Fewer grants and decreased giving impact live local theater costs, ticket sales in Cincinnati

Box office revenue doesn't cover a show's costs

CINCINNATI—How much are you willing to spend on an evening’s entertainment? The answer, of course, depends on your definition of a night out.

Relative to other options, live local theater isn’t inexpensive—up to $80 for a single ticket at Playhouse in the Park . While prices vary wildly between productions—and even within one production—local companies are hardly padding their bottom lines.

No theater company comes close to covering expenses, let alone profiting, through ticket sales alone. At Playhouse, 60 percent of revenue comes from the box office. Ticket sales account for 58 percent of income at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company , and for just 40 percent of revenue at Ensemble Theatre . These three are the only companies in town employing professional/unionized labor in all facets of production.

Single ticket prices for Ensemble's "The Mountaintop" (opening March 19) range from $16 to $43. Tickets at Playhouse run between $25 to $80 for "Pride & Prejudice" (opening March 8) and $25 to $75 for "A Delicate Ship" (opening March 22). At Cincinnati Shakespeare, regular tickets for all shows start at $26 for students to $31 for adults, plus fees of $3-$4 for buying online or over the phone.   

In setting prices, leaders with each company balance value for audiences with the pressures of rising production costs. Larger economic trends are also a factor. Governments and nonprofit foundations are awarding fewer grants, and the competition for them has grown. Fewer individuals are giving money to arts organizations, and even the largest arts groups struggle to keep donors happy and generous from one year to the next.

Further tightening the belt are deep discounts theaters offer to students, schools and those who commit to subscriptions. These discounts help fulfill missions of public accessibility, but they also depress the bottom lines.

“People have to understand there’s a value to seeing live theater and there’s a lot of costs—designers, people who have Tony Awards and work regularly on Broadway,” said Christa Skiles, associate director of marketing and communications for Playhouse. “Part of (our responsibility) is explaining the value of coming to see a play at a Tony Award-winning theater.”

The Ensemble Theatre works to keep prices down to appeal to a wide variety of theatergoers, said D. Lynn Meyers, that theater's producing artistic director.

“I want this theater to be seen by anybody in greater Cincinnati. I think it’s a collective live experience, and $15 isn’t that much to charge people,” she said, citing the price per ticket—the lowest the company advertises—under the company’s subscription plan for teenagers, which comes with a meal and discussions with the show’s artistic team after the performance.

“People on staff don’t earn a great deal of money because we’d rather earn less and take less to keep our seats affordable,” Meyers said.

Flexible subscriptions, artist close-ups, discounts at nearby restaurants and other insider opportunities have become standard fare for theater companies of all sizes. It’s all designed to meet customers more than halfway in the transaction.

“Our shows have huge casts, so we spend more money on the people and talent and scale back the production to make it work in our budget,” said Jeanna Vella, director of communications and education for Cincinnati Shakespeare. 

The balance directors work for with pricing is connected to the balance they try to achieve in a seasonal slate of production. The shows directors bank on to draw healthy audiences make room in the schedule for more challenging fare, such as premieres by little-known playwrights and plays with themes that aren’t likely to win broad appeal.

“It’s very hard for me to make those value judgments,” Meyers said. “‘Rapture, Blister, Burn’ wasn’t a household name—I didn’t know how it would sell—and it broke all attendance records. Our audiences have made big, giant hits out of shows I had no idea about. I’m almost always doing plays that don’t have a proven track record.”

The same is true at Playhouse.

“We’re doing three world premieres this season and we don’t always believe those are going to be sold-out hits, but we also don’t believe we should only do shows that are going to sell out,” said Skiles of Playhouse. “We’re not a commercial theater, so you don’t want those pressures to dictate programming that we can’t produce the kind of theater we want to produce.”

Earlier this season, to every person who purchased tickets to one of the company’s Christmas shows, Vella sent notes, along with $20 gift certificates for “Hamlet,” staged in January and February.

“Because those two shows are so different, I thought people should take the gamble,” Vella said. “I'm really trying to cut down all one barriers.”

Success at the box office has its limitations for Ensemble and Cincinnati Shakespeare. Both theaters hold under 200 seats and, at Ensemble, the intimacy generally provided at smaller venues vanishes about halfway up the steep incline. Both theaters

are raising money to either move (Shakespeare) or expand (Ensemble), which complicates and competes with fundraising initiatives supporting the artistic and general operations.

Encouraging subscriptions are the companies’ best strategies for some predictability in an otherwise unpredictable funding landscape. Deep discounts, flexible commitments and open exchange policies are the norm. Still, most theaters struggle to build their bases of subscribers, with younger audiences reluctant to make commitments for the coming weekend, let alone for an entire season.

“The big thing I’d ask people, if you don’t think you can afford a ticket, call the box office and we’ll see what we can do. I’d rather sell a ticket to somebody than price them out of the market,” she said.

 

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