How to build a project - How funding is achieved

We are in between projects at the moment. We have lots of ideas bubbling away and we are keen to get started, but it all depends on funding! 

Many people think getting funding is just a case of filling in a form, sending it off and then waiting to see if it is accepted. Well, yes that is a part of it, but there is far more to it than that. Firstly, it is very rare that an organisation will fund the whole cost of a project. Any theatre project is a mixture of funding streams, so this could mean part box office, part grants (from several organisations), part sponsorship, part other sources such as running workshops, selling merchandise etc. All this has to be balanced. Box office is the scariest. We can estimate how tickets will sell, but it is not until the show has finished that we can have a final figure on this. So the producer takes a huge risk. If the show doesn’t sell, the producer still has to pay the bills, the actors and the team. Often theatre just breaks even. Often producers do lose money, so it’s not something many people take on and it is certainly not to be taken lightly.

People often ask about the cost of tickets. Why are they not cheaper? Producers will estimate what they can charge for a ticket based on the type of venue, the local demographic, the complexity of the show etc. So for a small fringe production with a very small cast in a perhaps shabby fringe venue tickets may be quite cheap even in London, but for a show with a much larger cast in a bigger and more comfortable theatre, tickets will be far more expensive. But it is often at fringe venues that you will see new and more cutting-edge work. It is more experimental so it is sometimes harder to get an audience as people are not sure what they will be getting for their money. They are less keen to take a risk. I’ve seen some amazing shows on the fringe that have gone onto become major successes, but even the ones that haven’t they have still been worth seeing. I’m often keen to take students to see them as even if the show doesn’t quite “cut it” it is still useful for students to see it as they can really sharpen their critical skills. It a show is lacking in some way it is a very good exercise to pin down why. What didn’t work? Was it the writing, the actors, the direction, the design, the lighting etc. It’s fun to have those discussions.

Back to funding though and the grant side of things. As previously mentioned it is not just filling in a form. It can take months to make partnerships with other organisations who will be key to the project’s success. That takes many meetings to develop the project and often many of the team are freelance. Whilst no money has been achieved they are effectively working for free. Then of course people will ask them to cut their fees as “money is tight”! There is an assumption by many that people who work in the arts do it for fun and for some reason never have any bills to pay. They are told “We have no money, but this will look good on your CV!”. So paying everyone the going rate (which is often the minimum wage) is difficult, but it can and should be done in professional theatre. That is why many new plays have no more than five characters. The more actors on stage the most expensive it gets. 

Of course, in amateur theatre actors aren’t paid and there are some superb amateur companies producing amazing work. However, any amateur company still has to pay for royalties for many plays, for theatre hire, rehearsal space, costumes, set, props, lighting, sound, marketing, programmes, transport, insurance- the list goes on. Theatre is an expensive undertaking. So next time you go to the theatre perhaps spare a thought for how it was funded. If it is a small fringe production or a local amateur production support the company by buying a programme or giving a donation. It doesn’t have to be a large donation. Every little helps and it will help keep theatre alive.

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