Why is it So Hard to Make a Profit in Community Theatre?

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  • Holly Lucas

Community theatre is forever thriving and expanding, with a wonderful mixture of big, bold productions and small, intimate performances across the country. It doesn’t matter where you go - small village or large town - you will undoubtedly find a group of like-minded individuals treading the boards of the local halls, schools and theatres bringing shows to the wider community. But putting on a show doesn’t come cheap. Why is it so hard to make a profit in community theatre?

Each theatre group has to be run very much like a business. You can’t click your fingers, and a show magically comes to life (we wish). It takes time and an awful lot of planning. My community theatre group put on two shows a year - one smaller one, concert style, generally pegged as a fundraiser and one large scale production in the main theatre of the town. We always look to produce high-quality content, treating it very much like a professional production, and that costs money.

We’ve built up an excellent reputation within the community, and our audiences expect the best from us and, let’s face it, we need to match those expectations and sell those tickets. But making a profit doesn’t just come down to how many tickets you sell. We never plan to sell out an audience - that would be totally unrealistic in the business plan. If we sell 75% of the tickets, that to us is good, and that’s what our profit projection is based on.

For each show, we initially create a budget plan, deciding how the funds will be spent. Recently we performed Priscilla: Queen of the Desert and one of the elements we wanted to stand out were the costumes. We wanted high quality, wow-factor costumes from a reputable company, which inevitably cost more - around £5000 - so we cut back on the set to accommodate. From costumes alone, you can see how easy it is to spend the money. I haven’t even mentioned how much it costs to hire the theatre for a week (and no, there are no concessions for community theatre groups...)

Once you start to add up all the costs involved (theatre and rehearsal venue hire, set, costume, props, band, show licensing, lighting, sound, marketing, programs...this is just a hint of what goes into it), it can easily cost £30,000 to put on a show. Even selling out each night rarely makes up the cost.

Now there are ways to cut this down of course. Quite often we source our own props and costume - each community theatre group in the area has their own collection of things from over the years and are happy to help each other out if you just ask (we’re all in the same boat after all). But the real biggie is fundraising.

We would be nowhere without our fundraising efforts. Every year we do a number of things to raise money, both as a group and individually, and nothing is ever taken for granted. Not only does it add invaluable funds into the show pot, but it also gets the community theatre group’s name out there as well as marketing for their next production. If you’re stuck for fundraising ideas, here are just a few to get you going:

● Local fetes and events in the area - having a simple games stall always goes down well.

● Carol singing at supermarkets - the big chains are usually always willing to help out local groups, just make sure you plan well in advance.

● Duck race - always hilarious and somewhat competitive.

● Mini-concert at a local residential or care home

● Cake sales (who doesn’t like cake!)

● Bingo or quiz night - these can be nice social events for the group, great for welcoming new members, and each person can pay a bit of money to enter.

● Facebook - now you can raise money on your birthday for a charity. If your theatre group is a registered charity...well, you can do the maths.

● Raffles - these are a great one during the show week. We always do these, and they always do well. Everyone loves winning wine and old bath sets, right?

These might seem like small or insignificant ways of fundraising but honestly, they all add up, and if you make £100 from carol singing that could be £100 towards libretto hire that you didn’t have before.

Another integral way of raising money and one I highly recommend is via grant schemes. There are so many out there looking to help non-profit organizations and charities - just Google it. I once was sent a generic email by a supermarket about a grant scheme they were running, thought I’d pass it on to my community theatre group and they ended up getting £1000 from it!

We also use our memberships and show levies as a huge part in bringing in a chunk of the money it costs to put on these shows. And guess what, we all willingly pay it. We’re all there to have fun, see our friends, and put on a damn good show because that’s what we love to do.

After all that effort raising the money, selling tickets and programs and marketing that show until you’re blue in the face, you might be lucky enough to even make a small profit. Our last show we’d actually predicted to make a loss from the production, but after incredible efforts from the group and an astounding reaction from the audience, we managed to make a profit of over...£1.

All of that effort? Selling out every night? And you only made a pound?

And this makes you happy, why exactly?

Because we don’t do this to make a profit, it’s expensive putting on these shows, and if we break even that’s enough for us. We do it for the love of it, and as long as we can carry on putting on shows and smiles on faces, then we’ll continue to do so.