics of theatre. As I mentioned before, I was interested enough in getting some work on stage to go the DIY route. I’m happy to announce that after all expenses were paid, we cleared $21.40. Now, in many ways, this is worth celebrating, because the three writers who participated (myself and two others) were prepared to cover costs out of pocket. The writers would get paid only if there was anything left after expenses.
We booked a tiny 32-seat theatre who offered us a great deal. They took 25% of ticket sales, so if no one showed up, it wouldn’t cost a thing, and we ended up averaging 17 people/night, or about half-full, which isn’t bad considering there was no “name brand” involved, just three local playwrights with one-act plays that no one had heard of before. We set the ticket price at $12, thinking that people are willing to risk that much on a film, and some of the smaller theaters price more “famous” shows at $20, so we had to be below that.
The biggest expense was paying the actors, but to keep costs down, we had only a single tech person, no stage manager, and we each directed our own pieces. The rental cost was next, followed by printing: we had posters, postcards, and programs for advertising and audience information. We even found an advertiser willing to pay for space in the program. That extra income is what enabled us to pay the three writers — we took the same compensation as the actors — and left me (the producer) with $21.40 remaining.
So, as I said, in some ways, this was a success story. But looked at another way, it’s pretty scary. For one thing, the actors agreed in advance to take a flat $50 honorarium. If that were a salary, the time they put in would come out to little less than $2/hour, which is basically slave wages. The tech person did a little better, because she didn’t need to put in rehearsal time.
We had a no-comps policy due to the size of the theater, and if 10 of our audience members had gotten in free, we would not have made our budget. If we’d booked a bigger house, we would have had to pay a guaranteed rate for the space plus an additional amount for tech and dress rehearsals. We didn’t have to pay for separate directors, for costumes (the actors provided their own), for set and light design. I did the graphic design, layout, and editing work myself, and we all pounded the pavement to distribute the advertising materials for free. Clearly, if this were a business endeavor, and people were paid a living wage, the costs would have been prohibitive.
In one sense, of course, it’s all worth it. We were doing something we enjoyed, something we were excited about. Getting paid (or at least not having to put out too much money) was sort of beside the point. And yet, we are giving up time that could be spent doing other things. And if you scale this out to do what professional theaters do, they are in a similar situation, balancing on a knife’s edge of expense vs. income.
If you are a writer, the obvious choice is to write for film or TV. There you lose the confines of time and space that bind the stage. You’re work will be beamed (at least theoretically) to a global audience, and can be repeated for years at essentially no cost. But for some of us, that just doesn’t have the appeal of being in the same room with the actors and other audience members, and joining in to co-create in our imaginations, the world of the play being performed.