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The Economics of Theater

September 29, 2009

It’s that time of year, when the new season of theater begins.  Theater Huntsville has opened their season with You Can’t Take It with You and Fantasy Playhouse has Alice In Wonderland just around the corner.  Broadway Theatre League is gearing up for another season and the ever booked Renaissance Theater will be opening with Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus.

As always, the various local theater groups are scrapping for the cash.  I’m not saying any group is in desperate situations, but these are non-profits and this is a recession.  I’ve been scanning theater blogs, and this isn’t really a “Huntsville” problem.  Just about everyone in theater is having money issues.  But then, who isn’t?  I mean, we’re all feeling the crunch.

Yet for some reason when it comes to art in general and theater in particular, we’re the bottom of the barrel.  I get that people have less money for their entertainment budgets, yet movies are doing gangbusters.  In fact, last year’s revenues for Broadway were fantastic.  One source gives it at $943.3 Million.  Yes, Broadway nearly pulled in a billion dollars.

During the same time, wanna know what the New York Yankees brought in?  $188 million.

Wanna know where the city spent $1.1 billion?  You guessed it, building a new baseball stadium.

Why would NYC spend that on one market while practically ignoring the other?  I assure you it isn’t because the 43 Broadway production companies currently putting on shows aren’t in need of money.  Here’s how blogger 99, of the theater blog 99seats explains it in his post, Art Vs. Commerce, Round Eleventy One

I don’t think this is all news to the city. Really? They haven’t noticed a billion dollars flowing in and out of the city? Yeah, they don’t need a study to show them that theatre can generate some bucks. But…it’s still not a priority, is it?

The economic argument falls short. It just does. Because it’s not really about the money. It’s also about the culture.

Sports win out because, despite the number of people who don’t like it, who can’t afford to go to the stadium, despite the overpaid players and despicable owners, it’s still perceived as a thing of joy and beauty for the whole city. Theatre can’t shake its rep of being just for the moneyed elites. A sports team is part of the fabric of a city, the spirit of a town. Theatre is a luxury. It’s controversial, a political hot potato, and nothing anyone wants to get caught dead supporting, unless it’s something that’s going to turn a quick profit, or get them in bed with a comely chorine.

This is the bedrock truth of the thing. This country is, especially at present, incredibly hostile to the arts as a whole, in principle. My argument about making theatre necessary is about trying to change that. That’s where we start. The economic argument will always be unpersuasive. We have to dig deeper than that.

This is at the root of all of our problems in the theatre. We don’t rate enough for real government support. We’re a public good incredibly underfunded by the government. We don’t have the resources to provide our artists with a living wage or to make ticket prices low enough to reach a wider audience. Now we’re caught in a death sprial of dependence on a consistently shrinking portion of the community. That dependence leads to more separation and less support from the majority of the audience. And here we are.

And so we are.  Sports are more important to the community than Theater.  And arts in general.  When was the last time you heard about a school in the area talking about cutting the football team?  I never have.  But what about cutting the art department?  Sure.  Yet somehow a football team is a school spirit issue, yet art can’t be.

There is no good excuse.  You can’t say that sports teaches better moral values, look at A-Rod and Michael Vick.  Or the entire performance enhancing drug issue in Baseball.  And just how many times have Alabama and Auburn been on probation with the NCAA for various violations in the past decade?

No, sports has no mandate on moral superiority, and yet a town can get behind and “support” a mediocre team but can’t get behind and support a theater group that has a shot at winning a regional or national competition?  That’s happened more than once here in Huntsville.  Local groups have gone to some big time competitions and no one in town cared.  But a local sports team does well, and it’s front page news.

I know that the combination of the local theater groups aren’t inconsequential to the local community’s economics.  I know what it costs to rent the main theatrical spaces at the Von Braun Civic Center, even at the “non-profit” rates.  Not to mention the entire concept of “dinner and a show,” plus I’ve been to a few cast parties where the liquor tax alone could resurface Memorial Parkway- at least from Drake to University.

I don’t have an answer right now, I’m not sure I’ve even properly formulated a question.  But it seems clear that as Huntsville tightens the budgetary belt, once again arts will suffer.

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