So, I’m a bit late to this party but I wanted, in the spirit if the ‘I’ll Show You Mine’ conversations that have been happening in recent weeks, to put a few thoughts down on paper. They are just thoughts and you may or may not agree, but for what it’s worth here they are.
I’m a theatre producer. I live and work in Brighton and also spend a lot of time in London. I’m 32 and started working independently around four years ago. I’ve since worked with various artists and organisations, including ArtsAgenda, the Nightingale, Il Pixel Rosso, the Plasticine Men and fanSHEN and made an inclusive theatre show for kids. I’m part of a company called TOOT and also work at Ovalhouse as part-time producer. So, in a sense I wear two hats at the moment and I see this as a positive thing. In my ‘spare’ time I’m part of a small team that’s working towards transforming a disused church in East Brighton into a space/resource for artists making performance work (but that’s another story for another time)….
As an independent producer it’s a fact that I do a lot of work for free. What I mean by this is planning, meeting, drafting, talking, chasing, travelling and generally putting things in place to enable projects to happen. This is all part of the job and most of it is really exciting. I spend a lot of time talking to venues, leaving them messages, negotiating deals, drafting and re-drafting marketing copy, doing site visits, talking to production staff and feeding it all back to the people I work with. This work is rarely reflected in the fee a venue will pay for your show, but often is (at least partially) covered by a grant – I don’t know how it works out in real terms, but I imagine my hourly rate would be pretty low.
Then there are all the other artists, producers and organisations that I meet at their request, to talk about potentially working together, or to give advice or to just say hi. I would probably be horrified if I added up the money I spend doing this (on train tickets, cups of overpriced coffee, show tickets) but again, it’s part of my job and it’s important – plus it means I can call in a favour here and there in return. The independent producing community is pretty generous and we all support each other when we can. It can also be a lonely place sometimes, so spending £3 on a coffee or jumping on the bus to work with someone else for the afternoon might just stop you going mad and save you from sending that email you wrote at 1am.
So, Ovalhouse. When I started producing I didn’t have a burning desire to work at a venue but I was always interested in finding out how they worked and how they supported artists to make brilliant work. As an audience member, I also have some ideas about what makes a great venue and what doesn’t. When I applied for and got the job I was a) really surprised and b) totally committed to making the most of the opportunity for me and for Ovalhouse.
Working at a venue allows me to work with artists that I want to work with and support them with a variety of resources that I wouldn’t have otherwise. Ovalhouse has an artistic policy that, luckily, I really believe in and therefore I’m able to work with artists who’s work I like, which helps…obviously. Over the last year I have learnt a lot about how and how not to do it from both sides and my work at the venue has really informed my work as an independent (and vice versa), giving me a greater understanding of how I should operate as a producer, what I should expect a venue to do to support my work and what I can do to make their lives easier. I understand the limitations of my and other venues and how to talk to venues as an independent. It’s sometimes frustrating but other times really rewarding. I’d like to think I’m open and honest about how Ovalhouse works and that the door is open to any artist or producer who thinks their work fits into what we’re trying to do. It doesn’t always work out, but with a little effort it usually does. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some brilliant artists and have introduced a few that I’d worked with independently to the venue. Fundamentally, working at a venue allows me to learn and share and give artists support (including cash) that I can’t do as an independent. I won’t go into the various things we do at Ovalhouse to support artists – we’re not perfect but we’re getting there and I know that some of the I’ll Show You Mine conversations will feed into what we do.
I have also learnt that independent artists and producers work in a completely different way to (most) staff at venues. If you’ve never been freelance, if you’ve never not had a pay-cheque (however meagre) at the end of the month, then you don’t really understand what that’s like. The majority of people who work in venues have a salary, some kind of paid holiday scheme and sick pay should they need it (me included). They also often (but not always) work set hours, and even though these hours can be incredibly stressful, they are managed. I know people who work in venues work their arses off, often for rubbish salaries and often for more hours than they’re technically paid for but they are not freelance and therefore do not work in the same way or come up against the same issues as freelancers. This is a fact.
Financially I am worse off since I stared working at Ovalhouse. This is because of travel costs and because I have less time to do other independent work. I am however more financially secure – I know I’ll get something at the end of each month, plus a few days holiday and if I’m ill I can take a day off (but really, when does anyone ever do that). At the moment I only survive by working more hours than I should, for not much money and by trying to be honest about my worth – I couldn’t ever afford to do a full project for free, without at least the promise of future payment or some professional development in return. I spend a hell of a lot of time on trains and rarely eat dinner with my boyfriend. I haven’t been on holiday for over a year (unless you count Glastonbury, which as anyone who’s been can testify, doesn’t count!). I love what I do, but maybe at some point it will become unsustainable and that’s when I’ll have to make a decision about what happens next. Until then I’ll continue to juggle and continue to earn about £19k a year.
So, what can we do as independents to make things easier for ourselves and to help others (including venues) understand how we work? I’m sure there are others things, but here’s a start:
– Be honest. If you really can’t make it work financially tell yourself, tell the venue. If you want to work at a loss, make it clear that’s what you’re doing and make sure you’re benefitting in another way.
– Tell each other, tell Arts Council. If a venue is asking too much and consistently offering bad deals then their funders should know about it. Speak to other artists and if you feel really strongly don’t work there and encourage others not to. Hopefully the venue will sit up and take notice. I’d much rather a venue programmed less (but still great) work and paid people properly and I think audiences would too.
– Also tell people when a venue gets it right. There are brilliant people working at brilliant venues who struggle to pay people properly but find a way to do it.
– Include the in-kind support you give in your own and the people you support grant applications. Put the in-kind support you give into your activity report – let’s tell our funders what it really costs to make great art.
– Do your research. Only approach venues that are able to take your work…honestly it will save you time and money.
– Always tell venues the real cost of putting on a show, even if you’re prepared to take less.
– Ask for transparency from venues and organisations offering opportunities. I can’t be the only one that’s frustrated at open calls that are anything but.
I guess in the end, having the opportunity to wear two hats enables me to see some of the issue from both perspectives. Perhaps if more organisations were artist-led and more artists, producers, directors, lighting designers etc etc were on boards we’d all understand each others point of view and ways of working a bit more.
Lastly, it’s clear that there’s not enough money to go round, especially for those of us working in small scale or limited capacity theatre that can’t ever hope to make a profit. The Arts Council only has a certain amount of money, so perhaps we need to put our heads together and find other ways to make it work (anyone got any ideas). Plus…until there’s a fundamental change in the way we (and I mean the government really, but all of us too) talk about arts and culture and the value it adds to society (not to me mention its economic impact), audiences won’t get to understand its importance. Let’s make the links between the fringe and the west end, the small and the large scale, the brilliant theatre directors/producers/artists and the opening ceremony of the Olympics super clear. We need more people to shout louder so that our society is invested in what we do as much as we are.