Fundraising For Theatre: The Profitable Season


Welcome to the third installment of our series on fundraising strategies for small theatres.  If you haven’t already, go back to the Spotlight On Musicals blog and check out  Part 1 where we covered applying for arts grants and Part 2 where discussed Crowdfunding.  In this installment we are focusing on the importance of putting together a well-rounded AND profitable season.

PART 3:  The profitable season

Yes, ticket sales are not usually thought of as fundraising but many school theatres are beginning to realize what most non-profit theatres already know: some productions make money and some lose money but offering a diverse range of shows throughout the year ensures that there will always be funds on hand.  The mission of school theatres and non-profits is not to make money, but when funding is in short supply it pays to balance out the special effects laden mega musicals with low-cost, high appeal productions.

And what are these mythical money makers?   Well, that answer depends on the talent and resources that you have on hand, as well as the interests of your audience.  For starters, ditch that old assumption that musicals have to be big and expensive productions. Thanks to a new crop of small cast, small set musicals like Calvin Berger or You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown theatres can present award winning musicals for the cost of Our Town.  

Even musicals that were once out of reach for smaller theatre programs are now becoming accessible to all as the various licensing houses release revised versions specifically created for smaller theatres.  For instance, Tams-Witmark recently released an “Ensemble Version” of the epic Tony winning musical Titanic, which can be presented with a minimalist set and a reduced cast and orchestra (just don’t call it the “Tiny Ticharlie brown christmastanic”!).

And don’t forget about the holiday musical.  Perennial favorites, like A Charlie Brown Christmasare cheap and easy to produce but come with a guaranteed audience that has been built up over years of nostalgia and tradition.  Just a word of warning for school theatres: consider your local audience (and your school superintendent) before you pick a holiday show with a strong religious message.

In addition to the tried and true shows, schools can turn to their own students for original material.  We have heard of schools filling seats with everything from Improv shows to student-written comedy and one-acts.   Gershwin may be a household name all over the world but your students are household names in their own community.  If they put in the work to create something new, their friends and family will show up to see it performed on stage.

Finally, don’t be afraid to think outside the box and create a night to remember by setting up tables and chairs and turning your theatre into an old fashioned cabaret or comedy club.  Look beyond your theatre students for other students (musicians, dancers, singers, comedians) with an interest in performing.  Its a guaranteed money maker and a great way to connect to talented students who never had an interest in theatre before.

One school that tipped us off to the fund-your-show-with-another-show strategy was Newton North High School in Newton, Massachusetts.  They produce one big musical every Spring – Cabaret and Anything Goes are recent titles – followed by a smaller musical towards the end of the academic year, but they also produce around ten other shows throughout the year.  The result is that the program is entirely financially self-sufficient!  The program’s chairman, Adam Brown, swears by this strategy:

Put up three nights of improv, eight bucks a ticket, 150 folks in the audience and that’s thirty-six hundred bucks.  And all you’ve paid is a hundred bucks to print posters and tickets: no sets, no musicians, lights are up-down… And the kids love it. They get together every day after school, you learn a lot doing improv.

Most importantly, presenting a wide range of theatre is not only good for your budget, it is also great for your students.  Smaller productions allow individuals to take on more responsibility and student-created productions help develop valuable skills such as writing, directing, collaborating, and producing original theatre.  Finally, a diverse theatrical season will broaden students’ concept of what is possible with theatre and that is an accomplishment well worth working for.