(Not) making money out of independent theatre

Apologies are due to Elaine and any other readers of my blog: I’ve been rather silent here of late, owing to some very hard work I’ve been doing producing a play in Melbourne.

The play is called “Venus in Furs” and is a new adaptation by my friend Neal Harvey of the 19th century novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch – a minor classic of fin-de-siecle Austro-Hungarian literature that also gave the world the term “masochism.”

You can read some reviews of the play in The Age, The Australian and a very fine engagement with the piece at Vibewire.

The reason I mention this involvement is that, rather in the style of Edward Epstein, The Hollywood Economist, I’m going to unpick the economics of this independent production on this blog. In the process, it will hopefully illustrate some of the themes of my upcoming confirmation draft concerning the structure of the cultural industries, and the implications (if any) for cultural policy.

I haven’t been totally slacking off on my confirmation, by the way – I’ve been doing a lot of reading in the daytim, and later this afternoon I’m going to post a series of reviews of monographs I’ve recently read – Bruno S. Frey’s Arts and Economics, David Hesmondhalgh’s The Cultural Industries and Tyler Cowen’s In Praise of Commercial Culture.

But for for those of you interested in the micro-economics of independent theatre, read on …

Venus in Furs is the first production of a new theatre company I have started with some friends, entitled Elbow Room. In Davis and Scase’s typology of cultural organisations, we are a classic “network organisation” – a micro-enterprise with limited capital “essentially too small to have formalised control or coordination.” Because of this, we need to operate in networks with other arts organisations and arts practitioners to access the means of cultural production.

One of these networks involves our venue, Theatreworks, a small theatre in St Kilda in Melbourne’s south. Theatreworks has an annual grant from Arts Victoria which it uses to subsidise certain productions at its space, in what it calls a “company initiative.” The essence of this deal is that Elbow Room gets a subsidy for hire of the venue for no upfront cost, in return for Theatreworks taking a cut of the box office.

Another part of the deal speaks to what Hesmondhalgh reightly argues is the growing imporance of marketing in modern cultural industries. We get the services of a very good independent publicist, Kathryn Ross of Ballyhoo Publicity, at no cost to ourselves. It was Kathryn who arranged for the substantial pre-show publicity we enjoyed, and who was able to get the show review in prestigious broadsheets like The Australia and The Age.

The structure of the Elbow Room budget also takes into account substantial fund-raising accessed from outside the production. As part of the lead-up to the show, we raised nearly $3,000 in a series of fund-raiser events that included a raffle and a warehouse party where the musicians played pro bono. The remainder of the credit was raised through company member’s credit cards. This complex mix of micro-subsidy, micro-credit and micro-philanthropy is characteristic of the independent theatre sector, which enjoys few of the sophisticated reproduction advantages available to modern cultural industries like film, music or computer gaming.

How is the box office going? So far, with a week still to run, we have yet to break even – again, a fairly typical situation for most small-scale cultural enterprises. Even with (limited) access to the mass media to promote this show, the expected audience for a production of this nature is small and “profit” per se is largely an impossible dream. It is much more accurate to talk about defrayment of costs.

Even so, a production of this nature has more in common with a Hollywood film than we might first expect, as both Hesmondhalgh (who cites Epstein) also argues. Like a Hollywood film, the cast and crew are working for a mixture of upfront and deferred payments contingent on future revenues. Like other parts of the cultural industries, the cast and crew are prepared to accept long hours and poor pay in return for the intellectual and personal rewards of creative autonomy and artistic fulfillment. And, like most cultural products, we’re engaged in a high-risk gamble that probably won’t repay its costs.

One thought on “(Not) making money out of independent theatre

  1. I’m convinced you’re incapable of slacking off Ben, and I’m sure that being involved in Elbow Room will give you lots of valuable ethnographic material to help think through the issues you’re grappling with in your research. Maybe think about building some case studies into your research methodology?

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