Category Archives: Producing

The rewards of rural touring

Originally written for the February House Theatre Guest Blog.

Fol Espoir developed Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain in collaboration with Steeple Aston Village Hall

Fol Espoir developed Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain in collaboration with Steeple Aston Village Hall

As well as being a freelance director I run Fol Espoir – a theatre company that tours to regional arts centres and rural networks across the UK. Small-scale touring is not exactly the glamorous end of the arts industry. On tour, we normally play a new venue every night – which means lots of driving, get-ins and a different bed every night. If we’re performing in rural venues like village halls, we’ll also be setting up our own lights and sound, getting lost in back-country lanes, and trying to perform on a stage that might have no cross-over, no wings, and a storage cupboard masquerading as the dressing room.

Despite these challenges, touring Fol Espoir’s work to far-flung communities is of deep importance to me. I grew up on a small island where my only access to theatre was the few companies that braved the overnight ferry. Those shows are embedded deep in my understanding of what theatre is, and I still have vivid memories of them today. As an adult I also want to make Fol Espoir’s work accessible to as many people as possible – wherever they might happen to live.

It helps that small scale touring, particularly to rural venues, is one of the most rewarding ways I know to present work. When we take over a village hall, we’re doing more than providing a night of live entertainment; we’re giving everyone in the area an excuse to come together, socialise and strengthen the ties that make their community strong. We’re also made to feel incredibly valued. In regular theatres you can often feel like one more act on a busy schedule. When we play a village hall we’ll might be the only professional act in that area for a while – the audience understand the effort we have made to bring them our work, and the organisers (nearly always volunteers) ply us with pre-show coffee and post-show beer, cook us dinner, help us find local accommodation and get incredibly excited when we host the evening’s raffle. There’s an event-like quality to the evening, nearly always a big turnout, and the joyful atmosphere you get when everyone knows everybody else. These perks make up for all the hard work, and the impact we’re having on local communities is clear.

We booked our first tour off a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe, which is probably still the most direct route into small-scale and rural touring. If you are braving your fortunes (and bank balance) at Edinburgh, preparation is everything. Research what venues are likely to be interested in your work (for example by checking out the tour schedules of similar theatre companies to yourself), email programmers well in advance of August, and understand that there’s not much money in touring at this level, so cast-sizes need to be small. If Edinburgh’s not for you, there are many other ways to get started – for example by developing a relationship with a regional venue, or applying for local scratch nights, emerging artist schemes, mentoring programmes or writer’s groups.

To find out more about rural touring, I’d recommend the National Rural Touring Forum‘s website – especially their introduction pack Rural Touring In a Nutshell. Until 14th February you can also apply to be part of their 2016 New Directions Showcase – where companies perform small excerpts of their shows for rural promoters. Bear in mind that not all shows are going to work in a rural setting – village audiences encompass a huge range of ages, and are mostly up for a ‘good night out’ where they can socialise, have fun, and be entertained. That’s not to say more challenging work doesn’t tour to villages, but it’s undoubtedly a tricker sell. If you think your works comes under that category, it might be worth chatting to the NRTF about which rural schemes will be interested – like conventional theatres, each scheme has its own programming flavour. Having an interval in your show is also a big bonus, as is a willingness to deal with the sometimes lengthy booking process that most rural networks operate.

The past few years have not been kind to the arts, but since 2013 Fol Espoir has completed two tours that took in over thirty venues each, and our November 2016 tour of Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain is already fully programmed. In other words, there is still hope. While it may not be glamorous or easy, small-scale touring is still alive, and comes with rewards of its own.

More about Fol Espoir at http://www.folespoir.co.uk

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Edinburgh Fringe 2015

fringe

September arrives and yet another Edinburgh Festival sets into the Lothian air. For the first time in over a decade of Fringe-ing, I was up without a show. A strange affair, lacking the adrenaline of other years but certainly made up for by actually having time to hang out with friends, play with their kids, sight-see and, shock-horror, get to bed by midnight every day… a very grown-up affair.

Another big difference this year was not having a performer’s pass (which gets you free entry into other shows at your venue). Normally I’d watch a lot of stand-up, sketch-comedy and circus for free. With a limited budget, I decided to prioritise theatre. In hindsight, perhaps not such a good choice – I now realise how the heady mix of genres is what I so love about the Fringe.

One thing I definitely should have remembered though is how disappointing the International Festival tends to be. With a new Director and what looked like an exceptional line-up, I got sucked in again, booking for Ivo van Hove’s Antigone, Robert Lepage’s 887, Max Richter’s Four Seasons/Memoryhouse and David Greig’s adaptation of Lanark. Yet again though, alongside the vibrancy of the Fringe all these shows just felt bloated and leaden; it’s perhaps no coincidence that my favourite (Lepage’s) was also the most intimate. Many years ago the international festival used to run an exceptional series of late night shows at the Hub. Now it seems that only bigger is better.

I suppose my constant gravitation to the International Festival is part of a bigger dilemma I’ve been facing in my own work. Am I more interested in ‘art’ or ‘entertainment’. My pretentious side drags me towards the International Festival, Forest Fringe and Summerhall, where I’m nearly always left cold. Meanwhile, my non-theatre friends take me along to less culturally ‘valid’ work like The Last Great Hunt’s Bruce or The Pajama Men and I have a fantastic time. Which is not to say I don’t like serious work – I thought Chris Thorpe’s Confirmation was exceptional. Too often though I was frustrated by theatre-makers who think their message or artistry trumps their obligations to the audience. Or to put in another way, the biggest lesson I learnt this year was that my tastes aren’t as high-brow as I’d like them to be. Which actually is great. I can stop lying to myself, put down Hans-Thies Lehmann’s Post Dramatic Theatre and focus on creating the work that I do like to watch. Work that is thought-provoking, beautifully created and entertaining.

For example, my other stand out shows were Iphegenia in Splot and The Solid Life of Sugar Water. Both shows revolved around the loss of unborn children, so hardly light subject matter. But both had me laughing, crying, were beautifully staged and left me with a lot to think about. Iphegenia…, probably my stand-out show of the festival, finished with one of the hardest punches I’ve ever experienced. I was in sporadic tears all the way home.

A couple of wider issues also struck me this year. Firstly, I was disappointed about the predominantly introspective nature of the work I saw this year. Maybe I just missed them, but where were the big political shows? For all the shtick comedians get about taking over the fringe, at least some of them seemed concerned about what is going on in the world. Not so for the majority of theatre-makers. Have we all been cowed into submission? Do we think audiences don’t want to face these types of questions? Or has theatre become so middle-class that first-world problems are all that count?

If so, this lack of political will is something the arts are paying for – because if we take Edinburgh as a microcosm of the country at large, we’ve allowed ourselves to be utterly exploited for other people’s gain. Who does fantastically out of the Fringe? It’s not the performers, most of whom go home thousands of pounds in debt, or barely struggling into the next financial year. It’s people like the hoteliers, the shop-keepers, the bar-owners, the restauranteurs, the landlords, the big-name comedians and a handful of lucky shows. There’s been talk of a ‘tourist-tax’ for people visiting Edinburgh in August, which sounds like unworkable nonsense. But why can’t Edinburgh Council fully sponsor the Fringe Society’s running costs so that each company didn’t have to stump up the £295 registration fee? After all, it’s the artists who create the festival and the artists who bring in the business – in any other industry we’d be on commission.

Winston’s PR journey – a post from our wonderful media genie Jane Verity

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Our journey with Fol Espoir started with a slightly awkward conversation with a fairly sceptical sounding John Walton. John had got in touch through a mutual friend who had recommended us, but I didn’t know this at the time, and thought it was an off spec enquiry.

What I realised as I was speaking to him, and one of the things I’ve enjoyed about working with Fol Espoir since, is that whilst ‘PR’ is a dark art for so many of the people I work with – something they know needs to happen, but have no desire to get involved in – for John and Freddie it didn’t fall into the ‘scary’ category, but instead it was another part of the adventure, approached with just as much openness, creativity, honesty and intelligence as they approached the show.

I think John sounded sceptical that day because he was still weighing up his decision, trying to sound tough, and decide whether we were the best he’d spoken to.

But I also think that throughout the project there has been a real striving for excellence in John that has made me feel, well, not uneasy, but just like I had to prove myself, to live up to his expectations.

And that’s actually a really interesting point about client relationships. I’ve always assumed that the ideal is that you treat each other like friends – you have a giggle on the phone, you know about each other’s house sale / new car / favourite TV show – but working with Fol Espoir has really reminded me that some of the most productive relationships are not even.

What I felt, and what John made me feel, was a responsibility to do a good job. Not because he was being horrible or demanding, but because when you’re working with people who are really good at what they do – and really invested in what they do – you have an obligation not to let them down.

And there is a real duty of care with clients like Fol Espoir too. Their money, like many of our clients, comes from arts council funding – tax payers’ hard earned money that our government still, just about, believes is best spent in making theatre and then in persuading people to come and see it.

So all in all that’s a lot of pressure. It’s a question we always ask ourselves before accepting PR project work. Can we deliver on the clients’ expectations? If not, that’s a lot of heartache and a lot of blame to shoulder – particularly in a discipline where ultimately you’re never in control of the results. But that doesn’t matter – if you sign on the dotted line and say you’re going to make something happen and then you can’t, there’ll only be one person to blame in the client’s eyes.

But in this case I was happy to say that we could it. They had sensible expectations – the focus was on regional press rather than national, on bums on seats rather than glittering reviews, and the show had almost all of the ‘magic’ ingredients for great press coverage – a real life story about a well-known figure, not the story we all know, but something different – the young Winston Churchill, opening in Winston’s home town, a one-man show being performed by a young theatre company. And they had great production photographs already, from an Edinburgh run last year.

And we were right. Doing press for Winston on the Run has been easy. I don’t say that lightly, and I wouldn’t say it about anything else I’ve worked on this year. I did it with the help of one of our PR execs, Lisa, whose organisational skills worked a treat on a 30 date tour of one night shows. And it was easy because the strength of the story really captured journalists imaginations, and also because Freddie is such an eloquent interviewee. He made an excellent radio guest – and 10 BBC radio interviews later, he hadn’t missed a single beat, racing around to fit interviews into his day’s travel from one venue to the next, not just enthusing about the show, but engaging presenters in a debate.

I think it’s easy to sit in your office as a PR, setting people up with interviews, without really thinking about how much personal effort it takes to actually do them, and do them well. It was also easy because both John and Freddie were always there at the other end of an email, or a phone call, and because we were working together with one common goal.

We approached the task in a methodical way, identifying a list of target venues with John, and then prioritising key titles for each venue. We used the venues communications teams as a starting point – their local knowledge is always the key to projects like this – and then it was just a case of being thorough about contacting and following up with each contact, co-ordinating and recording interview requests, and being organised enough to put together a schedule that Freddie could keep up to, as well as fitting in around tech time and once the show was open, travel time.

As regional and national media become more and more stretched in terms of their journalists’ time and ability to travel, the tide turns more towards the need to provide ready-made content. So in many cases writers were asking for email question and answers rather than phone interviews, and The Guardian Professionals Network asked for an 800 word blog. Obviously, this changing landscape gives a great opportunity for those who have the time and skill to write, but it does change the balance of how much time on projects is spent writing, as opposed to pitching. In lots of ways that’s great – it gives the control back to us – as well as a sense of being a ‘maker’ rather than a middle man – but it does tend to be more time consuming. In this case though, Freddie and John were great – and were happy to give the time to write great content – and one of the results can be seen here:

http://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2013/oct/11/post-show-theatre-discussions

People often ask ‘what works best’ in terms of the mix between print media, online and broadcast – but the only proper answer to that question is that what you really want is a bit of everything. I think here we got a nice balance between radio, traditional print and online – although perhaps it would have been nice to have seen more really good, engaged arts bloggers in the regions the show toured to – I’m sure they’re out there – but we just didn’t quite find the time to focus our energies in that direction, and I think it was agreed that the audience for this particular show were perhaps more interested in traditional than ‘new’ media.

I think this tour has been a learning process – both for us and for Fol Espoir, and there are certainly things that we could have done differently (like starting work two months earlier), but I think I can hold my head up and say that we lived up to John’s expectations. Just about.

– Jane works with arts, leisure and business tourism clients as an account manager for Bonner & Hindley Communications. She was press officer for the West Yorkshire Playhouse and is Press and PR Manager for Red Ladder Theatre.   

 

Booking the tour

House Theatre asked John to write about how the Winston tour came together. Answers below!

GUEST BLOG: BOOKING THE TOUR BY FOL ESPOIR

In December 2011 the actor/writer Freddie Machin and I decided to create a show about the early adventures of Winston Churchill. At the time, we had no star actor, no experience of touring and we were virtually unknown. Nearly two years later, the show has just finished a two-month national tour. I’ve often been asked how we did it, and the answer is quite straightforward: we bugged our friends and contacts for advice, made the show as brilliant as we could, put in a huge number of hours chasing venue programmers, and invested in the best marketing images we could afford. We were also careful in our choice of subject – a thin Churchill with a full head of hair was a good way to get people’s attention.

From the beginning, our target was to take the show on tour. Programmers have an unenviable amount of choice, and I quickly realised that solid salesmanship skills would be required to get their interest. The first thing was to set up shop and get our work seen, and the obvious choice was the Edinburgh Fringe. It’s an exhausting, expensive and exhilarating experience which certainly isn’t right for everyone. For us, though, it would give us access to a huge number of industry buyers. If we could get them to sample our show, we were in with a chance.

Our minds focused by the huge financial risk of an Edinburgh run, a major priority was to make sure our show was ready. We previewed in Brighton, Buxton, Liverpool and Jersey, constantly working and re-working the text. At the same time, we built a database of contacts we could send invitations to. We had two targets: small-to-mid-scale touring venues, and rural touring networks. For the rural venues, we bought a list of contacts from the National Rural Touring Forum. For the conventional venues we begged friends to share their own lists, combed through the tour schedules of similar shows, and looked through our own lists of industry contacts for leads. Eventually we had a database of totalling hundreds of venues. About a third we felt were most likely to take our show. These became the main focus of our attention.

As programmers make their Edinburgh schedules far in advance, we sent invitations months before the festival began. We didn’t have much, but we knew that Winston Churchill was a great hook, and we prioritised the publicity image, making it as eye-catching as possible. Our previews also gave us a steady trickle of favourable reviews and even an award – Best Actor for Freddie at the Buxton Fringe. Combined with recommendations from a few of our industry contacts who saw the show early on, our product was becoming more enticing. At the festival, we were rewarded with a steady stream of programmers.

Post-fringe, it was time to book the tour. Initially we focused on venues that had actually seen the show, and this bagged us great dates. We then began on the programmers who hadn’t seen the show. Images, reviews and marketing blurbs were posted and emailed, phone calls were made, and interest was definitely ignited. Persistence was key; the list of people to email and call seemed never-ending. Highlighting the bookings we had was incredibly helpful; not only did these serve as the best possible recommendations for the show, but it also meant programmers could talk to people they knew and trusted about our work. Patience was also paramount. Some venues book a year in advance, some only a few months; some gave you an immediate answer, others took months. Rural schemes were perhaps the most tricky. They’re a huge market, but their booking process is admirably, if sometimes frustratingly, de-centralised. Given that you’re often asked to block off a slew of potential tour dates, the process can take a frighteningly long time.

Price-wise, we had to balance our desire to tour extensively with our need to balance the books. Each show would cost about £750 to put on, and that was where we set our fee. However, we also gave venues the option of a cheaper guarantee against a box office split – a sort of introductory special offer. This shifted a lot of risk onto ourselves, but still gave us a guaranteed income.

Over the course of a year, the tour grew from a few dates to nearly forty. A generous Arts Council grant covered our financial shortfall, and in September, Winston went on the road. As it comes to an end, I’m immensely proud of what we achieved, both artistically and in developing our company’s reputation and relationships. Most of the venues we toured to have already asked us what we’re working on next. For the moment, my only answer is ‘a long holiday’!

– See more at: http://housetheatre.org.uk/blog/guest-blog-booking-the-tour-by-fol-espoir/#sthash.fbywDKvw.dpuf

Fol Espoir featured in The Guardian

Artistic Director John Walton was invited to contribute a post to the Guardian Professionals Blog. The theme was the research process and post-show discussion for the show Winston On the Run. Full text below, or check it out at:

http://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2013/oct/11/post-show-theatre-discussions

Post-show theatre discussions: presenting your ‘DVD extras’ menu

Performance post shows are usually dull and dominated by the same old questions – so how can you create one that’s fun?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            If I told you that Winston Churchill had once been a svelte, dashing young cavalry officer with a ruff of red hair, a penchant for dangerous adventures and a lisp, would you believe me? For my generation at least, it’s difficult to imagine him as anyone other than a demigod of history textbooks, chomping on a cigar and making zero contribution to the nation’s hairbrush industry.

When I teamed up with the writer and actor Freddie Machin, we knew that Churchill’s little-known early adventures were ripe for theatrical adaptation. But how do you start researching someone about whom enough material already exists to fill several libraries? And how do you condense that material into an evening of lively entertainment?

The first thing we realised is that no human being could ever read everything written by or about Churchill – we were going to have to set limits. The second thing we needed to decide was what story we wanted to tell. Again, setting limits became key. Unimpressed by the meandering treatment of Churchill’s boyhood and military career in the 1972 filmYoung Winston, we decided to focus on the episode of his life that ultimately led to his first parliamentary victory – his daring escape from the South African Boers.

At this point, our aim was to write a Flashman-style parody of colonial aspirations and hot-headed youth. The research was pointing us in an entirely different direction, though. We were becoming entranced by the sheer complexity of Churchill’s personality: from an early age he was inspiring, courageous, persistent and witty; yet also arrogant, impulsive, erratic and riddled with insecurity. We realised that these qualities were also the reasons for his future successes and failures. Here was an episode through which his entire life could be distilled, and it was too fascinating an opportunity to pass up.

The format that we eventually came up with was a 65-minute show followed by an integral post-show presentation. The “post show” gets really bad press, and we’ve been at plenty of bad ones ourselves. Too often they are dull, poorly executed and dominated by the same old questions, like “how do you learn your lines?”

Often the performers don’t even want to be there, and I’ll never forget an RSC actor telling us all off for not laughing enough in a lamentably unfunny first half. Freddie and I were sure that with a bit of imagination we could come up with something that was fun, structured, visually rich and that would allow the audience to lead the conversation.

What we ended up creating was our own DVD “extras” menu that we project onto the stage. Audience members can choose from topics like “The Greasy Spoon” – about the working relationship Freddie and I developed, rooted in our local cafe; to topics like “Behind the Legend”, which explores original archive material; or “True or False”, a quiz based on Churchill’s early life. Each topic comes with photos, discussion from Freddie, and an opportunity for the audience to share thoughts or ask questions.

What we’ve discovered is that a post-show talk can add immensely to both the audience and performer’s experience of a production. Audience members love getting a look behind normally closed rehearsal room doors. In return, they have shared some amazing memories. One audience member’s father had worked as Churchill’s private secretary and had spent summers playing in the grounds of Chartwell; another could still recall Churchill’s visit to their local village.

We’ve even been invited to visit places like Ditchley Park, where Churchill had close connections, and the conversations have often continued into the theatre’s bar long afterwards. For us, it’s been a exciting way to make connections with our audience, which is, in the end, what storytelling is all about.