Category Archives: Show-specific posts

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

Final week of Haroun rehearsals

Haroun Rehearsals

Haroun Set

I like to choose wildly ambitious shows that I have no idea how to make – shows that are way beyond my skill-set and comfort zone. Not because I’m a masochist (although it sometimes feels like that), but because I think it’s the surest way to develop my craft as a director.

I love Haroun and the Sea of Stories, and I knew it would be an ideal piece for the ensemble I would be working with. But I also knew it would be a huge challenge. The show involves flying scenes, underwater scenes, a journey into outer space, a dizzying number of locations, crazy characters, monsters, shadows and ships – none of which I had any idea how to create. It is by far the most ambitious project I’ve ever undertaken, and I was coming straight into it from a previous show, so had very little time for preparation. It’s also the first time I’ve worked with a pre-written text in about five years.

Hopefully the show will be a success and the students will have taken a lot from the process, but this afternoon I’ve been reflecting on my own learning outcomes.

– My preparation going into the show was not adequate. I didn’t know the story well enough, I hadn’t made clear design choices, and I was bringing my ‘wing-it’ attitude from years of devising. Part of me is quite happy that I delayed design decisions until late in the process – it meant that I’m very happy with the choices we made. On the other hand, going through the design process at the same time as trying to put together a horrifically complicated show was not particularly helpful. It also meant that the cast won’t have their costumes until they get into the theatre. For a show as physical as this one, the costumes may change what the performers are capable of doing, and I wish we had been able to look at these things earlier.

– I’ve been much more disciplined on voice work this time round, but watching the run on Friday, I still felt like this was the show’s weak point. Huge amounts of time have been concerned with the logistics of staging. For a future I want to direct a very naturalistic piece that will force me to work on basic acting skills!

– I was much better in my rehearsal planning than I have been in the past, but I still think I could have used the early part of the rehearsal period more efficiently. I always seem to get to technical rehearsals wishing I just had a couple more days.

– Casting is absolutely everything. I couldn’t have made this show without the physical skills and imagination of the actors I’ve been working with. The single biggest thing a director does in determining the quality of a show is in the casting of it. If you want the show to be physical/funny/wacky you must find physical/funny/wacky actors, and then let them play. Riff off what they bring to rehearsals and make sure the best bits get into the show. What’s more, by delaying casting until the second week of rehearsals, I was really able to make much better choices over parts, which has been incredibly beneficial. I haven’t held auditions since the last scripted piece I did over five years ago. The idea of having to make choices in such a small space of time now fills me with horror. There really is no substitute for spending time in a rehearsal room with actors.


I haven’t made it to any shows this week – non-stop rehearsals!

Movies / TV

Not much of this either!


Went to Thomas Jack at the Laundry E8. A fun night, mainly because I was with Harri and Alia – I thought Thomas Jack was a bit disappointing. It’s actually the guest mixes on his Soundcloud channel that I love the most…. His live mixing skills were pretty bad and he didn’t really know how to build a structure and rhythm to the night. Shame, but a fun night out nonetheless.


Nope, haven’t been doing much of this either!


Obviously the big event of this week was the elections. I think the idea of another Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition was at least vaguely palatable, but the Tories getting in with an outright majority – ouch… I can’t quite believe some of the policies they are planning on putting through – like tearing up The Human Rights Act – but I hope an EU referendum will take the sting out of UKIP. And if nothing else, hopefully the country will emerge financially streamlined. It’s a worrying five year in stall though, that’s for sure.

The other big shocker of the night was the clear inadequacy of the electoral system. For UKIP and the Green Party to have polled so high nationally, but to have ended up with so few seats is a disgrace.

First week of Haroun Rehearsals

The Week in Work
First week of rehearsals for Haroun and the Sea of Stories at East 15, and I’ve been looking at two strands. In the mornings, I’ve been introducing the kind of techniques that I use as a director – Gaullier’s ‘pleasure’ principle and his insistence on actor sensitivity, Anne Bogart and Tina Landau’s Viewpoints and Keith Johnstone’s status work. In the afternoons, the group has been exploring the plot, themes, personal significance and contemporary resonances of the play. What I’ve immediatley noticed is that they are incredibly brilliant at corporeal work, and so bringing this element into the piece is an absolute must. The question I face is how to do that without any Le Coq-style ‘physical theatre’… which I hate. Why do I hate it? Because for me it’s very hackneyed, stuck in the 80s, and obsessed with ornate style over human substance. I’m looking for something a bit fresher; something that maintains a focus on the actors performances as opposed to showing off their gymanstic dexterity. However, the other problem I have is how to create the umpteen landscapes and action sequences with zero money. So lots to be thinking about moving forward. This week coming I want to really nail down some very specific scene and character work, before moving onto the big staging questions…

I’ve been hard at work in Southend all this week – so no time to watch shows!

Movies / TV
Watched the movie Starlet, by director Sean Baker. A fun, quirky piece – although I wonder how much patience I would have had with its stilted plotting if Drew Hemingway hadn’t been so absolutely gorgeous to watch. Even if it was kinda hackneyed story-wise, the cinematography and soundtrack were utterly fabulous, and it had that relaxed and rough feel that I’m really enjoying at the moment. Still, I wonder how much of me was watching the movie for its artistic merits, and how much of me was just enjoying the scantily clad women…

I listened to Hannah Kendall and Anna Clyne’s hour-long slots on Radio 3’s Composer of the Week. Massively enjoyed both, and Hannah’s epic music I’d of course heard before. Anna Clyne was new to me though, and a revelation – a combination of the electronic sampling with the modernist aesthetic of Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Utterly entrancing and can’t wait to explore more.

I’ve been reading David Selbourne’s account of Peter Brook’s rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s a frustrating account – Selbourne is far more interested in the politics of the rehearsal room, the ethics of the director/actor relationship, his misgivings about ‘director’s theatre’ and his own insecurities as a failing writer. Really, all I care about is what Peter Brook was doing! There are occasional descriptions of rehearsal exercises, but these are few and far between. Still, interesting that Brook was so caustic with his actors, and so harsh on them. It’s not always about being immediately loved by the actors, but pushing them to a place, perhaps of great discomfort, where they will make deep discoveries.

Week Highlights

– A lovely day spent exploring the marshlands of the Thames estuary in Essex. Found an amazing pub located in a boat in Benfleet. Want to go back!


– Got the Versys back – although significantly damaged…

– Sold the Varadero for £550. Day after I put it in Ebay. Nice!

– Discovered a new composer whose work I love – Anna Clyne

– The weather has been glorious – long may it continue.

The Coming Week
Outside of work, I’m looking forward to Alia moving in tomorrow night, and seeing King Size at the ROH on Friday night. I’m also trying to focus more and more on self-development, and want to spend some time reviewing Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. A very inspiring book that helped me a lot a while back.

And we’re off!

British Cover

It’s a little over a week since I arrived home to find an envelope waiting for me from the Arts Council. We’d applied for funding to develop a new show, and I’d like to say there was a moment of fear, perhaps anticipation as I peeled it open; but the truth is you don’t even have to open the envelope to know. Rejected applications get a short pro-forma letter – perfunctory, polite, and disheartening. Accepted applications however get that magical YES-letter plus a lengthy contract and financial questionnaire, in duplicate. The envelope waiting for me was thick with paper – we had scored a winner! Then my flatmate told me our landlord was selling and we’d be homeless pretty soon – life has a way of keeping you in check.

The show we’ll be making is ‘Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain’, inspired by the 1942 pamphlet of the same name. Given to American troops on their way to Blighty, the Instructions were a crash course on the quirks and customs of British life, featuring everything from cricket and ‘indoor amusements’ to Sunday afternoons in the country. Our plan is to tour in late 2015, and for the moment, we’ve been awarded enough money to spend two weeks developing ideas, followed by a work-in-progress performance at The Theatre Chipping Norton.

We might have our funding, but there’s a lot of hard work to come. The last week has been full of meetings, phone calls, and all the joyous administration tasks that even a small show like ours requires. It’s a precious time though – before we get bogged down in all the details we can dream about what we really want to achieve. For me, that boils down to two things: creating a fun, silly show that takes an irreverent look at what it means to be British; and working hard to create quality interactions with the audiences and venues we tour to.

For the show itself, I can’t wait to work with Dan, Jim and Matt from The Real MacGuffins. They’re a fab comedy trio full of ridiculous witticisms, idiotic imaginations and a finely-honed inter-personal dynamic (i.e. Matt is the butt of every joke). They love to work directly with an audience, and I know that together we can create a joyous evening of entertainment. More than that though, I want the show to bring together communities that might not normally connect. Theatre, especially if you’re playing in a village hall miles away from the nearest town, is one of those rare times when communities come together with the sole aim of having a good night out. I’m imagining panto-style interactions, audience-members split into competing teams, and a big song and dance at the end. Theatre’s a social occasion, and I want Instructions to tap into that spirit.

As a theatre company, it’s not only a chance for Fol Espoir to deliver another great show, but also to deepen our relationship with our audiences. Our last show Winston On the Run toured to a huge number of venues. Perhaps because of this, it felt like we were in and out of theatres in the blink of an eye. This time we want to be of better service to the communities we tour to – offering workshops, post-show talks, educational activities for schoolchildren and more obvious ways in which people can stay in touch with us once we leave. I want Instructions to be more than just a show. I want it to be an event.

The Writing Process by Freddie Machin


The first time John Walton and I met was at his old flat in Covent Garden. He auditioned me for one his first productions as a director, an adaptation of Mishima’s Yoroboshi. I didn’t get the part, but – and actors can take solace from this next bit – he kept me in mind for a future project. Yes, that overused and frequently hollow promise that underlines every rejection letter does sometimes actually come true.

Within a few months we were thrust together again at Gifford’s Circus, touring in their summer production of War and Peace. During the rehearsal process I had my first play produced in London. Chicken premiered at Southwark Playhouse, earning me the nickname ‘Shakespeare’ with our circus director. A moniker I tried endlessly to re-ignite with my peers in London but alas it was not to be. Not least because I wasn’t really a writer yet. My only experience of the writing process had been sitting in my bedroom, living on crisps and banging my head against a wall. That’s how I wrote Chicken.

But that’s not strictly true, the catalyst which converted me from actor to actor-writer came before that, on a collaborative writing project at Action Transport Theatre. Under the guidance of super-mentor and professional playwright Kevin Dyer, myself and three other emerging writers researched and wrote a play which we toured back to the young people who had inspired it.

I found this collaborative writing process completely different to that of writing Chicken. Much of our early work at Action Transport was done in a rehearsal room, either leading workshops with the young people we met or discussing our memories of our own childhoods and our ideas as a writing team. This led into a more traditional solo writing period but it was characterised initially by vocalising ideas rather than the silent solitude of my garret in London.

Working with John on Winston… was in some respects a combination of the two and another equally steep learning curve for me, chiefly because I had never researched my main character before. I had based characters on people close to me, people I had read about in the newspaper and people I had met but never someone that everybody in the world was already well acquainted with.

So the first thing we did was spend a week in a rehearsal room with My Early Life – Churchill’s autobiography covering the period – and enthusing over what was great about the book – the imperial cast list, the numerous trysts with death, our lead character’s insistence on silk underpants. A focus for our story quickly presented itself to us – bookended by an Oldham by-election failure and an Oldham general election success – was an impossible tale of escape and endurance in South Africa.

Every writer I have ever sought advice from has told me that the dialogue always comes last. The majority of your work, particularly in the early stages, will be spent structuring and re-structuring the piece and discovering who your character is. Once you have these two things down, the dialogue will write itself.

John often says that one of the reasons we worked so successfully together on this project was because he has that meticulous, scientist’s eye for construction and I have a natural bent for character and dialogue.

And true to form, the first thing I wanted to do was the fun bit – write the words. My initial interests in the script lay in the tone and getting Churchill’s voice right – an uncommon mixture of Victorian era imperial entitlement and naïve, youthful ambition.

Because that’s the bit you spent your life overhearing at bus stops, scratching down in notebooks and what lingers from a great production – that is what makes you want to be a writer and that is what will engage the audience when the piece is performed. But it’s also the bit that must be deferred.

So we painstakingly beat out a structure, moment by moment and gradually, inadvertently, through studying the facts of the real life story, a character began to emerge. Tiptoeing towards dialogue we experimented by giving him some of Churchill’s actual words to speak. We transposed as much of the young war correspondent’s dispatches into our script as possible and read it aloud.

It was a complete failure. Although Churchill is a great writer – his florid language and imagery so pleasurable and evocative for the reader – when spoken as dialogue, the text falls flat. Heavy, dense and far too wordy, it did not capture the essence of the man at all let alone the energetic spirit of youth captured in the story.

In relying too heavily on the facts of the story we had become too loyal, too reverent to the myth of Churchill. And so I was given the license to start create dialogue and being released from the bonds of verbatim text was hugely liberating.

John suggested we refer to him as Winston rather than Churchill to help alleviate us of the burden of history and in my sketches and early drafts I went one further – I called him Paul. Soon enough, whilst maintaining all of those essential character traits we had compiled and discarding his famous title, all the pomp began to dissipate. He became human for the first time – a young person, like you or I, facing his demons, contesting with his destiny and defining himself for the first time.

And that is the spirit with which we continued – drafting and redrafting, in cafés, in rehearsal rooms, at fringe festivals around the country, fine tuning this thing we had carved from science and art, structure and dialogue, the known and the unknown.

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


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:

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.   

Looking back by Freddie Machin

It is late November, and three weeks after I hung up my wig and frock coat for the final time I’m back on the road again. The weather is still mild but Christmas is firmly within our sights and I’m on my way to give a presentation about how the tour went. I almost never thought this moment would come. So much time and focus went into preparing for the eight weeks of touring with Winston that I hadn’t even contemplated what would come after.

The evaluation process with Fol Espoir and the preparation for the presentation I am giving today has given me the opportunity to reflect on it however. In conversation with friends and colleagues I tend to play it down. I frame my experience within the narrative that I think people expect to hear from someone who has just returned from a two-month tour. I say “it was exhausting” but I never really felt exhausted at the time, I say “it was a hard slog” but I don’t think it really was, I sometimes even say “never again” which is not quite the same as actually feeling that it was a once in a lifetime experience.

What was particularly difficult – and be honest” John keeps pushing the stage manager Matt and I to dish the dirt. But in all honesty there is none, apart from a cracked windscreen and the power being blown mid-performance – both on the same night incidentally – Winston passed off without a hitch.

One of the frequent questions I was asked during the tour was “don’t you get tired of saying the same lines every night?” Although it is true that I have found long tours of other people’s work hard in the past this one was entirely different. Saying the words that I researched, drafted and re-drafted every night was a pleasure. I believed in the story of this incredible character and I was very proud of the rigorous work John and I had done to craft it into a piece of theatre. Consequently performing it every night was a privilege, sharing our take on an already rollicking yarn with a new group of people was a joy.

And the audiences were invariably supportive and enthusiastic. Sharing their own tales of, and connections to Winston over the years. One woman told us that her great-grandfather had been a prisoner of war with Winston in South Africa. Churchill had apparently made an agreement with the guards that if they let him walk around the grounds of the camp he promised he wouldn’t escape. A foolish mistake on the Boers’ part from what we know now but in retaliation the remaining troops were duly punished. Her relative never liked Churchill from that day on she told us.

In Margate we heard the story of a woman’s grandfather who was head chef in the most expensive restaurant in town and had served Winston when he paid a visit on official business after the First World War. We even performed to a village hall where a genuine Victoria Cross was hanging on the wall. The much coveted prize that Winston so desired for his efforts was literally within reach! Upon closer inspection it was in fact given to a soldier for bravery during the Boer War and the text beneath suggested that the soldier was on the Dunottar Castle – the very ship which took Churchill and Colonel Buller to the Cape in 1899.

I discovered the history of the medal itself at the Lancashire Fusiliers museum in Bury after being encouraged to go by a father and son who had just seen the show for dad’s birthday. Created in 1856 the VC remains the highest order for valour a British soldier can be awarded. The medals themselves are made from a finite source – the bronze knobs from a set of Chinese cannon taken from the Russians at Sebastopol during the Napoleonic wars.

Matt and I were becoming oral historians, threading this ever accumulating story up and down the country, compiling what we learnt on the road and sharing it with a new audience every night.

And not only Churchill made it into our Winston on the Run almanac, we shortlisted our favourite Travelodge experiences and completed our highly publicised top ten list. Three cheers for Crewe and the Dean Clough Mill Halifax in the top two spots. In fact some of my fondest memories of the tour were spent waiting in the countless take-aways Matt and I frequented around the UK. Watching Father Ted on the little TV on the counter awaiting prawn crackers and chow mein to sate our hunger after the show. The satisfaction of another venue successfully under our belts.

Like John’s excellent tour road map on our website we threaded a journey – a six and a half thousand mile journey, connecting people and places, sharing stories and laughter and a thousand Churchillian quotations: “If you’re going through hell, keep going” “History will be kind to me, because I intend to write it

And we did what he said – we kept going, through it all and we made history. 6,500 miles, 43 nights, 30-odd venues, a dozen Travelodges and eleven cigars worth of brandy-swilling, death-defying, restless, relentless, persistent Churchillian history.

We might even do it again sometime.

Booking the tour

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


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:

Ten things you probably didn’t know about Winston Churchill

Image         Winston Churchill Aged 4

1. Winston celebrated his 21st birthday being shot at by anti-Spanish guerrillas in Cuba. 

2. His father Randolph was a superstar of Victorian politics who believed Winston would amount to nothing and become ‘a social wastrel’. He promptly died before he could be proved wrong.

3. Winston served under his nemesis Kitchener in the Sudan. While there he was part of one of the last ever cavalry charges in British military history.

4. In 1899 Winston was captured by the Boers and incarcerated in a prisoner-of-war camp. He escaped and made his way across hundreds of miles of Savanna to rejoin the British lines.

5. Winston’s mother Jennie Jerome was a famous American socialite and reported invented of the Manhattan cocktail. 

6. In 1953 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He earned more in his life from writing than anything else.

7. Winston was a sickly child and convinced he would die young (and therefore needed to make his name quickly). In fact he lived to ninety! 

8. Winston had a lisp and originally was a terrible public speaker.

9. In 1908 Winston introduced the Trade Boards Bill setting up the first minimum wages in Britain.

10. In 1909, Winston set up Labour Exchanges to help unemployed people find work. He helped draft the first unemployment pension legislation, the National Insurance Act of 1911. Churchill also assisted in passing the ‘People’s Budget’, which included the introduction of new taxes on the wealthy to allow for the creation of new social welfare programmes.  

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:

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.