Things must be grim in the performing arts when an outfit like the Sydney
Theatre Company starts crying poor.

The ever so mainstream and bums-on-seats obsessed STC has declared its first
operating loss in almost a decade despite having a gangbuster year at the box
office, including a hugely successful season of David Williamson’s last
mainstage play, Influence.

If a Williamson play couldn’t keep the STC out of the red, the harbourside
theatre company’s future is not looking flash, given that Australia’s most
bankable playwright announced his retirement last year.

“Our costs are increasing at a rate that’s significantly faster than that
at which our funding goes up, so there’s a gap that’s beginning to appear,” the
STC’s general manager told The SMH
today.

According to The SMH, the STC posted an operating deficit of $124,083
despite having one of its strongest years ever, with subscriptions topping $10
million and sponsorship up by 38%.

The STC’s financial woes don’t bode well for the future of one its more
interesting initiatives – the recent establishment of a full-time acting
ensemble. While there are plenty of sound artistic reasons for having an
in-house team of actors, it’s hugely expensive and hard to justify from a
bottom-line point of view.

The STC gets only 7.5% of its funding from the Federal Government, which
some might regard as more than reasonable considering the company could hardly
be described as cutting edge.

Nevertheless, if a company as audience-focused and sponsorship-friendly as
the STC is struggling, it shows just how tough things are in the performing arts
right now.

The Australia Council is conducting a major review of funding for flagship
performance companies, seven years after the watershed inquiry conducted by
banker Helen Nugent. There’s a broad consensus that the Nugent funding model has
outlived its usefulness, however it’s not easy persuading the Australia Council
of that when the bureaucrat conducting the new review was a key adviser in
drafting the Nugent report.

Peter Fray

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