“From the start it has been the theatre’s business to entertain people… It needs no other passport than fun”
– Bertolt Brecht , A Short Organum for the Theatre
While no one can deny that theatre is a form of entertainment (as Brecht so articulately emphasises), we all know that it can be so much more than this; an experience, a work of art, a political statement… or even a career choice. For us, forming a company and creating Filskit was the direction we collectively wished to follow.
When starting a theatre company, your first thoughts may naturally gravitate toward artistic ideals – what you want to create, what you want to say and the practice that will create it; some would call it “the fun stuff”. Often an afterthought, the practical aspects of running a business can come as a surprise to many starting a theatre company.
We at Filskit have been working together since 2008 and have always tried hard to flex our entrepreneurial muscles. But this leads us to venture into areas that aren’t necessarily touched upon in the confines of drama school. So we took it upon ourselves to attend courses where we could learn about business plans and tax returns. Not the most exciting of topics, admittedly, but indispensable when running a good company (and they supply outstanding hot chocolate and coffee). Developing our administrative education has made life significantly easier when it comes to choosing a structure for our business, as well as completing the dreaded Tax Return. There are clear benefits of gaining a basic understanding on how to run a business, but it does beg the question: In order to be a successful theatre company do you have to run it like a good business?
There are certain clashes between the world of arts and business, not least a natural rebellion against the idea of commercialisation. However, in this world of budget cuts the pressure is on to improve the business of the arts, not just to make money, but just to survive. When talking of business, this does not mean aggressive marketing strategies or using bank loans to invest (not that you would get one even if you wanted), but looking at ways of managing your money, exploring ways of promoting your work and ensuring you are on the right side of the law.
Needless to say, all of this is pointless unless supported by good work, but I wonder now if good work is enough? This is not to say that it won’t eventually be recognised, but when you are the people bank rolling the project, and investing your own time, can you afford not to be savvy when investing your efforts? On a basic (and somewhat cynical) level, are you not asking your audiences to ‘invest’ in your work as the ticket buying punters? It is a form of transaction after all.
If like us, you want theatre to be full-time job, you will inevitably need to make money. So it seems that part of setting up your own theatre company requires that you now need to be artists, entrepreneurs, accountants and marketers. This is why we decided to give each individual within the company a particular role, in order to ensure certain important facets of running the company are completed. Such items include keeping a check of the bank account, insurance and tax returns – simple tasks that ultimately test your professional organisation and durability. Needless to say no-one jumped at the chance to be in charge of the tax return or research insurance, but as the saying goes, “it’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it”.
Although this is a daunting task, there is plenty of help out there. The first step we would recommend is to contact your local Business Link (www.businesslink.gov.uk). This organisation can help you set up a structure for your company and put you in touch with a business advisor. You will also find other people, more experienced in the industry, who may be willing to help you out. There is a wealth of knowledge, support and resources available to start up businesses, however small. For us, it was a case of identifying the areas where we were inexperienced and developing the skills we wished to improve – in the same way you might attend an acting master class or a juggling workshop!
There are also lots of things you can do yourself. Self promotion can be a tricky task; the art of sounding confident in your ‘product’ (or even worse, your ‘USP’) without appearing like a pretentious fool can be easier said than done. Yet with technologies such as Twitter and Facebook, there are plenty of opportunities to have your say online. There are ample networking events where you can not only meet others but also get your name recognised within the industry, with word of mouth arguably the greatest form of communication. Perhaps it does pay to mix business with pleasure after all…