No business like show business: Entertaining with limited resources
On Sunday morning, student-run theater group Cast N’ Crew gathered in the Village Black Box Theater for another day of rehearsals for its fall musical, “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Members were working on adjusting the lights and set while I chatted with Cast N’ Crew treasurer and senior Chris Munley about the group’s finances.
“I should preface most of this by saying that we usually do all right,” Munley said. “We have money for the set and for some new LED lights we bought last year, and things usually end up fine. I would say the difficulty is that it feels like the system isn’t built for us.”
For the dozens of student-run and Student Union-funded performing arts groups on Washington University’s campus, putting on a show with a limited budget and limited resources can be a challenge. When I spoke with representatives from other performing arts groups, many of them echoed Munley’s sentiment.
Both Munley and senior Julia Brosseau, All Student Theatre (AST) president, mentioned that their respective theater groups have run into problems budgeting for shows many months in advance during Student Union’s budget allocation process.
“We end up appealing every year because [SU] never gives us the exact right amount of money,” Brosseau said. “I get it: From their perspective, that it looks weird when we say we don’t know how much money we need. We’re asking for a sum of money, and we never quite break it down as much as they want us to, because we can’t.”
Senior Annie Peterson, one of the captains of competitive Bollywood-fusion dance team WU Chaahat, said that her team has run into similar issues.
“With competitions, we don’t know when they are or where they’ll be or what we’ll be looking for, because there are a lot of different tiers of competitions for us, and the bigger ones cost more, obviously,” Peterson said. “Even not knowing what we’ll get into makes it really tricky to budget.”
According to junior Vikram Biswas, SU’s Budget Committee chair, “One of the things Budget Committee looks for in budgets is specificity and itemization…For performing arts groups, we understand it is difficult to have a full budget breakdown months in advance of a show.”
Biswas emphasized the importance of communication between these groups and Budget Committee members.
“Performing Arts groups should feel comfortable utilizing the appeals process,” Biswas said. “If something is not allocated during budget allocation, that does not mean it is the end of the road. A lot of times we would just like an opportunity to see the event or item with more information.”
These groups do often appeal, and they also usually supplement their SU funding with fundraising, though the amount and importance of fundraising varies from group to group. According to Brosseau, AST mainly fundraises to raises awareness and help with future budget allocation. For Chaahat, fundraising—including tabling, benefit nights and prize money from dance competitions—is more of a financial necessity. Peterson said that Chaahat is using almost half of its fundraising dollars—about $1,000—this semester alone.
Occasionally, members have to pay out of pocket for expenses. Peterson said that Chaahat members usually pay for apparel and for registration fees for competitions. The theater groups said that their members get reimbursed for any club-related expenses, but this can still pose problems.
According to Thyrsus treasurer and junior Julia Mandel, “Thyrsus members often have to pay out of pocket for expenses, which is something I am trying to work on, as this process is unfair to students who can’t afford to wait three to four weeks for SU to reimburse them…I definitely think SU needs more ways for students to purchase things directly out of student accounts, rather than with personal money, because it makes it more difficult for students from a lower socioeconomic status to participate fully.”
And where does all this money go? It varies from group to group. AST has to spend thousands of dollars on lighting rentals every year. Chaahat pays a lot to compete in competitions—transportation, lodging and registration fees all add up.
What may come as more of a surprise to some students is the high cost of renting performance space from the University. For instance, Residential Life charges $100 per day for use of the Village Black Box Theatre. According to Munley, since Cast n’ Crew usually rents the space for 16 days to prepare for a show, the rental comes out to $1,600, making it the biggest part of the group’s budget.
According to Mandel, an increase in the price of the Village Black Box about a year and a half ago—from $100 per event to $100 per day—even led Thyrsus to change its SU funding status from Category II (capped at $500 of funding) to Category I last fall. Nevertheless, this year, SU still only funded Thyrsus $300 of the $1,000 it requested to reserve the theater for 10 days.
Even finding rehearsal space can be somewhat difficult and costly. For instance, the two Performing Arts Department-administered studios in the Olin Women’s Building cost $25 per two-hour rental and can only be rented for non-PAD purposes on weekends. Studio spaces on the South 40 have similar prices and restrictions. Peterson noted that these limitations have posed difficulties for Chaahat, especially with so many student dance teams competing for limited time slots in the same space.
Groups often rehearse in classrooms and other less-than-ideal spaces, because they are free and easy to reserve. Both AST and Cast N’ Crew frequently rehearse in Seigle Hall.
“[The rooms in Seigle] are fine, but they’re not really conducive to having a stage or any of that, so you don’t really get a feel for what the actual show will be like until you get into either the big rehearsal space in the Women’s Building or on the set, which is two weeks out [from AST’s spring show on Brookings Quadrangle],” Brosseau said. “I think [the availability of rehearsal space] is manageable; it’s not ideal in any way, shape or form for the student groups…I think obviously if the PAD were more willing to share, that would be lovely, but I understand from their perspective why they would want to keep the space.”
The PAD sometimes helps out student groups in other ways. For instance, AST has borrowed furniture, costumes and set pieces from the department in the past. Munley said that Cast N’ Crew tries not to use too many of the PAD’s props and set pieces, which are generally managed by work-study students. He added that one of the goals of Cast N’ Crew is to have its members learn about the entire production process, including building sets and making costumes.
“We are able to use PAD furniture and costumes through personal connections that board members and designers have with faculty in the department,” Mandel said, regarding Thyrsus. “How it works now is not that Thyrsus as a group is able to just ask for resources, but rather it is our members with working relationships with faculty that are able to get us access.”
“One of the other theater students and I are hoping to work on getting the student theater groups and the student dance groups to be able to collaborate more with the department,” Peterson, who is also a dance major and a student liaison for the PAD, said. What exactly would that entail?
“Hopefully more access to the resources the PAD has, particularly the spaces.”
Despite these challenges with resources and budgets, finances rarely get in the way of these student-run groups putting on high-quality performances. Groups like AST have learned to make the most of what they have and compromise when necessary.
“You have to kind of cut back and minimalize everything instead of making it as pretty as you want it to be,” Brosseau said.
“Sometimes, when we go to a competition, some of the other teams have these huge sets or really fancy costumes from India that look very nice, and they present their team very well and look very professional,” Peterson said. “We do our best with what we have to kind of make ourselves look a strong as we can. And obviously, the dance is what matters most.”