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Theater is an expensive art. There is an old theater adage that in theater, you might "get lucky and make a killing, but you may not be able to make a living".
A first step in determining how to fund your theater troupe is to determine what your costs are likely to be.
Some likely costs:
- costumes and make up- Depending on the show, these may be built, bought (for cheap at Salvation Army or Goodwill- or you may shop at real retail if you have the budget), or borrowed/rented.
- fees, honoraria, stipends- You may consider paying the director, tech director, or various specialists for workshops in dance, design, music, or stage combat.
- food- I've been working in youth theater for many years. EVERYTHING goes much more smoothly with adequate hydration and snacks every couple of hours. This works for adult groups too. These needs may be addressed by donated items or requesting folks to bring their own; however, I am listing food because I believe it to be an essential ingredient to successful theater!
- insurance- At the very least, you should consider having liability insurance.
- office supplies- Paper and pencils and pens, oh my! The thousand and one things needed to keep your organization organized must to come from somewhere.
- postage- More and more communications are digital; however, there are still uses for the post office in mailing checks for reimbursement, sending packages, mailing promotional materials.
- printing- Printing will be needed for programs, scripts, enrollment forms, posters, promotional materials.
- props- "Properties" such as canes, cards, guns and roses may be acquired in much the same ways as costumes.
- rental- You will need to plan for rental of rehearsal space, of performance space, of tech equipment such as lighting or microphones, of instruments- you name it. However, the big one is space: unless you are fortunate enough to have a relationship with a site suitable for rehearsal and/or performance, this is a big expense.
- repairs- You will need to plan for the repair of the items you have in inventory, or (gulp) the ones you borrow that get damaged.
- royalties- Theater artists should support other theater artists! If you are using a script written by a modern playwright, or a script translated recently, you will need to pay royalty fees to the holder of the copyright/publisher of the script. One of the many benefits of Shakespeare- and Shaw and Wilde as well- is that the scripts are in the public domain, and thus royalty free.
- scripts- The physical scripts themselves may need to be purchased. This is a separate cost from the royalty costs.
- sets- These can be inexpensive using backdrop curtains or existing sets on your site and borrowed furniture- or elaborate and expensive - or anywhere in between.
- technology- Depending on your play and your concept, this may include laptops, light projectors, dimmer boards for lights, mixing boards for sound. Again these may be borrowed or rented. A website is fast becoming a necessity for virtually* any organization.
- video- Often friends or family of the cast will volunteer; however, having a quality video is often well worth the price of having a professional do your recording.
In my theater troupes, we have found ways to minimize every one of those costs.
- Costumes have been supplied by parents for individual actors, or costumes have been supplied by the actors themselves. Costumes have been borrowed from other theater troupes at low/no cost. While the plus side is that the costume budget is low, the negative side is that the design unity will inevitably suffer.
- For years I was not paid for any of my work, nor was anyone else. While this use of a "labor of love" keeps costs down, it can also lead to burn out of your best- and also to the difficulty of "firing" those whose work is not the best in quality or in timeliness.
- Food costs can be kept down by asking each family to take turns donating snacks or to have members bring their own.
- I don't advocate skimping on insurance. This is for everyone's protection.
- Office supplies are often donated by members/participants.
- Postage costs have decreased as more and more communication has become electronic.
- Printing costs can be brought down by printing fewer items. Sometimes, materials can be distributed as PDF files and each individual user can print their own.
- Props are borrowed whenever possible. It was a game for my husband to try to spot how many items from our home were onstage. On one occasion, as the set opened to the interior of Scrooge's home, my husband turned to me and said, "Wow! We have a wall clock at home just like that one!" Without missing a beat, I said, "No we don't- not right now, anyway!"
- Rental costs are hard to keep down. Our troupes have borrowed members' basements for rehearsal, rehearsed outdoors in public parks, and negotiated percentage-of-profit or percentage-of-fees payments to some of the theater spaces we have used.
- Repairs can only be minimized by being very careful with the materials that you use.
- Our troupes have favored the plays of Shakespeare because they are brilliant- and also because they are royalty free, since the works are now public domain. When using the work of a living translator for Sophocles' Antigone, we were able to find a translation online that the translator made available royalty-free- so long as you acknowledged the work and let the translator know where your performance was.
- Scripts have been distributed as PDF attachments in email, for individual printing.
- Set costs can be minimized by creative use of design- deliberately choosing minimalist or easily borrowed/adapted sets.
- Technology costs have been minimized by having crew members use their own laptops, and/or borrowing from the theater spaces we are using. Volunteers for website design and maintenance can be lovely, but you are not retaining ownership and control of your site.
- Videos have often been made by friends and family, with distribution costs borne by individual purchasers (Hey! Give me a blank tape and I'll make you a copy!). However, in more recent years, MYT was fortunate to connect with Double Vision, a team of videographers who taped the shows and sold the DVDs to the cast members, at no/low cost to MYT. The quality of these videos has been far superior to the volunteers from previous seasons.
So- those are some of the tips for reducing costs. However, reducing costs doesn't make them disappear! The problem of funding remains.
Funding sources can include:
- admission- This is the easiest source of funds. Most people are used to paying admission fees to performances. Depending on where you are performing, or the requirements of any grants you may have received, you may need to call these funds "suggested donations".
- advertisements- Selling ads in your program is another way to garner funds for your production.
- donations- One of the best reasons for actually incorporating and seeking status as a 501(c)3 organization is that you can offer tax benefits to those who give you donations. As a 501(c)3, you can also give tax credit for donations of tangible goods, such as furniture or costumes. We have also asked for donations for our refreshments table at show time- each family contributing items, which the troupe then sells to the audience members at intermission, often for a "suggested donation" price.
- fees- The instituting of cast or show fees for participants was a difficult choice for me to make. However, when one considers the fees paid by student dancers or musicians for their performances and/or concerts, it does make sense. The fees collected not only go towards the costs of costumes and props for the production at hand, but also go towards the cost of insurance and other indirect costs.
- grants- Grants can be challenging to write, and the pool of grant money for the arts is drying up these days. Nevertheless, funds are available for the arts and the long hours of research and writing can pay off big time for specific projects or even for your organization.
- sales- Sales of refreshments, tee shirts, videos and other merchandise can offset the costs of- and sometimes even net a small profit from- the merchandising of memories.
- sponsors- Finding an angel who supports your mission, or a corporate sponsor who wants to be associated with your organization can bring in big bucks. A good relationship with a sponsor can bring in money for years, and provide good will and exposure to the company that supports you.
Over the twenty years and more that I have been involved in youth theater, I've enjoyed the benefits- and the headaches- of grants and of sponsors only a few times. Using all the other funding sources, our troupes have operated in the black for every realized production in our seasons.
* pun originally unintended, now definitely intended!