OUTLOOK: Partly sunny, with periods of rain. Winds moderate and variable.
That’s the meteorological equivalent of the data in Theatre Facts 2006, the latest version of TCG’s yearly report on the not-for-profit theatre’s fiscal welfare. Cheering news is certainly in evidence: Most theatres have operated in the black since 2004, the year that turned around the field’s post-9/11 economic doldrums. In 2006, earned and contributed income both grew faster than expenses and endowment earnings shot up 33.5 percent, for an eye-popping 600-plus-percent increase over a five-year period.
Other disclosures are more ambivalent. For the second year in a row, attendance inched up slightly, but it’s still down 8 percent over the past half-decade—despite the fact that theatres have been offering more performances.
And then there are the red flags. Following the surge in building and renovation in recent times, occupancy and maintenance costs spiked 34 percent over inflation in the five-year period. Meanwhile, working capital hit a new low in 2006, prompting the Theatre Facts authors to reprise the gloomy warning they issued last year: “Persistently, negative working capital may be putting theatres at risk.”
Written by Zannie Giraud Voss and Glenn B. Voss, with Christopher Shuff and Ilana B. Rose, Theatre Facts 2006 scrutinizes financial and attendance statistics provided by theatres for the fiscal year completed anytime between Sept. 30, 2005, and Aug. 31, 2006. The analysis was published in July, and it’s available for download as a PDF.
If you do click on that link, by the way, you’ll be implicitly recognizing one critical influence on today’s theatrical climate: the availability of myriad cyberspace-based activities likely to fritter away people’s time. Currently basking in the zeitgeist are MySpace and Facebook; TV programs on iTunes; and websites brimming with user-generated content. Film (including Netflix), TV networks and cable channels may still be theatre’s formidable rivals, but these days, potential theatregoers may also be at home editing a Wikipedia page—or watching dancing-gerbil videos on YouTube.
The last few years have been a “period of unprecedented technological development,” says TCG executive director Teresa Eyring, taking comfort in the slight upticks in attendance reported in Theatre Facts for 2005 and 2006. The attendance data is “positive news,” she says, noting that the five-year audience decline “hasn’t been as dramatic as it might have been, given the environment we’ve been dealing with.”
In recent phone interviews, some theatre leaders also looked on the bright side of things; others were resolute but anxious. In particular, interviewees seemed to agree that winning and keeping an audience these days requires more effort, and more creative thinking, than it used to.
“It’s a lot harder to sell a ticket today than it was 20 years ago, and I don’t think anybody would dispute that,” says Louis G. Spisto, executive director of San Diego’s Old Globe. He adds that “it doesn’t mean this is an industry in peril. I think we’re all shifting and adapting.”
Jorge Z. Ortoll, executive director of New York’s Ma-Yi Theater Company, frets over the fickleness of theatregoers today. “If it’s a rainy day, they don’t come,” he says. “If it’s hot outside, they don’t come. If it’s a nice day to go to the park, they don’t come.”
To get a handle on all this, it helps to look at the Theatre Facts data. The report consists of three complementary sets of analysis. The “Universe” section gives a panoramic view of the national not-for-profit field, drawing on figures provided to the IRS by 1,893 professional theatres. Taking a closer look, the “Trend Theatres” portion tracks statistics at 105 TCG theatres between 2002 and 2006. In a new development, this year’s Theatre Facts also monitors 54 theatres that have completed surveys for TCG each year since 1997—but since these tend to be larger companies, the results are less revelatory of the field as a whole.
Finally, “Profiled Theatres” studies 201 theatres that filled out TCG’s fiscal survey in 2006. For enhanced insight, this section sorts the data by budget size: theatres with a budget of $10 million or more make up Group 6; those with budgets in the $5-million-to-$9,999,999 range make up Group 5; and so on, down to Group 1, the smallest theatres, with budgets of $499,999 or less.
Let’s contemplate the big picture first. The Universe section reveals that the nation’s not-for-profit theatres mounted 172,000 performances of 14,000 productions, employing an estimated workforce of 113,000, of whom 62 percent were artistic personnel. In doing so, they channeled nearly $1.67 billion directly into the U.S. economy—but the field’s financial influence is surely greater, given that theatre employees pay rent or buy homes, pay taxes and go shopping; that theatregoers shell out for babysitters and parking spaces and dinners at upscale tapas restaurants; and so on.
That heartening reflection leads nicely to the Trend Theatres analysis, with its good news about CUNA (Change in Unrestricted Net Assets). A quick refresher course on CUNA: It’s the prime tool for measuring an institution’s fiscal health over the course of the year. Take the institution’s total unrestricted income and subtract the total expenses—that’s the CUNA, corresponding roughly to an end-of-the-year surplus (if CUNA is positive) or a deficit (if it’s negative). Restricted assets, like funds that are earmarked and held for a capital campaign, do not figure into the CUNA equation.
The authors of Theatre Facts relate that average CUNA dropped 17 percent in 2006, but even with that downturn, it mounted 269 percent over the five-year period. (Remember that the early years of that time span were notably grim.) More theatres posted a positive CUNA in 2006 than in any of the previous five years, and overall, surpluses have been greater, while deficits have been less acute. Flipping to the “Profiled Theatres” data we see that theatres of all budget sizes achieved positive CUNA—a nice change from last year, when Group 2 theatres’ CUNA had a minus sign attached.
Buoying up the industry’s bottom line has been a steady stream of earned income. For Trend Theatres, that category beat inflation by 17.8 percent over five years, shooting up 8 percent just in the last year. Checking in on the Profiled Theatres info, we see that the larger the theatre, the greater the portion of expenses supported by earned income.
Gains on the “money-in” side of the fiscal equation are not from the box office: In inflation-adjusted terms, ticket revenue dipped nearly 6 percent during the period—a pattern that’s commensurate with the five-year audience decline we’ll examine later. Single-ticket income and subscription income both support a smaller share of the average theatre’s expenses now than they did in the millennium’s first palindromic year, 2002.
So credit for the five-year earned-income boost must go largely to the vigorous stock market, which delivered 230-percent growth in capital gains over the period. The market has also cast a kindly eye on endowment earnings, which scooted up 602.4 percent in a half-decade.
Curiously, average interest and dividend income fell by 31.1 percent in the same period, a phenomenon that, some have speculated, might possibly be due to people putting funds into longer-term investments. Certainly, in an era when everyone harbors an inner Warren Buffett, it’s likely that theatre folk are becoming market-shrewd. “We’ve had to get savvier,” remarks Andrew D. Hamingson, managing director of New York’s Atlantic Theater Company. “As theatres, we’ve had to become much better fiscal managers and act like money managers, and get the expertise to be able to do so.” He says he’s observed an increasing number of organizations forming investment committees. “That was unheard of, years ago,” he says.
Before we leave the earned-income charts and tables, by the way, we should note that average royalty income—which had been sagging—climbed back up in 2006, suggesting that the decline was a temporary aberration. (Big sigh of relief.) Theatres are being adventurous, too, producing 9 percent more world premieres in 2006 than in 2002.
Moving to the contributed-income stream, we find that the numbers are largely reassuring, with total contributed income beating inflation by 11.6 percent over the last five years. Corporate largesse dipped in the past two years, but still topped inflation by 12 percent in the half-decade, while foundation gifts climbed 7.5 percent in that period. Federal and state funding were down last year, but rose overall, and local funding zoomed up by 88 percent between 2002 and 2006, probably driven in part by donations to capital campaigns. Imagination Stage executive director Bonnie Fogel, who says local government has been “very strongly supportive” of her theatre, in Bethesda, Md., thinks it’s quite rational for communities to support the artists in their midst. “Not-for-profits are those things that are needed in that community, but that are not funded by [federal and state] government for one reason or another,” she says. “That’s why we exist!”
It’s no surprise that individual contributions are the biggest source of support—that’s been the steady Theatre Facts refrain for several years now. In 2006, however, individual giving supported a 1.6-percent smaller share of a theatre’s expenses, compared with 2002.
There’s another interesting factoid in this year’s report: While donations from trustees crested 4.2 percent above inflation over the five-year-period, gifts from non-trustees lost ground by 6.9 percent. And while the average gift from a non-trustee grew (from $356 to $475) between 2003 and 2006, the average number of philanthropists in this category at Trend Theatres plummeted to a five-year low in 2006 [see sidebar].
Giving isn’t always packaged in dollars, by the way: In-kind contributions have escalated by 56 percent over the past five years. On another positive note: Fundraising has become more efficient, with theatres reaping larger returns on each dollar they spend.
Which takes us to some of the other spending that’s going on. As mentioned at the top of this article, the most alarming step-up in the expense category has been the cost of occupying and maintaining facilities [see sidebar]. A related expense—insurance—careened up 61 percent in five years. The Profiled Theatre section divulges that the smaller the theatre, the more of its budget it’s forking over to meet occupancy expenses.
To dwell a moment longer on this matter of physical property: The silver lining to the occupancy-cost cloud, of course, is the fact that about 4 percent more companies now own their own stage than did so in 2002, to judge by the “Trend Theatres” data. All in all, the last five years have seen a whopping 73-percent growth in fixed assets, including land, property and equipment—the result of myriad successful campaigns. A full 36 percent of Trend Theatres were forging through capital campaigns in 2006, and 27 percent had polished one off in the last five years.
Unfortunately, fixed assets aren’t too much help when you need money for daily expenses—a truth Theatre Facts recognizes in its frank paragraphs on “working capital.” Working capital is an institution’s total unrestricted net assets, minus its fixed assets and unrestricted long-term investments—it’s more or less the cash you have on hand for meeting payroll or settling the heating bill, and so on. Positive working capital is a good thing. Negative working capital means that the institution is essentially borrowing money to meet daily needs.
Trend Theatres have been mired in negative working capital for five years and the situation was at its worst in 2006. Among Profiled Theatres, only the smallest, Group 1, can boast of positive working capital. Group 4 companies are experiencing a particular negative working capital crisis.
The authors of Theatre Facts are taking all of this very, very seriously. “This negative working capital position gives theatres little financial flexibility and is cause for real concern,” they warn.
TCG head Eyring agrees. “We need to pay attention” to the situation, she says, because, in addition to potentially affecting a theatre’s day-to-day cash flow, strained working capital “means that there’s less reserves available to buffer or give an organization stability during leaner years.” What is more, negative working capital can “put stress on an organization’s ability to really take risks artistically and advance the art form,” she says.
Taking due note of these admonitions, we can move back to the expense records, to ponder spending on human capital. Careful readers of Theatre Facts will recall that in 2005, theatres began devoting more of their resources to administrative payroll than to artistic payroll. That state of affairs continued in 2006. In fact, artistic payroll has lagged behind inflation by nearly 6 percent since 2002, while production and administration payroll have ratcheted up 5.2 percent and 14.5 percent, respectively. Notably, the Profile Theatres section reveals that theatres of all budget sizes spend about the same chunk of their budget (around 20 percent) on administrative salaries.
The bigger sums for administrators over time did not surprise interviewees, who related the phenomenon to the challenging fiscal environment. “The harder you have to work to bring in that revenue, the more people you have to have on deck to make that happen,” says Daniel Schay, managing director of Arizona’s Phoenix Theatre.
James Haskins, who fills the same position at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater, agrees that “there certainly is a philosophy that you have to spend money in order to make money.” In the theatre field, he points out, “we’re competing with hospitals and universities for development professionals,” just one factor that would tend to drive up salaries.
José González, executive director of Miracle Theatre Group in Portland, Ore., thinks, too, that the regional theatre movement may be at a point in its history when people are recognizing the value of administrators. “Over time—and as expertise and know-how have developed—there’s been a growing appreciation of what happens behind the scenes,” he says.
Another expense-related development that bears note relates to marketing. Average marketing costs have glided up almost 11 percent in five years. It’s common knowledge in showbiz that it’s more economical to market subscriptions than single tickets—now that truism is truer than ever. Five years ago, there was a 6-percent difference between the cost-effectiveness of the two: Now, the figure is 10 percent. The rapid evolution of the media industry—including the erosion of newspaper readership and the proliferation of Internet forums—is presumably a factor here, making it more difficult to reach large numbers of people through a few marketing gambits.
And then there’s that wider phenomenon: People seem to be more reluctant to enter the theatre than in former times, so it takes more wiliness and money to get them there. The Trend Theatre statistics suggest that, in the last two years, theatres have succeeded in mustering those resources somewhat: After drifting downwards in 2003 and 2004, attendance notched back up in 2005 and 2006—but it’s still 8 percent lower than it was five years back, even though theatres are presenting more performances [see sidebar].
Different types of performances have fared differently. Main series attendance pepped up last year, but is still slightly lower than in 2002. Companies are touring less, resulting in a 53.9-percent plunge in touring attendance. On the other hand, booked-in events seem to be in vogue: Over five years, this category registered an 80.7-percent surge in audiences (though the Theatre Facts authors observe that unusual numbers from two theatres affected this result). Children’s series events are prospering, rising by nearly 18 percent over the half-decade, a turn of events that pleases Eyring, for one. “Developing the next generation of theatregoers continues to be critical for our field,” observes the TCG head, formerly managing director of the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis.
Subscriber figures tell another bittersweet story: In each of the last five years, the number of subscribers at Trend Theatres has declined, for a total drop of 9 percent. But the subscription-renewal rate has sidled up from 63 to 65 percent—a trifling increase, perhaps, but one that tempers the gloom and doom over the viability of the subscription model [see sidebar].
While we’re counting heads, by the way, we should note the scoreboard on actor-employment weeks: The number of weeks provided by Trend Theatres fell by 6 percent between 2002 and 2006. Interviewees are unanimous in their interpretation of this statistic: Faced with fiscal worries, theatres programmed more small-cast plays, saving money on actor salaries. “Everyone’s looking for the one-person show that’ll make $100 million,” quips Gary Anderson, producing artistic director of Detroit’s Plowshares Theater Company.
Failing such a coup, theatres must soldier on through this media-saturated era, relying on ingenuity and endurance. “You just have to find new ways of thinking. You’ve got to think outside the box,” says Jennifer King, executive and co-artistic director of Sonoma County Repertory Theater, in Sebastopol, Calif. But innovation needs to be balanced with staying power. “I’m constantly having to educate people as to who we are, and why we do what we do,” King notes.
Blake Robison, producing artistic director of Round House Theatre, in Bethesda, Md., also sees a need for creativity and effort. “Man, we’re at every fair, every community festival,” Robison says, describing “all-hands-on-deck days” that fuse Round House’s marketing and outreach into “a hybrid activity that is indispensable to the organization.”
If there’s “a community movie night in an outdoor field somewhere, we’re going to be there,” Robison goes on. “We take turns; we take shifts; it’s a group activity. The Borders bookstore in Silver Spring did a huge event for the release of the Harry Potter book the other night, and we were out there with our table, handing out 10,000 brochures and educational materials!” Staff members even stuck around until Deathly Hallows went on sale, at midnight.
Such energetic practices may be critical as the industry strives to keep audiences from eroding. “The concern about the audience is a big one that we need to address, and that we need to address sooner rather than later,” Anderson says gravely, noting that Plowshares has been trying to build community via the Internet and via “the good old engage-people-where-their-interests lie” approach. For instance, last year, to promote a production of The Bluest Eye, an adaptation of the Toni Morrison novel, Plowshares staff liaised diligently with local women’s groups, with the public library and with book clubs located via web research. The result was “the best season opener in the last five years,” says Anderson, who considers the episode proof that companies can ratchet up attendance without resorting to “pabulum or safe choices.”
TCG’s Eyring also sees reason for hope. “If we do the right thing, we have the possibility of moving the needle in the right direction over time, and continuing to grow the audience,” she says, “especially if we pay attention to social trends around us and to the way people are creating and consuming art.”
In other words, there are patches of blue sky out there, and it pays to go in search of them. But you should probably take your umbrella, just in case.
Celia Wren is a former managing editor of this magazine.
For the Shy Subscriber
File it away under “Nuisances of Modern Times,” along with bad reality-TV shows and loud cell-phone conversations: The reluctance of modern Americans to opt for season subscriptions. For theatres, the traditional subscription model brims with benefits, including the cushioning it provides for artistic risk-taking. But theatregoers are commitment-shy these days: Theatre Facts 2006 relates that the subscriber pool has shrunk by 9 percent since 2002, and that subscription income is supporting a lower level of expenses. Sixty-four percent of Trend Theatres took in more single-ticket income than subscriber income in 2006—up from 56 percent in 2002. “The number of options for entertainment and diversion in people’s lives continues to increase,” says Portland Center Stage artistic director Chris Coleman, expressing a truth that’s on everybody’s minds, “and they just want to be able to do things much more spontaneously.”
On a brighter note, the subscriber-renewal rate has inched up just a tad—from 63 percent to 65 percent over the five-year period, suggesting that companies are striving to keep subscribers happy. In interviews, a number of theatre leaders described a heightened attention to customer service. Blake Robison, producing artistic director of Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Md., notes that the increasing efficacy of theatre websites for ticket-buying and the like can free up box-office staff to cope with subscribers’ issues. “It’s a wonderful development,” he says.
To adapt to patrons’ needs, organizations have experimented with providing a range of subscription options, including flexible subscriptions. Between 2002 and 2006, in fact, theatres almost doubled the number of subscription packages on offer. But there may be such a thing as too much choice, as James Haskins, managing director of Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater, points out. “Because patrons want flexibility, theatres try to create this whole menu of options, which ends up confusing, as opposed to accommodating,” he says. So, at the Wilma, “we kept our flex plan very, very simple,” a strategy that’s “working very well.”
At Arizona’s Phoenix Theatre, managing director Daniel Schay says that the key to maximizing subscribership these days is selecting the right demographic. “Trying to sell a subscription to a 35-year-old who has 3 kids at home is a lost cause, because time has become more precious to them than the money they save on a subscription,” he says. “But you have a whole generation of people who are moving into empty nests—who are beyond their child-raising years: There’s a very big audience there. That is a valid audience.” —Wren
The Cachet of a Full House
When it comes to performances, could less be more? A glance at Theatre Facts 2006 might certainly spark some ruminations in this direction. Although 2005 and 2006 saw a slight resurgence in total audience figures, there’s still been a decline since 2002. And yet, theatres have been offering more performances—the aggregate number of resident performances scooted up 5.7 percent over the five-year period, while attendance dipped 0.5 percent—meaning that, on average, shows are playing to lower capacity.
That’s hardly a healthy situation, given that unfilled seats can make a critical dent in a production’s ambiance. “We actually did fewer performances this past year, and did far better,” says James Haskins, managing director of Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater. Anticipating a decrease in subscription numbers, he says, he and his colleagues shortened the length of a typical show from six weeks to five weeks. “What happened was that we had very full houses, and I think that, in and of itself, created positive energy,” he says. Audiences will experience a show “very, very differently” depending on whether it’s filled to 50 percent capacity or 90 percent capacity, he points out, and that “can probably have some positive impact on word-of-mouth.”
Moreover, with the shorter runs, Haskins says, the Wilma had more sold-out performances, a fact that could be used as a marketing tool. “I do think that there is value in planning your programming so that you are projecting that you’re going to fill your house to 80 to 100 percent capacity,” he says. “If people think strategically in that fashion, it really creates a different impression on those who attend.”
It’s largely a matter of thinking long-term rather than short-term, he suggests. “We’re trying to react to all of these audience trends that seem to be changing every six months anyway,” he says, “and in reacting, I don’t think we’re being strategic about how we’re positioning ourselves. I think we need to be much more proactive.”
José González, executive director of Miracle Theatre Group in Portland, Ore., agrees that shorter runs can actually increase attendance. People are more likely to resolve to attend a show, he feels, “if you can intrigue them about the program, but don’t give them a lot of time to make a choice.”
He does caution, though, that the theatre business can be a little unpredictable. “I’ve been doing this for long time, and I still don’t think there’s a science to what I do,” he notes modestly. “It’s kind of a crap shoot.” —Wren
The Solo Giver’s Conundrum
Individual contributors have been the heroes of the decade: For several years now, their donations have ranked as the largest source of contributed income “by far,” according to the “Trend Theatres” section of Theatre Facts. But while trustee generosity is beating inflation, gifts from non-trustees have declined 6.9 percent below inflation in five years.
“Our boards are more responsible for the total pie than ever before, either as individuals, or as representatives of corporations or foundations,” says Louis G. Spisto, executive director of San Diego’s Old Globe. “The wells are narrower and deeper.” He thinks this is part of a broader phenomenon in which “individuals are parking their interests and resources at specific institutions” rather than shelling out to a spectrum of causes. He points out, too, that the hare-and-tortoise track record of trustee and non-trustee gifts may be, in part, a self-fulfilling prophecy: When individuals donate large sums, we tend to put them on our boards. “Boards tend to be more a place of philanthropy than of management,” he says.
Spisto speculates that there’s an increasing divide “between individuals who are passionate about the arts and those interested in heath care and education.” He’s not the only one to worry about that rift. “Theatre and culture to many, many people are not as important as children and health and African starvation,” says Jorge Z. Ortoll, executive director of New York’s Ma-Yi Theater Company. Faced with appeals from a theatre and Doctors without Borders, he says, a kind-hearted check-writer might well choose the latter. “I can understand that,” he says.
The annual report issued by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University and the Giving USA Foundation provides some perspective on the relative popularity of various causes. Charitable giving from individuals and institutions in 2006 totaled more than $295 billion, of which about one third benefited religious organizations. Gifts to human service organizations totaled $29.56 billion; to international affairs, $11.34 billion; to education, $40.98 billion; and to arts, culture and the humanities, $12.51 billion.
Chris Widdess, managing director of Penumbra Theatre Company, in St. Paul, Minn., says increasing communication with patrons can encourage generosity: Penumbra witnessed that, she says, after instituting a database that facilitated personalized letters and e-mails. She points out, too, that some theatregoers may be open to giving if they can do so in a way that doesn’t require a lot of energy, but that still feels fulfilling—if the theatre encourages them to buy tickets for school groups, for instance, and later orchestrates thank-you letters.
The times are tough, but full of opportunity, in her view. “This is an industry in evolution and revolution,” she says. —Wren
The Building: Expense and Asset
Welcome to your new home. In return for the keys, please sign over your life savings and your first-born child. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. Still, the surge in construction and facility renovation seen in the theatre industry in recent years has had a noticeable impact on companies’ bottom lines. Over the past five years, occupancy, building, equipment and maintenance costs rose faster than any other expense category: 34 percent above inflation. Meanwhile, insurance costs spiraled up—yikes—61 percent.
Those increases aren’t exclusively due to the building boom, of course. For instance, following the deregulation of the power industry promoted in the late 1990s, electricity costs have skyrocketed in many states—between 2002 and 2006, utility bills shot up 57.7 percent in Texas and 55.6 percent in Massachusetts, according to a recent article in USA Today. So even theatres that haven’t been christening new spaces may be struggling with occupancy-cost issues.
“It’s something that I’m very, very concerned about,” says Atlantic Theater Company managing director Andrew D. Hamingson, who has been coping with challenging rent, insurance, electricity and cleaning costs for the company’s rented Manhattan spaces.
Occupancy costs are “of great concern,” says Blake Robison, producing artistic director of Round House Theatre, which opened new facilities in Bethesda and Silver Spring, Md., in 2002, 2003 and 2004. He notes that recently “our electricity bill went up by nearly 30 percent, and there’s nothing we can do about it. We’re frugal. We conserve energy as much as we can. But at some point, you have to turn on the lights and do the show! Those things are difficult to budget around, because they only go up and up, but you don’t always know by how much. The frustrating thing about trying to plan for the future budgetarily is, at the end of the day, there’s really only a small number of things that you can shape, change, mold or cut in order to balance your budget. Because facility costs are what they are. Utility costs are what they are.”
When occupancy costs are related to a new facility, the building itself may create new potential revenue streams that can cushion the new expenses, points out Chris Coleman, artistic director of Oregon’s Portland Center Stage, which recently moved into a new building that’s a notable example of environmentally sustainable design. Coleman says that, instead of treating the facility primarily as a traditional arrive-at-curtain-time venue, he and his colleagues have “consciously screwed around with that dynamic, and have tried to make the building much more central to what goes on every day in the community.” The facility hosts tai chi classes and fundraisers for local not-for-profits—luring in individuals who might become curious and return for a show sometime.
The building’s potential isn’t bounded by the traditional workday, either, Coleman notes: He and his staff have even negotiated with student filmmakers who seek places to shoot between midnight and 8 a.m. —Wren
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