Missouri Western’s summer theater production company, Western Playhouse, has operated at a financial loss every year since it came into existence in 2012.
According to the “Western Playhouse Revenues and Expenses” report, the program continues by being heavily funded by Western Institute, which has contributed $238,782.58 overall over the course of Western Playhouse’s life.
The professional play program has had three seasons so far, with the fourth being announced this semester. Since the birth of the program, the yearly ticket sales have not matched their respective season’s expenses.
According to the budget statements, Western Playhouse has a list of nine expenses that cost varying amounts each season:
Depending on the productions of the seasons, some of these expense categories may or may not apply.
In order to balance this, Western Institute has picked up the remaining bill each year.
Breakdown of seasonal budgets
The inaugural season of Western Playhouse, which took place in the summer of 2012, featured three plays.
The first, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” was directed by Assistant Professor of Theatre and Cinema Dallas Henry.
The second, Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park,” was directed by Assistant Professor Tee Quillin.
The last play of the 2012 season, “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” the second-longest running off-Broadway play (next to this year’s “The Fantasticks”) was also directed by Henry.
This first season’s expenses added up to a total of $119,043. Ticket sales brought in around $46,877 for the first year. In order to balance the budget, Western Institute contributed just over $72,165.
The second – and most expensive – season featured the elaborate play “Miss Saigon” as its sole production.
“Miss Saigon” cost a total of around $148,467 to present, and sold $58,114 in tickets. Western Institute contributed around $90,353 to balance the budget.
Last year’s season featured the classic “The Music Man” and “Mother Divine,” a musical with music by Bill Evans and the book and lyrics written by Laurel Vartabedian.
The season cost just over $156,741 and sold a total of around $80,477 worth of tickets. Western Institute contributed about $76,264.
How Western Playhouse benefits the students
Western Playhouse is a professional play production program, and therefore pays all of its cast and crew.
While the program mostly casts Western students, Founding Dean of Fine Arts Robert Willenbrink explained that an equity contract requires outside players to be involved.
“We operate with an equity contract that requires us to have an equity stage manager and at least two equity performers,” Willenbrink said.
Aside from a weekly stipend, students who participate in Western Playhouse productions earn equity points (EMC points) that help them to get ahead in their careers.
Jacob Mills, a theatre student who acted in “Music Man” and “Mother Divine” in 2014 and was offered a role in this year’s production of “Into the Woods,” explained how EMC points work.
“You apply to be an equity member candidate. I currently have an equity member candidate card and then any show that I’m in that gives out equity points […] will go towards that card,” Mills said. “Once you accumulate 50 points, then you apply to be a full equity member.”
Mills also explained that being an equity member is like being in a union. The union guarantees a minimum payment, helps to get actors auditions and can help them to find roles.
Mills believes that Western Playhouse is a great way to help students in their careers.
“It’s a wonderful resource for those in our theater and music departments here to gain experience and be able to add to their resume,” Mills said.
Theater student Ian Fast, who also acted in “Music Man,” agrees that Western Playhouse is important for students who want to become professionals.
“It’s a great tool for the arts in town and I think there’s just lots of good things about it,” Fast said. “It can help people here who are trying to get into the professional world for theater and music to get their foot in the door a little bit.”
While Fast is shocked by the amount of money that Western Playhouse loses, he believes the benefits still outweigh the costs.
“It’s hard to overlook a large number like that,” Fast said. “I would say it’s still worth it. They would have to find a way to kind of smooth out the losses though.”
Assistant Professors of Theatre and Cinema Dallas Henry and Tee Quillin refused to be interviewed about Western Playhouse.
Western Playhouse was never about making money
Though it may seem like Western Playhouse is failing, Dean and Executive Director of Western Institute Gordon Mapley believes that it is not.
Mapley explained that Western Playhouse is entirely about providing education, and was never supposed to be a profitable program financially.
“Regarding the Western Playhouse, it was known from the beginning that ticket sales would not match expenses,” Mapley said. “Western Playhouse is, in the end, a method to enhance the educational experience and educational environment of our students.”
Mapley stated that there are many programs that aren’t as lucrative as others, and are therefore funded in different ways.
“Looked at another way, enrollments per course in psychology far exceed average enrollments in art. All universities know that revenue generated by psychology courses helps underwrite the cost of offering art,” Mapley said.
The program was designed from the beginning to be an educational experience that provided a professional environment for students, as well as entertainment for the community. It was only ever meant to be partially funded by ticket sales.
Willenbrink, who also directed the 2014 production of “Mother Divine,” believes that in the case of Western Playhouse, the educational advantages outweigh financial benefit.
“It’s never about profit. It’s about the investment in the students,” Willenbrink said. “Just like other programs on this campus, we’re investing in students and I’m extremely thankful for the opportunity.”
Henry and Quillin, who were present when the idea for Western Playhouse was discussed and have taken part in it as actors,
Where does the money come from?
Western Institute pays the majority of the Western Playhouse bill, and part of those funds come from online class tuition.
Western Institute houses online courses, also known as distance learning. Online course enrollment has been on a steady incline over the past seven years.
“We have been fortunate to generate very significant positive revenue from growing enrollment in online courses. This positive revenue helps fund programs that do not generate net positive revenue,” Mapley said.
In the spring semester of 2009, there were only 661 students enrolled in online classes at Western. This semester there are 3,321 online students.
While on-campus undergraduate classes are currently charged at a rate of $192.65, the rate for such online classes is $256.
On-campus graduate students currently pay $305.91 per credit hour, but are charged $345 for like online courses.
While the tuition for online classes is higher, on-campus students also have more fees to pay than students who are only enrolled in online courses.
Mapley explained that the income from online classes isn’t something that is normally used directly for funding programs like Western Playhouse, but happens to be the largest contributor of Western Institute’s positive balance each year.
“It is not the purpose of distance learning to fund negative year-end WI balances. It is just the case that distance learning (one of many Western Institute units) generates the largest year-end positive balance among units within the WI,” Mapley wrote in an email.
There are many contributors to Western Institute’s revenue and there are many programs that the institute facilitates.
The Western Institute is an umbrella for many units. These units include programs such as the dual credit program, the intensive English program and the Law Enforcement Academy.
Western Institute also houses the Instructional Media Center, which provides support for computer-based technology on and off campus.
There are 20 umbrella units that Western Institute oversees. Mapley explained that not all of them are profitable annually, as was the case last year.
“Eleven of the WI umbrella units had positive year-end balances. Nine of the budgets had negative year-end balances. Some of these could have been positive if we had made different decisions regarding where to charge some personnel lines,” Mapley wrote in an email.
While Western Playhouse hasn’t had a positive year-end balance, Mapley explained that Western Institute as a whole still operates positively.
“For the past two years the WI has contributed back to the main budget approximately $2.5 million,” Mapley wrote. “While part of this net revenue is due to how online courses are budgeted, much of the growing net reflects the growth in enrollment in online courses – and much of this growth is by students who are only taking online courses.”
History and future of Western Playhouse
The idea for Western Playhouse began in 2010 when Mapley, Henry and Quillin met to discuss the benefits that a summer playhouse could have for theater majors, actors and students as a whole.
In 2012, the initial season of Western Playhouse kicked off. In 2013, the elaborate “Miss Saigon” was performed, and Willenbrink came to campus as the founding dean for the School of Fine Arts. Last year, in the summer of 2014, Willenbrink directed “Mother Divine.”
This February, season four Western Playhouse was announced.
“Into the Woods” will be performed at Potter Theatre June 19-27. “The Fantasticks” will be performed at Kemper Recital Hall July 10-18.