Participation Fees vs. Mandatory Selling- Which is the Lesser of Two Evils?

Liz Chirico

I get it. Theaters need to make money. And ticket sales don’t always cover the bills. So what else do you do, what else can you do, except ask your actors to pay. Some theaters charge a participation fee, others ask their actors to sell a minimum number of tickets, sell ads or collect items to be raffled off to raise money. Each way has pluses and minuses. Let’s discuss.

Participation Fees

You know how much you need and you can plan for it up front. If you charge $20 an actor, max $30 for a family you can calculate from the beginning how many actors you’ll need to cover those remaining costs. It’s easy to enforce too; everyone brings a check to the read-through. No check, no script. How far are you willing to chase someone for that check when you really want them in your cast?

There’s no worry later over an actor not selling their designated ads and tickets and you running short of cash. For those introverted actors (and we’re out there!) the actor isn’t charged with asking people for support which can be an overwhelming and daunting prospect. Plus you know there’s always a handful of cast members who will sell an ad anyway, and friends and family are always going to see the show.

But a participation fee can turn some actors off from even auditioning merely on principal or because they genuinely can’t afford the fee. You may be cutting off a group of talented actors before you even start.  Do you really want to limit your talent pool over a few bucks?

Charging participation fees gives you the greater likelihood of recouping all your investment costs and maybe turning a profit too.

Mandatory Selling

This is when you require cast members to sell a set amount (dollars or quantity) of ads in your program book, and/or tickets to the show.  Almost everyone knows someone personally or professionally who is willing to take an ad out in the program book. After all it’s for a great cause- who doesn’t want to support the community and the arts, right? And everyone always has friends and family coming to support them and watch their performances. So this option seems like a no-brainer.

But not everyone is comfortable asking their loved ones or their boss to place an ad in the program book. Perhaps the program book isn’t the best option for advertising. Do you then make that actor shell out the $50, $100+ to cover the ad they were supposed to bring in out of their own pocket?

Some actor friends I know appear in 6-8 shows a year! At $20 a ticket it can become expensive and can feel like a burden asking your friends to attend every show because you’re required to sell a certain number of tickets. There are some folks (myself included) who’s family lives far away and can’t attend each and every show. Am I then expected to buy those tickets myself? What are the consequences to those who don’t fulfill these obligations? Do you remove someone from the show a week before opening or simply make do with less cash?

In an ideal world theaters wouldn’t be choosing between the lesser of two evils. Theaters would have a steady supply of funds from previous shows perhaps supplemented with grants, fundraising campaigns or even a combination of everything. Until that point each group has to decide for themselves how they will survive. Regardless of the route chosen, it should be clearly explained, along with any consequences, to your actors from the beginning so they can decide for themselves how they will handle things.

Photo: Norfolk Community Theatre