Here is a sad reality: Somewhere in this country, a high school theatre program will be performing its last show ever.
It happens every year. With budget constrictions and rising costs, schools all over the country will be forced to value how much a theatre program is worth to their students. Sadly, more often than not, these programs aren't valued enough and are eliminated.
However, during my time working in higher education, I've had the chance to speak with countless school administrators, teachers and students. What has surprised me the most, is how quick many of these schools cut their programs without looking at a plethora of options beforehand.
I'm not naive to think that every theatre program can be saved, but I do believe there are plenty of options for schools to take before making the final cut. Here are five that have been proven to have worked. These are what schools should do before cutting the program all together, in order of urgency.
1. Change Show Selections
For school theatre programs struggling to keep a float, producing large scale musicals and plays doesn't make sense. While doing shows like Beauty & the Beast or Next to Normal will certainly generate excitement and interest from the student body, they're also going to cost a lot to produce. Depending on the number of shows vs. ticket sales, material like this can cost schools thousands of dollars.
So in situations like these, schools should be looking at cheaper options. Whether its doing shows with lower producing costs, performing original pieces, doing more plays than musicals or creating original musical revues, there are plenty of options for decreasing costs of shows.
Let's be honest, the majority of middle/high school audiences don't necessarily care what is being performed, they're there to support the cast and crew. So keep that in mind when selecting shows. You may not be able to do Ragtime, but you'll be able to save your program.
2. Budget Your Materials Carefully
Another way to save money is to carefully consider how you're using your materials. Saving props, set pieces, flats, costumes, etc, can add up and help to ensure a program survives. I've seen too many strikes where materials are disposed carelessly.
If the same staircase unit is used in multiple shows in a row, so be it. If the same red dress is worn in show after show, that's the way it is. At the end of the day, it really doesn't matter. Schools with tight budgets can't afford to be destroying materials without reusing them.
3. Raise Funds & Seek Donations
For programs in financial peril, raising funds are a must. Every little bit can help, so whether it's a bake sale, fund raising performances or silent auctions these must take place.. Sometimes only a couple hundred dollars can make all the difference for struggling programs.
But I know that not every community has the means to donate money to a struggling theatre program, that's when schools must look towards local businesses for help. I've seen instances in the past where stores like The Home Depot, Target and Walmart have donated goods to school theatre programs. It's a low cost donation for them with priceless PR appeal, so it's a no-brainer for some of these businesses to do.
4. Initiate Low Cost Pay to Play
This is becoming a more popular choice by schools systems to have families shell out a fee for students to participate in theatre programs. Let me make this clear, I do not like this option. However if it's between this or not having a program at all, then I understand when schools implement them.
But Pay to Play fees need to be low. I've seen many that are in the $50 range and yet I've seen some that are over $100...per show. This can't happen. Fees like this should also be flexible depending on the conditions of the student body. For instance, students on reduced lunch programs, work-study and other benefits for low income families, should not have to pay these fees. Not for nothing but if a family can't afford school lunches, what makes these school boards think they can pay theatre dues?
So if schools are going to implement fees like these, they need to be low and flexible. Asking families to foot the bill because school systems can't get their costs in line, is unacceptable.
5. Cut Staff
This is what I feel is the absolute last option before deciding to cut a theatre program all together. The cost of faculty can be high for certain school systems. Most teachers make around $40,000-$50,000 per year, if they're lucky. In any case, it's safe to say that having a full time, union, faculty position can cost a school tens of thousands of dollars. If a program is about to go under, then exploring the option of cutting the full time staff should be looked at.
While I certainly want theatre to be included in all curriculums, I know they don't necessarily have to be. So having multiple full time theatre faculty isn't essential if the program is about to fold. Most schools can get by with one full time teacher. But in cases where that is too much, then having no full time faculty might be the way to go. If schools decide to make their theatre program an extra curricular activity, it would make sense to have either a faculty member from a different department or part time staff member head the program or even qualified local volunteers. I live in an area where there are several theatre professionals that would jump at the chance to run a high school theatre program after school for free.
Again, I hate this option because we need more teachers, not less. But if it keeps theatre viable, then I understand the choice.
In closing, this is a time where we need more theatre programs providing spaces of creation and exploration for students all over the country. My heart breaks every time I see one get shut down because I am willing to bet that the school system didn't truly explore all their options first. So I certainly hope they'll take a look at all the ways a program can be salvaged before closing their curtain forever.
Photo: William Nottingham High School performs Over the Moon from 'Rent'