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The world famous Market Theatre is perfecting another art – that of making its rand stretch. It is in dire need of funding to keep putting on polished productions.
WHILE the Market Theatre walks a tightrope as it waits for confirmation of funding, management has come up with some creative strategies to make its money go as far as possible.

 

The Market Theatre is renowed for staging world class showsThe Market Theatre is renowned for staging world class showsThere are several things on which the theatre needs to spend its limited budget, not least of which are overheads, salaries and the ever-important theatre productions.
 

Acting chief executive officer, Brooks Spector, explains that to understand how an organisation such as the Market Theatre divvies up available income, it is necessary to start at the beginning.

The Market Theatre was founded in 1976 as a non-governmental organisation. “It relied almost entirely on ticket sales and private funding,” Spector says. The theatre became internationally renowned as the “theatre of the struggle” and as a result, it was named a national cultural institution when South Africa became a democracy.

“Things changed dramatically in 1994,” he adds. While government funding became a feature of the changed times, so did the fact that private funding was drying up. “It became a danger to an organisation like the Market Theatre, and the income was decreasing drastically and precipitously.”

Companies changed their corporate sponsorship strategies and funding of the arts was one of the areas to suffer, Spector explains. This placed a heavier reliance on government grants from organs such as the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund.

In previous years, the theatre received R26-million in funding. It may sound like a substantial amount, but once it has been divided up to cover operational costs such as rent and electricity, there is not much left over. “If we don’t put on a play, we will just about break even on that money.”

Of course, that would be contrary to why the Market Theatre exists and would render the organisation redundant. The theatre refuses to skimp on productions, though, and therefore needs to implement other strategies to afford to run.

Ticket sales
One option could be raising ticket prices, but Spector dismisses this outright. “We can’t overcharge, otherwise people won’t come, and we are dependent on ticket fees to help run the theatre.”

So the management team must do some creative financial juggling, which is precisely what it has done. “In our budget sessions, we have done some serious trimming. An example of this would be deferring the purchase of a new vehicle,” he says.

“We are also using our accumulated reserves, which is where we save money from good years to help in leaner years. We can squeeze money from there for productions. If we get funding, though, we will put money back into the reserves.

“The flipside of having accumulated reserves is that if we are too careful and parsimonious, the government will say no to more funding because we will have enough money.”

Having enough money from the accumulated reserves to run the operation remains wildly unlikely, however, and the Market Theatre is in dire need of external funding to keep going. It is not only waiting to hear about receiving funding from the Lottery, but is actively approaching and hoping to collaborate with private companies.

“The real challenge is to find businesses that want to underwrite the future. We are definitely open to organisations who want to step forward … We are hoping for living, breathing organisations that have a larger social purpose. We need brave companies to step forward and do that.

“They can buy sponsorship, and we will credit them appropriately; it would be a good branding opportunity.”

Receiving funding from more than one source would undoubtedly ease the burden, but there will always be challenges involved with running a theatre famed for its social responsibility. “The challenge is that our budget is always a moving target; there are also external factors which we have no control over, such as the economic downturn. We are operating in difficult financial times.”

Despite the constant double act of financial juggling and walking the tightrope, Spector remains optimistic about the future. And the theatre has always emerged victorious from its struggles in the past.

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