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3-Step Budgeting for a Great Show at Any Price Point

By Tina Cocumelli
theatre director writing a production budget

There are countless decisions to make for every show you produce—and from the creative to the practical, they're all going to be informed to some extent by one determining factor: how much money do you have to spend?

Whatever that amount may be, with a bit of strategy and a commitment to your art you will always put on a great production. But for the show to go on you'll need to create an accurate, achievable production budget based on a realistic understanding of your resources.

Play or musical, minimalist or major spectacle, traditionally staged or streamed to a remote audience, this three-step process will help you figure out what you have, what you need, and how to create the show you envision

Theatre Producer's Planner and worksheets

Step 1: Identify your resources

The most logical place to start when planning your budget is with what you already have to work with. This doesn't just mean the readily available cash you have to spend, but also any projected income and existing tangible assets that can be put to use for your upcoming production.

Resources to consider include:

Budget provided by your organization

If you have an overall budget for the year or season, work with your team—ideally during the programming stage—to decide how to divide the money. The most important thing is to make sure you can provide appropriate resources for each production. So, if different directors are involved, ask each one of them to present a production plan and preliminary budget as a jumping off point.

If you’re producing a musical, that will be your most expensive show just based on royalties and rentals alone. It's often possible, however, to balance a high-budget show with a lower-budget one without compromising production values. The key is to get strategic with your vision and provide your audience with different types of theatrical experiences.

For example, I once directed a production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in a black box with a set that consisted of 11 grey boxes. We created atmosphere with spectacular lighting and sound design, and captured the audience’s attention with innovative choreography instead of expensive sets.

When you're confident and creative with your choices, the amount of money you spend (or don't spend) won't be an issue.

Potential ticket sales

I suggest you look at this number conservatively! Instead of basing your budget on the maximum tickets you hope to sell, come up with an average number of tickets you usually sell to determine income from this source.

Other sources of income

This might include program ad sales, sponsorships, grants, merchandise sales, fundraisers, concessions, and more.

Donations & In-kind support

Mounting a production of Little Shop? Why not ask a local florist to order for you at wholesale or, better yet, provide live set dressing in exchange for prominent ad placement. Need wigs styled elaborately for a period piece? Ask around at cosmetology schools and stylist training programs to see if there are students who need to log hours or complete portfolio projects. If you time things right, you could even negotiate a class project and create a PR opportunity.

Tangible Assets

Your bookkeeper might raise an eyebrow, but I often categorize repurpose-able resources I already have as income. It's unconventional, but the logic behind is it simple: they save me from costs!

Include anything you have in stock that can be used for your current production:

  • Sets
  • Paint
  • Lights
  • Audio equipment
  • Costumes
  • Make-up
  • Anything that doesn’t have to be purchased or rented!

Pro Tip: It's especially helpful to take these items into account before choosing your shows!

Step 2: Calculate your costs

Separate your projected expenditures into two categories: Hard Costs and Soft Costs. In other words, items you can't negotiate or do without and areas where you can get creative to save money.

Hard Costs


Always start with royalty costs, as this is really the only must pay . (If you’re producing a work that is in the public domain, you’re already ahead of the game.)

Pro Tip: Don’t forget to request the rights to perform the play/musical before you announce it to anyone!


It’s important for each Company member to have their own script. If it’s too expensive to buy new scripts for everyone and you plan to make copies, be sure to do this legally!

More and more, publishers simply request that you shred any copies you make once you finish the production, but check to make sure you’re honoring the copyright and, if you're a theatre educator, teach your students to do the same.


You may be able to negotiate a deal with your printer in exchange for ad space, but for the most part programs are a fairly fixed budget item. If you do consider cutting corners here by handling collation, folding, and stapling in-house, just remember to factor in staff hours and payroll to make sure you really are saving money and not just creating extra work.


If you're operating a traditional box office, costs might include everything from the printing of physical tickets to elaborate software, depending on the size of your organization.

Online ticketing services can offer much more efficient solutions, but can also come along with up-front costs

On The Stage's all-in-one platform offers paperless online ticketing, box office management tools, and detailed reporting, plus free, Broadway-style promotional website, built-in marketing and promotional tools, and more with no up-front costs or hidden fees. Your organization will never pay a thing for the tools or services unless you choose to absorb the standard ticketing fees that are usually passed on to the patron at the point of sale. 

Streaming & Virtual Production Costs

If you are producing virtually or streaming your performance to a remote audience, your costs will vary greatly depending on your setup and specific goals. Be sure to consider all relevant steps in your production and streaming process, including:

  • Video capture & editing software
  • Hosting & streaming service
  • File storage

Or, skip the complicated and costly steps with On The Stage's complete streaming solution, which provides all the tools and services you need to create, promote, sell virtual tickets, and securely stream your show to a remote audience, all in one easy-to-use platform. There's no cost to your organization unless you choose to absorb the modest fees that are usually passed onto the patron at the point of sale (just like with any online ticketing service).

Space Rental

This line item may or may not be included in your production budget. Chances are, if you're a theatre educator or working with a resident company, your physical location is most likely included in your organization's general budget.

If you are an independent producer or work for a company that does not have its own theater, space rental is a significant expense that may be most appropriately considered a necessary production cost.


Soft Costs

After you’ve budgeted for unavoidable costs, you’ll have a rough idea of how much money is left to spend on everything else (i.e. your creative expenses).

Meet with your production team, if you have one, or take time to think about what this specific show most needs to successfully deliver the theatrical experience you envision. Then, get really honest with yourself about the cost of each of those elements, how much payoff you'll get from the expenditures, and whether you need or want to reconsider your priorities or come up with alternate solutions.

Some items to consider:

Artistic & Technical Staff

If you need professional help to execute your vision for the show, then this needs to be a priority when planning your budget. Payroll expenses might include:

  • Musical Director
  • Technical Director/Designer
  • Scenic Designer
  • Choreographer
  • Stage Manager
  • Any other theatre professional whose expertise will enable the execution of your creative vision

Contract or Hourly Labor

As with staff, skilled support is often necessary for the successful staging of any production. Such line items might include:

  • Set and prop construction
  • Light and sound board operators
  • Costume construction or alterations
  • Hair and makeup team
  • Videographer/camera operator 

Rentals & Purchases

Any items that your organization doesn't already own, such as:

  • Microphones or other audio equipment
  • Video equipment
  • Lights, projector, other special effects equipment, gobos, etc.
  • Costumes
  • Wigs
  • Makeup

Marketing & Promotion

There are many ways to effectively promote your show without spending a lot of money. But even if you're doing all your promotion in-house and on the cheap, don't forget to budget for items such as:

  • Printing costs for flyers and posters
  • Boosted social media posts to targeted audiences outside your existing contacts
  • Ad placement in local papers or community magazines


Step 3: Get creative with solutions

If, after working through the first two steps in this process, you find that your budget still falls short of your vision, then it's time to start thinking outside the box. 

Solving for specific Needs

If the line item that's outside your budget is crucial to your artistic vision, it may be possible to close the financial gap without having to compromise creatively. Consider:
  • Can you borrow what you need for the production from a colleague at another organization?
  • Might it be possible to share the costs with another organization that might produce the show at a later time?
  • Is there another show in your season for which this item, with some design modifications, might serve dual purpose? If so can you "borrow" from that show's budget to cover the expense?

General Budget Rx

Sometimes, the solution to a shortfall of resources is to look for more general options and then reallocate to specific line items accordingly. Remember, resources here don't have to be just monetary. Think in terms of goods and services you might be able to scare up, too! Ask yourself:

  • Does your organization allow you to accept donations from "angels" who might want to support your program? (Note: It’s rarely a good idea to accept money from families of cast members. Better to focus on alumni, Board members, longtime patrons, or other dedicated supporters in your community.)
  • Do you have any skilled colleagues or volunteers who might fill personnel positions or contribute services pro bono? This can be especially helpful if you had budgeted to pay for such items but need to free up funds for something else.
  • Are there businesses in your community that might contribute materials or items that you would otherwise have to pay for?
  • Would it be possible to create premium packages or add-on events for which you could sell tickets at a higher price point? (Think dinner and a show packages with donated gift certificates fro a local restaurant, special pre-show cocktail hour with donated appetizers and beverages, or anything that might fit with the theme of your show.)


Rethinking the Vision

If all else fails, it is sometimes necessary to revisit your goals and priorities. If you find yourself in this situation, begin the re-visioning process by identifying what specifically stood out about the piece you had hoped to produce or your original concept for how it should be staged.

Was it the theme or topic that spoke to you? The style or era in which the story is set? Perhaps there is a certain type of character you are looking to portray, or your programming decision was made to suit the talent pool you're drawing upon for casting. Whatever qualities informed your original choices, think about how you might achieve those same general goals while building a new vision.

  • Can your production design be changed to alleviate some of the costs? For example, can an expensive period piece be set in contemporary times and costumed with actors’ own clothing?
  • Is there another show you can produce for less money, but which would cover similar ground to your original selection?



A Great Show at Any Price Point

There’s no doubt that the process of creating a production budget can involve some difficult decisions. The most important consideration should always be: what choice will have the most impact on the telling of the story? Depending on your show and your artistic goals, this might mean any number of different things, but it will always come down to what will best support your actors in bringing the script to life.

Never confuse the amount of money you have to spend with the potential for a production's success. Even if your budget is $0.00 after you pay your royalties, there’s no reason why you can’t produce a wonderful show that will delight your audience and create meaningful opportunities for engagement.


Want to stretch your budget even farther?

Spend less money on more effective promotion, ticket sales, audience engagement, and more..while making the business side of your job easier than ever!

Check out OnTheStage.com or talk to an expert today.





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Tags: production, how-to

Tina Cocumelli

Tina Cocumelli

Tina Cocumelli is a native of Los Angeles, California, who has spent over four decades creating K-12 theatre curriculum. She has produced and directed over 300 plays and musicals with students of all ages. Tina is a graduate of the UCLA School of Theatre, Film, and Television, and also holds a Master’s degree in Educational Psychology from Point Loma University. Reach out and say hello at tina@onthestage.com.