Children’s theatre faces its biggest threat…

I went to an industry event the other day for Australian producers of theatre. Many interesting discussions were had over the evening with a range of different companies but the reaction to us was the same from everyone – “Why in the world would you bother doing children’s theatre without government funding? And why would you do it at all for private clients or schools?”

At the start of the evening I was surprised by this attitude. How could these companies be so cold as to turn their back on the artistic growth of children at schools & private functions? But as the evening wore on my fellow producers made a fairly convincing argument. Most of them in similar fields to me had long ago left the private market of children’s parties, school shows & non-government funded performing. They had all shifted to festivals or theatre tours that were heavily subsidised by the government or alternatively they were churning out non-scripted performers to corporate Australia. It sounded like a pretty empty existence to me – relying on government handouts or performing monotonous nothingness to corporate clients who don’t want to be at their work function anyway. But as my fellow producers clearly argued, what is the alternative?

After ten years of touring children’s parties in Victoria & Theatre In Education nationally we’re now at a point where we wonder if it will ever get any easier. Not easy, just possible to survive financially without working 100 hours every week. As I watch the GFC gobble up the flow of bookings from private clients not even round the clock work will be able to keep our private client functions operating as they should. Our advertising & operating costs have continued to soar as our bookings have plummeted, and now staff layoffs abound. So it would seem we now reach the point of sell out or sell up.

Some of the long standing companies who were performing in schools when I was a kid are even running away from school touring because they see the writing on the walls & realise the money will start to disappear from there too. Its mostly parents who pay for their kids to see school shows & some schools are saying that the parents seem unwilling to pay now with things so financially uncertain. These other companies also all unashamedly admitted that in the past they had been able to pay an agreed amount to a performer but that the continually rising award conditions made it impossible to run at a profit, especially if you were going to perform interstate. Equity may have bargained their performers out of a job altogether, certainly any jobs that are not government funded. So the days of having a great idea & wanting to tour it through schools is over, unless you’re comfortable ripping off an existing overseas product or happy to wait 2 years through the funding process. Of course the funding process has no guarantees either so you could plow budget & heaps of time into preparing for the pitch only to find you’re not what they’re after, they want something “more commercial”.

Fingers crossed this will change in the future but I fear (along with the experts) that it will be a very long road to financial recovery, no matter how our politicians in both parties try to con us that things are looking so much better. With a financial crash / slump comes a loss of confidence & it takes people a long time to regain confidence in spending with their heart instead of strictly with their head.

Our recent tour of Victoria, NSW & ACT of our Book Week show “Nobody Owns the Moon” saw ticket sales at a miserably low rate. This was particularly disappointing as many people who did see it commented that it was one of our best ever shows. In speaking with performers & arts administrators it seems that we are not alone with ticket sales for children’s theatre events at all time lows. If you can’t sell your show to a venue at a flat rate or get the government to pick up the tab then you’re taking a huge risk on the gate, a risk we won’t be taking again for a long time.

So now we sell out – and off to the pile of grants submissions we go. I can’t quite come to terms with selling out artistically so we’ll stick with original ideas… for now. Are we comfortable with the reality that the self funded independant theatre is dying a rotten death? Perhaps that stimulus package could have been used for something a little more intelligent than Plasma’s from China. How about some incentives for small business, local business, big business, any business in Australia. Admittedly every primary school got a new hall (whether they wanted it or not), but now they’re not hiring anyone to perform in it. Good one, Kevin (or maybe we should blame Wayne).

We can only hope that these realities change. A society where the only theatre that can be performed is government sanctioned will leave our children with a one-dimensional idea of what theatre is: something that inherently requires a handout. I always wished it was something so much more noble than that.

So let’s stick it to them. Let’s go out & book a theatre show for our children’s school & pay enough money to reasonably compensate the artists involved. Let’s not haggle on the price of a Fairy party. Let’s all rise together with cash in our hands & spend it on our children’s future… oh, who am I kidding? I’m off to fill out a grant submission.

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