Thursday, August 25, 2011
Why Theatres Fail
The Roses of Success
As I reach the end of my master’s program in entertainment business, I thought I’d take a look at reasons why many theatres fail. It happens all the time. Most of us tend to only hear about the major failures. Does this mean live theatre, as we know it, is dying in America? Not hardly.
According to the 2008 National Endowment for the Arts survey, nonprofit theatres with an annual budget of $75,000 or more have doubled in the past 15 years. That’s the good news. The bad news is that audiences for non-musical plays have steadily decreased from 13.5 to 9.4 percent of the general population.
The NEA survey goes on to state that theatres are doing a good job of balancing earned income against contributed income. A good job? The report states that earned income fell 13 percent since 1990. I’m unsure how they see this as a good thing. In fact, I believe the dependence of theatres on contributions is one primary reason some theatres fail.
I am all for public support of the arts... but at what cost? I understand funding new companies, new work, experimental programs and arts education outreach programs. Where or when does it stop? I think it’s time for theatres in America to start being held accountable for their financial responsibility and stop using ART as an excuse for not running their operations as a business.
I know I could take a lot of flack for that statement but it’s true. I’m really sick of hear how the arts are not profitable and can’t sustain themselves. Does this really make any sense? What about the over one billion dollars in Broadway grosses earned by commercial theatres?
Art is everywhere around us. If you breathe, hear, touch or see...then you experience art every minute of the day. Yes, popular art forms change and some disciplines have their ups and downs but all art forms are crucial to our society.
I believe if those in the theatre community would stop lamenting the pending death of live theatre and focus their energies on promoting and celebrating it; the public negative connotations might just disappear.
Here are some of the reasons I think I think theatres fail:
Poor Financial Management
According to the NEA, the majority of theatres in the United States rely on government and private funding for half of the operating costs. I feel this is irresponsible and does not promote the sustainability of the company. Outside funding cannot be depended on, especially in a weak economy. I would term this as “living beyond their means”. Unless it is corrected, the mounting debit will far outweigh the income and lead to the company’s demise.
Plain and simple: you have to know your audience. Many theatre companies successfully challenge their patrons with one or two productions a season that it outside their normal offerings. I think this is terrific. I think it should be the mission of every theatre to educate and expand their audience’s exposure to unfamiliar work. Unless your entire mission is based on producing new and/or experimental work, to suddenly present a season that moves far away from your established genre can assure your subscribers won’t be coming back.
Marketing is rapidly changing with new technology and its affects on our daily lives. Theatre companies have to constantly re-evaluate the effectiveness of their marketing and stay with the current trends. Ultimately, I think the area where most theatre fail is creating a personal relationship with their community. Word-of-mouth continues to be the number one reasonpatrons chose to attend specific shows. More theatres need to focus on this.
The Wrong Staff and Board
Staff and board structures are frequently known to be love-hate relationships. There has to be a respect and balance between the two. Theatres can fail when a board suddenly (or finally) decides to clear house and replace the artistic leadership. Obviously, there are times this needs to happen. It is a huge mistake for any theatre company to base its entire future on one individual and their reputation. Board and staff members should be constantly communicating how to better the company. Allowing the focus to shift from the company to an individual is one clear way to destroy a theatre’s future life.
The Elite Effect
Arts organizations, as a whole, have a reputation of being elitist. This persona hinders growth and creates a wall between them and the patrons they purport to serve. Granted, much of this is not intentional, but changing a company’s image once it has been established can be nearly impossible. Companies and the art they produce needs to be completely accessible to the entire community. Branding, image and reputation play a huge role in the success or failure of theatre companies around the world.
CultureBot’s Jeremy M. Barker has written a great response to an article about failed theatres in Seattle. He provides an interesting commentary, as does the original article on which it is based. I do have to disagree with his assessment that theatres should not be more “business-like”. How many business do you know of (yes, theatre is a business) that rely on 50% private and government support?
I believe if the art is good, it can be created and exhibited in a business-like fashion without compromising the art. It may not always be profitable, but that isn’t the point. The point is that sustainability and financial responsibility need to be taken into consideration when deciding how or when art is produced and displayed.
Theatre companies can take risks with works that are outside their normal genre or that may be considered too risqué or experimental; they just need to be balanced with the creation and presentation of work they are familiar with, and their audiences expect of them.
On a somewhat related topic, I found this interesting article on the privatization of community organizations and services you should read. Could this be our future?
Posted by Jeff Linamen at 8:58 PM