There's no business like show business

25th April 1997 at 01:00
David Self on why a regional theatre has opened up its accounts to sixth-formers.

Not every business is prepared to make a full and frank disclosure of its most intimate accounts - even to business studies students from the local further education college and sixth-forms.

After all, such information would be of even more interest to commercial rivals than to students.

One exception is Norwich's Theatre Royal which has decided to pursue a policy of financial openness, a happy by-product being a handsome and explicit booklet entitled The Business of Theatre, intended to support GNVQ Intermediate Business and GCSE Business Studies.

The initiative for the venture came from the Norfolk Inspection, Advice and Training Services. For some time, with the Theatre Royal, they have been organising one-day workshops to give students an insight into the business side of show business.

A large amount of information was collated for the purpose from the various departments: box office, catering, stage management and so on. It is this information, in the form of spreadsheets, flow charts and real examples of theatrical deals that form the core of the booklet.

Also included are detailed instructions for such activities as writing reports on how the theatre can improve its market position, the buying habits of its customers, and the preparation of promotional material. Each task is clearly linked to specified GNVQ core skills.

The Theatre Royal is the region's premier "receiving house". That is, apart from the annual pantomime, it does not mount its own productions but receives touring shows ranging from opera, ballet and drama subsidised by the Arts Council to commercial musicals, plays and "one-night stands".

Each must be marked precisely and effectively if profit margins are to be maintained - to the surprise of those who still ask, "Do you really have to market theatre?" As Mark Hazell, the theatre's marketing director said: "Theatre isn't thought of as business." But it is - even if it is "sexier" than some. This is one reason why the case study will capture the imagination of students, he reckons.

What is also intriguing is the way the Theatre Royal combines a degree of public service with a decidedly hard-nosed commercial approach. This is also evident from its regular economic impact reports, which inform the local community just how much income it brings to the city by way of, for example, hotel, restaurant and taxi bookings.

The theatre business, as a whole, is also way ahead of many other industries in the way it uses information gathered via its computerised box offices to help its own marketing - a procedure supermarkets are only now adopting through loyalty schemes.

When asked about his company's frankness, Mark Hazell admitted: "Other theatres think we're mad." But the Theatre Royal obviously believes the publication of The Business of Theatre is good PR.

For John Hardy, senior examiner for GCSE business studies and a member of the Norfolk local education authority in-service education and training team, who co-ordinated the booklet, it has been a unique opportunity to publish "an awful lot of good stuff".

He said: "Even if it is eventually out of date, the figures will still be in proportion to one another."

The booklet will also be relevant to GNVQ leisure and tourism courses and possibly mandatory for many A-level performing andtheatre arts courses. Some will wish room had been made for a short glossary, but that is a small criticism of what has been labelled "the most comprehensive public view ever published" of a notoriously risky business.

The Business of Theatre is available from Norfolk Educational Press, County INSET Centre, Witard Road, Norwich NR7 9XD at Pounds 12.50; five or more copies at Pounds 5 each. Cheques payable to Norfolk County Council

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