Showing posts with label Live Theatre. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Live Theatre. Show all posts

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Assessing the Abbey, Branding, Joss Wheedon and The Need for Soul

Some years ago the great Tom Coughlan, pipe in hand and smile on his face as always, told me his plan to revitalise the theatre industry in Ireland (the perennial problem). Let the Arts Council give a shed load of money to Saatchi and Saatchi to run a twelve month campaign selling the "idea" of theatre to the general public. Problem solved.

Tom is a hard man to disagree with so I nodded but secretly thought it was a bit simplistic and off the point.

The recent Abbey debacle over assessment brought Tom back to mind. Before I go any further let me say that, in my opinion, this debacle is precisely that: neither party should have suggested or agreed to an outmoded, discredited and secretive process; the assessment should have been contextualised by extending it to all other major clients; the media shouldn't have allowed themselves to be played the way they were and we could have done with a bit less bandwagoning.

I'm also a part time conspiracy theorist so forgive me for suggesting that  - from a certain point of view - the whole thing smells like a plan to discredit Senator MacConghaile and justify further funding "rationalisations" coming down the track.

Personally I've seen some great shows in the Abbey and some absolute shit (in my opinion), but I've had the same experience everywhere. The worst show of the last twelve months was an RSC production in Stratford. But that's the nature of the process - win some, lose some: fail again, fail better.

As I mulled all this over beneath the naked swinging lightbulb of my conspiracy chamber deep in the recesses of my mind I suddenly realised that Tom Coughlan had hit upon a great Truth.

It seems to me, having spent a year in the company of people with no professional involvement in theatre,  that from their point of view there is no "theatre experience" in this country. Don't get me wrong, there are theatres and theatre companies, productions and personalities and artists, but they don't add up to anything coherent, greater than the individual parts. There's no sense of an "experience" that exists over and above any given production.

Tom would have said there's no Brand. And I think he might be right.

Brands and Branding can sometimes be thought of as dirty words, a trick employed by rapacious  corporations. But a brand doesn't work if you think its something you can put on like a ready to wear suit. The best brands emerge from a deep understanding of the emotional connection between you and  the people you engage with, they emerge from passion and focus and creativity. They change your behaviour and they change the way you think, they are an expression of vision, belief and perception that exist over and above, independently of, any particular manifestation.

Think about Apple.

Apple is bigger and more significant than any of its constantly replaced and upgraded products. The iPhone, the iPad, the iMac are - more than anything else - proof, talismans if you will, that you are a particular kind of person. Like many people I have done the pilgrimage to the Apple store in New York. Not to buy anything. Just to experience it.

A brand is an experience. It is something that people belong to; it expresses and defines us and - and at its best - it is something that is loved passionately. If Apple produce a dodgy product we forgive them and defend them against all critics (although if we get a slate of dodgy products we lose faith, we stumble with them, and the brand begins to break).

So, does theatre in Ireland, not any particular instance of it but THEATRE, have a brand identity? Or is it just a random dispersal of places and events, silos ultimately, manifesting nothing beyond themselves.

A brand exists when the experience takes precedence over the thing. When the experience, the emotional investment, the relationship, of being at the theatre (not at a particular place to see a particular company) takes precedence over the strength or weaknesses of the specific production, we have a brand; we have a culture.

In the absence of that we have a  collection of random, discrete events expressing only themselves for their brief hour upon the stage. We have marks out of five and the assessment of the Abbey.

A brand is a manifestation of soul, an expression of purpose and community. I would suggest that the absence of brand is a hallmark of society, not just theatre. When our national leaders run around desperately trying to "rebrand" Limerick and the like they are expressing a desperate national need to find a soul again, to find purpose and community.

As one of my heroes, Joss Wheedon, remarked in an interview, "You can't make something that people like. You have to make something they love. And they have so much love to give".

Saturday, June 23, 2012

So where is the money?

I was really pleased by the reaction to my last post, so thank you to everybody who commented on it on Facebook. Only one person has left a comment on the blog so far, so please feel free to leave comments here this time. There were negative comments but I had to search for them and I wish they'd been left on the blog. An interesting conversation could have ensued. One prevailing complaint was that I was just stating the obvious: that we had to look for money somewhere else, but I wasn't saying where we should go to look for that money. I'll try to answer this.

So, now that the Arts Council has fulfilled the logic of numbers set out by John O'Kane in Wexford in 2008 and admitted that it will fund only five clients where does that leave everybody else? (Incidentally at least three of those clients had better start thinking about a succession policy or they too could suffer the cut).

Anyway, on to the business of this blog: where is the money. The simplest model is the commercial one. Calculate your potential box office income. Set your budget at no greater than 50% of that figure. Raise that amount in advance. Raise it from family, friends or friends of family. At 50% of potential income there's a good chance they'll make all or most of their money back. If your box office exceeds 50% of potential income they'll make a profit. You will need to prepare an investment prospectus for them, so check out this link. Remember that these people are investing, not donating. They are underwriting the cost of your production and they expect to be paid back so they have first call on the box office income. However, If you're playing a 100 seat theatre for 2 weeks you can't raise a lot of money (probably about €9,000). Spend it wisely and have a smart marketing plan in place. Remember your choice of show and cast is part of that marketing plan (At the very least make sure you read the Arts Attendance in Ireland report).

However, if you are a charity, you can't look for investment. You can look for donations. Under Irish tax regulations at present if a PAYE worker gives you a donation they get...nothing. You can apply to the revenue and they will top up the donation based on the donors higher rate of tax. A self employed person can apply for a rebate based on their higher rate of tax. Compare this to the US where every donor can reduce their taxable income by the amount donated, or the UK where a theatre investor can write off the gains on one show against the losses on another. Also in Ireland an individual can invest in a start up business and claim 41% back and if the company fails to show a profit after 3 years they can sell their shares back to the company at a discount and claim a capital gains loss. It seems to be that the tax regulations are heavily weighted against charitable donors. Lobbying for change on this would benefit us greatly.

It's also worth thinking about how much you want to raise from donations and how much work you can put into it and - most importantly - who you can ask. Lets say you want to raise €20,000 in donations. You set a target of 40 people at €500 a head. Consider this: a PAYE worker on €100,000 is taking home, after taxes and charges, just over a €1000 per week. Factor in living expenses commensurate with their income (and a little bit of negative equity)  and that person does not have €500 to give to you (They might have it there was some real tax benefit to them). So you could reduce the amount you ask for and increase the number of people you ask but this increases the time and the cost of the fundraising. You could target people  in the €200,000 per anum bracket but do you have ready access to them? Bear this in mind as well: according to The Arts Attendance in Ireland report mentioned above there are only 484,000 arts attendees in Dublin. Your question now is how many of these are sympathetic to theatre and how many are in a relevant income bracket. You'll probably find that the people who could donate to you have already been recruited by the major institutions. Again the market is small and the numbers stacked against us. Without meaningful tax incentives the donation windfall will remain elusive.

So what about sponsorship? The brand managers talk a lot about shared values. This is important. How does your event, your brand support theirs. Remember that what you are selling to the sponsor is your audience. Not your event, your audience. So you need to know your audience and how you intend to reach them. The more focused your demographic and sales channels are the better chance you have.

I've spent a lot of time looking for sponsorship over the years and the big question is how much can i ask for? Usually we ask for too much and that's the end of the conversation. It used to be the case in the US that it was calculated on an 8/10 ratio. That was $8 for every 10 audience members. That works out at about €6.40. So if you're playing a 100 seat theatre for two weeks that gives you an ask of about €760. Which, in my experience is about right. Bear in mind that this is not worth your while or theirs. Also bear in mind that a Dublin festival with a large title sponsor only gets €10,000 in cash so you can see the figures are not far off. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule.  Remember as well that the real value of a sponsor is the marketing support they bring to the sponsorship which will boost your box office making the project more attractive to investors.

There is of course corporate philanthropy which is different from sponsorship (I think a lot of people in Ireland confuse these two).  Corporate philanthropy is a long game built on smart networking and personal relationships.

So, where is the money? What lessons can we learn? On the commercial model we need to ensure that audience capacity is high (about 400 seats minimum), the run is about four weeks and the recurring costs are kept low ( i.e. small cast and crew). Always, always pay back the investor. It doesn't matter if the show is a box office flop and you made no money; if you paid back the investors then you can can ask them to invest again.

On sponsorship, size is also important and we need to remember that what we are selling is our audience so we need as much accurate information on that audience as we can get. Also the real value of sponsorship is the marketing support provided.

On donations we need to remember that the numbers are working against us. Without a change in the tax regulations there is no incentive for small, significant donations. We have to target high net worth individuals and for most of us that's a long game and a lot of networking. How many of us know fifty people willing to give us a grand each?

A final word on crowd funding. It takes a lot of careful planning. To my knowledge the biggest amount for theatre raised on FundIt was €15,000 for Misterman. And that had Cillian Murphy in it. A brilliant marketing decision.

So that's my experience. Think big. Think of the audience. Plan your networking and then work that network. Prepare for a long game. Work out the mix. Demand a change in the tax regime. Always pay back your investors.

What do you think?

There is another aspect to this question of where the money is. Ireland has a population about the same as greater Birmingham. Just over half of the population are  "regular" (not less than once a year) arts attenders; 1.3million people claim to have attended a play not less than once a year, and Dublin has a total of 484,000 regular arts attenders. Its a tiny, tiny market. Whether we're looking to sell tickets, convince a sponsor, or raise donations the numbers are not stacked in our favour.  There needs to be a lot of very creative thinking to make the numbers work. Perhaps that's the real challenge.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Who has to turn up for an event to be live?

I saw a play and there were no actors in the building. And you know what? It was great.

Internationally acclaimed Theatre Company Pan Pan presented their production of Samuel Beckett's ALL THAT FALL at Project Arts Centre, Dublin a couple of weeks ago. Beckett wrote the play for radio, so Pan Pan decided that rather than stage the play they would very simply record it (with a great cast) and play it back in a theatre. There was no stage, but there was a design that occupied the whole space. I went in, chose my rocking chair with black cushion adorned with white skull, sat back and listened to Beckett's radio play in the company of a packed house all sitting and rocking. Not an actor to be seen.

Pan Pan's production of All That Fall begs a really interesting question: who has to be present for live theatre to be live?

For years one of the key arguments for the continued significance of theatre was the very fact of its "liveness", of being in the presence of real people acting out a story in real time in the same space as you. Pan Pan's production has dealt that argument a devastating blow. The audience loved the production, making it a 98% sell out hit. Nobody minded that there were no actors actually present, nobody minded that the performance they were hearing was identical to every other performance in the course of the run, and nobody minded that there was nobody to applaud at the end. In fact nobody minded that the show lacked some of the key characteristics in the traditional argument for why live theatre is uniquely different from cinema.

It would seem that all that is required for Live Theatre to occur is for a bunch of people (the audience) to gather in the same place to witness a story: the medium of retelling (is the teller present or not) is irrelevant.

It would have been very possible for Pan Pan's production to have occurred in any number of venues simultaneously, greatly increasing the audience and significantly reducing the costs of touring.

A couple of months ago I attended a production of The Royal National Theatre's Frankenstein, directed by Danny Boyle. Except I wasn't in London - I was in Dublin, in a cinema. Frankenstein was part of the NT Live programme. The live theatre event was beautifully captured for the screen by multi camera director Tim Van Someren. Again, the absence of actors did not affect the quality of the experience. I saw an excellent piece of theatre - on a big screen.

Here in Ireland theatre has been bedeviled by a massive overdependence on inadequate state funding: unwilling to invest during the boom times and unable to invest now (but that's another story). Quite simply the cost of production and subsequent touring far outweighs the potential income from sales. That no longer has to be the case. The NT Frankenstein and Pan Pan's All That Fall have proven that it is the quality of the experience and not the "liveness" of the actor that is paramount. If we accept this and then understand that the technology for opening a show in many different venues simultaneously now exists (and is becoming cheaper all the time), allowing theatre to access a global maket, and continue to generate revenue long after the live show has ended, we realise that the economics of theatre production is undergoing a fundamental shift.

(Cinema folk refer to this screening of live theatre, opera, ballet etc as "Alternative Content". That's a little bit cheeky, when you consider that theatre, ballet etc has been playing to audiences in specially built venues for a lot longer than cinema has).

So what makes Live Theatre Live? It would seem that the audience does. But this in itself raises all manner of interesting questions.