5 Ways To Fund a Play
Updated: Aug 26, 2018
Having made the scary but exciting transition from being an actor / director to also being a producer, I've learnt a lot about the other side of the stage that I didn't know before: the thrilling side of admin and finance. From our experience, here are the top options available for funding a theatre project in five main categories:
1) REACH OUT TO THE ARTS COUNCIL
This process involves a lengthy application form and should usually (although it's not always the way) be given either to projects with a community, charitable or educational focus, or given to companies with lower financial status.
I have applied for this twice: Firstly with Go People for one of our first projects which we were certain would be rejected (and in my opinion quite rightly - arts council funding needs to prioritise people and companies without the education / privilege to raise money through other means) but we wanted to learn the system. The second time was an application made by another company for a show I was directing at Stratford East called JOY - a small budget play giving opportunities to actors with learning disabilities, we had high hopes for success but again were rejected.
The arts council is an incredible funding body and supports a huge amount of work, but with massive cuts happening every year it cannot be relied upon as a safe bet - often applications take a long time to be processed and a late application rejection can leave theatre companies owing a lot of money and in a bit of a pickle. It is worth mentioning that there are plenty of other funding bodies that offer grants to applicants and support a lot of new writing and up and coming artists. Again these tend to require lengthy applications and are often highly competitive but incredibly rewarding if you come out on top. An excellent list of these other options can be found here.
2) GET YOURSELF CROWDFUNDING
Companies like Crowdfunder and Kickstarter have revolutionised the way theatre can be financed over the last few years. We did a campaign for our second big public show Almost, Maine at Park Theatre, and through a lot of harassing friends and family we managed to make what we needed. This was only a portion of our budget but being a gift rather than a loan it made an immeasurable difference to our break-even figures and enabled us to launch into our second year as a company not in debt.
The issue is that there is a finite number of times your nearest and dearest are going to want to / be able to donate to projects, and also in many instances if you don't make the full amount you've asked for you get nothing. It has become an unfortunate instinct in most of us to roll our eyes when we see another artist friend wanting our money for something : 'if everyone spared the price of one coffee we can make our play'. The reality is that this statement is true and if the people around you are able / generous it can be an incredible platform for fundraising but not without its risks.
3) TRY A PROFIT SPLIT
This model is one we have never tried and as much as I completely understand and empathise with why companies do this, it's not something I particularly agree with. In these shows the producers will set all their costs (or the majority of them) against ticket sales and then the fee for those involved - cast and crew - will come out of the profit.
The issues with this are multiple.
We can never rely on audience coming - even shows reviewed at 5 stars can struggle to sell - the zeitgeist is an unpredictable beast. Secondly, very few fringe shows make any real profit. Most producers will set their break-even level at around 60% ticket sales if they are able, which may sound low but is still not always achievable. In most cases of profit split, the actors and stage management end up not getting paid at all. There are so many of us who are happy to give our time and skill for free to projects we believe in, so (despite my reservations) it's a model that will almost certainly continue.
The Writers' Union have created a handy guide for writers working on profit split productions, which can be found here. Actors and crew, just stay savvy. Jump on board with a project as long as you'd be happy receiving nothing financial at the end.
4) HUNT OUT SOME INVESTORS
This is how the majority of the big budget shows work and we had our first real experience of building an investor group for our most recent public production of Daisy Pulls It Off (again at Park Theatre). You create an investment pack that clearly outlines your pre-production and running costs, your estimated ticket sales, break-even points and profit margins and then you send it to individuals and companies with a love for theatre (or gambling)!
With this model the show becomes a pitch-able product and you spread the relevant proportion of both the potential loss and profit between those investing. If your profit margins are solid (a show with huge pre-sales, successful transfers etc) then this can be a fairly easy task as you are offering people a good business deal. On the fringe the package is never quite so appealing but the wonderful gamblers out there are often willing to risk backing shows or companies they like in return for the fun of the involvement (press night, meeting the cast, watching rehearsals, signed programmes, a lot of love). As prolific West End producer James Bierman once told us, "You're looking for people who genuinely enjoy the flutter".
People willing to share the risk with you relies on a strong relationship of mutual trust and we have found that it inspires the whole team to work better together. It's never easy sitting opposite an investor at the end of a project and telling them that their money has gone (another warning given to us by Bierman). But equally there is nothing more thrilling than realising a show is about to break even, enabling you to return full investment to those people who gambled on you, or (even better) offering an actual profit to the people who were willing to jump off that cliff with you.
5) THE DREAM, THE HOLY GRAIL: THEATRE ANGELS
These are the appropriately named private philanthropists; wealthy individuals who love and believe in the arts and its continuation, who give money without strings attached to enable artists and companies to grow and thrive.
The relationship between a patron and their patronees is sacred.
There is often nothing driving these people other than good will and kindness (and obviously having disposable income to play with). Not owing this money back enables a company to plan ahead properly - to budget properly and have a vital cushion to allow them to take risks. Obviously it's not the easiest thing to find them. It's not every day that you stumble across someone who has the money to spare and wants to spare it on your company. But just talk to people, get your passion across, be open not embarrassed about the financial risks of theatre and over time, someone may fall from the sky.
Many of the U.K. theatres couldn't continue without their list of loyal Angels: theatres like the Almeida, the Donmar Warehouse and the Young Vic are so keen to keep ticket prices reasonable that the income from sales barely touches the sides of the cost it takes to run a theatre and mount a show.
Without a shadow of a doubt, we certainly wouldn't have made it this far without our Angels. So thank you. If you're reading. You know who you are.