As we wrote, all of us at Cal Shakes are grateful to this wonderful community of supporters who have responded with generosity as this storied Theater goes through a necessary revisioning.
In closing out last year we held a number of Listening Circles with the promise that we would report back on what we learned and share our plans for moving forward.
More than five hundred (557) people responded to our survey, another 85 joined us either in person or remotely for open discussions about the state of the organization, priorities, and how we work together to find our future. The following is a reflection on what we learned.
In the survey we asked you to prioritize what you value most about Cal Shakes. You ranked the Setting (The Bruns) the highest, and Plays second. These two aspects of the Cal Shakes experience are so highly prioritized that all the other aspects of Cal Shakes’ offerings, such as education programming, Shakespeare, Equity Diversity and Inclusion, Reflecting and the Bay Area, a particular actor or playwright, gathering with Friends and Family…all those other priorities combined are not valued as highly as either the location or the fact that we do theater. It is also worth noting that the setting and making theater are about equally valued.
In the conversations with you, as well as in the comments offered in the surveys, we heard from people who felt passionately about the particular thing they appreciated about Cal Shakes. In some cases this was staging Shakespeare’s plays, for others it was creating adaptations of classic works that reflect on our modern lives. Artists and technicians who engaged in the conversations were concerned about the state of the field and how, in this moment of inflection in the field, we go about rebuilding a theater ecosystem that is robust and offers the right livelihood.
Many donors who participated in the conversations echoed these concerns but also worried about what happens societally if we don’t have theater, if kids don’t get the opportunity to act in schools, if playwrights (Shakespeare and others) are not heard and seen in the proper context of the living word.
Good conversations with people who care passionately about theater. Our take-away was that our stakeholders want Cal Shakes to continue being the Theater it has been, We wish that were possible.
Our past business model, like that of most non-profit theaters, simply does not meet the needs we currently face. In the best of times earned revenue from tickets and subscriptions paid for close to 60% of the cost of putting on a show. But now, because of increased costs as much as smaller post-COVID audiences, that percentage is more like 45% This all means that under current fundraising trends, we can no longer annually produce 4 theatrical productions of the scale we have grown accustomed to, and that there is an urgent need to re-envision our business if Cal Shakes is to survive.
Cal Shakes as an organization finds itself at the confluence of a number of challenging factors: tickets sales, and corresponding funding have been in decline for years. This is not unique to Cal Shakes. Recovery from the pandemic has been difficult for theater companies all over the country, which is also not unique to Cal Shakes. What is unique to us is that producing theater at the scale we have grown accustomed to is incredibly expensive at our beautiful outdoor amphitheater, where every drop of water used at the Bruns is trucked in, and then trucked back out; where the elements frequently interrupt productions and where we are limited to a five-month producing year.
For greater transparency, we’d like to share a couple of charts.
This chart starts in 2008. The orange bars are averaged expenses per show in each year. Note there were still close to $200,000 in production expenses in 2020 even though we canceled the season. This is primarily because we paid the first contract payment to all the artists we had contracted for the season. Also note the doubling of expenses for our one show in 2021. This is because many production expenses such as hiring, hanging lights, preparing the stage, etc. are going to be about the same amount whether you are doing one show or four. In 2021 we did a single production and none of these costs were defrayed across other shows, instead they landed on our production of The Winter’s Tale.
This is another version of essentially the same data, but looking at earned revenue per show as a percentage of production expense per show. A few things to note:
- Earned revenue has never topped 60% of production expenses (the balance each year being made up by institutional and individual contributions);
- Our three highest grossing years in the recent past were 2014 (40th anniversary earned $1,987,000), 2012 (the year of Hamlet and Spunk at $1,954,000, and 2016 at $1,872,000, but only 2012 earned 60% of expenses. This reflects increasing expenses over time.
- 2022 appears to show recovery, but the data is pre-audit and probably does not reflect all production costs.
Given this overall downward trend, it is clear that no matter what we put on the stage, it is not going to come close to covering even half the costs of production.
Some of you might be wondering at this point how it can be that Cal Shakes has always been operating this way, and the answer marks an important difference between nonprofit theater and for profit theater. No question, It is possible to stage shows that are very likely going to bring in a profit. Broadway has been doing this for a long time (though, in truth, even Broadway is struggling to fill houses these days). But those known successful plays are developed in nonprofit theater like Cal Shakes who give emerging artists a platform to share new stories and interpretations of old stories. These theaters are supported by generous donors who will take risks that for-profit theaters are not as willing to take. Our business model has always included roughly 50% of our revenue as contributed revenue, but we’ve seen donor support diminish at the same time that subscribers are aging out faster than they are being replaced (both of these trends are associated with the Baby Boom generation entering its seventh decade), while costs keep climbing.
That’s the bad news.
Given this outlook and the transition of organizational leadership with both Artistic Director and Managing Director stepping down in the same season, the Cal Shakes board looked to our organizational strengths. As noted above, the top thing people value about Cal Shakes is this spectacular space, the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater and Sharon Simpson Center. It is a resource developed over the past 35 years with an amazing outpouring of generosity from our theater-loving community.
We plan for the Bruns Amphitheater to become a multi-disciplinary performing arts venue and community resource, with Cal Shakes as its resident theater company producing annually at the Bruns. We will invite live music, dance, family programming, civic and cultural events, educational activities, weddings and more, in order to welcome more, and more diverse communities to enjoy our magical space. Cal Shakes will continue to produce live theater at the Bruns, but rather than four large productions, we expect to see one or two offerings at the Bruns annually. We believe this is the way to ensure a robust future for the company we all love so much.
In order to build this new operational model, we need to scale back operations. Our path forward will be a two stage process with the second stage dependent on our success in the first. We will retract in 2023 in order to return to production in 2024, our 50th Anniversary. Our intention in sharing this plan is to offer a road map to a return to production in 2024 with as much transparency as possible.
Cal Shakes will not produce theater of its own in 2023, but will open our space to outside partners. We will develop two working groups, the first to maximize income from the Bruns while staying true to Cal Shakes’ values and supporting the Bay Area theater ecosystem to the best of our ability. The second working group will be tasked with planning our return to production in 2024.
We take these steps in an effort to combat the challenges facing not only Cal Shakes, but all of American Theater, and to secure a sustainable future for our children’s children to enjoy. We hope you’ll join us in this journey, as we continue to find our future, together.