The local arts economy is a real topic of discussion in our community right now - everything from affordability for area artists, to lease/term agreements and land use to paying performers for their work.
Our organization is built on making financial choices that benefit our company members. This strikes people as odd sometimes, because the work we do is constructed to feel loose and dangerous, like the wheels might fall off any time. Friends and colleagues have asked us to share our process, and we are happy to do so - we think it's kind of time to lift the veil of secrecy around how local performance companies operate, and we're happy to be the first to show off our knickers.
Feel free to skip to the end for the TL:DR version.
La Fenice: How Our Sausage is Made
We generally perform one show each year because we feel like we can only afford to do one show each year, though we are planning to expand next year to include one fall show for children. We plan our next season during a series of informal conversations with Company Members throughout the year (usually while performing or touring in the spring), and solidifying this plan during our Company Meeting each summer where we talk about our year in review, make plans for the next year, and address our long range plan, making adjustments as need arises.
We also get that we don't have some of the expenses other organizations have: we don't pay a director, because we put that responsibility on our actors. We don't pay for a venue, though we have other expenses related to being a trunk show, primarily because building our sets and bits costs a bit more because we have to build them to come apart and pack into a tote bag.
Our Annual Income
This past year, we received $9,202 from the City of Austin's Cultural Contracts, and a total of $2,425 from the Texas Commission on the Arts for our tours out to West Texas, a number that was drastically reduced this year over previous years. We usually receive about $1,000 or so in corporate or private donations.
As a company, we choose to do a hat pass at the end of our shows instead of charging tickets for several reasons.
1) We feel that the closest venue that approximates the piazzas in which Commedia dell'Arte was originally performed is a local bar. It means that at any given performance, there are usually equal numbers of people there to see us, people who didn't know a show was going to be happening and are delighted, and people who didn't know a show was going to be happening and would like us to shut up. A hat pass is a low-pressure financial situation for our audiences, makes us put our money where our mouth is, and is easier for most bar owners to stomach. We are very fortunate for the ownership of the Butterfly Bar, where we've performed for the last several years. It means we have significantly less explaining to do as bar management changes.
2) We see ticket prices increasing steadily and we feel this puts a huge barrier between ourselves and our audiences. We would rather take $50 in the hat and subsidize with grants than turn away college students or artists who otherwise couldn't afford a night out.
We've worked hard to get our income to a point where we feel like we are treating the people we work with well. It's taken seven years of grant writing and careful budgeting to get to this point. Our decision to add a new show will entirely be based on whether we can continue to pay our artists at this level. If we can't, we assume that we can't afford to do another show.
We haven't finished putting the numbers on paper for this year, so our totals won't add up. Every single artist we works with makes a minimum of $200. We feel very strongly that the work people do to hone their talent deserves compensation. Our actors receive significantly more than this, but we ask a lot more of them than most performance gigs. Our actors write their own material, so the bulk of their pay is in the form of a "rehearsal stipend," primarily because we want to make clear that we know how freakin' hard they're working.
Our performers also split the cash in the hat immediately after the show, and we determined this run that we'd take the cash that came in via credit card and spend it on a big dumb Cast/Company Member party involving karaoke, nachos and West Texas beer, otherwise their stipends would be higher.
TL:DR (But still somehow long)
$9,202 = City of Austin Cultural Contracts
$2,425 = Texas Commission on the Arts
c. $1,000 = Private/Corporate Donations
c. $3,000 = Hat Pass (Ticket Sales)
$875 per Actor
$500 Rehearsal Stipend
$200 Tour/Performance Stipends
$175 Share of the Hat Pass
$475 per musician
$200 Rehearsal Stipend
$100 Performance Stipend (our musician didn't join us on tour this time)
$175 Share of the Hat Pass
Approximately $250 per costume, though many went over budget. Apparently spandex is expensive?
$200 per participating artist: Fight Choreographers (hooray, Joe Garlock!), Photographers (hooray, Kimberley Mead!), Wigs, etc.
$300 for poster printing and distribution
$200 for rehearsal space
$1,800 in props. God, there were so many.
$300 for insurance
$800 in rental vans to haul us out to the desert
$300 in food and booze
$350 in gas
Plus various incidental expenses: Website, boosting Facebook posts, bank fees (seriously, we need a new bank).
Obviously, there is no right way to manage a theatre company and its finances. Our company is pretty frank and open about money internally, with everyone looking at budgets and making some decisions as a group.
We are also fortunate to have members who have been writing grants for a long time. If your company wants some help in finding money left on the table, be sure to hit us up. We dig helping.