McGill dramatists are, by necessity and by definition, a passionate group. Unpaid as student artists, unrecognized in a frequently desolate and fine arts-free environment, passion is often all they have. Despite these conditions, they have thrived. Productions that fly under the radar still sell out. Shows rivaling those on professional Montreal stages grace McGill’s spaces. Underneath the academic, adamantine exterior of this university lies lively and talented artistry.
Although they soar high, student theatre companies nevertheless carry earthly burdens. Theatres must plan and manage their finances to ensure their group’s continued success. To create the fictional universes they present on stage, groups such as Players’ Theatre and the Arts Undergraduate Theatre Society (AUTS) endure an annual ritual of bean-counting and penny-pinching. Their experiences may not be wholly representative of every student theatre group on campus, but the challenges that one company endures, and the success enjoyed by the other, exemplify the difficulties—and rewards—that McGill theatre faces.
Each company puts on productions in the hopes of tugging at heartstrings, but also at wallets. While actors nervously recite lines and rehearse scenes before opening night, the executives in charge of financing shows anxiously cross their fingers in the hopes of a good turnout.
“We depend on ticket sales as our largest and most consistent source of revenue,” says Hannah Wood, AUTS producer. The same holds true for Players’ Theatre.
“Our audiences are mostly students,” says Fiona Penny, executive director of Players’ Theatre. “Maybe 10 or 15 per cent are … people outside McGill.”
Players’ Theatre makes efforts to expand their reach to the community beyond McGill through radio shows, and cultivating ties with charities and other theatres. But they never forget students as their most important base of support.
“This year, our publicity director got one of the English professors to make it part of the syllabus that their whole Shakespeare class had to come see Macbeth,” says Penny, referencing their last production this year. The arrangement makes the productions by students, for students, even if attendance isn’t exactly voluntary.
“Some of them [attend] willingly, some of them not so willingly,” she laughs.
However, dependence on ticket revenue leaves theatres vulnerable early on.
“Most expenses in theatre are paid up front before the show, and ticket revenue only comes in afterwards,” says Wood. “Students in our production are expected to front money out of their own pocket. It’s unfortunate, but it was absolutely necessary with the state of our funding.”
This leads to what Wood diagnoses as the biggest problem AUTS faced this year.
“It is ludicrous to expect students to throw thousands of dollars of their own money into a production with no set guarantee of being reimbursed,” she says, referencing the unpredictable nature of ticket revenues.
Players’ Theatre faces the same problem. Because the company is registered as a SSMU student service, its financial situation is significantly more secure than AUTS’.
“It’s kind of a weird system,” Penny admits. “Our budget is outlined at the start of the year. However [much] we spend, we get reimbursed from SSMU; and all the money we make, we give back to SSMU. So we draw from the common pot of SSMU, and we put back that money.”
The upside to financial symbiosis with SSMU is peace of mind. Asked whether she is concerned about securing future revenue, Penny responds, “In certain ways, no.”
“In terms of the money we spend, it gets refunded through SSMU,” she continues. “If we don’t do well on a show—obviously you want to keep the books balanced—but it’s not like we only get to spend as much money as we make.”
Players’ financial comfort makes for a stark contrast with AUTS’ uncertainty. For the latter, accounting is a hair-pulling, nerve-shattering experience.
“Every year is a guessing game,” laments Wood. “We always start the year concerned about revenue, as nothing is guaranteed.”
The varying structure of each theatre company’s finances also results in widely different experiences for their directors. For Players’ Theatre, the directors are expected to fundraise on their own, and front the money for productions out of their own pockets; but they have an extra blanket of security in the form of SSMU reimbursements. They also have a clear line drawn in terms of limits to their financing.
“We have a standard budget for each show, which is $500, with the option of extending that upwards of $100 if [directors] need it,” says Penny.
“What [directors] do is they submit receipts, and then they justify them … and then what we do is we submit them to SSMU,” adds Samantha Leriger, Players’ finance director.
For AUTS however, directors are left hanging if their production doesn’t succeed.
“The main source of our revenue, ticket sales, only comes after everything has been paid for,” notes Wood. “Having funds to start out our year would certainly help with this problem.”
This concern resulted in a referendum question levying a $1.00 fee for every full-time and $0.50 fee for every part-time student enrolled in a BA program, which passed with 72.1 per cent support on March 22.
According to McGill Enrolment Services, there were a total of 6,993 full- and part-time students enrolled in a BA in Fall 2012.
An indeterminate future
Despite AUTS’ success at the ballot box, its finances nevertheless remain under pressure.
“This new source of funding does not guarantee our financial stability,” says Nora Fleury, VP External for AUTS, “The goal of the levy was to eliminate the private donations portion of our budget.” She emphasizes that AUTS will still remain dependent on uncertain and fluctuating revenues from grants and ticket sales.
Furthermore, the money to be generated by the levy pales in comparison to AUTS’ expenditures.
“The cost to rent [Moyse Hall] takes up over half of our budget,” admits Fleury.
Wood estimates this amount to be approximately $20,000.
In aiming to replace, rather than supplement private donations with a student fee, AUTS is trying to secure current levels of funding, rather than to increase revenue. This leaves deeper questions about AUTS’ finances up in the air.
According to Wood, AUTS is able to carry “a few thousand dollars” over from previous years, which, she admits, “is a small amount.”
However, though Fleury mentions “moments where it seemed like we would not make enough money to put on the show,” she concedes that “ticket sales covered all our costs.”
Players’ comparative success and financial security raises perplexities of a different sort.
“As a SSMU service … we don’t want to make a profit,” says Leriger. “Players’ Theatre often makes a profit, usually, but SSMU kind of encourages us not to, to be honest.”
“I worry sometimes because I don’t know where our surplus goes in SSMU,” she adds.
SSMU Vice-President Clubs and Services Allison Cooper suggests a somewhat different relationship.
“The main SSMU operating budget would never dip into a service’s own department; any profits they make stay within the Players’ budget, and would not be allocated elsewhere,” she says.
SSMU Vice-President Finance and Operations JP Briggs confirms this, saying, “[Players’ Theatre] operate[s] from their own revenues…. All services keep their money on an annual basis except in the case of a year end deficit.”
Confusions aside, all involved would agree that Players’ Theatre is pulling its own weight in the ecosystem of SSMU clubs. Players’ profitability may eventually serve to fuel its continued growth—perhaps in either the number or size of their productions—but for now, they seem content to rest on their laurels.
“SSMU asked us this year, recently, if we wanted to apply a student fee directly for our theatre,” says Penny.
“We declined,” interjects Leriger.
“I think right now, the system is working for us,” concludes Penny.
Both companies seem optimistic about their future—Players’ bolstered by a successful season, and AUTS celebrating their recent referendum win. Both are also excited to see what a host of new executives will bring to the stage. Only time will tell if financial drama—whether misgivings about profit allocation, or more serious budget crises—will interfere with their companies’ efforts to put on shows.