Australia's theatres are slowly reopening, but will subscribers return?

Fiona Gruber
·5 min read

Judith Hughes, a Melbourne Theatre Company subscriber, sees seven shows a year, organising tickets for a group of 11 women with an average age of 65. She is eager for the company to reopen its doors.

“The general feeling among our group is that we’ll do what we can to support the arts and we want to get back in the theatre as long as we can do it safely,” she says.

Anecdotally, the sentiment seems shared by theatre audiences across the country.

Mitchell Butel, artistic director of the State Theatre Company of South Australia, says demand for its first post-Covid shows, Gaslight and Ripcord, have been “through the roof. We were the first main stage back in the country and we had no seat to sell.”

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Box office statistics supplied by the Sydney Theatre Company show that 54% of ticket buyers for Wonnangatta, its first post-lockdown show for 2020, were previous ticket-buyers, and 70% of the company’s subscribers surveyed say they expect to renew.

But the enthusiasm isn’t necessarily reflected in other data. An Australia Council for the Arts sponsored survey tapped more than 12,000 arts lovers nationwide and 150 arts organisations. It included galleries and museums as well as performing arts groups and was taken three times, in May, July and September.

Its September figures for attending cultural events as a whole were more confident than the previous two surveys, but show an understandable short-term caution. Despite a theoretical willingness to engage, only 29% of audience members surveyed were ready to attend an event as soon as permitted, with 29% of those who are residents in states where venues are open having attended a cultural event in the past fortnight. Only 14% were actually buying tickets for live shows and performances.

But the production costs of putting on a show remain the same, whether you’re playing to 50 people or 500. This is a crucial factor influencing theatre companies’ programming and projection of box office revenue for 2021. How many tickets can they reasonably expect to sell in a limited audience return?

Covid has also disrupted the subscription funding model that a majority of companies rely on. In a normal year, the theatre companies would be in the middle of launch season, with tickets for much of 2021 going on sale for subscribers to buy in packages of several shows at once. The funds brought in during the subscription period would then go into the budget for the following year.

STCSA will launch its full 2021 season on 29 October but other companies are holding fire, with plans for limited season launches selling in stages, and with smaller subscription packages for those reluctant to commit long-term in an environment of uncertainty.

This isn’t great for the bottom line, and it hasn’t helped that the only money spent from a $250m rescue package for the arts promised by the federal government back in June has gone to the screen industry.

Of all the companies, those in Melbourne have dealt with the longest lockdowns and the harshest restrictions. Melbourne Theatre Company’s largest proportion of subscribers – 34% – are between the ages of 50 and 64, an age bracket more at risk from Covid complications.

“It’s awfully challenging,” says MTC executive director Virginia Lovett. “At the beginning we went in hard and fast [with cancellations]. People re-booked for September, when we hoped to reopen, but we’ve had to cancel the rest of the year.”

In pre-pandemic days, Australia’s not-for-profit performance companies were expected by funding bodies to be as commercially profitable as possible, to build up philanthropy and sponsorship income, and reduce their reliance on subsidies.

Federal and state government subsidy more generally varies from theatre to theatre and this funding depends on the legal status of the company. Both STCSA and Queensland Theatre Company are statutory bodies, set up by acts of state legislation, and have greater state support; Melbourne Theatre Company is technically a department of the University of Melbourne, although both it and STC, a public company, receive similar levels of government funding: between 6% and 7%.

Many companies emphasise their box office revenue as a sign of this model working. MTC’s 2019 annual report touts box office receipts of $18.1m out of total revenue of $28.3m. For some state theatres, subscriptions represent an average of 50% of box office revenue. For the MTC, it’s 70%. The figures are the result of a campaign over the past few years that saw subscriber numbers grow 40% in 2018 to a high of 22,300, before dropping off last year to 20,315.

Lovett is pessimistic about the ability of theatre companies to sustain revenue in a downward-turning market.

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“The recession will also mean a drop in sponsorship, philanthropy and corporate entertainment,” she says.

This, she argues, means that the current government subsidy isn’t sufficient for what the company is expected to deliver during and in the aftermath of a pandemic.

“It has to be between 15% and 18%,” she says. “If the governments are serious about us continuing to be a thriving part of the culture and want us to develop new work, be involved in education and touring, the subsidy has to increase.”

Lovett says that MTC’s own research shows strong support and loyalty from existing subscribers, many of whom donated the cost of their cancelled tickets to the company.

“They want to see good social distancing and we’re looking closely at what other theatres are doing,” says Lovett. “There will be a certain percentage who are very hesitant, but optimistically there is a very high number willing to return.”