Gate Theatre recorded losses of nearly €1m over two years

Dublin institution has been told it is being ‘stretched to the point of unsustainability’

Fiona Bell and Denis Conway in a production of  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Gate Theatre, Dublin. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Fiona Bell and Denis Conway in a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Gate Theatre, Dublin. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

The existing operating model of the Gate Theatre, which has combined losses of more than €900,000 in 2013 and 2015, is being “stretched to the point of unsustainability”, consultants have warned

Commissioned by the theatre from British consultant’s Bonnar Keenlyside, the report, produced in January, said the Gate had little room to take risks, develop or experiment.

Attendance figures at the theatre, founded by Hilton Edwards and Micheál Mac Liammóir in 1928, were down almost 10 per cent from 102,810 in 2011 to 94,110 in 2015.

More than €540,000 in 2013 was lost due to ambitious investment plans and more than €370,000 in 2015, caused by underperformance at the box office in the latter.

In 2016, the Gate operated a deficit reduction plan, with “more revivals and longer runs than desired”, as well as cuts to operating overheads, the report said.

This action was successful and the Gate expected to exceed significantly its financial targets.

But the success was achieved at the cost of a programme that minimised risk and maximised returns.

“The Gate believes that this risks damaging its reputation and also losing audiences,” the report said of the theatre, whose former director Michael Colgan stood down in April after more than 33 years ago .

Highly remunerated

He was by far the longest-serving chief executive in the Irish theatre world, as well as the most highly remunerated, receiving €231,000 in salary, expenses and pension payments in 2015.

He has been succeeded by Selina Cartmell, whose productions have been nominated for 35 theatre awards, with 10 wins, including three for best director.

The report found the Gate was “highly dependent” on high returns, adding: “The apparent conservatism of its core audience means that any experimentation outside of a particular taste may have negative financial results.”

The report also said the continuous erosion of Arts Council funding, down from almost €945,000 in 2014 to €860,000 in 2016, undermined the theatre’s ability to achieve its ambitions.

The Abbey, funded as a national cultural institution, received more than six times the funding, though both theatres have similar attendance.

The most consistently popular genre at the Gate has been American classics, with an average attendance of 317 per performance, at an average ticket price of €30. New Irish plays are the least popular, with average attendances at 240.

“There are clear opportunities to increase ticket yield through pricing strategies reflecting the genre, style, popularity and demand,” the report found, adding that Colgan had kept to standard pricing “on egalitarian principles”.

The report also said the theatre had not premiered a new work, unless by an established playwright, since 1983, when Mr Colgan became director.

‘Extremely successful’

It said Mr Colgan has led and managed the Gate “according to his own strengths and style, widely recognised as extremely successful”.

However, the business model was dependent on all productions generating a surplus and success was dependent on meeting the expectations of “the current, core, loyal but conservative audience”.

“This is not sustainable,” the report said.

“As a new director takes over, there is a risk that the current operating model will not be resilient enough to support the change.”

The report also found a lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities in the theatre.

Significant governance improvements have been made, including term limits for board members. In addition, the director will no longer be a board member.

“There is a particular need for clarity over HR policy and remuneration arrangements,” the report found. Significant challenges lie ahead. A five-year business plan is needed, including more fundraising.

The Gate has “ a significant opportunity”to develop and diversify supported by a modernisation of its staffing, marketing and fundraising, but the transition will require “a substantial investment”, including Arts Council help.