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Theatre: Make money the old-fashioned way: earn it

By Robert W. Bethune
ART TIMES November/ December 2011

The Arts Council of Great Britain is a major funding source for the National Theatre, and has been for many years. It also funds lots of other arts organizations, of course, but the National has always been a big project for them. Recently, as one hears all over the known world, the Arts Council has been cutting back. The National Theatre was not spared the pain; the Council cut them back along with everybody else.

That National came back with a wonderfully healthy response. They have a production going called War Horse, a stage adaptation of a novel published in 1982 by Michael Morpurgo. It’s been extremely successful—so much so, in fact, that it made up for the Arts Council cuts. As quoted in The Guardian (,) "We have not had to make any cutbacks because of the Arts Council cuts," the NT's director, Nicholas Hytner, said. "Running an organisation like this, there is a constant striving for efficiencies and increasing productivity … but we have used War Horse as our cushion."

That is enormously satisfying to me. In the four decades or so that I’ve been observing the theatrical scene, I’ve become very, very accustomed to the managements of theater companies relying first, foremost and always on charity money: contributions from governments, from grant-making organizations, from businesses, and from individuals. It’s so nice to see a company relying first and foremost on its own ability to create productions that the public wants to see.

Live theater is a bizarre industry, along with the other live performing arts. There are two classes of customers: those that pay directly to obtain the experience of the work, and those that pay to obtain the continued existence of the organization that produces the work, without necessarily obtaining the experience of the work in any direct sense. The value obtained by the second class of customers is extraordinarily intangible, and the terms of trade are bizarre: in what other industry does a major class of customer make the sole determination of how much they will pay? Even government contractors set a price on their products; not so the producing organizations. Even if they could, how would they fix the price tag on their continued existence? From a business point of view, it is a very strange and a very shaky relationship.

A case in point: there was a theater called Alaska Repertory. Their major customer, of the second type mentioned above, was a company called Exxon that owned a ship called the Exxon Valdez. When the ship dumped oil all over the coastline of Alaska, Exxon’s interest in paying for the continued existence of a theater company went down with the ship, and Alaska Repertory was not able to find a market in which to sell its continued existence. End of story. In most industries, a company’s products are the basis of its ability to survive. For many theater companies, that is not the case.

Not every theater company can be so skillful and so fortunate as to create a success for themselves parallel to that of War Horse. However, every theater company can resolve to function in such a way that direct sales of its productions are its major means of survival, rather than relying first and foremost on the Exxons or Arts Councils of its world. Such a company will not have it easy, and will face many trying times, but I firmly believe such a company will be healthier and produce better work.

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