Recently I attended the Winnipeg Fringe Festival, which is a festival of theatrical shows. This one included 30 venues with rotating shows running 12 hours per day. I managed to see 25 plays in 5 days, including musicals, comedies, murder mysteries, clown shows, acrobatics, performance poetry, and more. I was very impressed with the talent of the various performers, who obviously worked hard to hone their skills.
While watching some of these shows, I pondered the ephemeral nature of each performance. For an hour or two, we enjoy a delightful experience together, and then it ends. While the same play can be performed repeatedly, no two performances are quite the same. Once a show is over, it’s gone forever, never to be seen again. This makes live theater a special and unique thing to behold.
Making Money From Performance Art
Consider how the actors in these plays make money. Suppose a play gets 100 people attending each performance, and suppose the troupe averages about $8 per audience member per performance in take-home pay. That’s $800 per performance. With 7 performances per show at a festival, that means a troupe can earn over $5K for a 10-day festival. Some performers also generate income from back of the room sales after their shows with CDs, t-shirts, etc. A very popular show that sells out can take in $20K during a single festival.
For a one-person show, the sole performer gets the full amount, but for larger troupes this may be divided into many slices. Solo shows often sell out if the show is really good, so it’s possible to earn over $100K per year by doing theatrical festivals in different cities for a few months each year. I doubt most Fringe performers earn that much, but those who are really dedicated can certainly do so.
Whether there are 10 people or 200 people in the audience, the actors must work just as hard. Their income depends not on the time they invest in each performance but on the number of people who pay to see them. If they can get 10x as many people into the seats, they’ll earn 10x as much money for the same amount of stage time.
Many factors can affect the audience size, such as the show’s day and time, the venue, the troupe’s reputation, the subject matter, the type of show, the show’s marketing, critics’ reviews, attendee reviews, word of mouth, and sometimes sheer luck.
While a performer or troupe may earn a healthy hourly rate for the time on stage, of course it’s the prep work that makes this possible. Many hours may be invested in creating and fine-tuning a show, but a good show can be performed dozens, if not hundreds, of times — in different cities, to different audiences, and at different times.
This level of thinking puts us somewhere in the gray area between active and passive income. To perform a show the 41st time after it’s already been performed the first 40 times takes much less effort than creating the first show from scratch. The income for each incremental performance is high because it leverages creative work that’s already finished, but this income stream isn’t fully passive because the income stops when the show isn’t being actively performed.
If you do work that involves one-time performances, realize that these are the least efficient in terms of your return on investment. Think of how you could repeat these performances multiple times to do a better job of leveraging your up-front creative efforts.
If you spend 20 hours writing and rehearsing a one-hour speech, and you deliver it only once for $2500, you’ll have earned $119 per working hour. But if you can deliver that same speech 10 times for the same fee, your hourly rate will increase to $833. In the latter situation, you’re still earning income actively, but you’re leveraging the power of passive value to earn multiples of what you’d otherwise be paid.
How can you create something once and perform, share, or deliver it multiple times?
Passive Income From Performance Art
To make your creative work even more passive, put it into a permanent form, such that it can provide value to people even when you aren’t working.
For example, record your performance or presentation, and charge for people to access it. Even if you charge much less for a recording than for a live performance, you can offer the recording to many more people. With your live performances, you may reach thousands of people, but if you can record your work, you could potentially reach tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of people.
If you create a live show and refine it through your own performances, and you can license your script for other troupes to perform. If you won’t be performing your creative work in certain cities or countries, or if you’re going to stop performing it in the future, why not allow others to perform your work as they pay you for the privilege? Some troupes are glad to perform others’ work; this saves them the trouble of creating an original show from scratch and allows them to offer a show that’s already proven to draw audiences. By licensing your work to other performers, new audiences can enjoy your creations that otherwise would have missed out entirely, and you can enjoy extra income without having to perform at all.
One show I saw at the Fringe Festival was called “Almost an Evening.” This was a collection of plays written by Ethan Coen (of the Coen brothers, creators of Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou?). These plays were hysterically funny, and the performers did an outstanding job, especially with their rendition of dueling Old Testament and New Testament gods. Since Ethan Coen made his creative work available to this troupe to perform, he enabled hundreds of others to enjoy it in the form of a live performance.
Putting certain creations into digital form can pay off handsomely, but not every creative work lends itself well to digital media. Live theater is a one example. Watching a video of a play simply cannot provide the same you-had-to-be-there moments as you experience when sitting in the audience, especially if you have front row seats or if the show involves audience interaction. In one show with the Pi Clowns, for instance, Rachelle and I were sitting in the front row, and about halfway through the show, I was unexpectedly pulled onto the stage and invited to perform silly feats with another audience member for several minutes. That made the experience very memorable, and it guarantees that each performance will be unique, but of course this doesn’t happen while watching videos at home.
If you don’t feel you can put your creative work into digital form and maintain the same quality of experience, don’t automatically rule out passive income. You can still generate passive income by making your work available for others to perform and charging a license fee, and you can do this more than once if you use a nonexclusive license. Others won’t perform your shows, sing your songs, or deliver your presentations the same way you would, but much can be gained by allowing them to put their own spin on your work. They may even improve upon it in ways you didn’t expect.
For a quality live experience, it may be true that the audience has to be there, but the creative mind that developed the work may be able to stay home… or perhaps he may choose to go white water rafting in Canada such as I’m doing this week.