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How To Raise Money For Your Theater Group

Renting Theaters, Hiring Musicians, Cast and Crew, Publicizing Your Production
January 23, 2012; Jeff Samaha

One of the most difficult things to overcome in running a theater group is the cost factor. When you think about it, the price of a ticket to a Broadway show kind of reflects how much thing cost nowadays in the professional world. It’s in the millions for them. For community theater it’s a lot less, but more than most groups can afford.

The price a community theater group can charge for a ticket varies from $10 to $25 at best. Most average between $15 and $20. Of course, I don’t have to tell you how much a Broadway ticket goes for. It’s hard to charge a high ticket price in a church hall because for one, the seats are not fixed and comfortable like you would find in a professional theater. The acoustics are not great for the most part, nor is there a professional lighting system installed.. The band is probably small (lost cost) for space reasons. The stage will be shallow and often won’t have a cyc (back curtain) to project on or pipes from which to hang backdrops. There won’t be much wing space for storage of set pieces and props during a show; not to speak of storage for when not in production. That can cost as well if you’re not housed in a facility where you rehearse. Storage could then become part of the rental cost of the hall or outside storage.

How do we pay for our productions?

My choral group/theater company has been in existence for 44 years. How do we pay for our productions? Well the most obvious way is to sell a ton of tickets. If you are producing in a large auditorium you can on average fit 900 – 1000 people at a ticket price of say $25 which is high for the community theater world, but almost a must especially if you’re giving the audience a comfortable seating, good lighting, sound and beautiful scenery. That brings in $25,000 if, and that’s a big IF you can fill the room entirely.

Marketing your show is very important. If the public is unaware you’re doing a show or concert, it will be unattended. So filling 1000 seats is tricky. Over the years we compiled a list of our customers who keep coming back show after show (mailing lists, emails, announcement in the local newspaper, which are usually free). So publicity is expensive since you have to print tickets, flyers or post cards, take ads in publications unless you can get in the community calendar. One way of bringing in the audience is to do shows with lots of kids in the cast. They will sell most of your tickets. In fact, it’s the cast who usually brings in the public. It took us many years to build a following of just people who like what we do. It takes time, a good reputation for production values and the right choice of materials.

This brings me to the next big expense. Choosing a play or concert that doesn’t contain original material (meaning your creation) is expensive. There are rights to pay for both. I’m sure you’ve heard of ASCAP and BMI. These companies license the music you choose to perform. The average price we’ve paid for a song has been about $100 per song per performance. It does vary.

If it’s a play to which you are interested in acquiring the rights, you will probably be dealing with Music Theater International, Samuel French or Tams-Whitmark. These companies handle the popular plays for which to apply for rights; however there are smaller, less well known ones out there.

The rates you pay for rights for plays are usually determined by numbers of seats and performances. The prices for two weekends or six shows, depending on the property, will come in at between 7 and 10 thousand dollars In our experience we pay that amount for a 350 seat auditorium and six performances. It also depends on the show you’re looking to do. Some are less expensive than others. But be sure, if it’s a popular play it’s going to be a lot of money.

So aside from the gate you bring in, how else can you bring in money? Printed programs are a huge income providing method. Business advertisers out there will buy an ad probably to help out the not-for-profit theater group. But many consider the numbers of people exposed to your performance over the six shows. If you’re seating is 1000 their ad may be seen by 6,000 people in a two week period. We have found though, the biggest income will come from the cast bringing in ads from family and friend well-wishers. Programs will vary in cost depending on how many pages you have, the weight and texture of the paper you use. So if your funds are tight, you can get away with cheaper materials.

The cost difference of doing a musical vs. a straight play, drama or comedy will be the use of an orchestra or not. In our experience we spend an average of $10,000 on a say 20 piece orchestra. There are usually ten services we require for our performances, so when you do the math that’s not a lot of money for the talent the musicians bring to a performance. I always find that companies will reduce the size of their band or orchestra or even use a recorded track to save money. For me, I believe in having live musicians on board which is half of the performance in my opinion. It also justifies the ticket price. However some people will still say $25 is too much. In defense of charging that amount (remember I’m talking about a show in a big auditorium fixed seating, lighting and sound), $25 is not a lot of money. In my experience the big auditorium is going to cost at least $10,000 for five rehearsals (6 hrs. each) and 6 performances of 5 hrs each (2 ½ hour show, plus 2 hr call and clean up after). When all is said and done, we have spent about $45,000 for a major Broadway-type production. You can choose to use a church hall and spend less on lighting and sound rental, but you’re also compromising the experience for the audience no matter how fancy you try to make it.

Then you have sets and costumes to consider. When my production company chose the Broadway show, The Producers,(see figure 1) we found a road company that had a copy of the original Broadway sets. We rented all the scenery for $6000 which included trucking. That year we were very lucky with our grants. That doesn’t happen very often. For costumes, many of the cast members made their own and others we found at a not for profit costume house.

How do we make up the difference?

Whatever community you live in there are politicians representing your district. You have a congressman, maybe two, a state senator, an assemblyman and maybe a borough president if you live in New York City. Ask them for an appropriation. They are all given money by their various legislatures to give to arts and culture. If your organization is benefiting the aged or children or education in any way, you can apply for grants directly to them. If you’ve been around for a while and your organization proves to be incorporated, a 501(c)3 which is not for profit status and in good esteem with your community, you can apply directly without an appropriation. The money’s there, although the amount varies year to year based on the budget. So you have the borough, the assembly district, the city and the state from which to tap for funds. You might even try the National Endowment for the Arts, however that’s a stretch to get any money from them.

To sum up:  If you have a good turn out (gate), a program well stocked with paid ads and a couple of grants from the politicians, you can at least break even or even make a little to put toward your next production. For more information, feel free to email me at productions@jeffsamaha.com. Take a look at some of our shows on Website: or Facebook.

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Jeff Samaha is a network television stage manager/director who also produces, directs and conducts orchestra for Community Theater and Chorus in Brooklyn, New York. Good production values are a must for him and this article explains how he achieves the quality he wants for his productions. Feel free to email him with your production issues.
 
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