Massimo Monaci is puzzled. The director of the Eliseo theatre in Rome depends for funding on a mix of sponsorship, ticket sales, and government subsidies. In the three years to the end of 2010, his public funding shrank by 25% because of cuts imposed as a result of the economic crisis. They have hurt: next season, the Eliseo will not stage a single self-generated production.
"Yet it has not meant a drop in audiences," said Monaci. "On the contrary, over the past year and a half they have grown. It's odd."
Across town, at the foundation that organises the annual RomaEuropa festival, staff are also baffled. Years of economic woe have certainly taken their toll on public funding. But not on audiences. "In the past 10 years, notwithstanding the crisis, artistic output has grown," said Fabrizio Grifasi, the foundation's head. "The problem is meeting demand."
His impression is borne out by official figures. In the 10 years to the end of 2011, theatre audiences grew by 17%, while the number of cinemagoers rose by half that proportion.
A few hundred miles west in Spain, it's the same story. Tickets for The Lion King and Chicago are hot items in Madrid and Barcelona. Serious theatre is thriving too. As tough as life has become for many, Spaniards are flooding into theatres in record numbers. Last year's audience figures in Barcelona – 2.8-million – were the highest ever.
"Theatre in Barcelona is one of the few sectors that has not just maintained sales, but increased them," explained Daniel Martínez, of Barcelona's Catalan theatre business association. Ticket sales increased by 8%, bucking a consumer slump that is gripping almost every other sector of Spain's economy.
It's a strange dynamic. As austerity sweeps Europe, artistic and cultural institutions have been among the first to face cuts, with theatres, opera houses, orchestras, galleries and educational programmes all facing existential threats as their budgets and public subsidies are slashed. But as far as audiences are concerned, things couldn't be better.
Vincent Baudriller, director for the past nine years of the Avignon festival, probably the most important contemporary arts/theatre event in France, said the three-week festival was practically a sellout.
"Our artists are playing to 90% full houses. We couldn't really do better," he said. "At a time not just of economic crisis but when the world has become more and more virtual and people have lost their political, philosophical and existential bearings they are turning to the culture and the arts."
In some parts, the tendency can be explained, up to a point, by economics. Domenico De Masi, who holds a chair in the sociology of work at Rome's Sapienza University, said that in Italy there were technical explanations. "Almost all theatres have cut their prices. They have improved their marketing and nowadays provide a more varied offering. In the past, a theatre that did drama only did drama. A theatre that did dance only did dance. Now you get seasons that mix plays with ballet and musical concerts."
Music has made a particularly important contribution, said De Masi, a specialist in the economics of culture. Singers and bands were doing more live performances to compensate for the loss of earnings caused by illegal downloads.
None of this, though, really explains what has been happening at Rome's oldest theatre. Draped across the crimson plush sill of a box in the lower circle is a banner that reads "How Sad is Prudence". For more than a year now, the Teatro Valle, opened in 1727, has been occupied by a collective of actors and other theatre workers.
At first, it was a protest at the disbanding of a state-funded body that managed the Valle and two other theatres. But it soon became a broader movement in support of welfare guarantees for performers and more government backing for culture in general. What the protesters had not bargained for was the degree of support they received. "We couldn't get out", said Sylvia De Fanti, an actor and writer.
Large numbers of people, including several prominent figures in Italian life, signed their manifesto. Local restaurants provided them with food for their events. Shops gave discounts. And, when the participants staged plays in the Valle, they found they could pack it to capacity.
"Now, you could say that is because entry is free. But it's not just that. We make a suggestion that people pay whatever they think is fair. There is a hunger, not just for quality, but to learn what quality is," De Fanti said.
Like Monaci, she believes that the surge in interest in the theatre in Italy is an unexpected by-product of the economic crisis. But so far there is no agreement on the nature of the link. "Maybe people have a greater need to be together," said the theatre director.
"I think that the recession is like a crack in the wall," said De Fanti. "You worry the wall is going to fall down, and then you see that on the other side there is a garden you never knew existed".
In Spain, insiders also point to a complex of factors encouraging audiences. "No single theory explains why this is happening," said Martínez, a Barcelona-based impresario whose recent successes include a run of Edward Albee's 1962 play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? "I think our audience of middle-class people with stable jobs has cut down on other things. They don't buy cars or travel as much and so they have actually more disposable income and they are using it to have fun and forget their problems for a while."
"I remember something similar happened in Argentina," said Ana Gallego, a children's theatre producer based in Valladolid, central Spain. "Children are still coming to the theatre in Valladolid and I think people generally want culture now. They want to discover new things and find alternative ways of looking at the world in order to help them understand what is going on."
Prices have dropped to fit the times, to an average €25 a ticket, but it is reported overall income in Barcelona was up by 5% last year. "My theatres have no public funds and live purely off ticket sales," said José Cimarro, a Madrid producer who has programmed Madame Bovary, The War of the Roses and An Inspector Calls at his two theatres, La Latina and Bellas Artes.
"Theatre is relatively cheap. You can see a play and go out for tapas and it won't cost you that much."
A squeeze on funding by town halls and regional governments, however, may bring the death of many theatres outside Madrid and Barcelona. "We are very worried that public funding is being reduced," said Martínez. "We must all tighten belts to keep going."
Town halls built dozens of new theatres when they were swimming in fees and taxes generated by a construction boom that burst in 2008. Now income has fallen drastically and many state-of-the-art theatres must close – or be reserved for local amateur dramatic groups. Then there is the taxman, ever eager to fill the bottomless coffers of a near-bankrupt state. A 13% VAT increase on tickets announced this month is of great concern. "We were already worried things seemed to be slowing down in the past few months," said Martínez. "This is a terrible blow." – © Guardian News and Media 2012