How do I start a Theatre Company?

I’m back home from Edinburgh now, having once again left the show with the people to whom it now belongs. Once again, I find myself in a slightly reflective mood (now that I’ve had some sleep and a cuddle with Mrs B), and here’s where it’s led me…

Firstly, I think we have to define terms: ‘What is a theatre company?’. This is getting a bit Tricksy Hobbitses already, so please do bear in mind that in no way can my thoughts on this be construed as Legal advice!

When we started Red Table, we were sat around (rather unsurprisingly) a red table (and thus the mystery is at last answered), bemoaning the fact that people often seemed to produce fringe productions without thought or due respect for the actors and creatives involved. There were no contracts of any kind, no guarantees of working conditions, and essentially no respect on either side of the line. There were three of us sat round the table that day (Piers, myself, and Caitriona Shoobridge), we’d all been turned over by someone or another at some point, and We Had Had Enough. There must be another way to do this, we thought, which involved respect on both sides of the equation.

Please remember, we’re not just talking about production companies and producers here, we’re also talking about actors and crews. I remember two things very vividly. Firstly, when I finished training at Drama School, I was taught that the term ‘Profit Share’ was actually theatre speak for unpaid work, and I also remember that the attitude at my first agency – as with many agencies at that time – was that it was perfectly acceptable to take a fringe job whenever you wanted, because if a decently paid telly, advert or theatre gig came up you could simply walk off the job, as there was no contractual agreement.

So we sat, and we thought, and we considered Piers’ new ideas about Open Book Theatre Management, and about structures, morals and fairness. And we thought, “D’you know what? We’ll set up our own theatre company, and live a different set of values, just to show that it can be done.” And so we did, with just a couple of hundred quid of our own to work with (and we had trouble scraping that together.)

And that, essentially, is one way of setting up a theatre company. You simply come up with a name, and say “I’m ********* theatre company”, and there you have it.

Take care, though. The second you do that, you’ve just set yourself up as a sole trader. If you’re a professional freelance, you already are a sole trader, so this is simply an extension of that business. If not, then bear in mind you’ll need to tell the tax people ¬†about your new company, because any money that goes in or out, the tax people need to know about. By the way, don’t be afraid of the folk at HMRC ¬†– I’ve never found them to be anything other than helpful and accommodating. It’s only when you’re dishonest with them that they (quite rightfully) get upset and start knocking on your door. Just let them know what you’re doing, and they’ll point you in the right direction.

So, at the most basic level, setting up a theatre company is as simple as saying “I/We are a theatre company”, and you’re up and running as a sole trader or partnership. Be very clear when starting a theatre company what business model the company takes, and agree it properly and legally. Friends or not, do everything by the book. It’s the best way.

After that it gets considerably more complex. If you’re getting bigger, you may well need the help of a qualified accountant, who will advise you – for a fee, of course – which other business model might suit your growing company. This could be a Limited Liability Company, with a Board of Directors, A Limited Liability Partnership, a Co-Operative, a Charity – the list goes on. Each form has its benefits and its pitfalls, and only you can decide the way forward.

We’ve recently moved to the form of a Limited Liability Company, but it took us over two years to get to a stage where we felt it would be beneficial. Time will tell if we made the right choice.

Either way, the second you set up your theatre company and go into pre-production for your first show, my best advice is this: Always remember that you are also now beginning to amass a reputation. Every decision you make about dealing with venues, creatives, suppliers and others will begin to cumulatively create what’s called ‘Brand Equity’

Brand equity is the one you want to build. Think of the equity bit as having a cash value. The brand becomes recognisable, and either has a great reputation for honesty, collaboration, and looking after people who work with them (great brand equity), or gets a reputation for treating people shoddily and not paying their bills on time (poor brand equity). We are still one of the few companies that takes the time to tell each auditionee personally if they haven’t been offered the gig, by phone if necessary – we figure that if someone’s taken the day off work and paid for a travel-card to come and see you, you are at the very least obliged to give them a personal thank you for turning up, even if you’re not offering them the gig.

Concentrate on this. Please, concentrate on it really hard. With the advent of the Internet, information about you and your company will hang around for, well, forever really. People will make decisions about whether they want to work with you based on your reputation (Brand Equity). A great example of this is an actor who is currently with us. When the casting call went out, she researched our company and our previous productions and reputation before deciding whether or not she wanted to even audition for us. A good reputation will attract good people. A bad one? I think you know the answer to that…

So I’d like to pose the same question with a slightly different slant. Rather than considering the mechanics of starting a theatre company, I’d like you to consider what kind of theatre company you’d like yours to be, and what kind of reputation you want to have in the industry. On that basis, the question and answer follow:

Question: How do I start a Theatre Company?

Answer: With great care, thought, and integrity.

I believe wholeheartedly that if you view the question in that way, it’ll lead you to asking more of the right questions and getting more of the right answers on your journey. And that will, in turn, make for better theatre.


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