The Costs Of Staging A Play

The major challenge for an independent playwright is the lack of capital to stage one’s creative work. Generally, writers produce a script at risk i.e. they are not paid for it, and then they go in search of funding to produce it independently, or they try to sell it to a theatre to produce it for them.

If they are successful in selling the play to a theatre, that theatre then typically invests resources to stage the play, and the writer’s contract would stipulate that the theatre has exclusive rights to the work for a period of at least two years, to allow the theatre time to recoup its investment.  The longer the run of a play, the more people will buy tickets for it, and the play could break even or better still, make a profit.  But this is rather rare in the South African milieu.  The writer would not get paid a fee for having written the play, but s/he would – generally – receive 10% of the gross box office income generated by the play.

One of the key structural challenges for a sustainable livelihood as a playwright is the limited opportunities in South Africa to tour a work.  Most of the production costs (rehearsal fees, director fees, designer fees, set construction, costumes, props, stage manager fees, etc) are spent before the play opens and starts to generate money at the box office.  Typically, it then  takes time for word-of-mouth to generate interest in the play (if it warrants such word-of-mouth), and audiences would start to pick up from the second week of a typical 3 to 4 week season.  Few plays recoup their production costs in the first run so that in an ideal world, it should have further opportunities to be staged.  At best though, most plays would be staged in their city of origin, travel to a festival or two, and perhaps have a run in another major city (the two primary theatre cities are Johannesburg and Cape Town).  Only a minority of plays will have opportunities to travel abroad and earn foreign currency.

To stage a play for an independent playwright (who generally becomes a reluctant producer in order to stage the play), would require upfront capital which may be gleaned through private sector sponsorship, the support of individual patrons, funding from public and private arts foundations, international funding sources or a combination of any of these.

I have been fortunate to attract a number of commissions where I would be paid to write the script, and the commissioning theatre or festival commits to staging (and covering the costs) of the production.  However, in my experience, even if the play is reasonably successful at its first outing (both critically and at the box office), most theatres do not have the capacity or resources to tour the play, and it is then up to the writer to continue to produce and tour the work.

In terms of economies of scale, it makes sense to produce small works: one-person plays or plays with small casts of 2-4 people.  But even then, to tour the play requires accommodation, per diems, theatre rentals, transport and of course, fees for the cast and technical crew (at least a stage manager).

A one-person show would cost R70 000-R110 000 to produce (depending on whether audio visuals, sound, sets, etc are incorporated), while the production costs for a 3-4 person play would range from R350 000-R420 000, depending on where it is produced (Johannesburg is more expensive than Cape Town) and the profile of the actors involved.  There would be additional costs (weekly performance and stage management fees) once the shows open.

In a 3-week run of a theatre with 150 seats, with 6 shows per week and an average ticket price of R120, it would be possible to make a maximum of R324 000 if the show played to 100% capacity from the start, which very few, if any, theatre shows do.  A 3-4 person play would struggle to break even in this scenario, while a one-person show would need to play to at least 50% to cover both production and performance costs.

To continue to enjoy the freedom to write about themes that I want to explore, and in ways that may be provocative, I seek to raise funds from independent sources rather than public funding agencies where there may be pressure to conform to political, social or cultural pressures.  With the support of individual “angels” that have ranged from small grants, to interest-free loans and substantial donations, I have been able to produce and tour work locally, nationally and internationally.

If you would like to support my work, feel free to make a donation as per the bank details on this page.  Please do inform me via the contact form that you have done so.

I shall pick up your details from that, and be in touch with you about ways in which I could reciprocate your support e.g. tickets to opening nights, invitations to see the plays in development, exclusive opportunities to meet casts, etc.

If you like the kind of theatre work I do, and would like to introduce me to potential sponsors or individual angels, I would be most appreciative too; feel free to contact me through the contact details on this site.

Thank you for your interest.


Some of the thirty-nine people who have generously supported my work include (in alphabetical order): Ben Rabinowitz, Brett Gage, Crispin Sonn, Hein and Tamara Gerwel, Helen Boonzaier, Laetitia van Dyk, Mpho and Njabulo Ndebele, Ruth Friedman and Shirley Walters. (Others will be listed once they have granted permission to do so).