I get about 3 to 5 messages a week from lovely people across the UK all asking me the same question - when will you be bringing your show to my city, town or village? Nothing is more frustrating than replying with a now well-worn stock response, one that is honest in its message but one I’m getting tired of sending ‘...sorry, we are trying.’
I’ve been making tourable theatre shows since 2014, in that time I’ve managed to get two tours out to Australia, get work to Japan on three occasions, developed work in New York and I’m currently creating not one but two projects in Finland. I’ve performed in Lisbon, Berlin, San Francisco, Hong Kong and even Cork but I’m yet to reach Newcastle, or Nottingham, or Southampton, Exeter, York, Cardiff, Sheffield, Derry or even Liverpool.
It’s not for the want of trying - in fact we’ve tried really hard to work with venues, start new relationships and coerce art centres, NPO organisations and theatres to take our work. Even with subsidy it seems spaces are unwilling or unable to bring me and others like me to town.
The sceptics among you might say that this is because my work is shit. This might be true although if I allow my ego to talk for me it would tell you that all my theatre work has been given 4 or 5 stars with the main national reviewers and I’ve even won awards for this work.
A usual response from a venue you are trying to work with is ...nothing. No response. We’ve hounded venues across the country into giving us a response. Often their two line email claims that they don’t have an audience for our work, which is their way of saying ‘we don’t have a big gay following’. I find that so infuriating, the idea that they believe queer artists only make work for queer people.
Allowing that ego of mine a bit more room I think my work is considered successful and so I have managed to develop an audience that stretches beyond the places I’ve shown work. I have an online following of over 25,000 people and I can give producers a breakdown of where these audiences live but still they are unwilling to play ball.
Alongside these frustrations is the fact that I, like many other artists can see where the problems are in subsidised touring because we see, first hand, where the gaps are. Correction, we see it from the outside, nothing is ever communicated to us so we make assumptions on where resources are being wasted.
Many of our well funded organisations in England claim to fund artists development, to commission and develop work, be artist focused and pay fees for touring work. Unfortunately this isn’t what I’ve found from my experience and those of my peers.
I’ve worked with organisations that can’t offer you any commissioning cash but can take you out for lunch, that get you to work for free even though their subsidy is well over 10 million per year. I’ve attempted to work with organisations that want to be attached and associated with my work but don’t offer any of their national handbag subsidy. However, when you read the manifestos and promises these spaces make its a commitment to artists, to fair pay and “diversity”. To us, the artists, there feels like a disparity between what is said and what is done.
Furthermore, It feels like commissioning money is being spent on courting the big names for kudos, where as support in kind is being offered for the newer, smaller, less commercial names in our sector prying on our keenness to be included, have space, get our ideas out there. Sometimes touring fees are so ridiculously low it's impossible to make it wash its own face ...even with funding!
I also feel that development money is being unethically handed out. Smaller than small pockets of cash are handed out with expectations that go far beyond what is feasibly possible. On almost every theatre commision I’ve ever worked on commissioning money has been less than 8% of what it costs to make a show. The other 92% of fundraising is down to the artist. However, the commissioning venues still expect their input to be watermarked all over your advertising, for you to fall in line with in house style for every venue and for you to share the profits of future touring with them.
What really fucks me off about the touring part of the sector is this myth that the arts is poor, that there is no money. I refuse to believe that organisations with over 30 members of staff who facilitate artists cannot pay just 10 artists properly.
Ask any artist making work with or for a subsidised building or organisation across the UK and we will tell you where we see money being wasted - money that could go to artists. I’ve seen money spunked on tea pig tea bags, fax machines, copious Guardian adverts, champagne budgets for AD, taxis accounts and boujee lunches.
However, this isn’t me finger pointing or blaming those who subsidise these spaces - the funders, trusts or philanthropists. I think venues, executives and gate keepers have just got very clever in how they demonstrate their output. I think those who fund artists via cultural organisations have no idea almost all of their cash is being spent on artistic directors on over £60,000 per year and not on provision. I also think one sided reporting that funders have in place cannot demonstrate a complex culture that's about the survival of bricks and mortar and not of the survival and longevity of those who populate the stages.
Perhaps in this so-called competitive funding climate organisations have felt they need to do more with less but in doing so slippery capitalist standards have crept into play meaning the artists get less for doing more but the marketing teams are still on a competitive wage.
Returning to the original question - How does work that isn’t Birds-of-a-Feather-on-Ice-the-Musical get to places outside of the London to Colchester to Manchester to Brighton? Well, we need directors and producers like those in Colchester, Manchester and Brighton. We need more fok who are willing to throw their subsidy at developing an audience with an artist.
We need a rethink of the structure of cultural organisations, we need to create a culture in which they only take out of the subsidy pot what they need and not what they can get away with. We need folk who are not willing to take the easy route in programming and who are keen to do more than yet another fucking festival. We need to ask artists about their experiences and not take the organisations annual report for gospel.
I think this kick up the bum the sector needs can start with a really quick intervention from audiences - from those who buy tickets for touring work. They, after all, are the consumer. So, lovely audience person - instead of asking me or any other artist why our work is not in town, ask your local theatre why they are not answering our calls.
If there is an artist or company that you are keen to see in your town,city or village then I’ve drafted an email you might find useful to copy, edit and paste. I advise you sending this to multiple addresses at one organization. It’s usually best to send it to a senior / lead producer as well as the director and their assistant and / or deputy. You can find these email contact on most websites in the About Us section.
I live locally and I would really like it if you considered programming _________.
I want to see their work here because ____________.
Their website is _________.
I look forward to your response.