A Slightly Long Pre-Amble
I’ve been writing notes for this blog for a little while – that’s unusual – usually I write blogs in a flurry, desperately hoping they are cohesive, informative and funny. I think the only post I’ve written in the past year or so that have had some modicum of planning was “Arts Marketing: 50 Easy-To-Do Tips“ – that post took much longer than usual to write because, and this won’t come as a shock to many people, 50 tips is a fuck-load of tips.
I’ve been touring my storytelling show Every Little Hope You Ever Dreamed (But Didn’t Want To Mention) recently – it’s a 15 date, 11 venue tour, and it is, somewhat unusual.
Firstly I wouldn’t describe myself as “an artist” or even really a “performer” – I find it quite difficult to do that sort of categorisation – “I make shows”, that’s probably the closest I’ll get. What’s unusual is that I am an arts marketeer (I’m Director of Comms for Theatr Clwyd – all thoughts are my own though) as well as doing the show. It can often feel like the arts exists with two diametrically opposed sides to its operations – the “creatives” (incl. producing, production etc…) and then, broadly “admin” (people who sit at a desk).
As I’ve been touring I’ve been trying to keep an open-mind to both sides of the coin and also think about what lessons could be learnt for me in relation to this tour, but also both sides of the theatre coin from this endeavour. It’s also worth saying up front that sales have been slow/low – not that it’s bothered me bizarrely, I’ve had a ball, and people seem to have really enjoyed it, but I’m not racking in sell-outs.
I’m also very aware that we, in the arts, are terrible at evaluating the art that we have done. It’s understandable – we’re all incredibly close to what we’ve been creating, criticism can hit hard and feel incredibly personal, we also land heavily on the “it’s all subjective” line, which, of course, it is – but we lose something fundamental by not evaluating our art and talking about it out loud – the ability to learn, improve and grow. I’ll be honest I’m generally pretty negative about things I make. There’s lots of artists out there who read a 2 star review and tell everyone that the person writing it is a moron, or that it reads like a 4. My default view is that I’m faking it, a vast wave of imposter syndrome – in many ways not helped by the fact that I made this show largely alone.
So this blog is divided into two bits – part one which is about the show I made and toured, and then part two which is thoughts from an arts marketeer. I’m also going to be as frank as possible – I’ll tell you about the finances, the sales and where things went right and, more often I suspect, wrong.
Finally, before we dive into The Beast, just to say, if you read this and it’s interesting then please like and share it, or send me a message to say hi – so much of the time blog-writing can feel like writing for the void, it’s an incredibly lonely pastime, validated only by retweets, likes and intense google analytics analysis.
Part One – The Show
I’ve tried to break this down into a few subcategories.
Of course it can be difficult to compare this show with other shows – the total cost for making the show and doing the tour was £2,858 – that excludes my time of course, and of course is low because I was the performer, writer, director, designer, composer, sound designer, tour booker, tour manager, tour marketing, driver, stage manager and wardrobe person. The show toured to venues on a guarantee of £150 versus 70% of the box office – it’s low cost deliberately because I suspect I may not have been booked otherwise, storytelling and new writing is inherently a risk – while there’s an element to “all art being judged on a level playing field” I’m going to slightly cut myself some slack on the basis that it was essentially a spare-time project.
So generally I was happy with the show.
I think narratively it’s strong and cohesive, despite being a fragmented story it holds together well and plays with time, subjectivity and different viewpoints quite nicely. It’s bookended in quite a good way and, for the right audience, funny. It’s probably too long, maybe 10 minutes – there’s a few scenes that are a little unnecessary and drawn out (urinals), the audio isn’t as adventurous and layered as it could have been and the projection was functional.
I will caveat the projection by saying that I toured the show using Show Cue Systems (circa £120) rather than QLab (circa £700+) and so it was also operating in those limitations – you can’t do much beautiful video on SCS. I think that it being written not to be learnt but read is helpful in terms of me being able to deliver it, but sometimes the breaks through the 4th wall (the sound of inevitability) needed to be either enhanced or removed. As a first-effort touring something it’s a solid 7. It’s the best thing I’ve written (but not the funniest).
Importantly thought I feel like I can do better. I try for the joke a bit too much rather than say what I think, possibly to the detriment of what I make. I think occasionally moments of genuine pathos get lost.
You can see exact numbers in my venue blogs, but I played to between 5 and 42 people, probably averaging around 10 – 12 people per show. The low guarantee (£150) was designed to help venues by reducing the risk for the show, on the hope that I’d get 40 – 50 people per show to help break even and maybe even pay me a little for doing it.
I think the loss will be around £900 (which compared to Edinburgh is low), which is precisely why I’ve not quit my day job. In terms of the hours I’ve spent working on it… Probably comfortably over 400 hours. That said I didn’t do the show for money (which is lucky), I was able to make savings in lots of areas, it was more about getting the show seen by industry and venues.
I’m not sure it was too successful either in that regard – 2 programmers/creative director saw the show on tour (out of 11 venues) – it feels hard to say it, but I think in terms of developing any sort of profile as a creative this show missed the mark. Do I feel like this has helped me in terms of developing partnerships or gaining the potential for commission – absolutely not. Do I feel that I’d have the same ludicrous amount of freedom that I loved having making it if I had been in partnership or commissioned – also, awkwardly, absolutely not.
I tried to sell the show in a similar vein to more established performers, Shon Dale Jones, Daniel Kitson, Inua Ellams etc… I tried to sell it on love and whimsy. The problem is that neither of those sold the show to or engaged people – it’s easy to say “so what” with the title, copy and image.
We love a bit of whimsy and quirkiness in the arts, and it tried to be that and forgot the golden rule – tell people what they’ll experience and find ways for them to engage rather than create barriers. In retrospect the show title needed to be simpler, more concise and engaging, the copy needed to talk about what it’s similar to (a good pop reference or two) and tell the story more and the image needed to be not of me (an unknown performer) but instead to set the tone of love.
This is all, I know, a bit harsh – I’m very aware that if this wasn’t my show I’d have done it very differently – professional distance from a project can be a mighty handy tool. Interestingly the best copy that was written for the show wasn’t by me, it was by Lawrence Batley Theatre (who narrowly win the award for my favourite tour venue). Distance or at least a sounding board might have been handy. But I will also say that I’m fairly confident with marketing so it’s been a useful moment to discover my marketing mortality when the only person it harms is my bank balance.
Press & PR
No reviews, three previews, one podcast. Touring shows for one-night only is hard. When it’s fame-less and whimsical then it gets even trickier. That said, I didn’t push as hard on it as I could have – mostly tiredness (more on this later) – and I think a bad review might have broken me – very much swings and roundabouts.
Improved over time.
It took a while to find the nuance of the show and to be able to sustain it in a meaningful way over 78 minutes. What’s most fascinating is that when I compare the performance at Theatr Clwyd in 2021 to the final show in Lancaster they are markedly different in terms of the performance. Simple stuff like dynamic range, emphasis, tonality and pacing just grow over time. It’s made me more confident to deliver something in an interesting way. I think directorially I needed more WIP performances and needed to play a little more – next time I think I’ll try and find a way of doing 4 – 5 WIP shows on a PWYW model so that I can find that nuance and then work on script mark-up etc…
The real challenge with directing yourself is objectivity. I found recording videos of myself very useful in terms of watch back – but certainly things that I would ask of an actor as a director I didn’t ask of myself. I’d love to direct more because, and I say this slightly whimsically, it’s a piece of piss when you can see what’s happening – so long as you don’t overcomplicate it and hit three questions – what do I want the audience to feel, is it clear what’s happening, and is this interesting… 100% this paragraph will offend some people – this is my thoughts however, not yours, get over it.
Touring is a mixed bag.
I’ve loved doing it but found being away from home hard at points. It’s been quite a lonely challenge – doing a show, being on your own for an awfully long time, driving home alone after good shows and bad. I would totally do it again, but I’d probably try and condense the whole thing into 3 weeks for my sanity (which wasn’t possible due to work). I think I’d also work more on what I can do in my downtime. Every break I had I was doing my day job to make sure I didn’t fall too far behind and it’s left me up-to-date on my e-mails, but also possibly a little mentally fucked.
I feel, well, exhausted, drained maybe.
Part Two – Marketing-Type Thoughts
So, without further ado… Here’s 10 thoughts from the marketeer on tour…
- Covid is still hitting, but so is the cost-of-living increases
There’s been a fairly consistent narrative when chatting to most of the venues – that’s the safer programming and comedy is doing well, certainly similar to its pre-covid days. I suspect there’s an extra narrative in there as well about marketing teams not necessarily being supported well enough from organisation leaderships – a back to normal approach at a moment when we’re not back to normal. I felt, at times, like covid recovery was such a big issue but, at the same time, very little clear evidence of how to sort that and engage with audiences again. It feels like the same old story about teams so buried with work that there’s no time for contemplation, reflection, analysis and, well thinking time. We’ve got some incredibly smart people working in marketing teams. Give them a moment to think. I would ask the question of how the Arts Council(s) are supporting organisations in this moment – given that, well, it’s their job.
- Creatives should not write their own copy or make their own image
Retrospect is a terrible thing.
I think the copy I wrote for the show wasn’t right. I wrote copy that, like the show, is whimsical, irreverent and has a similar voicing to my own voice. However, unless you know the show or indeed me, then it’s probably not as good as it could have been. It’s hard to access without prior knowledge.
It doesn’t explain the experience, give contemporary comparisons (something I was really wary of because I don’t want to seem arrogant by comparing my show to that of some of my heroes), or even give enough of a hook as to why it’s an interesting story. It doesn’t say why the show belongs to the audience reading the copy. The copy is written for people who already get it – fundamentally that’s a small and niche audience – it needs to be broader. That’s not to say I couldn’t have written that, but certainly distance from a show is a real benefit.
Equally the image isn’t quite right – it doesn’t articulate the experience or the tone and mood. The image doesn’t say “this is a lovely story about love”. What that image is of course is tricky. And also there are constraints – the show is funded out of my pocket so any savings have gone against offsetting a loss – an extra £1k on design or photography would have been a massive hit which I’m not sure would be recoverable right now.
- The more eyes who see a thing the better, and asking for sign off
Proofing out a brochure or a web page to companies can be a massive pain in the arse, but it stops mistakes. My show title was spelt wrong at two venues in their main piece of print. In 4 of the brochures the design and insert were poor and felt rushed.
- Facebook does bollock all unless you have pre-existing relevance
I did some facebook ads and they (I’m 95% sure) made bugger all difference to sales.
When a venue promotes something then it comes with that venue’s implicit endorsement – a show promoted independently cannot compete with that unless it’s an established brand. Retweeting works but is a slightly lazy way of doing this. The relationship audiences have are with the venue and not with me – they’re the key to unlocking that. The venues that did this best got the best ticket sales.
- A small audience can be fine, if they’re sat in the right place, and you approach it the right way.
I think it’s bollocks that a tiny audience is awful to play. My favourite two shows were to 8 and 9 people respectively (thank you Huddersfield). But for the much smaller audiences I really adapted how I related to the audience, tried to make it a more personal and individual experience. Spent time pre-show saying hi to the audience and also tried to make it a positive. Also seating configuration makes a massive difference. Cabaret seating can be a godsend in helping change the dynamic of a space. I don’t think we think about our studio spaces creatively enough at times. They’re studios, so maybe static seats is a bit silly?
- Doing something and failing is fine, doing nothing and failing is unforgivable – communication is key.
I have no problem with selling very few tickets if effort has been made. However, there were venues on the tour that did little to no marketing, or, frankly, poor marketing that meant that the show never really stood a chance. There’s also something vaguely hilarious about chatting to people and them not realising you do their job and you have seen what hasn’t been done. HOWEVER…. Before I go complete dickhead… I must caveat this with saying that my show is bottom of the pecking order – it’s a tiny show with a tiny guarantee – marketeers have to protect the bottom line so it could be that I just got unlucky.
- Data collection is really tricky
I regularly get asked by companies about 3rd party opt in at point of booking – it’s largely pointless – particularly in a system that’s limited like the one we use (the green one) as so few people opt in. I tried QR codes and a literal end screen at the end of the show. The result was that I added 1 person to my facebook page and 1 to my mailing list. I think next time I’ll go down the old school, hands on, practical, sign up list with a pen. Also being explicit that the next step if you enjoyed the show is this.
Tour Blogs – The Full Listings
- Theatr Clwyd
- Liverpool Everyman
- Harrogate Theatre
- Square Chapel, Halifax
- York Theatre Royal
- Aberystwyth Arts Centre
- Wolverhampton Arena Theatre
- Lawrence Batley Theatre
- Chapter – Cardiff
- The Old Courts, Wigan
- Dukes, Lancaster
Would I do it again?
Yes. I think I can make something better than the show I made and I feel much more confident about myself as an artist. I’m also much more certain that describing myself as an artist makes me sound like a twat.
What am I doing next?
I have two shows at the moment I’m working on. One is more comedy and one is more heart-breaking. I’ll need a WIP venue in September I think for 3 nights if either are to tour in Spring. The heart-breaking one is the one I think could be genuinely the best thing I’ve ever made. I think it’s about loneliness and death. So, y’know, another commercial hit.
Is Every Little Hope bookable?
Yes. But probably not for £150.