In the latest edition of her very personal theatremaker series, Holly Bond discusses the difficulties and unfortunate necessity in networking.
I hate the word networking. It reminds me of creepy businessmen in LinkedIn pictures, holding out their hands offering you a stable investment. It seems to belong purely to the corporate world of property development or selling shares, and not to the world of theatre where many of us prefer to make things in a rehearsal space (when we can find one) and not a desk. Yet outside the rehearsal room, networking is essential for finding producers, techies, graphic designers, so you can create a show you’re proud of and not one where the poster was made on Microsoft Paint (though this worked out well for me once). As an emerging company, you also obviously want someone to come to your show who isn’t mum or friends for the fifth time. You want a programmer or a producer to see what you’re all about, right? Connecting with those who are already working in theatre, for a venue or a festival for example, is important if you want to progress and have your great work seen by a wider audience. When you’re very new it can be hard to talk to the bigger venues and companies without a portfolio to show off. So what is the best way to network when you’re an emerging theatre maker?
I have spoken to directors who have said they have walked into theatre box offices and asked to speak to the artistic director, then and there. I meet people who go up to casting directors in theatre bars and ask for a coffee the next week. As someone who doesn’t have this gumption, networking does not feel natural and often I find I’m sending never-ending emails into the ether with the hope of making contact one day. There’s a way though, to make networking a positive thing and to connect and establish relationships for the future.
It’s much easier on the fringe, where people are more in need of help in exchange for something in return. This could involve someone taking rehearsal pictures and as a return favour you could help with their set get-in. Creating connections with peers is crucial as it usually leads to them liking your stuff on social media (thanks guys) and coming to see your show and vice versa. Networking with other emerging artists is also a lot easier than emailing firstname.lastname@example.org constantly. #Ovconnect has been designed so people can find collaborators on projects – from producers to lighting designers. Theatres such as the Young Vic for example, run frequent networking events for young people called Only Young, which is a perfect time to connect with people who are also just starting out and perhaps are a taster before knocking on the big doors. Someone taught me recently, to think about your ‘tool box’: maybe you haven’t produced a whole show, but you can write copy, you haven’t directed at a fringe venue, but you can look over a script. I think the tool box is a great way to think about your skills and also put what you can actually do into perspective and see what you’re good at, as you might want to be a director but you can also write copy, take photos or use QLAB. Here, you are thinking more broadly and as someone who has various skills.
For me, networking gets tricky when you have no choice but to chat with programmers and producers. They’re exactly who should be seeing your work. I get very awkward and it doesn’t come naturally to do the ‘hard sell’, as well as offering comp tickets left, right and centre. But everyone was there, once right? and from experience, people are very willing to help. I am very much an email person, and for every email I send, I send 10 more. It isn’t someone’s full time job to look through the emails of every recent drama grad, so to increase your chances of getting a reply, send loads, making sure to change the names at the top! Personalising is key, i.e. ‘this is my local theatre’ or ‘I loved your version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’; something that shows you know their work. If you are seeking help, advice or want to be programmed somewhere, it is very important to be clear about what you want from that connection. Writing, ‘Hi I’m a recent graduate and I like your work’ is nice, but it is purely spam. A great way in could be, ‘Please look over my CV’, ‘I would like you to see my show on this date’ or even ‘can you tweet about my show.’ The worst that can be said is no. Spending time around a venue is invaluable. This can mean seeing plays, attending workshops or volunteering. It shows a commitment to the work of the space and allows you to find out who is in charge of what. I always try to get to a show early, as the more senior people in a theatre often spend a lot of time in the bar, so being around and them maybe becoming familiar with your face can’t hurt. Who knows how and why they might next see you?
After writing this article, I chatted to my friend and writing partner Claire, a model and actor who has worked extensively across fringe theatre, about networking as a freelancer. She is a lot better at making connections face-to- face than me. As freelancers know, meeting and staying connected with other people is essential and might be where you get your next pay slip. I thought it might be useful to add Claire’s funny tip: always say your name twice and it works – I’ve seen her do it. Adding to this, I would say your name twice, get their name twice and find some way to stay in touch.
Networking should do what it says on the tin. Build a network, but the tin should also come with a disclaimer that doing so is to benefit others and not just yourself. If we think of networking as an opportunity not just to bolster ourselves, but also the work others, I think people would feel less self-conscious about doing it. After all, we’ve so much more in common than we initially think.