Some thoughts on touring

If I had a pound for every time someone has told me that touring is broken over the past 30 years, I would have enough money to ‘rescue’ the ENO with money left over to celebrate all the extraordinary work that happens up and down the country in theatres, arts centre and village halls every night of the week. Far from being broken touring is the solution to many of the challenges facing the sector not the problem. What better way to ensure more is made of the best work being created? I can think of no other sector that pays such little regard to what is, effectively, the research and development of creating new work. Can you imagine Apple investing huge sums in creatives to find new products and ways of growing their audience only to throw the results away once it has been tested. There is a disconnect between production and distribution which needs addressing. Companies speak of how hard it is to get tour dates whilst venue managers bemoan the lack of work, they can confidently book.

It used to be, loosely, that ACE would invest in the creation of work whilst Local Authorities provided the infrastructure for its presentation. And, I know, Local Authorities still play their part in supporting local venues across the country, but LAs are under huge pressure to justify their investment against other priorities and venue managers are encouraged to diversify their operating model. Often shorthand for ‘cost less money’.  We are seeing the return of box office splits even for new work in a small regional venue and the return and expansion of riders which top slice box office returns before a fee is paid.  This places too much responsibility on the company who often will not have a relationship with the local audience.  But more than this, many small-scale venues are not measuring success by those of companies and vice versa. It is as if one is striving to be popular and the other to be of the highest quality. As if these were opposites when it is possible to be both. Indeed, I would go as far as to say, it is achieving both that makes the work exceptional.

We need to recognise that every time one partner seeks to mitigate their own risk they are almost always passing that risk on to the other partner – usually the artists.  We need to find a place in which presenter and artists are working to the same goals, in which each rely on the other for an event to be successful, where the ambitions and circumstance of each are better understood.  (another thing about risk. When an audience trusts the programmer for a venue they are much more likely to take a risk)

Here are a few thoughts on some of the ways we might work differently:

We have to abandon exclusion clauses. Not only are they not fit for the modern world – born from a belief that neighbouring venues are competitors rather than recognising there is an opportunity to cross promote, offer more choice for audiences, demonstrate confidence in the experience..

We need to reconsider the use of riders in a contract. I have heard of venues charging companies for Wifi – even though it was free to customers in the café, of ever growing ticket commission costs, of charging for heating dressing rooms, (‘if the show wasn’t happening we wouldn’t have to heat them’) of marketing contras with little evidence they are spent directly on the show. All of these have the impact of reducing the fee to the company. Either pay the artists a bigger fee or absorb the costs into core operations. It creates an adversarial relationship between companies and venues. At the very least venues should make clear from the offset all the costs they consider right to pass on.

During my time at Farnham Maltings, we established the house network. In very simple terms we secured investment from ACE to pay the fees of artists to tour the Southeast of England through a network of over 180 venues. Mostly arts centres in the 150 – 250 seat range and almost all not in receipt of regular funding from Arts Council. We would pay all the costs associated with touring a production directly to the company and then offer the work to the network on a model in which we would take 70 % of the box office. In this way the risk was taken away from the relationship and company and venue would focus on making the event successful. Of course, if a venue constantly was unable to build an audience, then we would discuss with said venue if they had the capacity to meet their ambitions. And that did mean on a small number of occasions not continuing to offer subsidised work into a venue. Non NPO’s sustaining and building their local audience and using their energy and skills to promote a successful event. The people of Reading would have no chance to access contemporary independent theatre without the energy and indefatigable commitment of South Street. Who sit far outside the NPO cohort. We need to make better use of our collective resources.

Once established the house network proved useful in other ways. In regional pitching events it was revelatory to ask venues to speak about their ambitions and resources alongside artists talking about future work. Indeed, more new work came from an artist hearing a venues ambition and responding to it than from trying to sell their latest idea.   

I have spoken often about how much there is to learn from the touring that happens in rural communities. In this there is a three-way relationship between company, venue, and audience – usually brokered by a scheme. All are keenly aware of the need for each to play their part in making the event – often eating dinner together before a show, in which everyone comes through the same door and the local promoter will be in the local shop the next day facing their audience. Which, by the way, is not to say the work cannot be experimental, challenging, play with form and political. We just might not describe it as such to the audience. We will save that for the Arts Council.

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