The session I SHOULD have called at Devoted & Disgruntled or Why fringe theatre is only for trustofarians

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Last Saturday I went to Devoted and Disgruntled 12: What shall we do about Theatre and the Performing Arts Now in Bristol, hosted by Improbable. For the uninitiated it is an open space event – a sort of free for all conference, where attendees make up the seminar agenda when they arrive.

I’d never been to one before and it was an engaging experience to say the least. I didn’t call a session (though now I realise I should have hence the blog), but went to a broad range from ‘(How) can we teach playwrighting‘ (I had stuff to say about that); ‘Mothers who make’; ‘Can you be an artist in the evenings and weekends’; and the one that inspired this blog: ‘Come and rant at two White Male Artistic Directors’. That last one got me curious for sure.

I bumbled bee-d into it for the last 15 mins as I’d got caught up in another conversation and in fact (disappointingly) no one was ranting at these two Artistic Directors at all. This was because they were talking about things they were doing right – and differently – to most other small theatres to try an enable new theatre makers to get their work going, and their methodology was refreshing to say the least.

Although no one was ranting when I arrived at the session, I have to admit I did rant a bit.

You see, hearing about these seemingly great models of getting work on got me thinking about the way most theatres (on the London fringe at any rate) do things: in a way that is almost impossible for anyone who doesn’t have MONEY.

Let me explain: normally if you want to get your play on it’s a case of an approach to that theatre and then IF they like you and your work and want it in their building they invite you to be part of the programme.

That invitation however does not come with any funding attached. Au contraire, in order to have your work on in said theatre you need to be about to raise the cash (normally in the vicinity of £1.5/£2k per week for the theatre hire alone) to put it on there. The theatre may well help in kind, with marketing or rehearsal space if you are lucky but the onus is on you, the producer or creator,  to find at least several grand up front to secure the venue.

Then you’ve got to pay the actors, and the director, designer, stage manager, get insurance, and there’s set, props costumes and a million other things besides.

In most cases where this model exists you DO get 100% of your box office. But I’d argue this is NOT a good thing, here’s why:

1. You don’t get it until the show has closed so you have to defer paying for things, and most things you can’t defer payment for and

2. It means that the theatre doesn’t have anything at RISK by having your show on there. If there was a box office spilt (where some of the box office goes to the theatre and some to the producers instead of a hire charge) there would be more onus on the theatre to sell tickets, get bums on seats. At the moment all the risk is with the producers, so if the show is a failure the theatre can pretend it was just a hire, but if it’s a hit it’s the theatre who gets all the credit.

This is a broken system. It makes theatre exclusive – if you’re not a trustofarian how on earth can you get work on? Of course there are charities and funds and the arts council but everything is getting more and more squeezed – when I first put on a play back in the mid 2000s there were charities that could fund emerging artists – now those same charities are giving to the huge established organisations so what hope do newbies have?

What’s more the people at the top of the industry seem to be blind about this problem. Anecdotally several directors I know have been told by people who run buildings to ‘keep putting on plays and we will come and see something’. In one case the emerging director had to explain the current model to the established director who presumed box office splits were still the way things worked as they did ‘in his day’.

During my D&D rant I asked the two Artistic Directors with innovative models to go and evangelise about them to the people at the top. Because without another way forward fringe theatre – the space that is meant to be a training ground for emerging artists – will continue to get whiter and more privileged and frankly more boring and dead.

I hope they will spread the word and the people who count listen – then there might be a chance for change.

Rant over.

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