So the Edinburgh Fringe comes and end for 2010. Having spent a week at the festival for the first time in many years I was amazed at a number of things. First of all, how big the event has grown. With over 2,500 performances, if I'd spent the month up there I still would not have got to the all the shows I wanted to see. I was surprised by how expensive it has become to eat out and how difficult it is to find somewhere other than a curry house that serves half decent food. One also can't ignore the weather! Pretty atrocious the week i was there. I mean I know Scotland can be wet but this was ridiculous. A cabbie politely informed us that in the first week of the festival the city had received its average quota of rain for the entire month.
All that being said, it was great to see so many shows (some good, some poor), to meet so many interesting people and to admire the sheer work ethic of those staging productions in their attempt to build audiences. With the average attendance per show during the festival being seven, these people work very hard indeed. It is also great news for theatre in general when, given the inclement weather, the cost of living etc, this years festivals breaks its own record with 1.8 million tickets sold. It is also a very loud response to those naysayers who continuously predict the death of live theatre; something I've been listening to now for nearly a decade. i can't wait to attend next years, though I think I'll be wearing much warmer clothes and cooking a lot!
So I go to see a show on the fringe last night and I’m sitting amongst approximately fifteen other people. Small audience for a Thursday I think given that it is in its second week. I realise at the interval that, apart from myself and one other person, the remainder of the audience are friends of the cast. I also find out that this has been the busiest night since the opening, that average attendance is around two to three a night with no advance booking. This must be a hard pill to swallow especially as there is another two weeks to run. I doubt that the production is going to build on word-of-mouth, it is just not good enough to recommend, particularly in a city with over 145 different performances on offer on any given week night and the marketing budget is minute. Yes, we've all been there, whether as actor, writer, producer and it sucks. This is the third show I have seen in as many months that played under a similar situation; very small attendance, no strong word of mouth, no significant marketing budget, no great reviews and playing an over extended run.
I left the theatre last night not questioning the artistic merits of the piece so much as the business model that we all buy into. What is it that is so important about playing for three to four weeks when we don’t have the marketing budget to promote or sustain such an enterprise? Why do we insist on playing six nights a week when we are more than likely going to have to cancel performances, leaving a demoralized cast to scuttle off to the nearest watering hole to drown their sorrows? I understand that no venue is just going to hire out its premium nights in order to help us deal with poor attendances. The real question is whom are we serving under this condition? A potential audience, a venue managers need to make the rent or, some out dated concept about what constitutes a “serious commitment” to making theatre?
In Los Angeles most theatre plays Thursday to Sunday because the sector understands that people work long hours and rarely go out before the weekend. As a theatre-goer, I wouldn’t judge the quality of a potential show based on how many performances it played in a given week. On the contrary, if something I was interested in attending only played for one or two performances a week over a limited time period, it would certainly make me prioritise it.
At the other end of the spectrum, a friend of mine who runs a venue told me about a situation he found himself in; a young company had booked the venue for a four week run with a new play. After the booking was confirmed and before any booking opened on the show, the venue manager was approached to rent the space for a lucrative promotion on the Wednesday of the company’s second week. He approached them and offered to buy out the night from them at the full seat price. They refused, as was there right and the venue manager turned down the promotional offer. The company played that Wednesday night to ten people in a 110 seat venue; they never played to over thirty people on any night in the run. Would it have been an ignoble act to pocket the 100% takings for one night in advance and utilise those funds to market the show or even to contribute towards paying the actors? What law of theatre producing logic was being upheld?
When I was living in New York in the 90’s I was told about The Hollywood Dating Game. Because the movie industry is so hierarchical, choosing personal relationships within the business becomes critical. The rules of the Hollywood Dating Game are very simple; you never date someone below your current power rating. The objective to is date at similar or slightly above ones power status. One exception to the rule being if a potential partner has a lower rating but that rating does not reflect the impact of the projects already in the systems pipeline, on their potential future power quotient. Now, this is a gamble of course. I mean what if you date this person, become “an item” and their new projects die at the box office?
This system is not only accepted in personal relationships, it’s also the culture on Hollywood movie sets – The star’s don’t associate with the bit part players; the bit part players don’t associate with the day players, the day players don’t associate with the extra’s. None of the actors, with the exception of the extras, associate with the stagehands, prop guys, monkey grips etc. The crew are a whole ecology onto themselves. This is the system, everyone understands it, and everyone accepts it. Nobody takes it personally; it’s just business.
A similar hierarchical ladder at play in theatre land, though more covert and shrouded under the cloak of Culture. At the top rungs, there’s that small group of producers and companies, the elite, who connect together both domestically and internationally. They will always have first opportunity at new projects, rights, premium venues, personnel etc. A few rungs down is the strong, highly respected upper tier who are in a position to negotiate and win whatever the top tier is not interested in or indeed, if their cultural brief is more unique, they have the resources to make contact and secure whatever it is they require. They also connect and build networks among similar peers at home and abroad. As we move down the ladder we arrive at the middle and, more importantly, the lower tiers. Things are a bit rougher down here. Networks are small and tight, they don’t have the same reach into the theatrical community. At this stage of the hierarchy, companies and producers are striving to create, to secure rights, to meet funding criteria, hire good personnel etc. Out of this struggle, the more successful groups become incredibly innovative and creative, and their work gets noticed. The remainder usually fold and die, in most cases long before they have ever fully explored their potential.
I believe the reason these companies fail so young is because they have not created a business model designed to meet their specific needs. Instead they looked at models used by those further up the ladder and simply replicated the format. For some, talking about business models when it comes to cultural work can feel like an anathema; for fear thoughts like this are in danger of infecting the creation of art. It’s not the done thing in such circles to talk of such stuff when there is art to discuss. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s the most crucial element in creation. Because when you’re there, struggling to make something happen, to create, wondering why that business model that’s used by the best of the best at the top of the ladder doesn’t work for you, it will be too late. And when the cavalry doesn’t come sliding down the ladder to help, don’t take it personally; it’s just business.
So, I've spent the last week contacting or, should I say, trying to contact young theatre companies in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The first hurdle to cross was the discovery that large swathes of these companies, probably nearly 75%, that appear in various theatre directories are no longer in business. While these now defunct theatre companies have folded within four years, the truth is that most of them probably only lasted lasted about 12-18 months. With the exception of tech start ups, where failure is built into the overall business model, I know of no other business sector with a churn rate of nearly 75%.
Okay, so I then get into contacting the companies that are still standing. The second hurdles comes in the time spent chasing down faulty website connections, correcting a number of incorrect email addresses and trying to find actual contact names for pretty much most of these companies. Now, to be fair, trying to find contact details for theatre companies or venues is not just limited to new inexperienced companies. For some reason, contact is shrouded in mystery akin to a secret theatre world order. In nearly thirty years experience in the sector I've never been able to work out the reasons for this
Anyway, I send out individual e mails outlining what we are about and explaining that our mission is to work with them to help them maximise their potential and to increase their ability to survive and grow. The overall response is underwhelming to say the least. I would guess that at this stage, about ten percent have responded. Now the inbox is filling up with mail delivery failure notifications. When it comes to young theatre companies, it is evident there is near total failure to communicate.
I understand only too well what it is like to set up and run a new theatre enterprise. I also empathize with the cock-ups that can come at you out of left field on a daily basis in this business. It's tough and mistakes are made all the time, I've made them countless times myself. However the failure to provide a functioning communication channel is unforgivable. It's the very artery that provides the oxygen to allow an enterprise survive and grow. This is not an error one can attribute to the system, to a lack of funding or mentoring. This is fundamental to business practice. If I am not being communicated with, given I am offering a free service, I can only assume other people, who also might have an interest in their business, are not being communicated with either. It's not okay to quote something anodyne like 'well that's just the way theatre operates'. It doesn't. Theatre companies and producers seriously involved in their business communicate relentlessly, across all channels. Maybe the inability to comprehend or accept that a strong business plan and comprehensive communication strategy is crucial to a theatre enterprise, is the reason for such significant churn.
I was reminded during the week of two separate incidents I observed last year, both involving people in the Arts. Though they happened in two different countries (Ireland and the UK), they were connected because the people involved both hold respected senior positions in the arts, and both incidents had a similar outcome.
The first incident occurred at a reputable arts centre here in the UK on the opening night of a local amateur group’s production of Oliver. The opening night was packed and the show had sold out for the other four nights performances filling I would imagine, close to 1,700 tickets. During the interval, a member of the audience approached the Chief Executive, said he thought the show was fantastic and, this was the kind of product that should be staged regularly. The CE smiled and politely moved away. In a later discussion I happened to mention there were a few venues that were using members of the public to programme a season of work as an exercise in connecting with and, understanding what their audiences want to see. I had hardly finished the sentence when I was told quite categorically that it would never happen at this venue because “that (Oliver) and the Sound of Music is the kind of thing they’d have playing here all the time”.
The second incident occurred at a conference for Irish Arts Officers late last year. During one of the discussions, the conference chair was talking about the problems of engaging and building a cultural audience at grass roots level when she asked “ what would you do if someone said they only wanted to see Eastenders on stage? That was the que for havoc to break out at the thought of such a thing even being considered with a very senior arts person standing up and declaring, “this is why you need the experts!”
And I thought, how funny. Yes, I certainly think there was a place for ‘experts’ around the establishment of the Arts Council in mid 1940’s and probably for the next 20 years or so. After all, this was the two-pronged approach designed to use both culture and the BBC to apparently educate the masses.
But once arts centres established themselves in towns and villages throughout Britain and Ireland during the 1960’s -70’s where they acted as a kind of conduit for the community into the established cultural provision, while simultaneously empowering a local authentic cultural voice, there really wasn’t a need for experts anymore. Or at least, one would’ve thought. But they never went away. They are still here today, refusing to engage with an authentic and independent new audience unless it’s on their own terms, because they still believe know far better when it comes to cultural provision.
Sixty years ago the average person had no choice; he either consumed the cultural product on offer or he didn’t; end of story. Today however, there is not only an abundance of cultural product available, both as live performance or online, but the very tools of cultural production have been completely democratized. In addition, thanks, to YouTube, Flickr, MySpace to name a few, there is even an audience, bigger than anyone ever imagined, waiting to devour this product and, all this happens in an environment where there is no cultural hierarchy; everyone is equal, producer and consumer.
So if someone mentions that they’d prefer to see Eastenders or Oliver and the doors to discovering something interesting about such a choice are shut in their face, are they bothered? Not really. They’ll just continue producing and consuming the kind of cultural product they desire, simply because they can. And the ‘experts’ can continue to build the walls higher to keep the ‘philistines’ out, but guess what? They don’t have to. Nobody is going to try stealing their patch. Their ‘patch’ actually doesn’t exist in the real world anymore. It’s just a figment of an imagination propagated and supported by other ‘experts’. The only other resort left to these ‘experts’ is to sit around in a huddle and snigger at those within the sector who are actually trying to engage with, and meet a new audience, on their own terms, using social media tools like Twitter, FaceBook etc. As the last grains in the funding sandglass slip away before our very eyes, they will have nowhere to hide. And finally, the ‘expert’ will be no more. Let’s hope they don’t do too much damage in the meantime.
So, here we are a couple of weeks into the first phase of our Beta period and I'm happy to say, the feedback is very positive and interest is growing by the day. We are at that stage now, kind of like the end of the first weeks rehearsal of the new play you believed was going to be fantastic and now you realise the mountain of work it takes to create magic. So it's time to take stock of what we expect expect from our little gem.
Now is a good time to place the cards firmly on the table and declare my own own ambitions, aims and objectives of what I would like to see made manifest. I want PitchCentral to be a kind of trading floor for theatre; a platform that can provide an opportunity for theatre companies, producers and, very soon, writers to pitch previously successful projects and unproduced work into new markets; to connect this work to festivals and venues not only within its own territories, but across a global network.
Just as the world has become a much flatter place, so too it is time for theatre practitioners to extend connections and networks outside of our own communities, to have access to potential collaborations and opportunities outside of our own territory.
The idea for this site came out of my own frustrations and sense of isolation working in theatre in Ireland and the USA as an actor, producer and one time writer. With nearly 30 years experience in the business I know only too well how hard it is to build a network outside of my own community. Is this project a huge challenge? Definitely. Is it achievable? Now, more than ever, given the availablity of technology, definitely. However, it can only be achieved with your help. I am the only one moving this forward. It's a mammoth task. Nicholas Garner @avaiationpartner has done a fantastic job building and designing the platform. Now we need to hear from you. We want to hear about your user experience, where we can make the journey through the site simpler and suggestions on how we might improve the service for you in the months ahead.
So, the gauntlet has been thrown down; help us help you bring your projects to a wider audience, help us help you develop and build more networks and connections and most importantly, help us help you become more entrepreneurial by creating a space where you can build brand while increasing the potential ROI of your cultural investment.
Membership is free, the steps are simple and straightforward: Sign up:create a username password:build a profile: fill in a category submission.
Hello, welcome and thanks for visiting Pitchcentral.
Given the week ahead (Arts Council England will announce who is and who is not being funded for the year ahead on Wednesday 30th March) we feel this is the right time to roll up the shutters on the site and, hopefully, have something to offer that will help us all grow our business and build our brand. Yes, on looking around the site one might think it’s more than a tad ambitious. However, having worked in the sector for nearly thirty years, we feel confident that the resources we have to offer both now and what will come on stream in the near future, will only help to grow your business and build your product. We are also aware that the success of this site depends on you, the user and that’s why want to hear any suggestions that could add further value to the user experience.
As mentioned on the site front page, the target audience are those working in a professional capacity within the sector, most especially those involved in producing and touring professional work whether you are a theatre company or producer, a venue or festival hosting productions. We are also committed to providing a platform for writers to place their work before producers, theatre companies and festivals interested in new work. We also want to make it easy for those interested parties to get a clear snapshot of who the writer is and what the project is all about so when they decide to follow up on an interest, it is informed by as much available knowledge as possible.
As you have noticed the main page on the site hosts a carousel of production photos. This is open to members currently producing shows and is an ideal opportunity to raise your profile amongst your peers across a domestic and international platform. Photos have a simple caption and can be linked to the production website – and it’s free! So, without further ado, we are looking forward to you signing up and getting as much value as possible from what will be on offer.
General registration is open now with the more specific registration for individual categories ready within the next week or so.