thoughts on fixing touring
For as long as I have been working in the arts, the discussion about ‘the crisis in touring’ has rumbled on, combining a call from companies that ‘venues aren’t booking us’, with venue programmers saying ‘I can’t find work that I can book for our audience’. It’s these challenges that have become something of a pre-occupation for me, through the work I make, the companies we produce with Farnham Maltings and with house as a 200+ venue south east network. With house we have tried to encourage openness and generosity, to share and find common purpose with other venues and challenge received wisdom in the belief that we might arrive somewhere different. Here are some thoughts on the things that venues might do to make things better (i am sure there is another list for companies):
Encourage venues to speak publicly about their challenges and ambitions.
Obvious, but it is surprising how often companies haven’t thought or heard from venues about what they are working to achieve. Oftentimes you will hear a company saying ‘this or that venue never books us’ without knowing that the venue programmer has a particular ambition to build an audience for family audiences or has a desire to build a digital theatre programme. As one response to this we organise Pitch Up, an event that happens twice a year across the south-east region at which companies speak about ideas they have for future work and the support they need but, crucially, there is also a group of venues who speak about their ambitions, resources and networks. Importantly as many, if not more, new relationships and ideas have resulted from the venue publicly explaining their ambitions and resources..
Get rid of the exclusion clause
It has long since struck me as particularly absurd that a venue should try and stop a company from performing within a given radius of itself when booking work. It might have an impact on a headline comic or music act but for independent theatre when the audience might be 100? I suspect this clause is a historical hangover in many ‘standard’ contracts. Through house, we have encouraged venues to get rid of this clause for the work we tour. So that in the south east, it will no longer be part of our culture. Indeed more and more venues are doing the opposite and starting to link up their marketing campaigns, including cross-promoting a show that is going to a nearby venue so that audiences have choices about the date and place they might see it (in the one ‘test’ we have tried, audiences increased by 20%).
Stop offering straight Box Office splits house was born out of a recognition that something had to happen with the model of Box Office splits in which companies take all the risk on selling tickets to an audience they don’t have a direct relationship. house has been able to underwrite company fees, work at building audiences, and take a percentage of the box office. So companies can budget, knowing the fee they are getting from house and the risk is removed for the venues. Over time the ambition is to build confidence to the point that house is redundant. We already know of companies, introduced through a tour with house, who are now able to book tours directly with venues that now know their work and are paying fees.
See work This is an uncomfortable truth. The staff teams in many venues are under so much pressure that the programmers often don’t have time to see work before booking it – and sometimes aren’t there to see the show in their own venue. It is irrefutably the case that if no-one from the venue is seeing and championing the work then getting an audiences is going to be harder. Whilst it is not the perfect solution, house takes a group of 35 venue programmers to last week of Edinburgh festival. Aside from seeing lots of work the real value has been in venue programmers talking with each other, discussing the work, sharing how else a season of work can be supported – through theatre clubs etc – and identifying the companies and type of work they could get an audience for. Building relationships between programmers, better understanding how or why a show is booked, and sharing ambitions.
Get rid of contras Another old-fashioned practice that refuses to die is the ritual of venues including contras in a contract that are, frankly, often just a way of passing some of the cost of putting on a show to the company. Fine, perhaps, with a commercial producer where there is money to be made but when dealing with an independent artist?
Some of the contras we have encountered – all of which are real – include:
Charging companies for overprinting flyers and posters with venue details, logo, etc. Companies are expected to take care of the design for this and to pay for it (often for print runs as small as 500, which just isn’t cost effective). One simple solution is to include the whole tour scheduleand box office details on print
Charging for inclusion in the venue brochure and a marketing contra for helping sell the show
Tech hire charges (projectors, screens, hazers, dance floors, etc) even when these are owned by the venue
Asking for a financial contribution towards the lighting and heating used in the venue
Charging for Front of House staff when these staff were volunteers, and for using Wi-Fi in the building when the café at the venue offers it free to customers
At the very least, these ‘clauses’ should be made clear at the point of booking and not just added to a contract that follows weeks later. But more than this, the practice creates a ‘commercial’ relationship which does nothing to build the common purpose with the artist. Artists, quiet understandably, will start to consider what they will charge extra for. (local radio interviews, marketing videos?) Better to be rid of them all and see what good will results.
Working with companies One of the most useful things a venue can offer is the relationship it has to a particular place. When RedCape wanted to make a piece featuring synchronised swimming, South Street Arts in Reading introduced the company to the local synchronised swimming team, who turned out to be enthusiastic participants in the process of making and became an animated audience for the show. Being able to connect a company with its community or resources can be as useful as providing a rehearsal space when no one else needs it.
Of course, underlying all of these thoughts is the belief that it is in all our interests to work collaboratively and that our success is bound up in the success of others. As my mum used to say, ‘cast your bread upon the water and it will come back as buttered toast’ – whatever that means.