The Economics of Small Theater (Can It Be Saved?)

The God Game at Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute
I just finished a production. We played for appreciative audiences, and I think we accomplished much of what we set out to. What we didn’t do was make money, or break even, or even come close to breaking even. Some might call it an expensive hobby. I can’t disagree, but I’d like to figure out how to change it.

One Show’s Budget

People are usually surprised at how much time and money it takes to put on a show. I can’t blame them – I’ve done it many times and I’m always surprised, too. Whatever you think it will cost, double it. Whatever time you think it will take, triple it.

First, there are almost always royalties. The authors and their representatives get an advance and some kind of royalty based on ticket sales. The God Game, a play, cost $225 for three performances, payable in advance against 10% of overall sales. I didn’t think that was terrible – by comparison, the musical I Love You Because was $150 for each performance (total – $600), plus $1199 for copies of the orchestrations, whether or not we’d use them (we didn’t).

It costs money to rent performance space, and in some cases rehearsal space. For The God Game, I agreed to pay $180 for one night at Stone Presbyterian Church, $200 for one night at Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute (normal price was $250 plus the security guard’s wage, but they gave me a deal because I worked at MWPAI through the 90’s), and nothing for the matinee at Our Lady of Lourdes, because I’m a parishioner (I will certainly put extra in the collection plate over the next few months.) We were also able to use OLOL for some of our rehearsals, again at no charge (they also came through for me when I directed The Mikado.) The rest of our rehearsals were at the homes of cast members, which would have been impossible with a cast much larger than 3 people.

Posters, programs and other advertising also tend to cost, even if you do the work in-house and have an inexpensive printer. And who knows how well each type of advertisement works – what’s the right mix? (More on that later.) We ended up printing a program insert for a Players of Utica show ($100 to Players plus a reciprocal ad in our program, $29.26 to Staples), and 40 posters, which cost $63.94. The program cost $48.07 to print. These aren’t big figures, but they add up. We also advertised via Facebook, my blog web site, and the Community Events calendar at the Utica Observer-Dispatch (free).

Props and costume elements also added to the budget as we went on. When I read the script, I didn’t expect that a bouquet of silk flowers would cost $34.78. A fake dead bird was only $4.99, but the oil paint marker to change its color was $5.99. And so on.

When initially deciding to present The God Game, I figured we’d need to sell around 70 tickets at $10 each to break even – 23 per show. That seemed possible to me, so we went ahead. Another rule I should probably add is that audiences are usually smaller than you expect. The accounting is not yet finished (I haven’t gotten my bill from Munson-Williams yet), but right now the expenses are at $1,159.63. Ticket revenue was $490, for a net of -$669.63. I am not terribly upset over this – I learned a lot and as I said, we did good work. (For comparison, and further evidence that I might be crazy or incompetent, I Love You Because lost $1,313.41.)

Where Did the Audience Go?

A few weeks ago, the Utica Observer-Dispatch asked for public feedback on how our Stanley Performing Arts Center might be saved. The Stanley is a glorious old “Mexican Baroque”-style movie palace, constructed during the 1920’s with almost 3,000 seats and a grand staircase modeled on one from the Titanic. The public areas were restored in the late 1980’s, and the backstage areas were completely reconstructed in the early 2000’s.

I’ve been working in show business a long time, and I remember when local shows played at the Stanley every week – dance recitals, barbershop quartet concerts, church hymn-sings. After the backstage facilities were renovated, rental prices at the Stanley jumped out of reach for most local groups. Remember that my God Game venues were a couple of hundred dollars per night. The Stanley costs more than ten times that, plus union stagehands, lighting, sound, suggested donations to the volunteer ushers, etc. I helped on a local show at the Stanley this past Spring, which rented the theater for two days – one setup, one performance. It cost almost $6,000, and I would certainly become terribly upset if I had to plug that into my budget above (certainly either a super-expensive hobby or an incredibly generous gift to the community.)

I know someone who recruits professionals from around the country for his Utica-area (non-theater) company. He once told me it was a selling point that Utica had its own professional symphony orchestra (it doesn’t anymore.) Apparently, surveys have indicated that something like 60% of professionals prefer a city that has its own orchestra (a lower figure than those who want a sports team, but still.) In its declining years, the Utica Symphony attracted an audience of less than 500 for each performance. Which means the 60% who said they wanted a symphony didn’t really want to attend the concerts – if they did, The Stanley should have been packed for every show.

Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute has been bringing the greatest performing artists in the world to Utica for many years. Their secret is that they don’t rely on ticket sales – the generosity of a few families, over a hundred years ago, has provided an endowment that continues to subsidize the arts in our city. When Itzhak Perlman, Isaac Stern, Emanuel Ax and Jaime Laredo played a concert in Utica (late 1990’s), you can bet the $35 ticket price didn’t cover their fee, even with a sellout crowd. Frederica von Stade cost almost $50,000 and drew an audience of just 800.

People have an expectation for ticket prices. I’ve been asked why the Mohawk Valley Ballet’s Nutcracker ticket prices are so high. It can easily run over $100 for a family to attend The Nutcracker at The Stanley. But if the ticket price reflected what the show actually costs to produce, that figure would be more than twice what it is. I charged $10 for The God Game, which was in line with other plays happening in the area that weekend. The actual break-even price would have been $23.67. I charged $17 for I Love You Because; break-even would have been $31.64.

But who will pay those prices? Sales would be lower, which means we’d have to charge even more. And so theater companies engage in various types of fundraising. And then patrons gripe, “I have to pay for my ticket AND support the fundraisers…” They have a point. But many of those are willing to spend $125 on a Broadway show. It’s all part of the same system – the Broadway performers usually start somewhere. Performing arts are almost always subsidized in some fashion – grants, crowd funding, bake sales, raffles, and sweat equity.

And maybe it’s not about prices. I worked a show at the Turning Stone Casino a few weeks ago, which I’d resisted doing for years because I didn’t want to help them lure customers away from Utica’s venues. But the casino is doing so many things right – abundant free parking, numerous dining options, lodging, shopping, and of course gambling, before the quality of the theater, its shows, and their prices are even considered. Maybe we need to do more than just put on a great show at a reasonable price to draw a crowd in 2014.

Sweat Equity

In the early 1990’s, Dan Fusillo caused a ruckus at Player of Utica when he paid me to provide lighting for one of his shows (it simply wasn’t done.) I charged $250, brought a dozen lighting instruments from my own supply, and worked about 30 hours. (Which is why I no longer have a lighting business.) Players depends on sweat equity – everyone involved donates their time, as well as costumes, props, and countless other donations. Most people involved in community theater are working a full time job and many have families. And THEN they go to rehearsals and basically give up their free time for 6-8 weeks. That isn’t reflected in any ticket price or balance sheet. Take it away, and 95% of theater across the country would disappear.

I was shocked to learn that a music director I know pays the pit bands out of his/her own pocket. (Maybe all music directors do this?) On one show, the individual paid each musician $300, and the overall total was more than the budget for everything else put together. Again, not reflected in any ticket price and no reason to do it except to provide a better show.

There is a group in the Utica/Rome area called Outcast International. Their shows are very good. They call themselves a professionally run theater company, and I agreed to do a show for them when I saw the audition notice promised that “actors will be paid a small stipend.” I didn’t get a stipend on that show, and I wasn’t reimbursed for what I spent on costume pieces or for my assistance with their lighting – so in essence, they operate like a community theater. When they did an ambitious production of The Who’s Tommy last year, they hired me as technical director for a handshake (it was never finalized, but I asked for whatever the highest-paid crew member would get.) I attended meetings and worked on the lighting plot and then I was asked to take an acting part in the show – apparently once I became an actor, I was no longer entitled to compensation, even for work already contributed. Now, I don’t think they made money on those shows, but I still felt I’d been some kind of sucker.

Another local group is called Walk the Boards Productions. The group’s founder said he wanted to ensure everyone shared in the proceeds of shows, and he made good on that. Actors and technicians made about .90/hour, but that’s something. I’ve done the same with shows I’ve produced this year – the cast and crew have received a “gas stipend,” which literally might pay for the fuel they used getting to rehearsals.

I like the idea of paying (and receiving) a small stipend. I think it’s a sign of goodwill, or an investment toward the future. I should note that the evidence doesn’t show this to be particularly effective – those who received stipends on previous shows weren’t any more likely to support the company’s subsequent endeavors. (A few did, thank you.) What I’m thinking is, maybe Players and Outcast have the right idea.

Mysteries of Advertising

One of my I Love You Because cast members was unhappy that I hadn’t pushed it in the newspaper, instead relying on Facebook and word-of-mouth. That person was right, but I didn’t know it for certain until now. My intuition was that newspaper circulation is way down, and those who get the paper probably wouldn’t see a notice about our show. For The God Game, I had ticket sellers ask every person why they’d come. The non-scientific results are interesting:

  • Word of Mouth – 28 (57%)
  • Utica Observer-Dispatch (Print or Online) – 12 (24%)
  • Poster – 4 (8%)
  • Online (Facebook, Moss Island Blog, Online Ticketing) – 3 (6%)
  • Players of Utica Ad – 1 (2%)
  • Munson-Williams-Proctor Member – 1 (2%)

I expected the Facebook/Blog impact to be largest, which turned out to be way off. I know the advertisement on my blog, which included online ticketing links, had 282 views in October. Those didn’t cost anything except time and effort (and maybe irritated blog visitors?) And Facebook might be past its peak for community-level advertising. A few years ago, I was able to keep track of many local organizations on Facebook. Then the company changed its algorithm so users wouldn’t see as much of that kind of news, unless organizations paid to increase their exposure. For I Love You Because, I paid $25 and gained 1,400 extra “inserts” into my friends’ newsfeeds; I don’t know if it helped.

I expected more than we got from the God Game poster – they were hung around town in areas that receive a lot of foot traffic. (But maybe posters next to other posters where there are usually posters simply fade into the background?) Put into monetary terms, and not counting the labor to deliver and hang them, the posters cost $15.98 for each person they brought in.

Our other paid advertisement, the Players of Utica ad, cost much more – $129.26 for the one ticket sold, plus the sacrifice of 25% of my program space. I decided to place the Players ad because it seemed to be perfectly targeted – up to 600 proven local theater-goers. If we attracted even 15 of them, it would be worthwhile, and if we didn’t we’d at least be supporting another local group.

I think mutual support makes sense – the healthier the local theater scene, the better for everyone. Representatives from Outcast International and Walk the Boards were among our audiences, but not a single Players Board member came. (It’s been suggested that I’ve insulted Players too many times to be surprised at this, but I’ve purchased a ticket for every show I’ve criticized. Paul Osterman says I have Chronic Bitchface Syndrome, so it might not even be my fault.)

Word of mouth is still the most effective draw in small theater. One group I’ve worked with says that each person in the cast is worth 8 tickets sold. The God Game seems right on track with that – 28 people came because of word of mouth, likely because they knew someone in the cast of 3. (I drew 7 who knew me, and my more-popular castmates surely made up the difference.)

The biggest surprise was how many people responded to the Utica OD listings. I have to assume that although circulation is not what it used to be, those who still get the paper pay very close attention to it. (Several people who didn’t attend the show told me I was quoted in front page story that same weekend; the story had nothing to do with the play, unfortunately.)

What these numbers don’t reflect is any kind of scale factor. It seems likely that we maxed out our word-of-mouth potential for a single weekend, so that number probably wouldn’t keep increasing. Likewise, the Players of Utica ad would theoretically self-limit at 600 or so. The real potential for larger audiences would therefore seem to be in posters, paid online ads, and the newspaper. (Note also that I didn’t use radio or television ads.) Given the results we saw, I’d focus much more on newspaper advertising next time.


It might seem like I’ve been complaining that nobody came to my show, or that I’m unhappy with how it turned out. Years ago, when Spring Farm CARES brought its brilliant production of St. Hugo of Central Park to NYC, we performed for mere handfuls of people. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s beloved Labyrinth Theater rarely makes money, despite its reputation. Live theater is struggling – it’s increasingly expensive to produce, with more competition for patrons than ever before.

I’m convinced it’s worth doing. I’d love it if you’d help me to figure out how.