Thursday, June 25, 2009

Practical Suggestions for Collaboration in the Theatre Sector

In the light of the presentations made at the Theatre Forum Conference and in the light of the Arts Council’s document “EXAMINING NEW WAYS TO FUND THE PRODUCTION AND PRESENTATION OF THEATRE” I would like to make the following observations and practical suggestions


The call from the conference was to collaborate or collapse. Find new ways of working or not work at all.

I'm not very good at the grand concept so I want to outline a way of thinking, and a plan of action.

First the problem is systemic and two fold.

* Over the years we have become dependent on a single revenue stream;
* The supply of cash has dried up.

If this is the problem then we have to find solutions to both our dependency and the cash supply problem. I'll return to this in a moment.

Annette Clancy posed a very interesting question during the panel discussion: what have we done with all the money. Here's an answer: we have invested in the development of a human and capital infrastructure of considerable resilience and cash generating potential when viewed as a unified whole and not as a loose assembly of disparate organisations, each fighting its own corner for a share of an ever decreasing pie. If we damage that infrastructure now its ability to earn will be greatly diminished.

OK lets go back to the solution:

The theatre sector – according to the ITI is 85 venues of various size and 146 production companies (some of them I assume are no longer in operation, but it’s still a significant number) spread across the country.

Extrapolating out from my experience as a venue manager and as a company manager I would estimate that together they have mailing lists of about 350,000. According to a DataBox representative this network of 85 venues and 146 production companies generates online ticket sales per month of in excess of €400K; according to Heather Maitland its becoming increasingly skilled at audience data capture, and audience segmentation, which means that those lists are growing and that they are being well managed.

The theatre sector, our industry of 85 venues and 146 production companies, needs to realise the earning potential and sustainability of the sector as a whole. No single organisation can leverage the kind of investment and support the whole sector can when we act together. Here’s how we can do that.


We all know how difficult it is secure meaningful sponsorship for our venue or our company. But imagine this: we walk into a sponsor with a shiny powerpoint presentation that says do you want to be part of a year long event that happens throughout the country every week, with mailing lists of 350,00 and growing, with print and advertising opportunities continuous throughout the year, with thousands of unique web visitors per month and the added PR opportunity of saving an entire art form?

We have a chance of securing the second largest sponsorship deal in the country.

Tie this into the planned national campaign being developed by the Arts Council to promote the arts with Failte Ireland and this has very considerable earning potential.

I've heard the argument that this wouldn't work because the big organisations would take the most – but that’s what's happening now! Precisely because they are large they are attracting the support. But how much could we raise if we stop seeing lots of small companies and organisations and see one very large, multi-faceted network?

T he GAA were constantly referenced at the Conference. They have done this and the money HAS passed down to the clubs. Of course there are issues about how the money would be divided. But not to act on this NOW is like not getting into a lifeboat because we can’t agree on the style of rowing.


Nearly every venue in the country has outsourced its outline ticketing to DataBox or a similar CRM provider. Until recently it took two weeks for the money from an online sale to arrive in a venues account. Also Databox had a charge on every transaction.

If the sector (that’s all of us acting together) controlled the online ticketing then the booking charges could accrue to the sector (that’s about €30,000 per month). Also if we agreed that all on-line sales that pass through our wholly owned online booking system be allowed to sit in an account for a month then we would be moving toward a situation where we would have an amount in excess of €400,000 permanantly on deposit, earning interest, throughout the year.


The GAA (again) as well as many other representative organisations use affinity schemes. Here’s how they work. There is a particular telecoms provider that runs a scheme whereby any individual or organisation affilliated to the GAA can switch to their telecoms service and have their monthly bill reduced by 10%. The telecoms provider will then pay 15% of that phone bill to the GAA EVERY MONTH.

If we assume that we have mailing lists of 350,000; if we assume that we convince 30% of our collective mailing lists to switch to our telecom provider within the next 18 months; if we assume that the average domestic bill is €35per month...

Then in 18 months time we would have a monthly income of €551,250, that’s €6,615,000 per year...

So that’s income from Sponsorship, interest on deposits, and affinity schemes, which when taken together have serious earning potential. And we haven't sold a single extra ticket....


We are all of us running around looking for the secret millionaire angel, operating small friends and patrons schemes - but alone we are too small to attract the serious donation. Together we can put in place a National Endowment for the Art of Theatre Trust Fund and we can actively pursue those elusive millionaires to leave some money in their will until over time we have an a trust dedicated to the art of theatre. It's not that hard to convince a wealthy actor to assign their back end rights in one movie for the good of all actors in Ireland. (The Screen Actors Guild of America and British already operate such funds – usually for pension purposes).

I’ve outlined four simple strategies (and by the way I’ve spoken to a number of Sponsorship Brand Managers, Financial Managers, and Affinity Scheme Operators and they have all agreed that there is no reason why this couldn’t work – but that it requires the sector, that’s all of us, to act together) that can use leverage the power of the sheer size of the theatre sector to generate multiple revenue streams over time.

Of course there are problems with all of this and of course the devil is in the detail.

But to answer the question what have we have built over the years is: we have put in place the elements of an infrastructure with enormous earning potential and the capacity to work with the funding agents as equals and not as dependents; an infrastructure that is flexible and resilient. All we have to do is join up the dots and realise that our venue, our company, and our talent is a part of a very powerful system. If we look out from our own anxious and nervous positions and realise what we can achieve collectively we can create work rather than shedding it and we can build a resilient industry in which there is room for all of us.

All of this has to happen now before a substantial part of the existing infrastructure is dismantled.