Sam Freeman

Theatre | Comedy | Marketing

Category: Theatre

My Ideal Theatre

In late December last year the playwright David Hare wrote an extended article for The Guardian offering his thoughts about what his vision for a perfect playhouse would be today. It’s a fascinating concept and a really interesting read (you can read it here). Some elements I struggled with and thought were a little naive – “Many theatre organisations are over-full with people who have nothing directly to do with putting on plays” –  whereas other elements made my heart swell with appreciation “computers will be centrally shut down at 4.30pm, so everyone can turn their attention to the night’s work”.

It got me thinking about the nature of theatre, particularly the theatre building. What would I want from a theatre? If I got a major lottery win and could start from scratch what would I want? What would be important to me? This blog aims to answer some of that… I’ve used many of David’s headings to focus this article and added a few of my own too..

If you find this interesting or would like to comment then please do below.

Location

The Playhouse (now the given name for any imaginary venue) will be based in a regional city – Liverpool or maybe Leeds – but it won’t be right in the centre. It’ll be within 25 minutes walk (10mins by taxi or 15min by bus) of the centre and will be on the edge of where the suburbs meets the city. It’s important that it’s close to some nice cafes, coffee shops, charity shops and, ideally, an independent DIY shop. I we were being extra needy, it’d back onto a park and be next to a lake (maybe a bit like Sefton Park). It’d be the kind of place where during the day joggers and dog walkers popped into for a coffee and at night people got drunk at before going for a snog in the park.

Sefton Park, Liverpol

Playing Space

This would be the easy bit – I have a theatre space that I have been utterly in love with since I first visited – Paines Plough’s Roundabout Theatre would be the main theatre – it would be identical with the only concessions being that a) it’s static and b) we install a set now and again. The space should absolutely be in the round – it’s a better experience for audiences, easier to direct in, makes writers work cleverly, keeps set costs down and is just better. It would however have a secondary space (of course) which would be a black box space similar to Theatr Clwyd’s Emlyn Williams Theatre and the National Theatre’s Dorfman Theatre – beautifully designed flexible space – used for workshops and for alternative touring work.

Artistic Policy

The Playhouse season would go from October to May and would have three elements – a produced season in-the-round, visiting small-scale shows and narrative-led comedy shows. The produced work would be mixed, with a different show every month with a maximum cast of 6 (not in rep though, I think people should be cast for parts specifically) – of the 8 plays a year 3 would be new work 4 would be revivals (contemporary classics) and 1 would be one I wrote (why the hell not). You’d expect to see the likes of Ayckbourn, Tim Firth, Godber, Chekhov, Caryl Churchill and never, and I cannot state this enough, never Shakespeare. Anyone dead for over 200 years will not have their work produced. The studio will have companies like Told By An Idiot, Vanishing Point, Les Deux Mondes and Puppet State. There will be a monthly family show, but largely family work will be focused around activities and fun days. The narrative-led comedy will be provided by Mark Watson, Daniel Kitson, Bridget Christie and other award-winning legends.

Actors

Every actor in the UK and beyond would be desperate to perform at The Playhouse. Conversations with agents would involve the agent pleading to let their high profile actor perform in the latest show. We will however largely (unless it’s Richard Harrington, Tim Key or Hayley Atwell) ignore their pleas. This will be a theatre for the undiscovered gem, for the new talent or the talent waiting to be discovered. I would, selfishly, choose to work with actors I think are amazing – Simon Hedger, Paul Stonehouse, Paul Osbourne, Susie Freeman, Hellie Cranney, Rosie Sheehy and Jamie Ballard would all be gainfully employed (should the right role appear).

Restaurants & Bars

There would be a single restaurant/bar at The Playhouse. A long bar, rustic and beautiful would have behind it an array of delicious beers, spirits and wines. There would be a coffee machine that produces the perfect crema but, people recognizing that coffee-flavoured foam isn’t as good as people make out would largely drink tea, from a pot. The aesthetic would be homemade, warm and friendly. The food would be hearty portions, big flavoured salads with chunks of carbs added on – meaty lasagna delivered by the chunk. There would be nothing bland and there would be lots of chocolate based deserts. Prices would be cheap – £1 for a cup of tea, £2 for a pint of bitter and £80 for a glass of champagne (to keep that demographic away). Yes, I’ve just described Mello Mello (RIP).

Audience & Community

The Playhouse would work throughout the community, particularly in care homes to ensure that those vulnerable people at the end of life see a kind face regularly. A family Christmas show would be free for schools to attend and during the summer term the theatre would be awash with young people performing onstage and participating in workshops. Every Monday performance would be free to those on Job Seekers Allowance and every ticket for senior managers of a) hedge funds, b) investment banks or c) banks would be £150 each. We would have a polaroid camera permanently available so that people could add their faces to our walls. At night rooms would transform into a homeless shelter. The Wifi would work. Nothing would be too much trouble.

 

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An idea, a graph and a calendar

It’s been a while since I wrote anything on here so, finding myself incredibly away at 12:46am I thought I might as well write down some thoughts about what’s happening and what I’ve been thinking about recently.

Plays
Regular readers will know that I finished writing a play, Opposition, in December and sent it to loads of theatre’s to get feedback. It was the first thing I’ve written since Floating and I didn’t have huge hopes for it. So when the rejection letters came in (the many, many rejection letters) I wasn’t overly surprised. There is, of course, an argument for not sending work that, deep down, I knew probably wasn’t good enough to theatre’s – but then it marks the end of a process – the unread play is a pointless thing. It had some of my best writing inside it but was structurally weak and lacked a strong enough, simple enough premise. It was like an onion, delicious in small amounts, layered, but a full one makes you cry. The letters always hurt (except the Royal Exchange who actually give good constructive feedback unlike many places) but I though, ah shit, never mind, that’s that.

Then, as is always the case I had an idea for a play last week and decided to write it in 64 days. But why 64 days I hear you ask. Well that’s aligned to the Bruntwood prize deadline. For a while I’ve always had a nagging suspicion that if I can’t write a play in a month then it’s probably going to be a bit shit because it means the idea is fundamentally flawed. So Floating was written in a week, Revenge in a month and Opposition took 6 months. Go figure. Anyway, so I’ve made a graph of the number of words I need to write on a daily basis to get it done in time with three drafts – 500 words a day – not a lot considering that I’ve written this, so far (284 words) in less than 10 minutes. I find the graph thing is useful because a) it monitor’s my progress, and b) it’s motivating in that you don’t want to fail, drop under the line of success and miss the deadline. So this is it, in 30 days I’ll either have a wonderful play, or I’ll be writing a blog about marketing.

Marketing
I’m conscious that I’ve not written anything deeply entertaining and relevant for a bit. I have a few blog titles in my head but am unsure which to do (I suspect they’d work better as 10 minute presentations), if you have an opinion then get in touch.. Here they are…

  • My Biggest Failure – about the things I’ve got wrong doing marketing but what I learnt from them?
  • My Precious – about the most important thing marketeers never have: time.
  • An Interim Brand – this is about creating temporary brand for organisations to get stability under high pressure. We all do huge amounts of consultancy, spend months and months on branding, but sometimes there has to be interim solutions.
  • Telling The Story – this is about writing the Theatr Clwyd mission story (rather than statement), how it effects what I do and how I do it and why I think it’d be a useful way for arts organisations to engage the public and also their own staff.

Comedy
Okay, so it’s gone to shit right. I have, as you’ll gather from this blog, big issues with my confidence about comedy. My last gig was amazing, but I have voices in my head that tell me it was shit and that what I do isn’t good. I can talk about it, I can be told to the contrary, but ultimately it makes no difference. I think time is an issue too, as is my work-life balance. I’ve a few gigs coming up which I’ll list at the bottom, I think I need to plan days massively in advance where I should finish work early and do a gig. Yeah. Less than good news. Oh no, wait. I have written 3 new songs, all of which I’m happy with. I’m also probably going to do Liverpool Improvathon (which is excellent) so, yeah, come to that.

Gigs

  • 10th April – Southport – MC – The Barrel House (Sold out I think…)
  • 13th April – Liverpool – MC – Lennon’s Bar
  • 27th April – Liverpool – 20 min – Pros & Coms, Lark Lane
  • 31st Aug – Liverpool – 20 min – Pros & Coms, Lark Lane

Oh, and if you read this blog, please join my mailing list – it’s good to know people read this, and if a few more people join I might be prepared to do e-mails of stuff 🙂

The Future Of Arts Marketing (and Theatre)

spektrix-ticketing-software-for-the-arts-11-728

On Wednesday I attended the Spektrix Conference at the Lyric Hammersmith which was, at it invariably always is, incredibly thought provoking. One of the lightning talks took a fictional look at how theatre ticketing might be in 2020, looking back over the past 5 years of innovation that is yet to happen. It was funny, interesting and insightful and it made me think (along with other things) as to the changes that have happened in the course of my career and the direction I think we’re heading.

In many ways when I think back 10 years to when I started in Arts Marketing the world has changed hugely – social media, the rise of youtube, website development and online sales – the idea of cloud computing was foreign those years ago. However these changes while seismic have not registered highly on the Richter scale (to continue the metaphor). Invariably change happens at a much slower rate than we expect. Also, by the very nature of change, not all of us are early adopters, innovations happen, and some are kept whereas other fall by the wayside. Two that spring to mind are twitter and second life – both were picked up at the same time but only twitter has been widely adopted.

So where does this leave us, and me? Well I started to think about the things that I’d like to look at over the next 5 to 10 years, the changes I think will actually be adopted, the directions we will go and the places we will see. Some of these are arts marketing, some are my inclination about more organisational issues.

  1. Brochures still won’t die but they’ll be redefined.
    We’ve been saying it for 15 years – “in 3 years time noone will do brochures” – and yet, invariably we still invest huge amounts of time and effort in brochures. I still think they have a place, they offer a different audience and a tangible, touchable, real connection to an organisation – however, I think they’ll become shorter as they increasingly become portals to digital-only content. There will also be reconsideration of programming cycles. Films aren’t programmed seasonally so why is theatre? There’s a strong case for a rolling cycle of work, especially in a world where long term planning for customer purchasing, particularly on lower value items is becoming less and less. Also, why stress ourselves our 3 times a year going through a brochure process.
  2. Content to become king (at last)
    The next five years will see the content led marketing move to the foreground, the homepages will become feasts of interesting information. What we see at the moment is content about the shows and artists – what the future will bring is podcast and more video but also, content around the themes or context of the work. If there’s a play about immigration expect work about the Syrian conflict, surviving as a refugee and about the history of migration. The future of marketing will belong to the geeky data analysts and the content creators.
  3. Personalised experiences
    We will see websites customise to audiences when they log in (catching us up to Amazon). Logging in will display a what’s on list ordered by things we think you’ll like – we’ll already know your favourite seat (and get you them or ones close by) – we’ll tell you about how your last donation was made and will send you personalised details of travel – your recent purchases will have info about what other people thought, we’ll even give you the podcast from the Q&A you attended. Also the box office will link to the bar and the restaurant – we might even suggest a new beer we’ve got in stock or a special our chef thinks is just right for you.
  4. Route controlled logic tree marketing (automation)
    Time will become more valuable than anyone expected – writing great articles takes time. As a result we’ll look at how we can automate our systems. What if for a comedy show each article we wrote was linked to the sales page through the CRM and CMS, each blog, podcast, video. So that the e-mail that is sent to customers sends the top 3 bits of content as well as the show, or maybe even instead of the show? What if we set logic trees for a shows, a strand of work, a season of work – so that activity is planned, created and then constructed to your specifications according to need. A customer never clicks on the podcast? No problem, they get directed to blogs instead. Customer donated to an organisation fund? No problem, the latest bit of content about the project is taken and sent to them.
  5. Live streaming
    I don’t think Live Streaming will replace the Live Experience. But I think it will act as a strong incentivisation for audiences in theatres that can’t do the scale of ambition that is NT Live. What if each theatre had 4 webcams, 3 on the performance and in the foyers? No sound, not great quality, just seeing art in motion? Would it work? Who knows – all i know is when I visit the Minack Theatre live stream it makes me want to go to Cornwall.
  6. Live digital feedback feeding the experience
    No more static FOH screens. Feedback being generated live feeding into the displays and website. Would it be moderated? Who knows – part of me thinks that if it isn’t then people will trust it more. We should encourage people to tweet pics of the set, themselves at the venue. This feedback will, I suspect, be collected, but the question remains as to how it is used?
  7. Experience flow to become key
    There is, at the moment, in many venues a disconnect between the marketing, FOH, Box Office and Bar experience – mostly because they’re run separately with oversight not necessarily concentrating on the implementation of brand and values. Expect FOH, Operations, Box Office, Bar and Marketing Departments to merge and work as one team offering a more consistent experience, translating organisational values and brand more efficiently than ever before. Some venues are doing this already…
  8. Marketing to be renamed Communications, then Content Delivery, then Data, then back to Marketing.
    If #7 doesn’t happen then expect this. It happens every two years or so with little or not meaningful effect… Still means some new badges.
  9. Programming and Participation Departments to merge
    Programming and participation sometimes work too separately – they need to interact holistically and with real synergy so that they are wholesale leading how the audience experience is deepened at enriched from the earliest stages of conversations about work – some theatres do this incredibly well, the programming being shared more will open up new opportunities and possibilities.
  10. Changes to work ethic, roles and creativity. (post burnout)
    Expect tough times. Working hours have increased, stress has increased, pressure and workload has increased. Something will snap and that something will be staff. We need a wholesale change in work ethic. Increasing working hours is not a solution, merely a sticking plaster on a symptom. We need to look at efficiency of how we free up time and develop systems to make life easier. Let’s bring in 30 hour working weeks as standard on the same wages as 35 or 40 hour contracts. Let’s encourage 1 day in 10 working on a creative project. Let’s work out how to cut down e-mails. There is a logic that the happier, the less stressed, the more joy and creativity we have in our jobs the better and more efficiently we work (with less sick days too). Why are we not seriously looking at making our lives more enjoyable – we need to break systems causing issues before they break us.

I appreciate that much of this has been said and done before but I’d love to get your thoughts, views and opinions. I am as always looking for the odd freelance activity to run as an added extra in my life of arts marketing so if you want to chat through any of these let me know!

As always these views are my own and do not represent the views of anyone I work with or for (nor Spektrix, I merely had the thoughts while at their conference!).

Best, Sam x

Writing an Edinburgh Show (Part 1)

I’ve been noticeably unproductive over the past 7 months, I think since I finished working on Gaffer and the uncertainty about my directing career and what to do next, so at Christmas I realised that I needed to jump back on the metaphorical horse. There’s a few play’s I’d love to direct but finances and finding the right company to work with don’t allow at the moment so I’ve started looking at my comedy again. Or have I?

I ask that question because I feel I’m moving away from comedy and more into a storytelling/comedy/theatre mash up sort of place where I can do the more arty stories. So at Christmas I decided I’d do an Edinburgh hour, not stand-up or theatre, my mash up. I was worried about this for a bit but then started listening to Stuart Goldsmith’s (amazing) Comedian’s Comedian podcast and four episodes really struck me:

  • Ross Noble – talks about being free to do your own thing and how it makes you happy.
  • Phil Nichol – on how rewarding doing the more arty work is (while it being okay to have a club set)
  • Max & Ivan – talking about doing their first shows and taking that risk

I found them really inspiring but the brutal one was Gary Delaney, he spoke about the need to work hard to achieve anything and really commit. So obvious yet hard to see for me sometimes. So I’ve decided to do it, create the best show I can. At the moment I’ve applied to a venue, so this show may be for Edinburgh or it may be for a one-off show or maybe Liverpool Comedy Fest or maybe something more theatre-based. I’ve a title, “Stories About Love (and other fictional concepts)” and a rough idea that it’ll be based off a story I wrote about a man at a station. I bought a loop pedal so there will be a looped backing track..

storiesI started writing it properly today (with fierce intensity) – when I’m writing a story it generally takes me an hour for 1 minute of material so I think it’ll take about 45 hours to get the story in place then more to get the stand up together and then more for the music and then, oh shit, what have I done… Overall I think maybe 60 – 70 hours before I can show a full thing. Maybe less because it’s based on other bit’s I’ve written but not necessarily said.

The last story I wrote (The Station – Listen here, it’ll give a flavour of what I do) was originally written for Keifer’s gig in Liverpool. I wrote it over three weeks and then, on the day of the gig read it to Al Clark. The first draft was about 35 mins. Then cut brutally so it was 25 mins, then it was 15 mins and it’s now around 14 mins. So with that as a basis, I need to write approx 90 mins of story, and then brutally assassinate it so it becomes shorter and sharper and, well, y’know, good.

Anyway, I’ve started and I’m going to try and blog about it regularly, because inevitably when I write about writing I get ideas about what I’m writing and hopefully titillate you into wanting to see the final show…

If you want to keep up with what I’m doing please join my mailing list by clicking here (currently 2 people have joined)! Last but not least I’ve a gig next week at the Lantern Theatre (Link here), everyone else on is better than me so, it’ll be good right? Oh and I’ll be doing The Station story…  Drop us a comment below if you have a sec. Night x

Spektrix Conference 2014

I’m on my way back from the Spektrix Conference 2014 and I thought I’d pop my musings down. At the moment there are three snoring people surrounding me (one is dribbling), a lady eating a salad that smells like death and a teenager listening to what can only be described as 90s club anthems, because that’s what they are. So, I’m not being impolite by writing this.

Continue reading

Review: DV8: John

My sister bought me tickets to see DV8 at the Playhouse as a thank you present. I have to confess I’m not usually a fan of physical theatre, but they’ve an international reputation for creating amazing work so I pushed my prejudices aside and sat in the stalls for 75 minutes of, well, I didn’t really know, I failed to read the blurb before getting to the theatre… 75 minutes of something.

I think sometimes that can be the best way of experiencing theatre. I remember the first time I saw Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris. My sister (again) had bought us tickets and I didn’t know what to expect – I walked in with as clean a slate as possible and was pleasantly surprised. It’s something theatre’s (Lyric) have tried, to ask the audience to trust and see if they’re surprised. I have to confess I find it appealing. Although I am relatively broad minded there are shows I tend to avoid because of either content or form. Contemporary dance for example makes me break out in a cold sweat, although on the one occasion I accidentally watched it I quite enjoyed the show – but then other times… But back to DV8…

The show is almost exceptional, or perhaps excellent with a caveat.

The play revolves around a central character, John, and charts his journey from a violent abusive upbringing to prison via crime and homelessness. It is an incredible, moving and touching story, with beautiful verbatim dialogue and spoken with eloquence, fragility and real tenderness. The set design beautifully compliments the story, the revolve used less as a way of technically showing off and more as an integral part of the storytelling. It is a simple, almost beautiful stage construction that morphs and moves hypnotically. Similarly the lighting and sound are tremendous, they are stylized but not over designed and add a gritty realism to the show with a pulsating energy.

The story took an interesting diversion, showing people coming to terms and discovering their sexuality in a gay sauna revealing a world not often spoken about in the media, screen or stage. The business sense of the sauna is defined and the challenges, but also that sense of community, of belonging in a place of intimate anonymity.

However the show didn’t quite work for me. There seemed to be an incredulity between the world of John and the world of the sauna – he just seemed to be there, to arrive – I didn’t get a sense of journey, or if it was there I missed it. A man discovering his sexuality needs to feel like a discovery surely? A conflicted realization? The storytellers voice of John also disappeared for a large section which was disappointing, for me it was his story, his journey, and although context is very important I wanted John to be telling me about what was happening, stepping through his reality as he had in the first half rather than less central characters. The physical theatre felt at points unnecessary and almost tacked on – everything should serve a purpose and there were moments when it was added when perhaps stillness would have been more powerful – those moments felt miscalculated and lost and occasionally jarred with the incredible tableau’s that showed moments of a troubled life passing. There were moments of stereotypical physical theatre – by which i mean the twisting and rhythmic movement that has been seen and done before – although interesting it didn’t build, add or develop.

Yet despite this I enjoyed the show. It did what good theatre does, opens your eyes, offers new perspective and touches you. Good theatre but not the greatest theatre and a story, John’s story, that I’d love to learn more of.

8/10 from me…

 

Tech rehearsals

It’s Monday at 5:40 and I’m currently sat in the back of the theatre as preparations for Gaffer happen all around me. The two week rehearsal process has flown by and I have a slight dizzy excitement about the next few days and the opening night. It’s been a pretty intense process for me (and Simon and Julie) the last couple of months, taking on this show and desperately wanting to serve it so that it’s a brilliant production.

I was told to take it easy at the weekend and relax a bit and stop working so hard. I nearly laughed. It’s weird, people don’t seem to understand the thrill and excitement I get from directing and producing a show. Sure it’s tiring, exhausting at times, and occasionally a little bit stressful, but this is what I’ve wanted to do since I was 14.

We used to have a gang of us who worked at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough and we all talked about what we wanted to do in years to come. For Matt it was lighting design, Mark it was sound, Steve was well on his way to being a top drawer stage manager and I wanted to direct. It’s strange to think that we’ve all made it to that point.

This process has made me think more about life and the importance of doing the thing you love and persisting even when things seem hard or barriers seem in the way. It’s also made me consider my own career – stick or twist, hold or risk… Although maybe that’s one for down the road once Gaffer is sorted.

One of the nice things about sitting at the back of the auditorium as Phil and Julie focus lights is that I can see the collaborative process coming together – I love watching them work, seeing the lights come together from an unfocused mess to something that is tight and exciting and is mirrored or mostly better that the original image I had in my head.

Me and Simon rehearsed earlier today and it was a lovely feeling, still discovering bits of the show, finding new interpretations and really, even at this late stage being able to develop and progress the show. I think creating a show, and indeed any artistic process, should be like going to the gym. It starts flabby, a little rough, goes red in the face after every activity and wheezes afterwards while cursing and then becomes a taut muscular beast that is precise and exacting and sprints up staircases accompanied by the Rocky theme.

If you’ve not booked to see the show, then, well, do that. The ticket go from £5 (depending on which show you see) to £14 and if you’re unemployed then you can see the Wednesday matinee for just £3… Not bad for a 90 minute show with an interval… Here’s the link – click here…

We also made a trailer for the show (made by the brilliant Paul Dunbar) which features me looking slightly ill and tired and Simon, by contrast, looking very sprightly and enthusiastic – check it out below.

Anyway, enough from me. Hope to see you soon. Sam x

 

Gaffer Rehearsals – Day 1

So, here we are, day one. There’s always mixed feelings starting a rehearsal process – fear, panic and excitement mix together in a heady mix that can, on occasion, be overwhelming. We, however, cheated a little. Today is day one, but we did a couple of days pre-rehearsals in in a desolate part of East London, so the nerves I usually feel aren’t really there…

We start with a read through of the play, something we’ve done before, but important so that we can see which characters might need work to find their voice, where the tone needs adjusting and where the pace might need to be quickened or slowed. It went pretty well if I’m honest, the prep work we did in London and the vast amount of time Simon’s spent working on all the characters (he plays 20+) seems to have given us a great base from which to start.

Then to blocking, finding the right space to stand and deliver (at it’s most basic level), but also working out some of the transitions from scene to scene. The show is made up of lots of short scenes in different locations – from the training ground to offices – but also playing with different times and also different levels of reality – some are heightened reality, some step out of reality.

We’re using projection to support (and hopefully not drown) the performance so this early stage is useful to establish a balance between the two. I’ve been working on the AV and sound for the last couple of months, so to start to see where various elements will fit is really exciting – it’s also a challenge, looking at element that have been created that might no longer fit with the development of the show.

So finally we ran the first 14 pages of the show (yep, on day one, we’re good) and it was really encouraging. Still far from the finished product, but with moments when you can glimpse something special – I’ve read the script maybe a hundred times, possibly more, so when something I know by heart makes me giggle or starts to move me I suspect we’re on the right track.

I’ll keep you updated with how the show is going over the next few weeks. Tickets are from £5 to £14, suffice to say the £5 tickets are selling fast so book now to get them. Also, and I feel like a terrible salesman for not integrating this into my blog more successfully, we have a Wednesday Matinee where tickets are £5 BUT unemployed concessions are just £3. I want as many people as possible to have the opportunity to see the show and I hope this helps!

Cheerio for now.

Sam

Me and the NHS

This is an article written for York Theatre Royal’s blog for Floating but I thought I’d share it on here too…


Whenever I speak to people about Floating there are always two questions they ask. The first is a fascination about where the idea to write the play came from, how it was inspired, what planted the seed of an idea nearly two years ago. Continue reading

Surviving a seeming arts apocalypse… (part 1)

It seems not a day passes without further signs in the decline of British Theatre in the regions, from the liquidation of the Byre Theatre in St Andrews to Taunton’s Brewhouse moving into administration it seems clear (in the media at least) that the arts are enduring a torrid time of uncertainty, fear and closure.

My arts career began at the Stephen Joseph Theatre around 2002 as an usher and continued through jobs at York Theatre Royal, Grassington Festival, TakeOver Festival and now to Unity Theatre and running my own brand new touring company. I currently work as Marketing Manager for Unity Theatre (please note the views expressed here are my own and not those of the organisation) and am also a playwright, director and comedian (although vastly unsuccessful at all three).

Small and mid-scale venues are coming under increasing pressure to reduce their reliance on grant-based funding (or in some cases forget about it completely) which, for small-scale organisations with limited capacity seating causes problems, it’s not a case of selling more tickets, moving from selling 70% of tickets to 100% of tickets, as we’re often talking 30 tickets not 300, there is limited spare capacity and the costs for producing and receiving small-scale work are very high. It’s a case of selling all the tickets, increasing prices and wringing every dime from the audience from donations to support the valuable work the venues do as part of the UK’s theatrical ecology – developing work and artists for larger venues and ultimately the West End, TV and film – even with that it’s a huge struggle.

There’s also the diversification of incomes, often mentions as a saviour, from bars and cafes, to weddings and gaining corporate sponsors all while providing challenging programmes, maintaining price accessibility, providing quality work for young people, working with schools, the list goes on and on…

Many of the smaller venues, with skeleton staff have,  I believe, one major limitation, time. To do all these things, on top of the day to day, on top of creating and supporting art, takes a huge amount of time. Even something as seemingly simple as finding corporate sponsors takes research time, resources, time meeting people, and even then it may be a sales relationship rather than philanthropic. And the best organisations to approach for donations are often being targeted by larger venues – with dedicated teams for development (or “give us money”).

Time though is the killer. Show me someone who works in the arts with an empty to-do list. They don’t exist, especially so in small-scale venues.

People often talked about the glory days, when theatre was a centre piece of people’s lives, queues round the block every night, in draughty spaces with wooden bench seating they came from far and wide – in those days there wasn’t even an Arts Council, so why now, why not any more? It’s easy to point at the competition theatre faces now, film, tv, computer games, facebook, on-demand porn, gig venues, indoor mini golf, the expansion of theatre venues – there are so many more demands on our time. Perhaps it’s relevance, or function, or the forms we use, or perhaps social expectation of theatre. Maybe it’s all of these things and more.

Scary times.

So what’s the solution?

To be honest I don’t fully know. I’m about to start work on a document to explore all that – a daunting undertaking but one I’m excited about in a strange way. I have some initial ideas, around shared services, building audiences, producing small-scale work, balanced programming, marketing strategies, pricing and operations and about experience management and development, but these are ideas rather than anything fully formed and don’t consist of a fully fledged theory or hypothesis forming “the solution”. I will write up and then share as much as I can over the next 4 months, for interest but also as a record… I’d love to get your thoughts as I broach different issues and offer questions and ideas many people will hate or find scary, or both.

For now, however, goodnight – see you next time.

 

P.S. – If you’re wondering why I’ve not mentioned many gigs recently it’s because I’ve found getting regular gigs hard, I really want to find a show to compere, any ideas please get in touch!

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