Guest blog: I’ll show you mine… Amelia Bird

Gomito Roost - IMG_0117-2

I have been an independent, touring theatre artist for 11 years.

I am about to start up a venue.

There are three budgets for the venue sat in front of me.

I need to choose one.

Budget 1 is based on a box office split model. It offers visiting companies 50% of ticket sales to perform in the venue. The venue itself is a moveable, pop-up kind of thing which travels in a big van so it will also be able to transport the visiting company’s set for them. I would like to pool publicity so the visiting company doesn’t need to print flyers or posters and the venue will also provide technicians. All a visiting company needs to do is to arrange transport and accommodation for their people and perform four times per week. Sounds like a good deal no?

Well actually no. Because the point of this venue is to be as friendly and welcoming to audiences as possible, so ticket prices have to be reasonable, (£10/£5 to start). At that price, even if we sold 100% of tickets a visiting company could not afford to cover their costs and pay performers at Equity minimum rates. In fact a one man show would have to sell 80% of tickets every day just to cover their costs and pay the performer legal MINIMUM WAGE. So if I am offering this deal I am saying “I expect you to find more funding” or “I expect that you will not pay people even the minimum industry standards and possibly not the even the legal minimum wage” or “I expect you to walk to each tour location and sleep in a cardboard box”.

Budget 2 is based on offering a guaranteed fee to visiting companies, based on what I’ve been typically offered by studio-sized venues for alternative theatre shows in recent years. It still includes a shared van, shared publicity and technicians, which is by no means standard in the industry.

Things are looking up for visiting companies in this model. If you have no more than 2.8 performers you can cover your costs and pay Equity rates. Huzzah. So with this deal I’m saying “I believe in minimum wage”, “small is beautiful… but if you could find some more funding yourself that would be great” or “if there are three of you, one of you is going to need to sleep in your car”.

Budget 3 includes a pot of money to pay what it will actually cost the visiting companies to stage the shows. It has enough in it for 12 performers for a month in a variety of configurations (for income and programming to make sense I am thinking of four shows with casts of 5/4/2/1). Bear in mind that the venue is making no contribution to the creation of the show, or any royalties or running costs of the company; this is just ‘on the day’ costs to break even, not make a profit.

Budget 3 for a month is £39,000 larger than Budget 1.

Coming from a fringe mentality, it sends me into a panic every time I look at it. I’m really not sure I’m going to be able to find the finance to get the project off the ground, let alone whack in £39,000. In the current climate of cuts, £39,000 per month seems like a lot. It’s probably not a lot for a venue. Or is it? It looks like a lot to me. What can I cut? I’m also paying myself Equity minimum, maybe I can just do it for half -wage. Can I scrimp on publicity? Can I get volunteers to take up some of the venue positions? Can I do less? Can I be smaller?

Looking around it seems like no one else is worrying about how artists cover their costs, so why should I bother? I’ve been on the other side and I worked it out. I still do work for free and I’ve asked collaborators to do stuff for free. When my company was more established, I got Arts Council funding to make sure projects and tours were paid. Yes I administered that company and those applications for free, and I got annoyed because the application turnaround time doesn’t actually match up with when venues are booking, but screw it, let’s do budget 1, it’s still a good deal comparatively; let the artists work it out themselves. Yep definitely budget 1. Or 2. That seems like a good compromise. Yes definitely 2. That’s what other venues are doing. 2.

Ah crap.

I really can’t settle it with my conscience. I know the current mentality is unfair, I know it makes theatre poorer, less diverse, more hurriedly made and just generally not as good as it could be. Why, if I’m starting a venue from scratch should I model it on the system which already exists? So I will be working with budget 3, though it’s scarily large to me. All the Arts Council guidance tells you to pay people properly, so I will. Not just ‘my’ people at the venue, but also visiting independent artists, because it isn’t fair to turn a blind eye to the fact that they are often working for illegally low wages.

I am looking for funding from a variety of sources for this venue, Arts Council England, Local Authorities, Trusts, Commercial Sponsors and ticket income. I might not manage to raise it in time, in which case I will have to give it more time, or do fewer shows, or look again at my costs. There is very little fat to be cut, but it can’t be from artists. My mind is set. Please venues, if you care about quality, about artist development, if you have ever bought a Fair Trade banana in your life, look again at the fees you pay independents and work out what they must be paying themselves.

I really should end this blog here, it’s far too long, but I would hate to be accused of venue-bashing and not offering any solutions. I know that established venues have core running costs which this pop-up theatre will not, I know that they are held to paying for certain things by funding agreements and the way they have been set up historically, but I have one suggestion for an area which they could think about cutting costs on. (Deep breath)

Artist Development

I know, I am a terrible, treacherous artist, but having ‘benefitted’ from a number of these schemes I feel I can give an informed opinion. I think we can do without venue-led, top-down artist development schemes. I think we could spend less on Creative Producers and Artist Development Officers, move them over to audience development or marketing, somewhere where they will bring in an income to pay properly for shows. Because paying artists properly is the number one best way to help them develop. Please venues, recognise that offering £1,000 to make a new show is not useful (you know it costs more than that), please don’t worry about offering a formalised programme of mentoring and advice. Feel free to take that whole strand of your work out of your business plan, simplify your aims and don’t raise funding for it. I know it might feel like you are letting artists down, but let me level with you: we’re not as haphazard as we look. If we are encouraged to look after our own R & D processes, rather than filtering them through you, we will be OK.

Artist development will still happen, because do you know who is quite good at developing artists? Artists. We’re self-motivated people in the main, we want to improve, we invite outside eyes into our rehearsals, we’re prepared to pay to train, to go to workshops and masterclasses, we search out mentors, we often pester our elders for coffee and free advice (I do this a lot, thank you elders it means the world). We arrange artist play dates and meet ups and skill sharings and music jams. We share advice on starting companies, on writing funding applications, on marketing, on cheap rehearsal spaces. And if we are paid fairly for our work we will spend even more time doing these things and less working in call centres or fretting about crowdfunding our latest tour.

At the moment we’re doubling up and it’s bad value for money. Venues are being funded for artist development, but because their schemes don’t actually cover artists costs (or necessarily fit what we want to do), independent artists and companies are also applying for research and development money. Venues are being funded to put on new, risky work, but because the fees offered to visiting artists and companies don’t cover costs the artists are also applying for touring support. It doesn’t make sense and we are sending in twice as many applications as necessary to Arts Council England which has recently had to greatly reduce its staff.

Alright, too many words now. Let’s all think it through and do some sums before the next NPO round. Artists and independent companies sort out the ‘product’ and venues pay for it properly. I’ve made it sound simple, I know it isn’t. It feels ridiculous to choose budget 3 over budget 1 when money is tight, but as I like to shout at the politicians on the TV “you can’t balance a budget JUST by cutting costs. Think about the future. Think about growth. Think about innovation. Think about a fairer world.”

Amelia Bird is the outgoing Artistic Director of Gomito Productions and about to be the Artistic Director of The Tearaway Theatre (if she can find the money to pay everyone properly).