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A Look at How Local Theaters Fund Productions

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When you buy tickets to a show at a theater, you often have to decide where you want to sit and what price you can afford. But it's likely not on your mind what it cost to put the production on the stage.

At Great Lakes Theater, for example, the price of admission only covers about half of what it costs to build and produce shows. 

“Almost no production ever earns enough in direct ticket revenue to cover its direct production expenses," according to Bob Taylor, executive director at Great Lakes Theater.

It takes funding from a variety of other sources for Great Lakes Theater to produce shows, which includes building the sets, costumes and props, at the Hanna Theatre in Playhouse Square. Tickets there range between $15-80.

“In our industry we kind of differentiate between what is a producing theater versus what is a presenting theater. A producing theater is building: We are a manufacturing company," Taylor said. "Whereas a presenting show arrives on a couple of big trucks, plants itself for a few weeks and goes away. “

Touring productions rely more heavily on ticket revenue to cover costs and – if successful – bring in extra revenue.

Cleveland Play House Managing Director Kevin Moore said they also rely on a variety of revenue sources to cover about 50 percent of what tickets don’t cover. Ticket prices for shows there generally range from $25-100.

“We do go to the community, to philanthropists, foundations, individuals, corporations and government sources to subsidize our work," Moore said. 

These local theater companies are non-profits. And another on the West Side, Cleveland Public Theatre, also must look to sources beyond tickets to fund productions. Its funding puzzle, like the other theaters, includes government funds, foundation grants, individual philanthropists and other sources. 

“Theater and the arts are really as important as a school, as important as medicine, because it makes us healthy in a different way,” said Raymond Bobgan, executive artistic director at Cleveland Public Theatre.

He also said his organization relies more heavily on funding outside of tickets, because they try to keep prices under $30 and comparable to the cost of other entertainment, like movies and concerts. They also offer free admission to some shows.

“We want as many people in our community to come together to witness plays and experience this together as possible. That’s our number one goal. Now we have to pay for that, and so it is nice if some of that revenue can be related to those people coming in," he said. 

All of the theaters also offer a variety of discounts as a way to help get people, including students, in the door.

And they don’t want attendance number to dictate what they do.

“Every story we tell is important to the community, and some of them deal with important, hard-hitting issues. And they may not sell as many tickets, but it doesn’t change the importance of the community hearing that story," Moore said. 

Carrie Wise is the deputy editor of arts and culture at Ideastream Public Media.