Spokane Journal of Business

Filling seats, finding fans

Business of theater proves to be an intricate dance

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-—Daniel Baumer/The Modern Theater
Inland Northwest performers put on the musical “Rock of Ages” at The Modern Theater in Coeur d’Alene earlier this fall. Business sponsorships help such shows pencil out.

Flying in this fall, “Catch Me If You Can” at Spokane Civic Theatre gained some financial altitude from such noteworthy sponsors as Delta Airlines and Spokane International Airport.

However, ticket sales didn’t go as well as expected for the season opener, says Civic’s artistic director Keith Dixon. He looks overall at the 2015-16 season of 10 to 12 shows from a balancing perspective as expenses line up for building upkeep, staff, and production costs, even with all-volunteer casts. Royalties alone for the recent production cost $20,000.

It’s a constant behind-the-scenes dance: creating artful entertainment that draws audiences while managing a playhouse’s business side.

“The business of theater is never an easy one,” says Dixon, who uses an analogy. “We take a product, we create a store to sell the product in, which is the set along with props, and we train people to provide the product. We open the store for that product on the day we say we will. We do that 10 or 12 times a year.”

Operating since 1947, Civic does draw audiences. Between 35,000 and 40,000 people come through the doors every year, Dixon says.

The nonprofit’s owned building at 1020 N. Howard includes a 339-seat main theater and an 88-seat venue downstairs. With an annual operating budget of about $1.2 million, Civic has nine full-time and about 15 part-time workers, some who clock only three hours a week, Dixon says. Mainly, it relies on about 500 volunteers.

Beyond Civic and The Modern Theater here, several smaller groups deliver stage entertainment, including Blue Door Theatre, Ignite Community Theatre, Stage Left Theater, and Liberty Lake Theatre. Additionally, a Best of Broadway series runs annually at the INB Performing Arts Center, often drawing what’s estimated to be at least half of its customers from outside a 100-mile circle of Spokane. 

Overall, theater productions here bring an economic impact that’s difficult to measure, but recognized anecdotally, as audiences frequently pair shows with restaurant, store, and hotel visits. 

That’s showbiz, but it feels more like tightrope walking, says George Green, executive artistic director of The Modern, which operates a Coeur d’Alene theater and one in Spokane. Nonprofit playhouses balance creating impactful shows at affordable seat rates with a business mindset so bills get paid and doors stay open, Green says.

“It’s getting people to understand that quality productions are happening here, and that we need to invest in this community resource,” he says. “People are amazed how much theater and art can impact real estate prices and getting people and businesses to move here because we have culture. That’s the nonprofit part, but to be successful, we have to act like a business.” 

Green estimates costs to produce a show range from $7,000 to $40,000, with musicals frequently costing more. The Modern operates as a professional theater, meaning it pays performers, musicians, and technical crew for shows, or at least gives them a stipend, he says. 

Modern’s finances are relatively strong, with a $700,000 annual operating budget and more than 1,000 season ticket holders. That follows a merger last year when the former Spokane Interplayers, facing closure at 174 S. Howard, opted to give operational control to Lake City Playhouse in Coeur d’Alene, which Green led. The new entity rebranded as The Modern and has six full-time and eight part-time employees to run the leased Spokane site and its owned theater, at 1320 E. Garden in Coeur d’Alene. 

The process also meant assuming Interplayers’ debt of roughly $100,000 last year, nearly 50 percent of which was back payroll taxes, Green says. 

“We had to be clever and frugal to mount successful productions,” he says, adding that most of that debt is paid down, with close to $10,000 remaining. “We still have a long road in Spokane.”

Growing in popularity since 2010, the Coeur d’Alene venue operates at an 85 percent occupancy rate while Spokane’s rate is at about 38 percent, but the goal is to raise that to 50 percent by next year’s season, he says. About $50,000 toward Spokane building updates is set for this fall through work coordinated by KXLY 4’s Extreme Team. A subsequent winter project will remove some seats to bring the theater on par with Coeur d’Alene’s 160 seats, Green says, and thereby provide a more intimate feel.

Another focus will involve marketing high-caliber performances while courting season ticket holders. 

“Back in 2010, when we started a renaissance in Coeur d’Alene, we had a $60,000 budget and 60 total season ticket holders,” Green says. “Now, we have over 1,000 season ticket holders on both sides, and a $700,000 annual operating budget.”

The Modern’s 2015-16 season of 14 shows launched with “Rock of Ages” and “Other Desert Cities.” It brings work for more than 200 technicians, musicians, and performers, Green says. STCU is a season sponsor, and all of the Spokane theater’s individual shows have business sponsors. 

“We anticipate a very high renewal rate of season ticket holders and business sponsors,” he says. “In roughly another month, we’re getting ready to announce the 2016-17 year, and this is prime time for businesses to look at us.”

As a community theater, Spokane Civic also relies on corporate backers, such as season sponsor Edward Jones & Co., along with individual donors, season ticket holders, general ticket sales, and grants. Upcoming shows range from “Little Women” to “White Christmas.” 

Civic also derives income with Little Shop of Rentals for customers to lease from costume inventories. That shop temporarily moved out of the building, a change that didn’t prove successful, and is now back onsite.

Unforeseen costs like that, along with general overhead, add up to a tight year, Dixon says, though the mission isn’t to make money but rather to provide service and opportunities for people to experience theater, back or front stage. But he adds he’d like to see a higher rate of donor-backed funding for breathing room. 

“No, we’re not doing great financially,” he says. “Until there is a strong enough foundation of community support, we’re going to continue to struggle.”

He adds that he plans to do more to raise community awareness of the Civic’s role and needs. It also provides theater classes, he says, adding, “Overhead is what gets us.”

For newcomer Stage Left Theater, at 108 W. Third, low overhead was behind its launch. A first play opened April 2013 months after the nonprofit’s president, semi-retired physicist Robert Nelson, purchased the structure and did most of the remodeling work to install 62 auditorium seats and a stage. 

“I purchased the building with the intent to open the theater,” Nelson says of the all-volunteer theater nonprofit. “Our intention was to find a place with low enough overhead to where we could have shows that aren’t mass-marketed, that could have some political or intellectual edge. I have not had to put any money in the last year, so I guess that means we’re surviving. It has been self-supporting.”

Blue Door Theatre also relies solely on volunteers for comedy improv. Jonathan Black, board president, says the group leases its 82-seat facility at 815 W. Garland as a nearly 20-year nonprofit with $7 ticket prices.

“People are still itching for live theater entertainment,” says Black, adding that box-office income has increased 10 percent to 12 percent per year since 2010. “We’re proud of the fact that our theater remains in the black.”

He claims audiences hover around 50 percent return customers, 10 percent to 20 percent attending with a friend previously at the theater, and 25 percent first-timers. “We have about 5 to 10 percent out-of-towners. We survey everyone who comes in to buy a ticket and have been for years tracking that.”

It’s often a place for young-crowd first dates, he says, and the group earns income by offering classes, business team-building sessions, and paid gigs at company events.

Meanwhile, family-oriented performances are the focus of Liberty Lake Theater, says president Jennifer Ophardt. 

“Financially, our doors are still open but it’s always a struggle to make sure we have everything paid off. Somehow, our community pulls together and supports us,” Ophardt says.

That company strives to bring theater experiences for children and first-time actors. It leases a former warehouse space at 22910 E. Appleway and relies on ticket sales, fundraisers, and businesses giving in-kind and financial support for five main-stage shows and four reader’s theater productions. 

“We do productions from comedies to musicals,” Ophardt says. “I feel our community is getting more involved than they were two years ago, but we’re still getting people who say they didn’t know we were here.” 

Another community theater, Ignite, rents a 100-seat auditorium at 10814 E. Broadway from Spokane Valley Partners to hold five annual productions and two reader’s theaters, says board president, Marty Kittelson.

“It’s a tight budget show-to-show, but we’ve managed to pay the bills for 11 seasons,” she says. 

Theaters do sometimes compete for audiences and actors but smaller theaters can be “feeders” to develop local talent, she adds. 

Treva Lind
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