9 August 2016

hawks at the fringe: The Pleasance Theatre Trust 2014

Quieter times

The Pleasance Theatre Trust has been responsible for operating the spaces surrounding the cobbled courtyard at Pleasance Edinburgh since 1985. Formally established as a charity in late 1995, the organisation provides an 'affordable, supportive and adventurous' platform for emerging and established artists. With over 200 shows on every day at Pleasance Edinburgh during the festival, a cemented spot in the "Big Four" and the lack of a public programme at Pleasance Islington during August, the organisation clearly has a seasonal focus.

There are many ways to deliver a substantial Fringe programme; establishing a charitable trust in order to do so is unlikely to be the most financially lucrative for anyone involved. Individual promoters and short-lived limited companies can perform astounding disappearing tricks with money that a 30 year-old charitable trust will not not be able to perform.

Pleasance Islington provides a permanent home in London for the Pleasance Theatre Trust, as well as performance spaces and rehearsal rooms that operate throughout the year. Pleasance Edinburgh only exists during August; for the rest of the year the various spaces are run by Edinburgh University Students Union. Importantly, as part of this long standing and amicable arrangement, Edinburgh University also run the bars at Pleasance Edinburgh and retain the resulting income. The Pleasance Theatre Trust does operate a wholly owned subsidiary (Pleasance Theatre Festival Ltd.) which operates the bar at Pleasance Islington. This subsidiary company carries out trading activities on behalf of the charity and profits are donated to the charity under Gift Aid.

The Pleasance Theatre Trust's financial year runs to the end of November and the most recent accounts available at the time of writing cover the period up until 30th November 2014. The 2015 accounts should be submitted by the end of August 2016.

The bulk of Voluntary Income was donated by the subsidiary company Pleasance Theatre Festival Ltd.: £98.352 in 2014 and £91,187 in 2013. This is in the same region as BAC's commercial trading operations (~£135k on average up until 2015 when it dropped dramatically) but a long way from Soho Theatre's million pound income machine. The remaining Voluntary Income was attributed to miscellaneous donations/legacies/similar, whilst Activities for Generating Funds consisted of income derived from hiring out the various spaces at Pleasance Islington. Investment income is unremarkable and largely the result of bank interest.

The standout figure on the financial statement is the income resulting from the trust's charitable activities. In both 2013 and 2014, ~£2m of income resulted specifically from productions staged by The Pleasance Theatre Trust. Approximately £1.9m of that comes from Edinburgh productions. As mentioned earlier, no income is received from the bar during the festival and note that The Pleasance receive no public funding. That income figure is all ticket sales (or artists topping up box office sales to meet the first call - see here for specific information about how The Pleasance work with individual shows, it's a minimum guarantee followed by at least a 55/45 split in favour of the artist). In 2014, The Pleasance Edinburgh's audience figure barely grazed past 400,000 people, down from 420,000 in 2013.

Venue 33

The trustees are keenly aware of The Pleasance's reliance on Edinburgh box office income. All future plans depend on the success of the Edinburgh programme and as a result, The Trust explicitly state their strategy for ensuring income is maintained and, where possible, increased: select a better quality programme year on year, leveraging the experience of theatrical entrepreneurship found amongst the trustees. Interestingly, the experience of the directorate and trustee body appears to dictate that "arbitrary targets... are not practical operational tools." So, it appears we must speculate that any income growth would be the result of the trustees gut feel for the programme. It seems safe to assume that The Pleasance will not deviate from their receiving house model (or any other strategic aspect) in the immediate future, so one does begin to wonder how those future plans will actually be implemented, particularly if The Fringe really has peaked.

In terms of expenditure, The Pleasance spent 2014 spending as expected; just over £1m was paid out for productions and direct staff costs (IE staff employed on a project basis), salaries for ~30 Trust employees made up about £400k, rent and rates spend was ~£200k and advertising ~£250k. Since The Pleasance operates from Edinburgh during August, staff members are relocated and their ranks swelled with help from ~200 volunteers. Pleasance volunteers are paid a stipend of £600 for expenses during the festival and have accommodation provided. Whilst volunteer stipends, accommodation and staff relocation probably costs The Pleasance in the region of £300k each year, it does help get around some of the thorny labour problems caused by extreme seasonal demand.

In terms of the balance sheet, the principle movement is clearly that unrestricted reserves were used to cover the operating costs due to the shortfall at the box office. The Pleasance blamed 2014's poor ticket sales on the proximity of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. However, the 2014 Fringe broke 2 million ticket sales for the first time and the Fringe Society report lauded the games on the basis that it provided easier access to the world's media. Venues such as Summerhall reported an increase of over 20% on 2013's ticket sales. Clearly, 2014 was not a terrible year for all Fringe venues and it seems hasty of The Trust to attribute causation solely to the games.

This is particularly hard to swallow given the assertion elsewhere in the trustees report that the Pleasance's income figure is the direct result of Edinburgh programming quality and the trustees theatrical entrepreneurial expertise.


Hopefully some of the upcoming 'hawks at the fringe' pieces will put this analysis into a wider context but since the 2015 accounts will be here before you can say "self-serving bias", I hope to revisit The Pleasance shortly.