This post is really for my Performing Arts students and my colleague Ciaran who are working on a unit about the business side of the business, but it makes interesting reading for any theatre student. The article comes from the Culture Professional Network and is a curated version of an on-line forum.
15 TIPS ON SETTING UP YOUR OWN THEATRE COMPANY
From funding to fringe festivals, a panel of theatre pros who have been there and done it share their expert insights
Alexander Kelly, co-artistic director, Third Angel
The work you make is the most important thing: Never forget that. It may well sound obvious, but when you’re getting stuck into the complexity of whether to be a partnership or company limited by guarantee, it’s useful to be reminded. Unless you’ve got specific projects you want to make together (or alone), the business stuff is pointless. A company isn’t just the legal entity – it’s the people making the work together.
Make the best work you can. Make the work you want to make.
When it comes to finances, plan ahead: In Third Angel we set ourselves a timetable; we put money into our first show, and then decided that:
- For the next year we would only make work for the money we raised, but wouldn’t pay ourselves
- The next year we would pay ourselves for performance days, as they were days where we clearly couldn’t do any other work, whereas rehearsals were more flexible
- In year three we would pay ourselves for making time as well
We stuck to this. That meant for the first few years we also taught part-time in a secondary school, ran workshops, did get-ins for other companies, signed on and went on start-your-own-business courses (less of an option now I expect). We even did bits of performance for other companies, including motion capture for computer games.
After four years we finally started getting a weekly wage at equity minimum. It hasn’t always been full time since then, but we’ve stuck to at least equity minimum.
Dan Bridgewater, founder and managing director, Fourth Wall Theatre Network
Think about becoming a social enterprise: Because my company is a social enterprise, a lot of the funding has been to support this as opposed to supporting the theatre we create. Organisations such as Live UnLtd, UnLtd and the Community Development Foundation all provide funding to organisations that help create social change, or raise awareness of social issues. There’s a lot of trusts all over the UK that do something similar.
Create strong partnerships: Partnerships need to be about solving a problem instead of making one. Make it easy for a potential partner – what do you want and what are they going to get? They need to see a clear personal benefit.
Don’t necessarily give up the day job: Financially, I think you need to do what you can and what’s best for you. I’ve realised that my company isn’t going to be my full-time source of income at this moment in time, so I do a number of other projects on the side. However, in the long-term, I really feel that it can be. Organisations like Arts Council England allow funding to cover project management fees – if you have something that is good enough then you can be funded to run that project.
Don’t just focus on the theatre: What else do you offer? A place for people to socialise; a vehicle for change; a voice for young people? Communicate these objectives within your marketing, and take advantage of them when looking for funding.
Understand your market: Ask yourself the following questions: how much are your competitors charging; what kind of thing are they doing; what are their customers responding to? We originally charged £3 for two hours, whereas our closest competitors were charging at least £5 for one hour!
Have fun doing it: It goes without saying really. Don’t let things get to you too much – build a good support team around you and give them responsibilities, and don’t take on all the stress and the strain. When it stops being fun, you need to evaluate where you’re at.
Find space on the cheap (or for free): If you need rehearsal space, but funds are low, offer to hold a performance in that rehearsal space or venue and let them get a share of the takings. You can also find venues that need an image boost – say you’ll get people into their venue, as well as some press coverage or some promotion through your marketing campaigns, in exchange for lower cost or free venue hire. Finally, rehearse in random places: the park, your front room, a coffee shop.
Phil Willmott, artistic director, the Steam Industry
Understand that it’s going to be extremely tough: If you start a theatre company in the hope of making a living or showcasing your work with a view to being spotted, you’ll almost certainly end up bitter and disappointed. Sorry about that. But don’t be cross – it’s not your fault, nor mine, nor the Arts Council’s, nor the culture of fringe theatre, nor the state of the nation. It’s simply that you’re choosing to enter a farcically overcrowded profession – it’s just the way it is.
If you can take that on board at the beginning, it will save you a lot of disappointment when you discover that no one will initially give you money or come and see your stuff.
Stand out, and then stand out some more: As with trying to break into any saturated market you HAVE to have a USP (unique selling point) – ideally a VUSP (very unique selling point) – to make any impact. What’s so different about you that audiences, critics, funders, sponsors and programmers will take notice of you rather then the millions of other people who want to direct Woyzek or get some agents in to see them in Miss Julie? Work out what’s so special about you and flog it. FLOG IT TO DEATH! Spinning it right is your best ticket to breaking through.
Jackie Elliman, legal and industrial relations manager
Independent Theatre Council
Your brand is crucial: I think we’re all been in agreement here that artistic vision is the single most important thing you need if you want to have a performing arts company. Your brand – logos, name and so on – are how you convey that vision, and that matters. It should enable not just audiences but venues, funders, potential partners and others to understand what you’re about.
Don’t ignore the paperwork: Don’t hope that the admin will go away if you ignore – it won’t. Take care of the management and your art will have strong foundations.
Leo Burtin, project manager, Lancaster Emerging Arts Platform
Think before you leap: Setting up a company when you are too insecure or unsure as to what you really want to be doing is often likely to lead to difficulties (not the productive kind). Knowing where your skills are is quite important and setting up a company takes a lot of administration and management – if that’s not your forte, learn how to do it before setting up.
Mistakes to avoid: Lack of leadership or definition of roles; lack of regularity; not considering who your audience might be; putting projects to bed after a single showing at a platform; being scared to apply for funding.
If you want to have a look at the full online conversation can here.