Responding to the SOS calls of companies going under.
Currently, Melbourne can lay claim to being one of the country’s most diverse and active amateur theatre circuits. We have a veritable plethora of companies performing everything from spectacular big budget musicals to tiny off-off Broadway shows performed on a shoestring. Melbourne audiences are delighted time and time again by community spirit and professional standards. Yet behind the scenes, literally, many of these companies are financially flailing and some are on the brink of going under.
It’s ironic and a little sobering to think that right when we seem to have such variety and such strength in numbers, we may in fact be facing an implosion in theatre companies. With several companies up the financial creek (some quite publically, some less so), the question on everyone’s lips seems to be how to fix it. Is it simply a case of money? Is it poor management? Does it come down to show choice? Or, and this appears to be the elephant in the room, are there simply too many theatre companies and not enough audiences?
Money always seems to be the overarching factor determining the success of any company. And this is to be expected; we are all amateur companies after all, and rely on ticket sales, local sponsorships and council grants to raise the cash to put on our shows. The bottom line is, of course, that those who raise more money have it at their disposal to put on a bigger/more spectacular/more well lit/etc. productions. However, the question remains: how is this money being managed? A large company like Whitehorse, whose shows are often of a professional standard, have publically cried poor quite recently, yet continue to choose the pricey Besen Centre to house their productions. In direct contrast, Catchment Players of Darebin also made it known that they were struggling financially and chose to move their shows to the less expensive Banyule Theatre and deliberately staged a production of ‘Spelling Bee’ that had a budget that barely hit the hundreds.
Of course, no one other than those on the committees of these respective companies will be privy to their true financial situation, and the decisions made by each company are their own. The rest of us in the theatre community can only speculate (and sometimes shake our heads in bewilderment) at the decisions made by the companies around us. Those who have been on a company committee will know that the decision making processes of any theatre company, big or small, is a complex and often frustrating composite of personal agendas, generation clashes, financial helplessness, egos, and a fear of stepping away from ‘what we’ve always done’.
Perhaps one of the problems is that most theatre companies are inherently competitive rather than cooperative. And of course they must be, because we can’t deny the fact that we are all technically in competition with each other for the audience dollar. The problem is, we’re also increasingly in competition for the rights for shows (particularly premier productions), the elusive pool of male cast members, the seriously endangered rehearsal pianists, and the glory of awards. In the president’s program notes for most full scale musicals, we see phrases like ‘the company is moving from strength to strength’, and ‘every year our shows are becoming bigger and better’. These are far more tantalizing phrases than ‘this year, the company has scaled back the budget in some areas in order to maintain a more solid financial position’. Very few companies want to admit weakness, and no one wants to admit defeat, so many are blindly forging ahead, doling out money they don’t have to make each production bigger and better in the hope that it will translate into bigger and better ticket sales. But the sad fact is that this often doesn’t eventuate.
We are all struggling to get audiences. While many companies are working together to pool resources (a fine example of this is the shared resources/work/rehearsal space of Fliegner Hall), most companies cannot deny that they are intent on ‘one-upping’ the companies they perceive to be their direct competitors in size, budget and production quality. As such, the competition has a tendency to fuel ego and two things generally happen: firstly, mismanagement occurs in the quest to be the best and secondly, we see the emergence of renegade companies created by those who feel disenchanted with the theatre company with whom they were originally aligned. Often, while those who create new companies bring us great shows and discover new talent, they sometimes also fall prey to mismanagement through inexperience, ignorance or the dreaded ego. And so the cycle begins again, except now we have more companies and the same amount of audience. It seems that in some areas, supply is far outstripping demand.
Is company amalgamation the answer? Or will we see a sudden burst of companies simply folding? The rumour mill suggests that many companies are barely hanging on by the skin of their teeth; if one well known company folds, will others follow suit? So many of Melbourne’s theatre companies have a long, rich and fiercely fought history; it would be such a shame to see them go out with a whimper.
This is a highly contentious and frequently discussed issue. It is also far more complex than any of the discussion outlined above. There’s no denying that everyone has an opinion on how this issue can be resolved or improved upon, and (perhaps unfortunately) much of the time these opinions are expressed within the context of gossip, in a climate of frustration, anger or even sour grapes.
Let’s get practical, get communicating and try to stabilize our glorious amateur theatre community.