No, seriously, I’m seriously asking the question. Not rhetorically; I’m not trying to make a backdoor argument that theatre companies should do open runs via the Socratic method or anything. I really want to know. I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and I feel unable to produce a clear answer myself. So here’s my assorted thoughts on the subject of open vs. closed-ended runs in the regional theatre:
I think the surface answers are obvious. It takes a lot of money to do an open run of a show – you need to be able to commit the actors for a very long time, and to be able to rehearse and rotate in new actors when the original ones move on. More crucially, you need to be able to commit the performance space for quite a while, and to not have anything pre-scheduled to come in after it. You need a lot of confidence in the show’s commercial prospects, which dampens the risk-taking, experimentation and range which are (in theory) the key to the regional theatre movement. In all these ways, the open run is completely unfeasible for the regional theatre.
But I wonder – and this is the part where I’m not really certain of my conclusion and would genuinely love for someone to offer a corrective opinion – if it is really possible to be financially solvent AND artistically healthy with only closed-ended runs. (I’m also not sure if all my financial generalizations are accurate here, because I’m not privy to the nitty-gritty of any theatre company’s finances.)
Our regional theatres depend on grants and donations to survive. Few theatre companies if any, at least as far as I’m aware, are able to stay in the black entirely from ticket revenues or other direct revenues-for-product (random merchandise, space rental if the company owns their space). Even the companies that sell tickets like gangbusters would be unable to do so because, although they sell lots of tickets during their run, they don’t seem to run long enough to make all the money they need. And they need a lot of money – not just to recoup the costs of the show, but also to pay their overhead, salaries and so forth. For a theatre company to pay all their bills yearlong from direct revenue, they’d have to take in a lot more in ticket revenues than mounting any show costs, which would require a much longer run (with consistently high ticket sales). Because, while the cost of keeping a show open are high, the profit margin increases after the materials, construction overhire stipends, initial advertising and so forth are all paid off.
All this, it seems to me, means that regional theatre is completely tied to its donor base and grantwriting. This is not necessarily a bad thing, I suppose, but it is potentially damaging to a company’s artistic integrity. What donors and grant organizations like and give money for is different than what an audience gives money for; seeking donations and grants takes time and effort away from the art; disconnecting the income from the audience means that a small pool of donors can bloat a company and can make the producers feel that they have greater resources than they really do, causing them to do things like buy buildings which they don’t have the audience to fill.
I’ve heard anecdotally that Arena Stage and Olney have both “paid for entire seasons” off of the profits from popular runs of big-name musicals that were extended two, three times. This suggests to me that open runs of popular shows could work, financially speaking.
Let me go on a tangent for a moment. My picture of our theatre history is that, in the past, the donor-and-grant model was nearly unheard of. Theatre companies and theatre artists were supported either by direct and nearly unconditional government or patron support (the Greeks, Moliere) or by touring and performing long or endless runs of popular shows that paid off (commedia dell’arte, the Yiddish theatre?). This may be a romantic view of our glorious theatrical past, when companies didn’t have to stoop to constantly selling themselves to grant agencies and wealthy donors, but were either so popular they could make it on their own, or so valued that government and patrons naturally supported them.
Nevertheless, I do wonder if we’ve lost something, and if our regional theatre companies, both small and large, are missing out on whole universes of how to approach their artmaking, by ascribing to the donor-and-grant model from the moment they are born. It maybe the case that different approaches might work for different companies, and at different stages of their life. I wonder why small companies in particular, if/when they have their first hit show, don’t tour it more. I see no reason a growing company couldn’t keep drawing from the same well of one or two making-their-name early hits which they use to water their later artistic growth, as opposed to simply trading on the name-recognition and critical acclaim of those early successes to garner donations and grants. It seems like the long way round: “Hey, we did something worthwhile that people liked… so let’s stop doing it after three weeks, and ask for people who liked it to give us money in the hope we’ll make more” is way more complicated than “Let’s keep doing it and use the continued profits to make more.” Plus, more people get to see it the second way.
I wonder whether big companies, once they have established a certain amount of inertia in terms of a dedicated fan-and-subscriber base, might not be able to slowly ditch the donation-and-grant model that got them where they are, and turn more to an open-run model. It would mean cutting their budgets a great deal, I suppose, at least at first, and that be the main reason it would never happen, but think of the potential benefits it might have for the institution’s art. Imagine if a big company like Studio, or Arena, or Shakespeare, or Signature tried to phase out of donation-and-grant, or at least to shift their percentage of income more towards ticket revenue than it may sit at now. Might they not use a couple of their theater spaces in their multi-venue houses for ongoing, open runs of popular shows? Might they not be able to become more an established draw for tourists, who will not otherwise notice or hear of a show unless it is around for quite a while? (If I visit D.C., see something at Arena I like, go home to California and tell everyone about it, it might be a year before my neighbors take a vacation to the city and have a chance to see it. Isn’t that how Broadway works, when it does work?) Might they not be able to run these profit-making shows on a continuous basis and thus free their other shows for greater artistic exploration? Sort of a two-track model – these are the ongoing shows that make us lots of money, and these are the meaningful shows we create with that extra money?
Now, I don’t think that any of those large companies are stagnant in any way. I say all this, again, more because I don’t understand the answer to the post title’s question; there are a lot of problems with either small companies or large ones taking a more open-run based approach to funding, not the least of which is that tying a company’s survival to the audience’s whims can be plenty creativity-dampening in itself. I’m just curious as to why we seem to almost universally have adapted the model that we have. Has everyone recognized some inherent problems with the open-run self-funding approach that are so much worse than the inherent problems with the donor-and-grant approach that I can’t see because I’m not part of a company? Is it just too uncertain and risky to depend on a costly show making a profit, compared with the essentially “free money” that is donations and grants? Or is it just a pervasive cultural thing, either because of thoughtless conformity or because of the lack of government support for the arts in this country?
I may form a theatre company or be part of one some day, and these are the things I like to think about. I like to understand the received wisdom thoroughly before I, well, receive it, or even think about implementing it. Are there companies out there paying their own way through ticket revenues alone that I am not aware of? Are the big current companies making more of a percentage off of their ticket sales than I know? Is the donor-and-grant approach not as constricting as it seems, or is it not as directly responsible for some of the bloat and inertia that Mike Daisey talked about?
Responses desired! Opinions requested! Thanks for reading.