City Paper is not for tourists
This week’s story about the fate of the Source Theatre space (“Arts for Arts Space,” 8/11) has some people wondering whether I thought hard enough about the questions I raised. My reasoning was flawed, one correspondent suggests, and my analysis incomplete—at least when it comes to what constitutes affordable performance space for a small theater company. Besides, would I rather have the pool hall?
My correspondent suggests that the projected $3,000 cost of renting the new Source space for a four-week, off-hours run is in fact pretty cheap, if you think about it in terms of how many seats the place has. That math goes like this: Four weeks x five performances x 150 seats = 3,000 seats. Why, that’s only $1 a seat to rent the place! And producers sell those seats for as much as $25 each! How is that not affordable?
Now, that correspondent acknowledges that a producer can’t budget for a sellout smash—but even if the show played to half-full houses, the cost would be a mere $2 per occupied seat. Still, how is that not affordable?
Here’s how. Or at least here are three realities that aren’t factored into that equation yet:
- Even assuming half-full houses is an enormous stretch for a genuinely small theater company doing anything but the most familiar, mainstream work—especially if we’re talking an off-hours run. Because at the Source space, “half full” translates to an average of 75 people in the audience every night. And in 11 years as a critic covering theaters large and small in this town, I’ve been to many a weekend show, to say nothing of a Wednesday-night or Sunday-afternoon performance, with fewer than 20 people in the house. The Washington Shakespeare Company, unless I misremember, played to a crowd of 13, including nonpaying myself and my nonpaying guest, on one particular weekend evening this past June—after a positive Washington Post review of its beautifully staged Two-Headed. And WSC is a mid-size company with a 15-year track record, a PR budget, and an aggressive e-mail marketing operation.
- Likewise, a $15 ticket price is probably a more reasonable assumption for a small company than $25 or even $20—and even then it’s worth noting that Catalyst Theater, which until recently charged $20 to $30 depending on the night, has abandoned that pricing structure in part because they couldn’t fill a house that’s nowhere near as large as the Source space.
- Lastly, many truly small companies can’t manage five shows a week. Four strikes me as the more common model (qua Catalyst’s eleemosynary, for example, or Solas Nua’s most recent production), though I admit I haven’t done a comprehensive survey. And Landless Theatre’s upcoming production of Cannibal: The Musical is scheduled to run twice a week. Four performances changes all the calculus above; anything less throws it out the window.
So let’s run those numbers again: Four weeks x four performances x 150 seats X a more realistic 20-percent occupancy rate = a grand total of 480 paying customers. Let’s assume each paying customer coughed up $20—but remember, that’s not the conservative assumption. That’s $9,600 in revenue.
Now what’s affordable? A $3,075 rental space, representing more than 30 percent of your earned income and an occupied-seat cost of $6.25? You’ve still got actors, designers, carpenters, the director, and maybe the playwright’s royalties to pay.
Oh, and no: I wouldn’t rather have the pool hall. I just have questions, and it seems to me that when I have ’em, it’s my job to ask ’em.
If you’ve produced theater in D.C., or if you’ve worked with a small company, I’d love to hear your thoughts. The financial challenges of putting on a show here may be something most of us—not even most theater writers—don’t think about enough. So enlighten us. The comments thread is open.