Date posted: 8/02/2018 3 min read

CAs play a part for theatre company

How accountants helped steer a theatre company towards financial prosperity

In Brief

  • Like all arts organisations, Bell Shakespeare has faced fiscal challenges to remain viable during its 27-year history.
  • As a board member for 18 years, chartered accountant Graham Froebel was part of an effort to help Bell Shakespeare be financially sustainable.
  • Chartered accountant Anne Loveridge, the current chair of Bell Shakespeare’s board, is helping steer Bell Shakespeare through a major capital raising project.

Andy McLean is a writer and content marketing consultant.

In terms of survival stories, it has much in common with William Shakespeare’s own plays: Inspiration, passion, jeopardy, and celebration – Bell Shakespeare’s 27 year history has got the lot. 

The theatre company was built from nothing by Australian actor-director John Bell and philanthropist Tony Gilbert with a small band of corporate and private supporters. The company has since become synonymous with legendary theatre productions, education programs and outreach work, touching the lives of millions of Australians – from school students and teachers to young people in juvenile detention centres; from people in remote Indigenous communities to actors and directors. 

Yet survival in the arts is a precarious business. That Bell Shakespeare has overcome financial constraints and secured new funding is testament to the work of many people, including two chartered accountants who have served on the board of directors.

Graham Froebel CA served on the Bell Shakespeare board between 1998 and 2016. Anne Loveridge FCA became actively involved with the company in 2012, joined the board in 2014, and is now Chair. Along with many others, both CAs have volunteered to help the theatre company through thick and thin.

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The Tempest

Bell Shakespeare’s current financial stability is in stark contrast to its earlier days, Froebel says: “When I first joined the board in 1998 we were surviving as a year-to-year proposition. To stay afloat, we had to take some very tough decisions, like cancelling a run of shows in Melbourne. We had to go cap in hand to the bank to continue trading. And we relied heavily on the generosity of Tony Gilbert and others.”

By 2008, the global financial crisis began to bite. A number of corporates withdrew financial support. Audiences reduced their discretionary spend so that even critically-acclaimed productions struggled to hit revenue targets. And then, in 2009, Tony Gilbert passed away.

“The management and board directors had several deep and meaningful conversations around that time,” Froebel admits. “Tony left a generous financial legacy to Bell Shakespeare, but in the longer-term we didn’t know whether we would have to close the doors or not. Together, we questioned everything – from ticket prices to our ability to fund particular education programs. It was an incredibly tough time.”

The company survived through a combination of rationalising operations and diversifying revenue streams. Meanwhile, Froebel and fellow directors continued to work with Bell Shakespeare’s management to increase the organisation’s financial rigour. This included establishing new ways to scope out future projects and calculate potential cost and revenue impacts.

All’s Well That Ends Well

By the time Froebel stepped aside from board duties in 2016, Bell Shakespeare could call upon the talents of two more chartered accountants: finance manager Jeanmaree Furtado and board chair Anne Loveridge. 

“When you leave a board of directors, you want to be confident that the organisation is in better shape than when you found it,” reflects Froebel. “I had that confidence, having witnessed the improvements within the organisation down the years – and knowing the future is in the hands of many capable people.”

Today, financial sustainability is a watchword for everyone at Bell Shakespeare, from senior management down. And several board directors bring financial expertise and commercial acumen, in addition to the specific skills of the CAs.

Together they have ambitious plans, as Loveridge explains: “For the first time in the company’s history, we have the opportunity to establish a permanent headquarters. We’re currently steering the organisation through a major capital raising project to help fund this.”

In 2019, Bell Shakespeare will move to Pier 2/3 in the Walsh Bay arts precinct in Sydney. “This will gives us added security, as well as the freedom to collaborate, experiment and take our work to more stages and schools across Australia,” says Loveridge. “It will also be a platform for us to expand our education and community work.”

The next Act of the Bell Shakespeare story promises to be an exciting one and, once again, a chartered accountant will be helping to write it.

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