Saving Sammie Swain

SS-coverThis is not the post that I would have liked to write in the days after the close of The Legend of Sammie Swain, but it has to be done. We received so much support from our audiences and so many congratulations from the public at large for the revival of my father’s folk opera that I wish I could say that we have been able to pay our bills, but at this point in time I cannot.

In another post, I explained the cost of theatre to those who do not know better. I think I may have to refer people to that post again, because I am sure that people have looked at the apparent success of this year’s Shakespeare in Paradise festival from the outside, seen the sold out houses and the turned away crowds, and come to the conclusion that we are rolling in money.

Far from it! I’m not going to go into details, but the simple formula is this.

Our festival as a whole cost us over $110,000 to mount. Sammie Swain accounted for about $75,000 of that. We estimated over $100,000 for the show, but we cut our costs to the bone and delivered it for 75% of the projection.

Our festival as a whole had a total of 5,870 seats to sell. Given our $110,000 cost, that sets seat prices at $18.75 at FULL OCCUPANCY if we were to break even. However, even with Sammie Swain, we did not operate at full occupancy — only the last four performances sold out. Sammie Swain had about 90% occupancy, and the festival as a whole had 75% occupancy overall. This made it our most successful festival ever, but it means that brings our seat prices to $24.98 a head for us to break even.

But we didn’t sell all our seats at $25.

  • Student matinee tickets sell for $10 a head.
  • College students paid between $12.50 and $15 a head.
  • Season ticket holders paid $20 a head.
  • Groups pay $22.50 a head.
  • Sponsors, poster artists, cast and crew get some comps

Our ACTUAL average ticket revenue, all told, comes to about $14 a head, which this year was a loss of about $11 a seat. We are still working out our actual take, but we know we had audiences of over 3000 people this year. 3000 x $14 =  something over $42,000.

We made about $30,000 from sponsorships, donations and ads. Some $5,000 of that money, which is 1/6 of the total sponsorship, came from crowdfunding. Most of the rest came from small and medium companies (here I am not including the invaluable in-kind sponsorship that we continue to get from companies like Cable Bahamas, Starbucks/John Bull and Marcos/Wendy’s, which assist us with our advertising and allow us to treat our performers like people by providing them with some very basic refreshments even though we can’t pay them salaries). A little came from more substantial companies who understood what we are trying to build, but nowhere as much as you might think.

That brings us to a total of about $75,000, give or take, in revenues, for a shortfall this year of some $35,000.

How did we meet the shortfall?

We always try to pre-sell our festival by seeking corporate sponsors. We really worked our butts off this year in this regard, and if we had got all of the sponsorship that we asked for, we would have been able to raise in the vicinity of a quarter of a million dollars. Even a quarter of what we asked for would have netted us enough to cover our costs. But we raised only one tenth of what we asked. So far, the Bahamian government and the Bahamian corporate community have not shown that they understand the value in investing in something intangible that is nevertheless part of our culture. They don’t know why we can’t cover our costs by selling enough tickets.

But they don’t know what we know: that because there is so little support for the arts in The Bahamas we cannot sell seats at what it costs us to produce our shows. If we were to sell seats at what it costs us to put on the Shakespeare in Paradise festival without paying our performers, each seat would cost you, the public, $40 or more. If we were to pay our performers, rack that up to $75 a head. And who can afford that?

We sell our seats at what the public is willing and able to pay—$25 for a full price ticket. But we go beyond that because we believe that art is not only important, it is necessary to make whole human beings. So we perform as many matinees for students as performances for the general public. And we sell student tickets at  between $10 and $15 a head.

In most countries and cities, governments, corporations and private individuals help artists produce great works that define their populations by subsidizing the cost that it takes to produce that art.

In most countries and cities, great works of art are understood to be investments in national patrimony, identity. They are collected and guarded as closely as all other kinds of treasure. Most nations understand that it is great art that will survive, that will tell the story of the civilizations that existed, and nothing else at all. In other words, it’s only our art that will remain when our Bahama Islands sink below the rising sea.

Here, we’ve so far been fighting an uphill battle to convince our governments and corporate citizens of the value of what we do.

Since Sammie Swain opened on October 4th, 2013, we have received several promises from government members both to address the shortfall and to remount the production. Nothing concrete so far has come out of them, so we will believe those promises as soon as we bank the cheques. (All Bahamians should know what government promises about culture can amount to–CARIFESTA, anyone?). To date, despite those promises of support, government investment in this year’s festival, including Sammie Swain, was half of what it has been in other years.

Thankfully, after this month’s production of The Legend of Sammie Swain at Shakespeare in Paradise, when my brother announced on the closing night–as he had on the opening–that we are facing a shortfall that threatens the future of Shakespeare in Paradise, some individual members of our community took it upon themselves to start a campaign privately that will help us meet that shortfall. I don’t have permission to say who, so I will not name names, but to them I say a great big THANK YOU. They know who they are.

To everyone else, I say: this is the state of our culture, Bahamians. We all bear responsibility for it, so let us shoulder that responsibility together. And now, if we believe that we are important, let’s do something to make it change.