Major funding problems ~ theatre notes

Monday, February 13, 2006

Major funding problems

Further to some recent discussion here on commercial shows mounted by subsidised theatre companies: the Sydney Morning Herald runs a story today which says that the STC is posting its first deficit for a decade. And it is not alone: several other mainstream companies are struggling.

They are collectively calling for a 25 per cent increase in their funding. As the SMH reports:

The STC is among five major performing arts companies struggling to make ends meet that are expecting a combined loss of up to $1.5 million for last year, despite boosting sponsorship by 98 per cent and box-office takings by 60 per cent since 1998.

Other companies facing a loss are Company B, the Queensland Theatre Company, Circus Oz and Bell Shakespeare.

A survey by the Australian Major Performing Arts Group found has found the percentage of government funding has decreased, while reliance on box-office revenue has risen. This has forced companies to produce less adventurous work, according to the companies. Most say they have had to program more conservative repertoire, including light comedies or Broadway hits, to ensure their ticket sales remain strong.

The article reports that the STC's subsidy is a footling 7.5 per cent, compared to subsidies in Britain of 40 to 50 per cent (don't even think about Europe, where funding can be 80 per cent). Furthermore, the Herald Sun this morning reports that although MTC box office takings have gone up 66 per cent since 1998, from $21 million to $33.2 million, average show production costs have been cut by 9 per cent. And because large cast shows are getting more and more difficult to mount, acting jobs in the major companies are down by 15 per cent.

I guess these figures speak for themselves. And these, remember, are the "rich" companies.


Anonymous said...

Having just seen "The Odyssey" (reviewed in Theatre Notes previously) in Perth, I'd say it is not the funding that is the problem but how the funding is spent. Check how much of funding goes on administration and ridiculously expensive production costs! While most Perth Theatres are dark because of exorbitant rents, The Festival puts on two shows in the the Showgrounds! "The Odyssey" had to have a concrete stage laid for the revolve and a makeshift amphitheatre created because someone apparently sent the wrong measurements! (There are already at least three permanent amphitheatres in Perth.)
Perhaps if these companies could get back to staging some original shows (rather than adaptations of novels or Homeric poems) as simply as possible using actors and simple costumes and cut down on their ambitions to 'compete internationally' with companies that are provided with the wherewithal by more sympathetic governments, their problems wouldn't be quite so major.
Thank Heaven for your reviewer having the courage to tell the emperor he was naked: "The Odyssey" was an exorbitantly expensive, well-organized wank from start to finish!

Alison Croggon said...

Thank you...and yes, the question, beyond funding, of what is done with the money actually to hand is, I agree, the unacknowledged elephant in the bathroom. Much as I disliked The Odyssey, I confess I would rather see a disaster like that than well-mannered issue plays or Broadway fluff or West End hits; I'll gesture to the Royal Court's (was it?) defence of the "right to fail" here.

But I do feel often that the oft-quoted defence of state theatre companies - that they have to put commercial works in order to survive - is somewhat questionable: would they really put on anything more risky if they had the money? I suspect it would be hard to see that happening - the MTC still seems fixated on the well-made play as a model for new theatre. The STC only put on Barker (and again, Victory is an early play, and perhaps less experimental than his later work) because they had the ideal double bill in Judy Davis and Colin Friels - had Davis not desired to direct it, it would never have been considered for programming. As it was, they had a succes de scandale plus two stars - box office dynamite. Aside from anomalies like this, it's hard to discern anything like a vision - in the wider sense as it is understood in European and British theatre - in our major companies. I will say that the Malthouse's invitation of independent artists into the Tower is letting in a bit of air, and it's good to see innovative talents who have been routinely ignored in mainstream theatre, Sarah Cathcart for example, getting a guernsey.