Thanks to ever-improving digital technology, raising money through crowdfunding is now easier than ever – and more and more theatre projects are taking advantage of it. Just last week, the producers of the West End transfer of The Pajama Game told WhatsOnStage about their crowdfunding experience, which seems to be proving successful. But is crowdfunding really, as they claim, the future for theatre fundraising?
It's easy to see the appeal. As other streams of funding dry up, why not turn to the fans to make up the shortfall? In theory, there is no better way to make an audience feel passionately involved in a production than to offer them a stake in it. And crowdfunding does not only work for big West End shows like The Pajama Game; it has been used for everything from small-scale projects to the likes of The Wind in the Willows, which invited investments of between £1,000 and £5,000. Whether theatre enthusiasts have a spare fiver or a spare five grand, there is a chance to get involved.
There is also an argument that crowdfunding democratises theatre. Rather than shows being funded by a few big investors, who we might worry about having more say over artistic choices than is really desirable, funding is opened up and those who are most enthusiastic about a project – the fans – have a chance to be actively involved. Theatre-makers are less reliant on a few major institutions or investors, and the productions that succeed are those that have managed to most successfully capture the public's imagination.
But there are downsides. For all that crowdfunding claims to be a democratising force, it is still not accessible to all audiences. Even the smaller amounts being asked for are beyond the purses of some fans, especially if – as is often the case with modest contributions – they are still required to fork out for a ticket when the show makes it to the stage. In the case of a show like The Wind in the Willows, the investment opportunity it is offering is clearly only available to a few wealthy theatre enthusiasts and is therefore pretty exclusive, if less so than other forms of investment.
There is also the worry that if crowdfunding becomes a major source of investment, riskier projects will not go ahead. Raising money in this way demands a clear pitch, which might be easy for a musical with a proven track record like The Pajama Game, but is more of a problem for a show that is still in development or is experimenting with new ways of working. Meeting the desires of audiences is a fantastic idea in principle, but some of the most exciting and eventually beloved shows have sprung from concepts that few would be willing to support at the development stage. There needs to be room for experimentation and innovation.
Theatre-makers and producers considering crowdfunding also need to think carefully about what benefits they are offering to investors. Creative people should be able to offer brilliantly creative awards, which they sometimes do, but all too often fans who shell out to support a production receive little of any meaning in return. Crowdfunding should be about building real relationships with the audiences who are passionate enough about the work to support it, not just offering a cursory gift in exchange for a bit of cash.
I don't deny that crowdfunding offers an exciting opportunity, and one that theatre as an industry should be looking towards. But it might not be the miracle cure that stretched producers and theatre-makers hope it is.