Though the city's theater scene is booming, keeping the stage lights on is a financial balancing act 

Pay to Play

Julian Wiles, founder and artistic director of charleston Stage

Jonathan Boncek

Julian Wiles, founder and artistic director of charleston Stage

Last month, a Summerville town councilman made waves in the local theater scene by trying to remove about $3,000 in funds directed to the Flowertown Players. He objected to the content of their 2013 production of the musical, Rent. But while his efforts to remove the accommodation tax funding failed, his actions beg the question: How much would the loss of $3,000 in funding affect a local theater? How much would it really hurt?

To answer the question, we need a general picture of the economics of our local theaters and, to tell the truth, the picture changes from troupe to troupe — albeit slightly. We have theaters like Charleston Stage that pay upward of $250,000 per show, and we have smaller theaters like PURE Theatre or What If? that can keep production costs to under $20,000. To a larger theater, perhaps, $3,000 is a drop in the bucket, but no matter what, public funding is a big piece of the glue holding our theater community together. When it gets taken away, that money has to be found somewhere else in order for our theaters to thrive.

Emily Wilhoit is the executive director of Theatre Charleston, an alliance of over a dozen local theaters. As such, she knows what's up, financially speaking. "The average nonprofit theater arts group budget income comes only from 50 percent tickets. The other 50 percent comes from grants, donations, and sponsorships," she says. Though those numbers can and do vary greatly. "All our theaters very much rely on grants, contributions, and sponsorships to run their seasons."

Julian Wiles, founder and producing artistic director of Charleston Stage, arguably Charleston's largest theatrical group, agrees. "Ticket sales only make up about 47 percent of Charleston Stage's production costs. Without sponsors, donors, and public arts funding, Charleston Stage shows would all post a loss," he says.

Graci - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Graci

Smaller theaters, too, face the same challenge. At the PURE Theater, a 100-seat blackbox, the numbers are closer to 54 percent tickets, 46 percent contributions, according to Managing Director Laurens Wilson. All our theaters, it seems, are reliant in large measure on funding received from methods other than ticket sales.

So where does all that money go? Again, it varies greatly by theater and their season. At Charleston Stage, which is known for huge musical productions the money seems to flow to its employees. "The biggest costs are people. Although we use the most modern tools such as computers for sound, lights, set design, etc., theater is still very much a hand-made business and requires a lot of hands," says Wiles. "Over the course of a season we employ over 150 musicians, actors, directors, stage hands, choreographers, music directors, and production staff, costumers, scenery, lighting and sound designers, and technicians. As a professional theater all of these artists receive paid compensation."

And then there's the royalty fee, which is the money paid for the right to be able to use a copyrighted script. "Royalties range from 10 percent to 13 percent of the gross," continues Wiles. "And royalties generally have to be paid in full before a single ticket is sold, so we are always taking a bit of a chance. For some shows we pay in excess of $30,000 for royalties."

Over at PURE, things look similar, though on a smaller scale. Wilson says, "The biggest expense we have are artists. A show that has 10 actors is going to be more expensive than a show with two. If you look at the hard cost of the show alone, you're probably looking at around $15,000. That doesn't include staff salaries that would be applicable to the show."

Graci - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Graci

As Wiles said, it's a risk, every time. But are directors taking that into account, and only choosing shows that they think will sell well? You'd think so, but that's not always the case. Take PURE, a theater known for taking risks. Artistic Director Sharon Graci and the theater's board like to try all kinds of different plays. "Whether or not a show will be well-attended comes into consideration for sure," says Graci. "And we may make some adjustments to our season as a whole, knowing we're doing a show that won't be as accessible as another show. But it will never dictate our artistic selections."

Some shows do better than expected. Russian Transport, PURE's February comedy about a Russian-Jewish immigrant family in Brooklyn attempting to live a perfect American life until uncle Boris arrives and upsets the balance, is one example. The play brought in far more in ticket sales than anticipated. However, other productions don't measure up, so theater directors make sure to plan each season carefully to at least average out. With ticket sales an unreliable form of income, the public funding and donor contributions become ever more important.

Thus, the answer to our original question — How much would it hurt to lose $3,000 in public funding? — seems clear, at least to Wilson. "$3,000 would be impactful for anyone. We all fight for every dollar we get," she says. "In a market like Charleston, the pool of contributed income is limited. If you have something you're counting on like city money, and it goes away, it's often hard to go away and replace it."

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