The Shakespeare Globe Theatre turned conventional thinking about arts subsidy on its head yesterday when it disclosed that it had made a pre-tax profit of about £1.5 million every year since it opened a decade ago.
The replica of an Elizabethan theatre, modelled on Shakespeare's "Wooden O", was expected to be a loss-maker and at best a small tourist attraction when it opened at Bankside, close to London Bridge and Tate Modern, in 1996.
But without receiving a single penny of public subsidy, with no roof, and even though it makes 600 members of its audience stand in the traditional Elizabethan manner, the Globe has turned in healthy profits and filled 85 per cent of its 1,500 places every year, Dominic Dromgoole, the theatre's new artistic director, announced yesterday.
He said: "This is unprecedented for a theatre. I am no enemy of subsidy but I do think that what the Globe has achieved without it is little short of a phenomenon.''
This is excellent news, not only because it shows that there is still an audience for England's greatest playwright. And he is great. Those who deride Shakespeare as boring or unintelligible are generally those who have never studied to work, or ever seen it performed well.
The Globe's profits contrast sharply with the financing of its heavily subsidised rival, the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Arts Council subsidy to the RSC, which aims to break even, is now running at almost £13 million a year.
An RSC spokesman said yesterday that the company could not operate without subsidy as its operations were on a far larger scale.
While the Shakespeare Globe stages six productions between May and September each year, the RSC mounts an average of 30, runs a permanent company of actors and operates in three theatres in Stratford-upon-Avon and three in London (currently).
The RSC also sends out tours to the regions and internationally.
Well, that might rather suggest that they need to stop doing so. The concept of a theatre or company making a profit is not "unprecedented"; subsidies have been around for a relatively short time. before that, they were forced to make a profit, although they did have the advantage that, before the rise of the television, the theatre was almost the only entertainment on offer. Furthermore, they were run almost as social events: it was the done thing to be "seen" at certain theatres or at certain shows.
However, whilst the RSC does, I am sure, some stirling work, it is obviously not viable as a company and should consider cutting both the number of actors (and crew) that it employs, and staging fewer productions. Or as a matter of fact, consider staging more productions. Since many of its costs are fixed whether is puts on a production or not, more productions should provide greater revenue. Reduce the subsidy, and see if they can run the company on less money.
However, to slightly belay the Globe's good news, comes a proposal which—in your humble scribes opinion—might be a mistake.
Mr Dromgoole [the Globe's artistic director] also announced that he was to break new ground by staging non-Shakespearian plays at the theatre.
He said future seasons would be split roughly half-and-half between new plays - mostly with an historical theme - and Shakespearian works.
I'm a great fan of new writing. Of the forty (come mid-February) amateur productions that I have produced, about 75% have been new writing. Many have been extraordinarily good shows. Some have been, shall we say, patchy.
All have been extraordinarily difficult to sell. A Neil Simon show will sell out in almost no time, and Shakespeare sells moderately well. New writing, especially when no one knows the author, requires twice the effort—although, note this, not twice the budget—to bring in the same number of people.
The other thing is that the Globe is an experience; the idea is that you are seeing a Shakespeare play in the type of venue and in the manner in which it would have been watched in its day. I imagine that that is a factor as much as anything else.
Personally, I would not split the shows half and half. Why not do one or two new plays in this first season, and work out how they sell? If all goes well, then increase that number the next year.
Good luck to them, anyway...