The Theatre Industry Needs to Start Awarding Free Theatre Licensing to Low Income Schools

What has become a disturbing trend among high schools, is finding ways to take the cost of theatre productions out of school budgets and pass them on to students and their families. 

Whether it's "pay-to-play" policies or just eliminating it from the budget altogether, schools are constantly looking to make theatre productions cheaper or not do them at all. 

What this does, is put added financial stress on the parents of these students. When they are already paying taxes to pay for the school themselves, asking for additional funding for theatre productions often becomes a hard choice to make if personal funds are tight. 

While many communities might hold fundraising activities to help alleviate costs, those events might only yield a small fraction of what would be needed to stage a full-length production. Schools could be encouraged to create their own works, but that also takes resources that they might not have either. 

So what can be done to help lower income communities put on these shows? 

They should be allowed to do these shows for free. 

Licensing fees for shows can often be the highest expense on a school production's budget. Depending on the show, amount of performances, ticket prices, etc, they can often range to $2,000-$3,000. 

In fact, according to MTI's Cost Estimator, a 4 performance run of "Annie" with an auditorium of 200 seats, tickets at $15 and a 4 performance run(standard for most high schools) would likely cost between $1,998 - $2,703. That's a lot for any school but near impossible for one with very little funding. 

So that's why I am suggesting that licensing fees for low-income schools should be free. It would help give schools a boost in kickstarting and sustaining funding for future productions, spark interest in a theatre department and increase participation, and gain support from the outside community.

So how would it work? It could work exactly like how grants are awarded by organizations like the NEA. There would have to be some sort of application and review process which would involve schools submitting copies of their Board of Education budgets to prove the lack of funding. Then companies like MTI, Tams-Witmark and Samuel French could decide if a school qualifies for free licensing for a particular show. 

Now before you start thinking this would create a run on free licensing, this could be done on a case-by-case process and these companies can set whatever standards and limits they want. 

They could also work with playwrights and composers to decide what work would be eligible for a program like this. I don't imagine MTI or Samuel French would ever force a writer to allow their work to be done for free, so working hand-in-hand with the writers would be required. This also don't mean writers wouldn't get paid, R&H might still pay the writers even though they didn't charge a fee to the school or offer tax incentives since it would be considered a charitable donation. The point is, no writer would be forced into a program like this.  

But awarding a grant like this to just one school, could make all the difference.

There is a startling increase in the number of high schools who are shutting down their theatre programs because they either can't afford it or just don't want to pay for it anymore. Eliminating much of the cost of doing these shows could potentially save a theatre program thus ensuring they can keep performing and continue the ripple effect of interest in the theatrical arts. 

Photo: Oak Park & River Forest High School