Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Facts Are These

I've never paid attention to Theatre Facts, the 35-page audit of American theatre as a whole published each year by TCG. Before I started here at Theatre Bay Area, I worked at Z Space, which wasn't a TCG member theatre, and as such the national service organization barely touched my radar. And last year I was swallowed whole by Free Night and the run-up to the intrinsic impact study. So I'm a Theatre Facts virgin, and I've got to say, it's quite the piece of work.

For those of you who don't want to take a wander through all 35 pages, I'd at least recommend reading the first page, which includes a very helpful "Inside this Article" summary. But if you want to delve deeper, there are a lot of numbers and some potentially disturbing trends.

One thing to point out first--while Theatre Facts was just published, it actually only looks at the period between October 1, 2007 and September 30, 2008. This is because it takes almost a year for TCG to do what it does in terms of verifying numbers, pouring over audits and 990s, and crafting the article. As such, it cuts off just before things got interesting with the economy. As you can imagine, I can't wait to see what it shows happened in the year they're auditing now--but alas, we'll have to wait until next August, by which time (one can dream) this whole financial downturn might have flipped back to an upswing. (An aside: this long timeline has inspired the currently-running Pulse survey, which we encourage all arts organizations, TCG and non-TCG alike, to take. The Pulse takes a much more cursory, but also much quicker-to-process, look at the state of the field.)

First, some of the quick takeaways from the study, and then some futher thoughts on meaning:

  • Theatres presented the creative work of 83,000 artists to 32 million audience members.

  • More than half of theatres ended 2008 in the red.

  • Subscription income rose 2.6%, but 8% fewer subscription tickets were purchased and the number of subscribers fell by 10%.

  • Overall attendance was up 1.9% and the number of performances offered was up 5.2%.

  • Earned income dropped over 7% from 2007 to 2008, and supported fewer expenses per dollar than in any previous year.

  • Of all earned income, ticket sales represented 76% of money earned in 2008, but covered 3% fewer expenses.

The main thing that caught my eye is this ever-rising discrepancy between income and expense--even with earned income on the rise, which it surely won't be in the next edition of this report, growth in expenses (19.1%) outstripped growth in earned income (6%) by a large margin over five years. Essentially, even as we continue to raise our prices, the cost of producing theatre continues to be a losing game financially.

I don't know where this leaves us, especially since of those five years referenced above, five were in a positive economy. And I'll be honest, I'm not really a numbers guy, so my eyes kind of glazed over around page 15, so I've got a lot more to process. But this is a start--and it leads me to ask, how can we as a community generate new models that allow our income to balance, if not exceed, our expenses? Admittedly, my numbers don't cover the development income/expense lines, which are a bit more positive, but still don't really even out.

I find this especially interesting in light of the discussion occuring in the comments on Rebecca's post "Growing versus Thriving" and an earlier post by Sabrina about the NEA funding coming under attack. TCG's survey looks almost exclusively at budgets over a million dollars (in many cases, far over a million dollars) because that's who TCG primarily serves. What would happen, I wonder, if we were to look at this same level of detail for companies like Crowded Fire or Shotgun Players? Is theatre morphing into a situation in which smaller is better, more sustainable? Additionally, some of the comments in those earlier entries have been discussing the assertion by certain Republican Congress members that the government shouldn't have the onus for supporting work that hasn't succeeded in the public sphere (i.e., hasn't made money on ticket sales). With this new data--that almost no one succeeds to that level, at least in the aggregate--where does that leave us as a field, especially as government and foundational funding wane with the descending good fortunes of the people whose money they redistribute?

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