We are so incredibly, unbelievably lucky to have the theatre scene that we do in Cambridge. There is so much money and opportunity floating around, it feels like anyone with a project can find a way to bring it to life. But with higher stakes comes higher costs, especially for those behind the scenes in productions.  This is an article I’ve had brewing in me for a while, but it was only when I began work on it that I realised how important the treatment of money is to so many people involved in the theatre scene. It has been both reassuring and terrifying to see how many people have felt the same way I have about the strains on their personal finances, and to realise that almost everyone has had this conversation privately.

"The assumption that people can pay out of pocket for months at a time is an access barrier to many"

When I posted a questionnaire on Facebook asking people for their experiences with funding and reimbursement in Cambridge Theatre I was flooded with responses (I was almost hurt as no one is this enthusiastic about my flyering schedules). I was ready to write an article about the different facets of payment and reimbursement, but was caught off guard by the alarming similarity of experience. As one response put it: ‘the assumption is that everyone can afford to be £100 down in their account, and still live their normal lives’. When starting this article I was concerned about people being over £500 down because of a show, but this is not an issue only to be discussed in the extremes; it is a culture that needs to be changed, and soon. It was often said for larger purchases like the rights to put on a play, people were reimbursed swiftly, but this is in itself assuming what is an ‘insignificant’ amount of money.

Almost every response said they were burdened by show costs: ‘I’ve rather gone into overdraft than delay the production of a show’ one response read. Others asked their family for the money, or had to ask other students to pay for them, but asking for money is embarrassing and rides on the hope that someone else is able to pay. Some have found the money at the expense of their living costs, stating they have put down as much for a show as their food budget for a whole term. When experiencing problems with people being able to pay upfront and funding bodies being slow to respond, I’ve known producers to pay out of their own money, acting as an intermediary between student and funding body, but these producers are students too.

Zak Karimjee, Set Designer and Technical Director, raised the problem of people simply not reclaiming parts of their spending when going over budget. He states ‘I feel very uncomfortable with that. No matter how much I care about the show, I'm doing it in the knowledge that my only input is my time’. At the end of the day theatre is an extra-curricular, and whilst its demand on people’s time and energy is up to the individual, financial input should not be. Responses saw there being a pressure of ‘failing’ at their job if they did not fork out the money for another item of costume or props, especially during the pressure of get-in day. Lily Burge, Stage Manager, said ‘[spending money] is an implicit assumption of the role of SM - you would be seen not to be doing your job properly if you could not pay for props’. Again, it is assumption that is what needs to change most of all, the assumption that people can pay out of pocket for months at a time is an access barrier to many, it has deterred people from applying to roles which would need to be reimbursed and made people choose between a show and their living costs.

The current system for most societies involves a budget being decided between the show and funding body, then receipts being submitted to the funding body after the show’s run. The funding body will then reimburse students, either through cheque or bank transfer, once the show settlement has been paid to them, which for ADC shows is commonly 4 weeks after the run. One funding body stated the reason for this delay in payment is that they take on multiple shows in a term on a rolling basis, so having the ticket sales paid in before reimbursement allows them to fund multiple shows at once. Senior Treasurers and issues with dual signatures has also come up in this conversation; with long chains of communication the message that a student is waiting on their money for over a month can get lost. But as much as these are valid arguments, and I’d hate to see less shows be put on because of lack of available funding, I feel like the attitude towards reimbursement needs to shift. One response stated: ‘I have to constantly remind societies to make it a priority to give people back their money’, and this sums up the issue, we should be considering people’s finances as an absolute priority. Reimbursements are urgent matters and they should be treated as such.

"Producers to need to acknowledge that they are in a position of financial responsibility to their crew, and should establish clear communication about this from early on"

I have not been in charge of a funding body myself, and the responses in general were fully aware a funding body cannot just hand out money without proof of purchase and have their own accounts to keep track of. But perhaps systems can to be put in place to fix this, suggestions made have been:

  • A change of all funding bodies to internet banking rather than cheques
  • An online system, or even just show spreadsheet, where people can log receipts as they go along. This coupled with a firm deadline set by producers can make submitting receipts after a show quick and easy, with minimal chasing up required.
  • Funding bodies could be sent an advance props/costume order and pay it straight from their accounts, so reimbursement is unnecessary.
  • Reimbursing at a midway point if not on a rolling basis, so the final reimbursement is just for more last-minute purchases.
  • Paying some of the budget up front in advance, particularly when a show’s budget asks specifically for large items of set that will definitely be purchased.

What also comes up in the questionnaire, however, is that a large part of the stress surrounding reimbursements stems from the unknown. This makes communication another problem to be addressed: producers and funding bodies are the lines of communication between funding and show, but they are not the only ones to spend money. Anna Mochar writes: ‘the most stressful thing is not knowing for sure when you can expect to get your money back’ and others add that once a show was over it tended to be pushed to the back of people’s minds, but a show is not over until people have been fully reimbursed. I know personally this has pushed me to look at my own experiences with reimbursing my crew. In future I plan to explain who our funding body is and how to contact them at the very start of a show’s process, as well as explaining the timeline of reimbursement after the show and informing people when the ADC settlement has come through. One funding body expressed to me if they know an individual will be several hundred pounds down due to expenditure (such as the rights to put on a play), they would happily reimburse earlier, but people need to know this information upfront. Another pointed out they are not usually the ones to delay reimbursements, producers can struggle to collect receipts from everyone, or have their own essay crisis going on, but again, from all sides, people’s money should always be a priority.


Mountain View

Hedda Gabler review

Overall, there are things that fundamentally need to change. Each funding body is run differently, some have a large pool of money, others have very little, but at the very least conversations need to begin. It may be difficult to justify to a treasurer, but a committee for a funding body is never out of pocket themselves, and therefore the money of individuals must come before the accounts of the bodies as much as feasibly possible. Producers to need to acknowledge that they are in a position of financial responsibility to their crew, and should establish clear communication about this from early on. I hope this article does not come across ungrateful for the opportunities we have in Cambridge, but raises awareness that this is a serious issue, and cannot be left on the back burner any longer. I’d like to finish this article by thanking Georgie Deri, Zak Karimjee, Phoebe Schenk, Anna Mochar, Lily Burge, all those who contributed to the questionnaire, and the funding bodies who discussed this issue with me.  I encourage this conversation to continue outside of anonymous forms, this is not something inevitable and it simply can, and must, change.

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