Sam Freeman

Storytelling | Theatre | Arts Marketing

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!