Monday, 29 November 2010

The Business of Show Business

Whilst some argue that a business approach to theatre can detract from the artistic outcome, without it the industry could not survive. Without it the great work that is produced would be a hopeless pipe-dream. The implications of finance and business affect every aspect of a theatrical production, and as our company moves further into a professional environment this becomes increasingly important. As students we ignored this; we regarded the term ‘commercial’ as a negative one. It’s far more romantic to see oneself as a struggling artist, working for nothing, making theatre because you have something to say, something that has to be said at any cost. The reality is something different. When you rely on the commercial success of your project to fund your next meal suddenly everything becomes different.

Over the last year, I have heard a number of people argue the case that ‘no-one is making any money here’. This statement is made referring to a theatrical enterprise, a theatre or company that holds the potential to be something great, something financially viable, something that in the right hands could become a sustainable commercial venture. But this statement, ‘no one is making any money’, is made and it is spoken with a sense of pride. The tone of voice offers the sense that the individual feels they are truly an artist; that the lack of income for their project somehow represents a sense of honesty and morality that cannot be found in the commercial theatre. Perhaps even the idea that commercial theatre is something to be frowned upon, that the practical business logistics that keep the industry running are somehow a negative force. It seems as if some have forgotten the aspect of business in show-business. I feel small companies should be making money, or at least covering their costs. It is rare that the justification for losing money on a project is viable. Occasionally someone will talk of a project that can never be financially viable, where the nature of the project, where its artistic principles are so strong that it cannot fit into a commercially compatible format. These projects will no doubt rely on subsidy, on support from funding; they are unable to exist commercially. In my opinion, this is totally acceptable but rare. From where I sit, too often work is produced that exists through funding, from the support of an external body that, if successful, could exist without it. If the project has the potential to be viable, it should be. The idea that without the support of external bodies, projects cannot exist is applied too widely across the industry. If the show has the capacity to exist but does not succeed through a lack of commercial success, then the project has failed. As companies should we expect for someone else to be subsidising our trade? To play devil’s advocate, should the tax payers be paying for something that they don’t want to see?

Having produced dozens of shows for Belt Up Theatre, a company that relies on a sense of intimacy between the audience and the show, people often question how we can achieve this artistically without sacrificing the financial side. The answer is, with great difficulty. However, all these difficulties aside, we have succeeded in avoiding the dilution of our artistic principles with business practicality. The difficulties we have faced over the last year and a half have challenged the very existence of the company. Now, just into our second year as a professional company, we face the most difficult challenge of all and it has nothing to do with sustaining artistic morals, but facing what all commercial entities must face.

This run in London has confronted us with the reality of the risk that we take in producing commercial theatre. And the risk, unfortunately, is a financial one. When a production relies entirely on sales, the capital raised for the project hangs by a thread and, at the end of the day, it is the public that makes the call. If the show is a success, the money is returned safely, if not, then you are left facing the deficit. The reality of the financial risk you take when producing a show is distant and unrealistic at best, the figures exist in a spreadsheet fiction where the implications of loss cannot be factored. To consider the outcome of such a loss isn’t constructive and, at worst, is potentially destructive. When this risk exists only in figures placed in a spreadsheet in formulas that treat it no differently to any mathematical equation it is something intangible, something that bears no resemblance to reality. And the reality only forms when the figures on the spreadsheet no longer represent a hypothetical profit or loss but represent a genuine, actual loss.

For a company that relies entirely on the financial and commercial success of every single project, the reality of actual loss holds potentially devastating consequences. The position of the producer within this enterprise is to closely observe and monitor the finance of such a project. The reality of the deficit that can grow is one that can appear long before the run closes. As daily sales reports demand higher rates of sales in the oncoming performances, the spreadsheet’s required capacity percentages begin to soar steadily. First through the feasible, then into the unrealistic and eventually the impossible. The public, the taxpayers, have spoken. Finally the theoretical is made real and for a young company, and its young producer, this loss is difficult both financially and emotionally. It makes you question the cost of what you’re doing. It brings the true risk into perspective. And it makes you think, ‘wouldn’t it be great to be subsidised.’

Jethro Compton - Co-Artisitc Director and Producer

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Belt Up in The Stage

Earlier this week Dominic and Jethro were featured in the Dear John advice column in The Stage.

Asked for advice on how to adapt an epic story onto the small stage:

You can't underestimate an audience's ability to suspend their disbelief. It's the theatre-makers most useful tool in reducing the scale of a play; you can have a multi-million pound set and a cast of hundreds but if you don't have a compelling drama that encompasses those epic themes, then you haven't got a play anyway. Once you've satisfied the play's basic requirements, anything extra is probably superfluous. Even when you can't do that there are still ways around it.

In Lorca is Dead, for instance, there are many plays within plays and because the audience are willing to suspend their disbelief, you can get around the vast number of characters through meta-theatricality and getting the audience to play parts. One could argue it undermines the themes and storyline; in fact I would say that it merely changes the way the audience connect with them. Once an audience becomes involved that directly with a storyline, they may miss the occasional subtle bit of plot but they will then have a vested interest in the outcomes for the characters on stage.

Establishing 'the rules' early on in the play helps in getting the audience to come along on the journey. In Lorca is Dead, anybody can play Lorca – but he needed to be clearly identified. A complete costume change was out of the question, so we boiled it down to a simple red scarf. The scarf is set up as a symbol for Lorca as soon as he gets mentioned, and that's all that's required. If the principles are established early on, the audience's collective imagination will do the rest of the work as you go along.

Ultimately, reducing the scale of a show but keeping its power comes down to making logical choices. The simplest solution is often the best. When you can't do something the way you'd like, find a way you can and make it work to the same effect. In Lorca is Dead we wanted Lorca to be everyone's main connection to the play without casting someone as Lorca; the most logical, simplest solution was to get everyone to play him. The result is that when he finally dies, the tragedy hits home especially hard for the audience members who are sitting saying to their friend: “That's me up there...”


Epic stories are something that link all of our shows; we’re a company with storytelling right at our heart. I’d always loved the imagery of the Hunchback swinging from the towers of Notre Dame. Obviously that’s something that’s not going to transfer to a small stage very easily. For me ‘Quasimodo’ is more about the story surrounding the four characters, and it’s simple enough.

Rather than tackling the politics and Parisian architecture that are so important in Hugo’s novel, I’ve concentrated on the characters right at the centre of it. I’ve told only a small part of the story, the part that I found most interesting. To try and present every inch of the novel onstage or even just to try and cover all the themes would be disastrous. The themes that ‘Quasimodo’ takes from the novel are ones that relate and transfer most easily to a modern audience. The show is what’s left once the epic story of the novel has been and stripped back to its core. ‘Quasimodo’ presents the themes of ‘Notre Dame de Paris’, it presents its essence and hopefully captures the power of Hugo’s story. It’s the story of a boy in love with a girl, and the girl doesn’t love him back. I think that’s something everyone can relate to.

So if you’re working from a source text, something epic, I guess it’s important to find something at its heart that is more practical, more accessible and use that as your starting point. Don’t get weighed down by the size of the whole thing, just start with something small and manageable, the epic story will always be there in essence.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Critic's Comments so Far

We're hitting the half way mark on our time in London this month.

A few positive comments from the critics so far:


Nominated for OFFIES Off West End Award for Best New Play

‘beautifully constructed’ The Guardian

‘fast paced and engrossing’ ****

‘real poetry and true emotion’ British Theatre Guide


Time Out London Critic’s Choice

‘A clever, claustrophobic hour of psychological horror’ **** Time Out London

‘an intense reworking of Victor Hugo's story’ British Theatre Guide


Time Out London Critic’s Choice

Thursday, 11 November 2010

The Big Bright Lights

We’re down in the big smoke of London town, making ourselves at home at Southwark Playhouse. We’re entering night three of the run, the official press night two of three. Reviews should be coming out soon so watch this space.

The Study, home to Breton and the Surrealists and also to Malcolm Kinnear and his fantasies, is looking bigger, better and more beautiful than ever before. We’ll post some decent photos soon.

Quasimodo has found his new hide away in the Playhouse Vaults, located in the Court of Miracles in the dark, cold dripping railway arches beneath London Bridge.

So far we've a had a few lovely audiences and audience members alike, including one man who finally fulfilled Malcolm's desire to share the stage with a gentleman wearing nothing but a grin.

We’ll provide you with more stories as the month progresses.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Thoughts from Antonin Artaud 1

I am sick of this mediocrity, this half hearted fumbling, this flirting with scandal all dressed up in decadence.
This dilly dallying, a ballet, dancing.
This is not seizing art, creating art.
They are holding art in white kid gloves, tickling it with cotton wool. We must mould it with our workman’s hands – it is ours to mould.
Why should we quietly disrupt others? We must split things apart, tear it asunder in order to recreate – render this bourgeois dancing obsolete.

Here, on this bus, imitating the cries of the public’s babies, we feel naughty.

An hour later I woke to find them whispering inks across paper, cooing as one colour mixes with another, dropping wax in to water and looking, starry eyed, at what came out.

I am not one for this art therapy.

I am not one for seeing magic in imitating the play of children.

The play of children is magical – but we are not children.

This, here in the living room, is our club. Here is where us few elite sit and create and discuss, casting arbitrary values and assumptions on works and ideas. We assume we know and that others don’t. This is our clique.

The clique is void. Null.

As a clique we cannot change a thing, we cannot render any alteration to any genuine bourgeoisie – like this, we can only perpetuate it. We must grasp art with both hands and fly it like the flags of the revolution.

If one only speaks of war, no war will ever come. If one merely plans for change, then no change shall ever come to effect. If we sit and quietly deride others, then art is as strong as a foam sword in the middle of a gun fight.

Art is live, it can only be realised in the visceral reaction through the eyes of the viewer. We can only measure the meaning of our art through the change in heartbeats, the rush of blood, the dilation of pupils or the pricking of tears. We can only work towards an end product. Sitting quietly in our armchairs and thinking, alone in our basements making – this is not art. The art exists with the viewer, not the maker.

We must make and we must show and it must be bold and real. What we make and show to people, this is our revolution. Our art must be the flags, the guns, the terrifying reality of change. We must pick up pace and gain a momentum.

There is no momentum in sitting cooing at hardening wax or whispering at inks dry.

This is only how we wait for the death of our fallow ideas.