News / Calgary

Funding crisis hits Calgary theatre companies as ticket sales drop

With shrinking corporate donations and falling box office, the arts are in trouble

While shows like the Nutcracker have become annual family traditions with high sales, Alberta Ballet still needs corporate donations to break even.

Courtesy Paul McGrath

While shows like the Nutcracker have become annual family traditions with high sales, Alberta Ballet still needs corporate donations to break even.

Every night, Calgary’s theatres pull back the curtain to a world of magic – but pull that curtain back a little further, and you’ll find that magic doesn’t come cheap.

Most theatre companies in the city would agree that their funding comes from three main areas: one-third from government grants, one-third from corporate sponsorships and one-third from the box office.

Unfortunately, Calgary is in the midst of an economic downturn, so many of these companies have seen a significant drop in corporate sponsorships and ticket sales.

“I think that’s pretty universal across the sector in Alberta – it’s a ripple effect because of the price of oil. Everyone has had to prioritize,” said Jennifer Faulkner, grant manager with Alberta Ballet.

When Alberta Ballet launched their version of the Nutcracker, it cost more than $1.5 million to produce.

Courtesy Jen Gibson

When Alberta Ballet launched their version of the Nutcracker, it cost more than $1.5 million to produce.

Shrinking corporate donations

For many of Calgary’s big guns in theatre, they can’t break even on ticket sales alone.

Earlier this year at the annual Mayor’s Arts Lunch, Bob McPhee, general director with the Calgary Opera, said even if they sold out every show in their 2,000 seat venue, they still wouldn’t break even.

Remember, the majority of these organizations are not-for-profits, so they focus on putting out a certain quality of work, rather than maximizing financial growth.

They count on individual and corporate donations – but when a company is laying off workers, it’s hard to turn around and give money to the arts.

One Yellow Rabbit said they lost a major funder this year, which they’ve been working to replace with other smaller funders – a strategy companies like Alberta Theatre Projects, Alberta Ballet and many others have been trying as well. They’re looking to build relationships in sectors other than energy, especially going into 2017.

There’s no substantial new funding coming from any level of government at the moment, so that leaves them to make up the lost money through ticket sales.

But there’s a huge dilemma in doing that.

While corporate donations have fallen, even Alberta Theatre Projects hasn’t seen individual donors withdraw support for shows like Slipper.

Aaron Chatha / Metro

While corporate donations have fallen, even Alberta Theatre Projects hasn’t seen individual donors withdraw support for shows like Slipper.

Increasing ticket prices

Low-ticket prices keep the theatre accessible.

Even the smallest show in One Yellow Rabbit’s High Performance Rodeo festival – we’re talking a minimal, one-person show here – still costs about $30,000 to $40,000 to put up.

Scale up for larger, more lavish shows and costs grow into the seven figures - When Alberta Ballet first put up the Nutcracker, it cost more than $1.5 million.

“People don’t realize, but the performing arts are expensive, because they need resources, lights, sounds and the stage to work properly,” said Ann Connors, managing director at One Yellow Rabbit.

Connors said they strive to keep ticket prices at around $45, but if all they had was the box office to keep the company afloat, those ticket prices would range from $75 to $100.

Vicky Stroich, executive director with Alberta Theatre Projects, said ticket prices start at $25. If they had to break even with just the box office, that would mean an increase to $75, and that’s for their lowest ticket price.

Connor’s concern is Calgary audiences aren’t willing to pay that much for the theatre – and in this economy, people are a lot more frugal with their money.

In fact, just like corporate donations, theatre companies across the board are reporting a dip in ticket sales already.

Sage Theatre relies more on individual donations, from people interested in seeing smaller, personal shows like Bea find a place in the Calgary scene.

Courtesy Jeff McDonald

Sage Theatre relies more on individual donations, from people interested in seeing smaller, personal shows like Bea find a place in the Calgary scene.

Surviving the downturn

So, if these theatre companies are losing corporate donations and can’t recoup the money by increasing ticket prices, what are they to do?

Well, so far we’ve been talking about the bigger companies in town – but it’s actually mid-and-smaller-level theatre companies that hold the key to survival.

See, the guys and gals at places like Sage Theatre and Downstage Theatre aren’t feeling the corporate burn so much as their larger-scale peers. Because of their size, corporations actually don’t donate to them so often – the trade-off for marketing just isn’t worth it.

Instead, these theatre companies rely on individual donors to make up that third of their budget.

“One of the things we started to do a few years ago is make a lot of meaningful connections with people in a way that would elicit small scale investments or donations,” said Simon Mallet, Downstage Theatre artistic director. “So we have a higher number of donors, including some whose gifts are smaller in nature than others.”

Jason Mehmel, Sage Theatre artistic director, said their big challenge actually comes from competing with Netflix, stay-at-home culture. Because of their small budgets and their large competition, they focus on bringing really unique, personal shows to the stage – it has to be an experience beyond just a good story to get people out of the house.

It’s their rise to these challenges that have created emotional ties to individual donors, who want to see these companies succeed.

While the big boys in town aren’t completely writing off corporate sponsors – there’s still an important amount of money to be found there – there has been a move to build new relationships with other industries, and other individuals.

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