Like most people I know when I set out to run a theatre company 10 years ago I had a very romantic view of touring – indeed getting to the stage of national touring was our ambition. But now we’ve got there my observation is simple and stark.
The model of UK small to mid-scale theatre touring is broken. At every level it’s not working. Back in 2001 when Arts Council England decided to move the emphasis of funding from in-house productions to touring theatre, the logic almost made sense. If you’re going to invest in creating a production why limit it to only being shown to one regionally specific audience – when you could tour it throughout the UK and everyone could see it.
It would also mean maximising the return on your investment – traditionally the most expensive part of creating a production is the capitalisation cost of creating and rehearsing it up until opening night -then once it’s opened you start making a return – so touring work once it’s been created makes sense. It’s why the commercial sector have used this model for so many years.
There’s also an economy of scale and expertise to be had by lumping all the companies involved in the same industry within the same area – it’s called agglomeration – and I’ve talked about it before here. But 14 years on – at least from my own experience at the small – to mid scale – the experiment hasn’t worked, on practically every level.
TOURING MODEL A FUNDING FAILURE
Back at the end of 2013 Bryony Kimmings caused a stir with her angry and very honest blog post about terrible financial state of touring theatre. And since then nothing has got better. There is a serious structural problem with the way touring theatre is funded. To begin with, I am talking here about small to mid scale subsidised theatre – the kind of work we believe in artistically but which isn’t necessarily capable of drawing in the kind of paying public necessary to run the tour on purely commercial grounds. It’s neither a rehash of a tried and tested classic nor does it have a z-list ‘celebrity’ in the title role so it’s going to need subsidising by someone. And in the case of touring theatre at the moment that subsidy happens twice.
First the venue needs to apply for subsidy to cover it’s operations. BUT – the level of subsidy that the Arts Council and Local Councils subsidise touring venues is no where near high enough for them to be able to afford to pay a full fee which would cover the actual costs of the touring company. So the touring company is then expected to apply for funding of it’s own to cover the short fall. This is frankly ludicrous. Why aren’t the venues just given enough funding in the first place that they can pay the companies enough to put on the show without further subsidy?
Let me explain why it’s so ludicrous. The one cost that everyone in the arts is agreed they’d like to see cut down is admin. Under the current model here are the administrative steps necessary to get a piece of touring theatre onto a stage:
1) Venue pays someone to apply for funding from various bodies to cover some of the costs of the venue.
2) Arts Council England (and any other funding bodies applied to) then need to pay a team of people to read through that application and deliberate on it. If successful:
3) I as a theatre company pay someone to draw up a touring pack and contact the newly funded venue with details of my show.
4) The venue then pay someone to read my application and decide if it fits in their program. If it does:
5) We both pay someone at either end to negotiate a suitable time slot and a fee.
And if the venue could afford to pay me (the company) enough to do the show – that should be the end of the process – but when they can’t:
6) I repeated steps 3 to 5 at least 10 times with 10 different venues
7) I then pay someone to write up a funding application to pay for the shortfall in the venue fees.
8) Arts Council England once again pay a team of people to read through that application and deliberate on it.
If successful – the tour goes ahead after 30 stages of administration
If unsuccessful – 30+ stages of admin are completely wasted, and a further 30 need to be repeated by another theatre company and the same venues – before another ACE application is put in, again which may or may not be successful.
So, if the tour funding doesn’t come through, ALL of that admin expense at both ends will be completely wasted. On the other hand, if the venues were given enough funding in the first place to pay a full and proper fee for touring work, you wouldn’t need to carry out stages 6 and 7 at all. This would be a huge cost saving in unnecessary admin, and there would be no risk of tours falling through for lack of funding. Which would make life much more secure for venues and theatre companies and offer another huge saving in admin as venues, and companies, wouldn’t waste time organising tours that ultimately don’t happen.
It seems so simple, I just have no idea why the venues aren’t adequately funded in the first place. The only reason I can see why this doesn’t happen is that ACE want to maintain control over the tours that are funded and don’t trust venues to make that decision by themselves – but there’s no reason they couldn’t give the venues they are funding the same criteria ACE currently use to decide on tour funding and only offer ongoing support to venues that demonstrated they were booking tours according to those criteria. Essentially we’d be wiping out an entire strata of unproductive admin in the touring network.
TOURING MODEL A LOGISTICAL FAILURE
A colleague of mine who works for a mid scale touring company was recently telling me of her experience booking regional tours in Europe. Across France and Germany the story is the same – each region has it’s own network of venues, who talk to each other. If one venue decides they want to book a show – they then call round the rest of the network and set up a region wide tour.
The venue also sorts out accommodation. After all they have the local knowledge – so know what kind of route makes sense – and where to put people up. In England this is predominantly done in the touring companies themselves. So rather than needing one person per venue with excellent local knowledge – you need one person in each touring company. Which is a massive administrative burden – demanding the unnecessary replication of precise local knowledge across multiple companies – and more pertinently completely practically impossible.
So tours are fudged, don’t take the obvious route: don’t go to sensible venues that make geographic sense and end up paying too much for / not staying in decent accommodation. The decentralised model where the administrative burden of tour organisation and booking is placed on the shoulders of the small touring companies – who are the least well resourced part of the touring ecosystem – is frankly insane.
It is one of the reasons why so few survive for any length of time, and even the bigger names struggle. On the most simple level – I just had to go through and sign the contracts for the 16 venues on our next tour. Each one was different. It took a whole afternoon to go through them all. Where there a single standard contract – which venues could then add and highlight their non standard clauses in – it would save a completely unnecessary weight of admin on small companies.
TOURING MODEL A PR FAILURE
One of the few successes of the touring model has been to centralise all the touring companies within the same area. This allows the industry to harness the beneficial effects of agglomeration: the cost savings and increased ideas generation that happens when you focus all the people involved in a certain industry within the same geographic area.
I’ve written about it before here. It’s an effect we see across multiple industry’s – Silicone Valley would potentially be the most obvious example, but we see it with other industries too – car manufacturing in the West Midlands in the UK or our own Silicon Fens in Cambridge. All the physical and human resources are in the same place so there is cross fertilisation of skills and economy of scale for resources.
That doesn’t mean that only people in that area where the industry is based can benefit from the products of that industry – indeed within theatre the whole point of the touring model is that it doesn’t matter where a company is based – the maximum number of people throughout the country can benefit from their work. But this has turned into a PR nightmare for ACE.
The centre of the agglomeration of the theatre industry in the UK is London. So even if London based companies only ever perform outside London to regional audiences, it still appears that most of the funding is going to London. This has got ACE over a barrel. The only successful part of the touring model it created is now being used as a stick to beat it with in the ongoing London vs the Regions funding debacle.
TOURING MODEL AN ARTISTIC FAILURE
This is probably the most subjective part of my argument. But speaking from personal experience doing one off theatre shows – on a purely experiential level it is not as artistically rewarding as doing longer runs. When you can get into a venue and settle in a little – even if just for a week – you build relationships with the staff and community that surrounds the venue. You have time to get over the panic of the get in, to learn the quirks and foibles of the space, and really start enjoying the show. On the other hand one off shows are a nightmare, early starts, rushed get-ins, technical compromises and fudges, no time to get to know the community you’re performing for, and a show that will never have time to properly bed in.
And then the second the applause has stopped a rush back onto stage to pack up the set as quickly as possible and pack it back into a van to repeat the following day in a brand new town to another room full of strangers – leaving an empty space that bears no mark that you’ve ever been there. There is a vicious circle of doing one night shows – which don’t give the company enough time to build up a relationship and loyalty from the local community, which means moving forwards they can’t rely on a repeat audience, which means venues can’t justify booking them for longer than one night – so the problem continues. This is a vicious cycle that can only be broken if the venue has enough money to take a risk on a company and underwrite longer bookings which will inevitably not always pay off – especially while the company is still building relationships and audience.
WHAT WOULD I SUGGEST
Very simply – ACE should take all the money it currently gives to companies in tour funding, and all the money it wastes on administrators to asses those tour funding applications, and give it to regional consortia of venues who can buy in and organise tours for the whole region at a fee which completely pays for the show. The venue will save money not having to deal with shows that fall through for lack of funds, they will save money as they have to spend less time programming tours as the burden of programming will be spread over the whole regional consortium. And at the same time small touring companies will save huge amounts of admin time currently spent booking tours, applying for funding and dealing with the logistics of tour scheduling, transport and accommodation. And both venue and companies will be more financially sustainable and lead a less precarious existence as a result.
This is something that has been tried on a very limited level with the House Network so it will be interesting to see how this develops. What do you think about these issues? What is your experience of UK touring? Have you had an experience of touring with House and did it make a difference? I would love to hear your thoughts below.
Theatre production in England needs to be a far more commercially minded business & stop looking to government for taxation hand-outs to fund its generally un-popular, poorly organized activities. making generally sub-standard product for 1/2 empty theatre spaces.
As an investor I have looked into working in this market, & found that the attitude towards commercial investors from theatre producers seeking their financial backing is unpleasant & amateurish, to say the least.