How to Make Your Theatre Budget Work for You

  • Courtney Talbott

Ah, money. It’s the last thing we want to think about in terms of our programs, but it is a necessary consideration. Whether you are fully funded by your district or on your own, running a program requires careful thought and management to be successful. While we would prefer to focus our energies on the kids and the artistic elements, we have to face the facts that we need funds to do so. So what is the best way to manage money for our programs? How do we create something out of nothing when necessary?

I will admit to having a learning curve when it came to usage of funds for my program. My first year of teaching, I was lucky enough to be the second teacher under a veteran who ran a tight ship. While directing my first show, I needed some small set dressing, and so I took the school card and went shopping. I bought whatever I thought might look good, with no real regard to how much it would cost. After all, it wasn’t coming out of my pocket. I returned to school with about two bags of floral arrangements, silverware, wall hangings, and more. The head of my department asked how much I had spent, and I saw him slightly wince when I said $150. He very kindly explained to me that the department was self- supporting; that is, we did not receive any money from the school or district. Every penny counted. I learned a valuable lesson that day, and it prepared me for heading up my own department at a new school the following year.

Like my previous school, I would have to be very careful with money. I came into a drained account, and in my district, middle school theatre is the only elective offered that does not receive any student fees. I’m proud that our program is free and inclusive for the students, but we also receive no funds from any other sources. So, I had to get creative and come up with ways to stretch my budget. Here’s what works for me:

1. Two magic words: Public Domain. Especially in the beginning, using shows with no royalties can save precious money that can be put to use in other areas.

2. Thrift stores are your friend. I stopped shopping at craft stores and big-box retailers and learned to repurpose what I had and modify items I found at goodwill. Your money will go way further, and then I don’t feel as bad when something breaks after the show or doesn’t fit the actor.

3. Fundraise. It can sound like a pain, but you can do things you enjoy and use them as a way to raise funds and awareness of your program. I put on a talent show every year and make sure to choose students from across a wide range of the school’s population. Students who might not usually come to see the plays come to this to support their friends and all ticket sales are pure profit. I also do a traditional sales-based fundraiser every year, and while I never pressure anyone to participate, it does bring in a little extra.

4. Be open with your supporters. I generally address funding at back to school nights, and parents have often times sent in a donation out of the goodness of their hearts. Here is where relationship building is also crucial. When parents see that their money is being put to good use for their children’s benefit, it creates goodwill and helps spread word-of-mouth.

5. Finally, you never know unless you ask. I do the best I can on my own, but one year, I desperately needed textbooks that were simply out of my price range. I mentioned it to my principal, and she committed to matching whatever I was able to raise, which allowed me to purchase what I needed.

Best case scenario, you are able to get to the point where you have a bit of a cushion. When we are able to worry less about the funding, we can focus more on what matters!