This week we launched applications for Re:Build; a support package for theatre companies who are currently without producer support and who want to spend some time developing their strategic planning and ‘behind the scenes’ structures to build back better. This project has existed in my head for many years, and here’s why…
Before joining Paines Plough I ran my own theatre company – Forward Theatre Project – and I also worked as a Producer for the ever-brilliant RashDash. Over 8 years’ experience of touring new work without core funding gave me insight into the joys and challenges of working in this way.
My main takeaway was the realisation that if you only ever focus on growing artistically then very soon your artistic ambition starts to outweigh your organisational capacity, and that ambition works best when it is simultaneously grown artistically and organisationally.
(DISCLAIMER – I say all this whilst appreciating this doesn’t come easy. I have personally always worn two hats, as a director/producer, and so my brain naturally splits this way. I appreciate that not everyone can or wants to work in this way.)
I do believe however that it is vital to find a way to get the right people around you or (if you want to) teach yourself the skills to grow in a way that works for you, to enable your artistic ambitions to thrive. And from my most recent few years working as a salaried employee at core funded theatre venues and companies, I think that those with greater organisational capacity and experience can be doing more to actively support this.
This is the principle behind Re:Build; a package of support including bespoke strategic vision, planning sessions and hands-on regular producing support to look at the organisational development of two companies, ultimately giving them the best chance of thriving and surviving in what we all know is an incredibly saturated and competitive industry.
Re:Build is also specifically targeting companies who have a focus on working with and/or serving under-represented voices in their work. Since Katie and I took over as Joint Artistic Directors of Paines Plough in August 2019, championing the unheard and reaching the overlooked has become central to our mission. This is because we know that not only will theatre and stories be weaker if they continue to exclude but as a national new writing company, who are we if we don’t truly reflect and serve our incredible and different communities? As we hurtle towards a recession led by a government who suggest we are not viable and should retrain, we also know it is more vital than ever that we support those too often at the back to be heard and most importantly, to be sustainable and not leave the industry.
In terms of how we do this, I am a strong advocate that the process of organisational development can be a creative journey in itself. Yes it might involve more spreadsheets, budgets, finance skills, fundraising skills and strategic thinking; but finding the right organisational structure for you also involves using your creative brain to problem solve and think in new ways.
Many years ago I developed a new consortium of four theatre companies to create a funding bid which would see us share a General Manager between us; recognising that each of our companies didn’t need a full-time GM but that it was also hard to retain consistent support when we could only ever offer one day a week each. Over the next two years we continued to creatively collaborate to look at where this model of shared resources could take us next; it was an organisational creative journey which we trailed together.
At the end of our time together all four organisations had at least tripled our turnovers, doubled our output of work and taken our companies to a more sustainable place both individually and collectively. I do love a geek-out banging on about this but I do really believe you can approach and invent organisational strategies like you do new shows.
Here are a bunch of other things I reflected upon which I want us to challenge and find better ways of doing through this programme:
There is a dire lack of understanding that many small companies are either self-producing or working with one producer who effectively acts as all departments
At RashDash I would always get letters addressed to ‘The Finance Department’ or ‘The Marketing Department’ and would want to shout back ‘IT IS ALL JUST ME!’ More established organisations can forget that so many companies are one or two-person bands doing it all. And failure to recognise that this also means we aren’t experts in everything (I mean my accounting skills are definitely questionable but I gave it a go…).
This also applies to funders; I was once told I was going to lose a grant because a core staff member was no longer working with us and so there were concerns about our ability to continue. I had to delicately articulate that all small companies work in this way- we adapt and we pick up where we need to because these are the foundations we are built on. The money was restored. But there was a point to be made; it is okay for that not to be ideal but it definitely wasn’t sustainable; so how can we make sure that we don’t build our companies on sand?
We need to talk more about money
If I costed up the meetings with programmers I had when not on a salary (including sometimes a 2-3 hour train journey plus the cost of the ticket), only to realise whilst in that meeting that the programmer hadn’t read the pitch or prepared… I would be a millionaire. It is frustrating enough when you are being paid for your time and on salary, but we need to do more to ensure people recognise the physical cost of this to the company and the individual – and empower companies to be able to articulate that. How can we ensure the end result of meetings on unpaid time (or let’s face it, regardless) is not just to book in another meeting to discuss what we should have been talking about in this one?! Nobody has the time or money to endlessly attend the same conversation. How can we ensure all your time is valued- financially and otherwise?
The stop/start nature of working is exhausting
It can feel really difficult to build any momentum as a company without core support. Working project to project can sometimes feel like you have to build up the energy again each time which takes a heap of energy you never get back. How can we look at these moments in between and how to make them work for you and ensure you are your most resilient selves?
Finally, running your own company is fucking brilliant, liberating and terrifying.
It is a mixed bag but the good bits are GOOD. Making your own work, knowing that whole process came from your company and an idea you probably had sat on your bed (which doubles up as your office) is one of the best feelings in the world.
We want companies to have that feeling – in a way that is more secure.
Apply here by 28 October.
– Charlotte Bennett, Joint Artistic Director of Paines Plough.