Theatre: Who Pays and Why

Posted on 03 July 2015

Traditionally arts have always had a difficult time in gathering money for the creation of new works and the support of our artists. Main sources are governments, rich philanthropists, audiences, and extra jobs.

With governments and benefactors it always feels like begging. Funding through ticket purchases feels like a purer relationship. The problem is that until you are a known quantity, you are back to begging in order to get bums on seats. Working extra jobs gives you less time to develop skills and express your art. I know far too many actors and writers who are chronically deprived of sleep and suffer from extreme stress. The starving artist is a trope people laugh about, but if you live it…it’s absolutely miserable.

For collaborative endeavours such as theatre, the permutations of money gathering are even wider. A producer can pay for production in order to reap a percentage of the profits. A director can pay in order to ensure they get to select the work, the actors, and control the vision. The playwright can pay in order to ensure their vision is abided by one hundred percent. An actor can pay so as to have a leading role, perhaps a specific sort of leading role. A group of actors can pool money so that they have the opportunity to perform.

To a degree all these permutations are valid, provided everyone has equal access to funds and has some choice in the matter. However, we do not live in that sort of world. We live in a world where the “Golden Rule” is largely in force: those who have the gold make the rules. More than that: those who have the gold get to tell the stories.

I sat in on an event where a local playwright was discussing theatrical production. His opinion was that the playwright should pay for putting up his plays and that ethically he should only go forward with a show if he has the money to pay the actors. The actors loved hearing this, and I completely understand why. We all want to make a crust doing what we love. But the position is problematic.

This local playwright had a regular job as a highly paid lawyer. Another self-funded show I saw recently, the playwright was a fellow who was a highly paid IT professional. These white men could afford creating theatre and paying everyone. Because they are both good at what they do, the money mostly comes back. However, not all playwrights have this luxury. And to develop as a playwright, you need people willing to perform in your works from the very beginning, when you aren’t so polished and may not make your money back.

Australian Arts Minister George Brandis has cut $105 million from the arts budget and has stipulated that remaining funds must go to large traditional arts groups such as the symphony or opera. Small to medium arts endeavours are likely to disappear under this arrangement. Those that remain will be the ones where rich white men, who may or may not have any talent, can afford creating something rather than buying a Ferrari.

To be fair some of these rich white men will be on the side of a humane society. However, this means women, young people, elderly, disabled, ethnic, gay, and others who are disempowered will have little opportunity to have their own voices heard, their own worldview understood. Since the 1970s 85% of all Australian films were directed by men. The proportion of men to women screenwriters and directors has not changed much for twenty-five years, with women making up less than 20% of the market in those fields. To say to your culture’s sub-classes that they shouldn’t create theatre, if they can’t afford to pay the actors, is a cool way to knock out competition and ensure only the stories of the dominant class are given public currency while appearing righteous.

I would say what is being done by the Australian government goes further than making it difficult to create art. They are in fact doing what they can to shut down dissent. Dictatorships regularly employ this tactic in order to entrench their power. People find it easy to see art as a luxury, but artists are the people who ring the alarm bells, hold a mirror up to society, create alternatives, and engender resilience, bonding, and cooperation. Healthy societies have a healthy artistic community. If you are seeing less and less new art, local art, community art, then understand you are in a country that is self-destructing. If artists are being silenced, then you are in a country that has turned into a despotic regime.

Let’s start creating change.

Peace and kindness,


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