When they first stepped out onto the stage 114 years ago, Sheffield Teachers’ Operatic Society was, like every other amateur theatre company of the time, simply a group of people wanting to enjoy themselves and entertain their friends with an evening of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Move forward more than a century, though, and STOS Theatre Company – as the group is now known – presents its shows in the prestigious surroundings of Sheffield’s Lyceum Theatre to a much larger and certainly more discerning audience than just family and friends.
As its publicity material says, STOS Theatre Company produces the world’s top musicals at the Lyceum, created for and by the people of South Yorkshire, drawing on the best local talent and employing hugely experienced professional creative teams to create memorable nights at the theatre.
Competing for attention alongside not only the big touring West End hits that come in and out of the Lyceum but also with the critically acclaimed shows at the neighbouring Crucible, STOS now has to take a completely professional approach to theatre.
And that means making a level of investment to match its professional rivals.
The company’s next show is White Christmas, and with an estimated budget of around £103,000 invested in the production, it will be one of the most expensive community theatre musicals ever seen on the Lyceum stage.
In the past three years alone, STOS productions of hit shows Our House, A Christmas Carol and West Side Story have won rave reviews and been seen by more than 15,000 people.
But for shows to wow both critics and audiences alike means the sort of cash injection that STOS treasurer David Streeter admits can create some financial headaches.
David has been the company’s treasurer for 27 years – and was also chairman for 10 years – so knows exactly what it takes to keep the company on track.
And he is probably the one person who can explain exactly where the investment will be spent.
The biggest chunk of that budget – around 47 per cent – will be spent on renting the Lyceum and paying the show’s rights holders for permission to stage the show – only after that can you get down to the nitty gritty of staging a show on this massive scale, with a cast of almost 40 actors, singers and dancers.
“A budget of this size is more than we would usually spend for a variety of reasons,” David admits.
“But the main reason is that White Christmas is the sort of show that has to invest in high production values – so yes, audiences can expect to see snow every night because that’s what they want to see and we cannot disappoint them.
“Audiences see London and touring West End productions which have big names and big budgets. We can’t provide the big names but we can ensure that we invest in high productions values by budgeting appropriately.”
The way that amateur theatre works today, David explains, is that everybody the audience sees on stage is the ‘no cost’ element of the show – in other words, the actors are not paid for their time.
But everybody else from the creative people and technical teams, musicians and the show’s marketing and publicist are paid for their time just like any show in the Lyceum’s autumn season.
“Then you can spend something like £7,000 on things like lighting and sound, there’s perhaps £5,000 for scenery and then there’s the costume and wig bill which, for a show as big and colourful as this one, will mean a further £10,000.
“And don’t forget that it’s not just a case of picking a show and doing it – we have to make sure it’s available for performance and then, whatever we choose, we still have to run it past Sheffield Theatres to make sure it fits in with their overall programme of productions.”
Like any other company, putting on a show is no longer just a matter of spending money and hoping for the best.
To keep the company successfully afloat, David budgets for each show based on ticket sales of around 80 per cent.
“We really do still depend in the main on ticket sales for our future success,” he insists.
“We do have other areas of income such as memberships and some donations but we have no grant aid at all so ticket sales are everything.
But we are not just playing it safe all the time because of that – we know we have reserves to cover costs and those reserves have edged up over the years.
“However, if you look at our shows going back over the last 20 years, you realise that this is a cyclical business and that even the best or the most popular shows do not necessarily cover our costs.
“We lost money on Robert and Elizabeth in 2000 and we lost money on the Viv Nicholson musical Spend Spend Spend in 2004.
“Even a show like The Witches of Eastwick in 2005 proved extremely expensive because we knew we had to get it absolutely right and that meant some very clever special effects and flying so we actually budgeted for a loss in these instances.
“Our production of Oliver was extremely successful – it always is – but Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, even though it was a big hit, again demanded a higher level of investment because of its spectacular special effects, including a technically demanding transformation scene.
“We have done very well on Our House, A Christmas Carol and West Side Story over the past three years but White Christmas could eat into our reserves a little again because of the higher level of investment in the show.
“But, having said that, if ticket sales continue in the way they have done up to now, we could be looking at a very good year.
“Whatever happens, though, the important thing is that we are financially secure enough to carry us through and even if we didn’t sell a single ticket we would have enough to pay our bills – though it would be disappointing to our wonderful cast playing to an empty theatre!”