What should I do after the Edinburgh Festival?

I’ve been holding on to this one for a couple of days, out of courtesy. You’ll all have been washing that minging bag of clothes you brought back from the Festival, catching up on your sleep, opening your mail, and avoiding looking at your bank balances.

That period has now passed, and it’s time to consider what you’re going to do with the experience that the Edinburgh Festival provided.

Firstly, stop. Just stop.

Give yourself a week, maybe two, of having nothing whatsoever to do with theatre unless it’s a paid gig. You’ve just worked yourself really hard, your body and mind both need rest, and working when you’re not rested and have no distance between yourself and your recent experience may result in clouded judgement. You can read this blog, and then shut up shop for a bit.

When you come back though, rested and refreshed, it’s time to use what you’ve just learned. That’s right – no matter how many times you’ve done this, you have to come back to what you did with a clear head and do what we at Red Table call a ‘Post Mortem’. I’ve heard other people in other industries call it ‘Doing the Washing Up’, and ‘Cleaning House'; it doesn’t really matter what you call it, what’s important is that you do it. But what is ‘it’?

For us, it’s a fairly simple affair. We use Magic Whiteboards. We sit in a room, we stick them to the walls, and we make two lists. List one is ‘Things That Went Well’, and list two is ‘Things We Could Have Done Better’. If you’re aiming to make a long term go of this, having this session is essential. That’s right, it’s so essential that I used italics.

This is the session where you get a chance to congratulate yourselves on the things that went well – and don’t be disheartened if it starts out as a short list. You also get to have a look at what will most likely turn out to be a massive list of the things that you perceive went not-so-well. Don’t worry that this list looks so long at first. Just concentrate on actually writing down in big letters on the wall every aspect of your Edinburgh campaign, and how it went. It’s difficult to give you detailed guidance on what your lists should look like (as every company and show is different), but you can start on your ‘Things We Could Have Done Better’ list with things like ‘We didn’t sell enough tickets’. Sadly, I know from experience that it will appear on most lists.

Then use a big, sweeping statement like  ‘We didn’t sell enough tickets’, and start to break that down on the ‘Things We Could Have Done Better’ list. What marketing strategies weren’t in place? How could we have used our complimentary ticket allocation better? What did we not do that meant the reviewers didn’t publish our reviews until the last two days of the Festival? Keep going on this list until each statement cannot be broken down into any smaller constituent parts, choices, events and oversights.

Damn. You now have a massive list of ‘Things We Could Have Done Better’ (ours have been known to cover sheets and sheets), and a tiny list of ‘Things that Went Well’. Boy, you really messed up badly at Edinburgh this year, didn’t you! Not only that, I bet you lost a load of money messing up that bad, as well as all the money you didn’t earn from your soul-destroying day job while you were up there. Your bank account is hideously overdrawn, and you’re seriously considering giving all this up. Now is the time to make sure that you Stay On The Bus. Because all of that is about to turn on its head.

All learning costs money. You either pay an institution to teach you it, or you go out and make mistakes, which cost you money, and learn that way. Continuous learning is also continuous payment. This one, I’m afraid you just have to deal with. Either that, or give up and go and work for someone else doing something you hate for the rest of your natural life.

Easy choice.

So, you’re now sat in a room looking at a list of how many things you did wrong, and how few you did right. You feel despondent and rejected by the world. Know what? Shut up.

Because what you’ve actually done is achieve something incredible. Firstly, you did it – you took your show to Edinburgh, and put your backsides on the line doing it. Most people are too scared to get even that far. Secondly, you’re now committing to learning from that experience – and this is the bit that so few people actually bother to do, and yet it’s arguably the most important. And here’s how you handle it…

Look at all the things on the ‘Things We Could Have Done Better’ list of many pages. You just paid money, time, sweat, stress and quite possibly some tears to get your hands on that list. And in buying that list, you bought the tools that will help you get better next time you do this.

So, go over to that list now, and wipe the title ‘Things We Could Have Done Better’ off. That’s one of the reasons for using whiteboards and not pen and paper. Now re-title that list – name it ‘Things We Learned Not To Do Next Time’. Stop, step back, and take a look at that list. Because, suddenly, it’s not a list of mistakes any more, is it? It’s now a list of all the learning that happened while you were on this journey – a list of things you won’t do again. You can now use this list of learning to start to make decisions about what you’ll do differently next time.

One that always bites us on the bum is not getting our print done in time. We bring the print deadline forward every time, and yet for about four shows ‘Print wasn’t done in time’ turned up on our ‘Things We Learned Not To Do Next Time’ list. You’d think that after a couple of times we’d have learned that lesson, but it took us four shows to get that one right. Learning is hard – and it’s even harder when you’re taking the responsibility for your education upon yourselves. It’s so much easier when you just turn up on your course and the tutors tell you how to do it.

Unlucky. You’re on your own now, and so you have to take responsibility for continued learning yourselves.

Luckily, these lists make it so much easier. As you go down your ‘Things We Learned Not To Do Next Time’ list, you’ll actually start to spot things that you thought you did wrong, but on closer inspection you’ll see that actually there were elements of it that you did do right. When you spot these, write them up straight away on your ‘Things That Went Well’ list.

Hold on. Something strange is starting to happen here. Your ‘Things That Went Well’ list seems to be getting bigger. And you now have a decent list of ‘Things We Learned Not To Do Next Time’. This process usually takes us a full day. With lots of tea and biscuits. At the end of it, stop and take a break. Walk out of the room, have more tea and biscuits, and laugh about all the fun you had while you were up there. Relive the good memories of your Festival experience.

When that tea is drunk, and you’ve all had a good laugh (and a few more biscuits), return to the room with the lists in it, and just cast your eye over them. Then take pictures of all the whiteboards so you can read them back whenever you need to in the coming year – and you will need to.

Because what you should now have realised is that you and your team are currently standing in the Command Centre for your next show, surrounded by the resources that will help you to make that production better, slicker, sharper and more professional. You’ll do this with less stress, because you know where a lot of the bear traps are hidden, and you’ll be able to avoid most of them next time. There will be new issues next time, and you’ll miss some of the old ones (remember our print deadlines?) and have to relearn them. But this is how you learn and improve. It’s what most companies don’t do, and I firmly believe that’s the reason most startups never get past their second show, if even that far.

While I’m not a fitness enthusiast, I do know that they have a useful saying for the building of the body: Eat. Train. Sleep. Repeat. I would humbly suggest that we might adapt this for ourselves.

Create. Produce. Learn. Repeat.

It doesn’t matter how many shows or how many years it takes.

Create. Produce. Learn. Repeat.

Simples…

Rafe

 

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Why should I join Equity?

Some years ago – when I was preparing to leave Drama School – I realised that, as a single parent, I simply couldn’t afford to be an actor. It was a moment of great disappointment, and I really thought that I’d just wasted three years chasing a rainbow.

We had a number of visits during our third year. Casting Directors, Agents, working Actors. And also a visit from Equity.

It was a pretty standard visit on the face of it. The Equity representative came along and outlined the reasons that we should join Equity, and made a good case. More on that later.

What that Equity representative really did, though, was help me to get my life back on track.

We were invited, if we had any personal questions, to ask them privately at the end of the session. And that’s exactly what I did. I enquired how on earth, as a single parent, was I going to make this work financially, and hadn’t I just wasted my time?

That Equity representative saved me, by talking me through what was then a new system – the Working and Family Tax Credits system. I had no idea how these could possibly apply to me (because I didn’t understand them), but I was given all the information I needed to make a legitimate claim for both.

Don’t get me wrong, I still picked up non-acting work whenever I could – I’m not a scrounger – but having access to these credits made working as an actor feasible for me given my circumstances. I have no doubt that I’m still in this business because of the advice that Equity representative gave me on that day – so whoever you were, thank you.

Our industry is coming into another challenging period, particularly with regard to help we might get from the state while not working. I’m still working towards understanding all the ramifications of this myself. Working and Family Tax Credits are going, and the new Universal Credit is coming in. I’ve not yet formed a complete picture of how that might affect our profession, but I do know one thing for sure – Equity are doing everything they can to make sure that they understand it.

This is important. Firstly, because I’m not a legal expert on HMRC, new legislation, or how either might affect me as a professional in the theatre, I may well be needing some advice from one of the Union helplines in the not too distant future. Secondly, Equity spend our money hiring people who do know about these things to understand them, work out what is in the best interests of our membership, and then campaign hard to get it – so when I do call those helplines, they’ll have any answers I may need about how any changes affect me.

The thing about Unions is, their strength lies in their collective bargaining power. The more members a Union has, the greater sway it holds in talks where it represents the interests of those members. I was pleased to hear from someone at Equity recently that we’re one Union that’s bucking the trend – our membership base is growing, and that’s a good thing. More money through membership subscriptions means more resources for the Union to work on our behalf when legislation changes, or when we need individual backup in times of need.

If you want a public example of the way Equity positively impacts and works for its membership, check out this letter from Christine Payne, The General Secretary of Equity in The Stage. That’s a good show from the top of the tree, straight into the trade press.

If you want an example of the individual benefits membership brings, have a gander at all the benefits that come with being a member. If you simply look at the benefits in terms of insurance, legal support, tax and welfare support (that’s what helped me at the beginning of my career, remember?) and all the insurance cover you get which comes along with being a member, you’d have to concede that you couldn’t get that amount of backup outside of a Union environment for anything like the cost of membership. So even if you’re not a ‘Union Person’ (whatever that means), it’s seriously sensible to join Equity anyway.

Why am I saying all of this, and why now?

If you go back through my posts on this blog you’ll notice that I, like many in our industry, have struggled from time to time. Sometimes, we need support.

All I know for sure is that I wouldn’t have even got off the starting blocks if it hadn’t been for an Equity representative giving me advice. I’m still in this game because they supported me with good advice at the beginning of my career. Here is how Equity describe what a Union is.

Here is how I describe Equity:

There’s a bunch of us. Decades ago it started with a few, and now there are lots more of us. We stand together so that if one or more of us is in difficulty, the others are there to back them up.

That’s why I’m proud to be a member of Equity. And that’s why I firmly believe that you should be too.

Whatever your politics, put them aside. If you can’t afford the membership, ask people to club together when your birthday comes. By hook or by crook, get yourself a safety net.

Become a member of Equity.

Rafe

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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.

Rafe

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How do I make money out of my theatre show?

So here you are, then. You’ve brought your show to the Edinburgh Fringe. It’s doing well, or it could do better. You’ve got reviews you deserve and reviews you don’t, both fair and/or foul. So what now?

Well firstly, of course, you’ve got to play this little commitment out. You’ve probably got just under a dozen shows left (depending when you’re reading this), and then you’re done. You can go home and fall to pieces for a few days, and then its back to your own personal grind, whatever that may be. I hope it’s industry based, but if it’s back to working on a regular or irregular basis for someone else, signing on, or back to gainful or not-so-gainful self employment, then that’s what has to be done.

But wait a minute. You pulled together every penny you could for this show. You begged, borrowed and stole. You spent sleepless nights and pressured days trying to pull it all together, and then brought it up to the festival and shared it with varying degrees of success to the fee-paying public. Whether you did well or badly financially, this time it wasn’t friends and family in a room above a pub, it was members of the public paying their hard-earned cash to come and see your show. Surely all this won’t be over in a few more days?

Well, here’s where you have to make a decision, if you haven’t already. I’m hoping you’ve laid plans to take the show on elsewhere, but I rather suspect that most of you (and again I speak from past experience) have not yet seen beyond the horizon of getting your show to the fringe, and getting it running.

After contact with audiences, if your show went well, you have to see beyond that horizon. If it didn’t, then let it die. There’s always next year, and another show to be developed. If your show did go well on contact with audiences, then you now have a Proven Product.

This is the important bit. A Proven Product with reviews, audience comments, and most importantly books that show decent ticket sales, is a commodity. You now have to start thinking of it in much the same way as a trader would if they came into a job lot of something fairly decent at an auction – where can I sell this?

There are regional theatres with days which are often dark. There are village halls, pub theatres in major cities, schools (if you have a childrens piece) and even prisons if your product is an appropriate one for that particular type of venue.

We came up here with two objectives. Firstly, we wanted to make a profit, but would accept a break even financially. Secondly, and incredibly importantly, we wanted to secure the product as having a future, profitable life.

Because, in many ways, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for most companies has (or should have) very little to do with performing for a number of shows and then going home. It should be about trying to get the people who might buy your show into their venue, or offer you a venue split, or allow you R&D time to develop your project in association with their production company, to come and see your show and make that deal.

Now’s your chance. The festival is essentially now, for you, a trade show. You have your wares on display. You now have a number of days to get the people who might buy this whole product in the near future (not just buy individual tickets) to come and see your work. Then you take them for a drink, and you try to close a deal on taking your show to their venue. Or pencil some possible dates. Or, at the very least, open up a channel of communication with them so they’ll come and see your product (not your show) next year, with a possible view to taking it on.

You need to work out if you can tour it – Mid scale? Small scale? Even just a few of you in a van, contacting parish councils and putting together a pay-what-you-can package for village halls up and down the country, in places where they don’t have as much accessibility to live theatre as do those people in more densely populated areas. Perhaps you need to find a theatre who will give you a run in an area with a good location, who have a good reputation and a proven regular audience of theatre goers. You need to think about moving your show forward and selling it on. Try to make a living at it.

Because, if we’re not trying to make a full time living at this at some point in the future, then all we actually have is an expensive hobby. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you like coming up to the fringe, putting on a show, and don’t mind losing a few quid every year because you enjoy the experience, then there’s nothing wrong with that. In many ways, it’s completely in the spirit of the fringe.

If you want to make a living at it though, as well as selling tickets, you now need to start trying to shift the wider product, to a wider audience. The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is actually one of the biggest trade shows of its kind anywhere in the world.

You’re currently bang in the middle of that trade show. Find the contacts you need, and then go and sell your product to them, and into a longer term future.

You can do it. You just have to decide that you’re going to, and then follow it through.

And in that, I wish you every success.

Rafe

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Festival Flu…

Just a short one today, on the subject of the unverified reports of ‘Festival Flu’ currently doing the rounds. Please bear in mind that I am in no way qualified to give any medical advice, and so you really shouldn’t listen to me…

For those of you who have never been to the festival, and those of you who who are experiencing it for the first time, Festival Flu is the undefined illness which tends to affect casts and crews at around this point in the festival.

Symptoms vary, but usually include fatigue, general nasal snottiness, tiredness, lethargy, croaky voices – the list goes on.

In my opinion (unverified and not medical, remember…) the first reason is proximity. Performers are often living in close cramped conditions, and performing in close, cramped venues which are at a great temperature backstage for bacteria to breed. If there’s anything going around, there’s a much higher risk of getting it.

The second reason is often burning the candle at both ends (and sometimes in between). It’s easy to get caught up in late nights, too many beers, cheap takeaway food and smoking like a chimney to deal with the stresses and strains companies are under, both physically and psychologically.

The first one we can’t affect, unless you want to walk around with a mask on your face and a continual supply of antibacterial hand wash in your pocket (the latter’s actually not a bad idea). The second one we can affect.

In my humble opinion it’s the time now, if you’re feeling like you’re coming down with Festival Flu, to be kind to yourself. A couple of normal bedtimes, some decent quality food, easy on the beers and smokes, and chill out a bit with something non-festival related – for many of us this evening, it’s going down to the local pub quiz, followed by a relatively early night.

Be kind to yourself, stay fresh, and by the end of the festival – if all goes well – your mind and body won’t fall apart when you finally return home. Believe me, this happens a lot, and it can be avoided.

Take care of yourselves, one and all.

Rafe

 

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Dear Stephen…

It’s Sunday morning, and I’m due to go back to Edinburgh this afternoon.

Tomorrow morning, Piers and I will hunker down in the kitchen once the cast have left for the morning, and work out a way to distil what is normally a three hour lecture into about forty-five minutes, plus some time for questions, in order to deliver the free session on Open Book Theatre that I’ve been subtly reminding you all about in almost every blog entry since we got to the festival.

Mrs B is away this weekend, and so I’ve been left in charge of a cat who seems to think that she’s the head of the household, and a submissive dog who seems to think the same. What happens between them at the moment is what I can only describe as bullying, but with Mrs B enjoying herself for a couple of days, a slightly different way of approaching things seems to be paying dividends. It turns out that they do eat when they’re hungry, although the dog seems to be stealing the cat’s biscuits at the moment – either they taste better (the likelier explanation) or the dog is subtly getting back at the cat via a food protest vote (my preferred explanation.)

The point here is that, although they don’t know it yet, they can and will get along. It’ll take time and patience from both myself and Mrs B, but that investment of time will eventually pay off, and we will live in a house where animals and people coexist peacefully.

Frankly, coming back to Edinburgh right now is a pain in the backside. Mrs B has been away for the weekend. I love her very much, and we’ll miss each other by just a couple of hours when I leave in a bit. We’ll have totalled seeing each other for about four days across four weeks when I finally return.

And that would be okay, but bear in mind I’m not making any money out of all these Edinburgh trips – in fact, this is a drain on our resources at a point where we’ve just moved house, I have no paid work, and thus both money and time are scarce commodities. Basically, I miss her like crazy, I’ve got no money, and so why on earth should I be spending our cash going back and forth to Edinburgh just for a one hour lecture which Piers (who is already up there) could happily run on his own?

The answer to that is simple. Sometimes we get involved in things that are bigger than ourselves. That involvement brings with it an active choice. Sometimes we realise that if we don’t make the effort and go out of our way to make a difference in the world, both we and the world become the poorer for it. And that’s exactly what’s happened with Open Book Theatre.

We didn’t plan for this. We just had an idea, developed it, and then realised it had become our firm conviction that we had stumbled on something which could very well help to keep the fringe scene alive both inside and outside of the Edinburgh Festival – and do it ethically. We could help people move towards better contracts, and still aspire to Union contracts in the future. We had a methodology whereby companies and the creatives they work with could have decent working conditions and be treated fairly, even if no-one is getting paid on that gig. We believe that we now have a tool that actors, crew and companies themselves can use to make life fairer and better for everyone.

Changing the world…? I love Mrs B, and she tells me that this is one of the reasons that she loves me: I want to make things a bit better for people. It just means not being with each other for a while when we really need to be together. We’ll get over it. There’s a bigger picture out there.

So, Stephen, I’d like to quote you at the end of this blog. I know the quote has been attributed to many people, but it all seems to point to you, so we’ll go with that, if it’s OK with everyone:

“I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do or any  kindness I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”

Stephen Grellett

It’s Edinburgh 2013, the town is packed out with people who work in fringe theatre, and our industry is going through massive changes – changes in funding, contracts, Unions, more creatives chasing seemingly fewer jobs, and we are currently in a climate where we’re often thankful for jobs that cost us money, let alone earn us a living. We love what we do so much that we just want to have the opportunity to do it.

I have a little knowledge, and I want to join my brother and share it with people. Gaining that knowledge has cost us dearly over the last two and a half years, in ways I can’t even begin to explain. But we have that knowledge now – and we also have the opportunity to pass it on freely to others, in the hope of making our world a slightly better place.

You’re right in what you said, Stephen.

And because of that I shall set aside my valuable time with Mrs B and our wonderful bickering animals, and return to Edinburgh. I shall not defer or neglect the kindness that I can do in sharing my knowledge for free.

For I shall not pass this way again.

Rafe

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Master Yoda, on the Dark Side of the Edinburgh Fringe…

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m back home with Mrs B for a few days helping to sort out domestic things – we’ve just moved house, and it’s a lot of work for one person, especially when they’re working full time – before returning for the Open Book Management Session on Monday 12th, 1pm at Fringe Central (did I mention that it’s free? I suspect I may have…)

However, we’re all waiting for reviews, and so of course I just got diverted from the list of ‘Husband’s Jobs’ which I have been given to do. The lure of checking the internet for reviews was just too strong. I’m only human. Sorry, Mrs B.

There are lots of great websites which, along with your show listings, often have a section which allows Messrs. G. Publick & Co. to post up their own reviews. And that led me to think of the great danger this poses to those of you with a show on at the Fringe.

I have known companies in the past who – shock horror – seem to think that this gives them a wonderful, sneaky way to slip good reviews of their own shows on to these websites at a purchasing portal, posing as Messrs. G. Publick & Co.

Their thinking is that when genuine potential ticket buyers see these supposedly public reviews of their shows, it will tip them over the edge and encourage them to buy tickets for that show rather than others which perhaps do not yet have reviews, or possibly have ones that are not as good as the performing company believe their show deserves and have thus posted up.

This is desperately flawed thinking, and I’d like to strongly advise against it for two reasons.

Firstly, it messes with your data. When you come to what we at Red Table call the ‘Post-Mortem’ (which is where once the dust has settled after we have closed the show and we get the opportunity to see what we did well, so we can do more of that, and what we did badly, so we can do less of that), you’ll not be able to analyse how you really did. You’ll never know if your ultimate ticket sales were a falsely inflated result due to your rather underhanded way of encouraging ticket sales. Gathering accurate data is incredibly important, as it’s the only way you’ll be able to get better at what you do, and compromising your data stream is not worth it just for the sake of maybe getting a couple of extra ticket sales during the Festival.

Secondly, and far more importantly, you risk ruining your reputation as a company. And that’s the really bad one. At Red Table we have three core company values – to be Open, Honest and Ethical – and we believe that in the long term we will gain a far better following by making sure we live those values.

Rigging the public reviews is the first step down the Dark Path, and for those of you unfamiliar with the wisdom of Master Yoda (yes, I’m quoting Yoda here), “If once you start down the Dark Path, forever will it dominate your destiny. Consume you it will.”

I’m being serious here. If your show has a review purportedly from Messrs. G. Publick & Co. which says it’s incredible when really it isn’t, people may well feel cheated. They may begin to suspect that They Have Been Deceived. Even worse, if other genuine members of the public assign a very different public review on the same site, then yours will stand out as a likely candidate for a show which has been deliberately reviewed with bias by the performing company to achieve extra ticket sales. It’s even worse than that if you post on a website which also has in-house reviewers. If they give a certain opinion of your product (and don’t forget, art or not, this is a product), and other members of the public tend to agree with the in-house reviewer, then your company might look duplicitous at best, and downright liars and manipulators at worst.

This means that in the short term, your sales could be adversely affected by the cheeky ‘public review’ that you posted, and in the long term you could well get flagged up by both reviewers and public alike as Naughty People, who deserve neither future reviews nor further business.

It’s counter-productive in both the short and the long term. It’s deceitful. And if you do it, in my opinion, it shaves a little bit off your soul.

All we really have as human beings is our integrity. It’s not something that can be bought as such, and yet people seem to give it away for free without thought as to the consequences to themselves or others, all the time.

Trust your product. If it doesn’t deliver this time, then you have a great opportunity to learn how to do things better next time. If it does, you’ll know your success was because you did things right, and can carry on with a good solid set of base skills and data analyses. And a clear conscience.

I’ll let Master Yoda sum up this post, far better than I possibly could:

“In the end, cowards are those who follow the Dark Side”.

Rafe

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Reviews, and how to handle them…

So, the reviews are beginning to come out.

“Eeek!”, says my nonexistent friend who is sitting next to me, “I scared, Rafe. What if they good? What if they bad? I want see them, but I scared” etc. (I have no idea why he speaks like the Crocs out of  ‘Pearls before Swine’ on the Metro cartoon and puzzles page. He just does). He has, in fact, been whinging about this pretty much all day. So, time to address reviews, reviewers, and how best to deal with both.

Firstly, lets take a look at the reviewers. Reviewers are just people. They snore. They occasionally break wind. And they have to sit on the throne at least once every day or two. Just like us. Nothing to be scared of there, then.

Why, then, do we so often have the mindset that we have to tippy-toe around whenever they come to the show? It’s because, of course, that for some strange reason we have tied the presence of the reviewer at our show with the future of our whole careers.

Let me give you an example. I was in a great little show once, a few years ago, at the Kings Head. Treasure Island, with four actors. One young chap played Jim Hawkins, and the other three of us played all the other twenty-seven parts. In one of my favourite scenes, we were playing nine characters talking to young Jim at the same time. Hectic craziness, wig and prop swapping which invariably drew laughter and applause from the audience. One good question, then, is why did we get an absolute stinker of a review in the Evening Standard? And even more, why I would resurrect such a stinker of a review deliberately? (The answer to the latter is that it’s a decent opportunity for reflection and learning, and we should never be afraid of opportunities to learn and get a better understanding of our industry…)

I do know for sure that most houses loved the show. Fiona, sadly, didn’t. And here are two of the most important points to remember – who is your reviewer, and how are they feeling when they arrive at your show?

These are contributory factors over which you have no control. If they’ve had a long day, an argument with their partner and a nasty burger before they come and see your show (possibly the eighth of the day for them at the Edinburgh Festival), then it’s fairly unlikely they’re in a positive state of mind when they come and see your show. If they’ve just had a nap after a nice dinner with a friend, chances are they’ll be rested and receptive to what you have to offer. Either way, there’s nothing you can do about it, so just do your show the way you normally do it, and have faith in your own abilities.

However, reviewers are a great barometer for people who are working out what shows they should buy tickets for. Let’s take Fiona, for example. Lots of audiences liked that show, but Fiona didn’t (or had a bad day, or we got her on a flat show or something). Fiona, though, has people who follow her, because they share a common taste. If their past experiences are that when Fiona says a show is good, and they go and see it and agree, then Fiona is a good barometer of what they might and might not like. She performs an admirable function, both bringing an appropriate audience into a show, and keeping the ones that will hate it away. For example, there’s a publication I follow that I almost invariably disagree with. I’ve learned that if that particular publication isn’t keen on a show, then chances are I’ll like it. If they think it’s fab, I won’t bother to get a ticket. This reviewing business works both ways, you know…

Yes, it’s great to get five star reviews. Heck, it’s great to get four or three star reviews. Twos can be dodgy, and one star can go either way, dependent upon your mindset. So, here follows my advice on handling your reviews, especially at the Edinburgh Fringe:

If you got four or five star reviews, then get them on your flyers now. I really mean those italics. Do It Now! Do whatever you have to do to get them on the flyer – print out and cut paper strips with the stars on and credit which publication gave them to you, and staple them to each flyer. If you’re nifty with tech, do it on printed stickers and then stick them to your flyers – it’s quicker. Either way, get them on. Remember I was talking about word of mouth before, and how important it is? This is word of mouth one stage removed, and you need to make it work for you. Don’t miss a sales opportunity by thinking you can always do it tomorrow. Not if you’re serious about this business. You need to fill seats. Now.

The three star reviews are up to you. Three stars alone won’t sell your show. But if they’re three stars from a major national newspaper, they’re well worth putting up – just make sure that the major national newspaper credit is big and bold. Having their name attached to your show (even with three stars), says a lot about it. Let’s face it, if the Guardian or the Times could be bothered to just turn up and review you, and you still pulled three, then there must be something interesting in the show, right?

If you got three from an online or less well known reviewing publication, then look at the content of the review, and pull the quotes that work to sell you show. However: Be Careful! If the original sentence read “This show is a travesty and should be wiped from the face of the planet. It in no way could be considered to be an example to anyone of good theatre”, and you abbreviate it to “This show is…an example to anyone of good theatre” you’re being both morally bankrupt, and breaking the law. If you look at a three or a two star, you’ll usually find something decent in there to quote. Get that quote, lose the stars, and get the comment attached to your flyer.

To quote Theodore Roosevelt: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

Which leads us nicely to the one star review. The ol’ kick in the teeth. They came in on the first week, and completely shattered your chances of a good audience.

Or did they?

This one takes balls. Ones the size of watermelons. But you’ve committed money to this, and you have to sell those seats. For what it’s worth, if I picked up a one star at the Edinburgh Festival, here’s what I’d do: I’d turn it on it’s head.

I’d pull the worst quotes from the review. I’d have one star featured as prominently as possible, wherever possible. And I’d try to sell it as “Possibly The Worst Show In Edinburgh”; “It’s a must see. It’s like watching a car crash in slow motion.”; “Just when you think it can’t get any worse, we guarantee it’ll get well more worserer, bruv!”

I could go on forever with marketing ideas like this, but the point stands. You’re there. You invested the money. You’ve got to sell the seats.

Do not let your heads drop if the reviews are bad. Nor if they are mediocre. If they are good, remember that there may be people out there who may choose to stay away just because a certain publication’s review team thought it was good.

Reviewers. They snore, they fart, and they have to do number 2’s, just like the rest of the human race. Don’t be scared of them – embrace them.

Not literally, of course. You might get a bad review…!

Rafe

 

 

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On playing Bingo…

I love bingo!

I know it may not be a fashionable place for a newly middle-aged man to go, but I do love a bit of Bingo. I used to take my daughter and her friends sometimes, and over the years my own friends, very occasionally. My Nanna used to go when we were kids. She had a special bingo card sized clipboard and everything.

I’ve won a couple of times. For the uninitiated, you have a grid three squares deep by nine squares wide, and some of those squares have numbers in them. They call the numbers out, and the first person to get a line says “Line!”. Well, they’re supposed to, anyway. Round my old stomping grounds in the Badlands of the Essex/London Border, calls were invariably “‘Eeyare!”, cried out in a very strident and loud manner, to make absolutely sure the game stopped so your ticket could be checked.

Woe betide anyone who said they had a line and then they didn’t, for then there was an announcement on the tannoy for all to hear of the crime the offender had committed: “False Claim! That’s a False Claim!”. And woe betide those foolish enough to make any kind of noise at all during the calling of the numbers, for both types of unwelcome players would be subjected to the ‘Bingo Tut’.

If you’ve never been tutted at by over a hundred septuagenarians at the same time in an enclosed space, then believe me – you have no understanding of the meaning of the word ‘chastisement’. Especially when the tutting is being done in the Badlands (I am sure that there are many more such regions in this Sceptred Isle of ours).

Anyway, to get to the point: once you’ve played for the prize for one line, then the prize for two lines, you get to play for the ‘Full House’, which is when you have all the numbers marked off in your grid. In practice, you shout “House!” (or “Eeyare!”, in the Badlands), and your ticket is checked. “House!” is, of course, an abbreviation for “Full House!” And that’s the point of today’s missive.

I’ve returned to Mrs B for a week, before I return to Edinburgh to deliver the Open Book Management session at Fringe Central on the 12th (did I metion it’s free?). I’m no longer needed for the show and so I get to come back and do my list of domestic tasks that Mrs B will obviously have been saving for me.

On my arrival home, I got the message that we’ve all been hoping for from Kelly. It simply said, “Two sold out shows today!”. That’s both great, and not great. Stick with me, and I hope this makes sense:

Both shows today were two-for-one shows. Both of tomorrow’s shows are also two-for-one, and are also sold out. So on the downside, we are selling cheaper tickets (they are all at weekend concession rate), and also selling them at two-for-one rates. Venue capacity is 60 and we show twice a day. We need to sell (on average, across the run) something over 65% of all our available tickets to hit Company breakeven (where our investors get all their money back, plus their return on investment, and we then tick over into the profit share part of the financial wizardry.) But hold on – those sold out shows are effectively only 50% filled, remember, because the tickets are two-for-one. So the financial truth about our two-for-one deal is that on those days we’re not hitting our sales targets (which would generally be seen as bad business practice).

However, it’s actually good business practice. I was looking through the listings in the Fringe Guide a couple of days ago, trying to think like a ticket puchaser rather than a ticket seller. And what leapt out at me was the sheer volume of choice. Personally, I found it overwhelming – and I wasn’t even intending to book a show at that point. So how do people make their purchasing decisions in such a competitive and oversupplied marketplace?

Simple. Some get in early and get the special offers on the shows that sound good, or already have good reviews. They’re getting cheap tickets to decent shows which they’re likely to enjoy. Smart shoppers.

The others wait for a bit, until their friends have seen some shows, and then ask them what they thought was good. People who are friends often have similar tastes (or they wouldn’t be friends) in many things, and so a good guide as to what show to go to is the thing that is lovingly referred to as ‘word of mouth’.

Now, word of mouth is a very effective sales technique. Why? Because you don’t have to physically be there to close the sale. The people that came to see your show and liked it will sell it for you, freeing up your time to go and sell your show to people who haven’t heard about it yet (remember: you’re not flyering, you’re selling).

So we now have people who came to see our show selling our show, as well as us selling it at the same time. We also have a scarcity of availability, which is another motivator for consumers to buy. Here’s roughly how it works at the Box Office:

Hopeful Customer: May I buy three tickets for today’s performance of The Just So Stories please?

Helpful Pleasance Employee: I’m afraid that both their shows are sold out today!

Hopeful Customer: (aside) It must be good if it’s selling out this early in the Festival. (To Helpful Pleasance Employee) Are there tickets available for any other days please?

Helpful Pleasance Employee: Why yes, indeed there are. I have availability later in the week. Would you like to book now to avoid disappointment?

Hopeful Customer: Yes please. I wouldn’t want my children to miss out on a show that’s clearly very popular and is selling out already.

Helpful Pleasance Employee: No problem. I’ll book those tickets now for you.

Exeunt Box Office left.

I hope I’m not teaching Grandma to suck eggs here, or that anyone might for a second think that I suppose you to be completely devoid of any sense, because you’re well aware of these important parts of the puzzle. I point them out only to say that, in my humble opinion, it’s best for you to fill your houses as much as possible, and as early as possible, even if at the outset you look like you’re losing money on those shows. If you have a good show, then taking that small intital loss in sales revenue is nothing to the benefits you will reap later in increased ticket sales.

Don’t wait and ‘see how sales go’ before using your allocation of comps to paper the house because you’re not selling as well as you’d hoped. By then it’s too late for word of mouth and scarcity to be effective, and you’ve missed the boat. If you truly believe in your show then fill those seats early, and by any means possible . If your belief is well founded, then ticket sales will follow. And very soon, I hope, more of you will be shouting “House!”

Although I rather suspect the cry from most of those taking shows to the Fringe is likely to be a resounding “Eeyare!”

Rafe

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I met my old lover on the street tonight…

So the show is up, and bedded in.

I’m no longer in the venue – We have an amazing Company Stage Manager, a superb Producer, the venue (the Igloo on the Green at the Pleasance) is run and staffed by a great team, the cast are knocking it into the long grass, and today was all about finishing up and letting the show run without me.

Meetings this morning were about marketing strategy, over cornflakes and tea while the cast were out selling tickets on the Royal Mile. We checked our current sales against our projected budgets. We ironed out what needed to be done between my leaving tomorrow and my coming back briefly next week to deliver a session on Open Book Theatre Management at Fringe Central on Monday 12th. Then, after the show, I went flyering with the cast.

After that we went out, and we celebrated the graduation of one of our cast from a top line drama school with a meal and some drinks (she got this gig before she officially graduated). Then we went to see two comedians. One of them you’ll know, if you listen to Radio 4 – an incredibly talented man, playing a decent sized venue which was practically full on the first Sunday night of the Fringe proper (the first Sunday after previews – a quiet night if you’re not a name) – and saw a thoroughly incredible show. The other chap we saw was a newcomer, working in a tiny sweatbox of a venue, still trying out his material and struggling with technical issues, with his set list still vaguely visible – written on the back of his hand with biro – which was slowly running and fading with the dripping sweat. The former is a polished performer with a lot of exposure. The latter less experienced, finding his feet as so many have and working towards what will hopefully be a successful career on the circuit. He worked the material through, and I hope very much he sticks with it – he had a very small crowd (there were about a dozen in the audience) – but he didn’t let his head drop. Good for him.

Then we went over to Brookes Bar in the Pleasance Dome (exclusive access Pleasance passes only – makes us all feel very valued and important – plus you might get to stand beside someone famous at the bar…)

At this point our Producer and CSM reminded me that I had to write my blog.

There’s a pool table in Brookes, so we decided that I’d write my blog when Ali (CSM) and Kelly (Producer) could get me off the pool table. I’m not terrible at pool, but I’m not bad. I held my own for five games before they beat me, and so I’m now sat on the balcony of Brookes, writing this blog after a thoroughly wonderful day.

And I find myself reflecting. I first came to the Festival seven years ago as an actor, and have done a few since as a director. The Edinburgh Festival is an incredible mix. New acts, acts you know, things from completely left field, students with aspirations working their bottoms off to get a show on, and big names. With everything in between that you could possibly imagine, and then some things that you could never possibly dream of.

High quality. Low quality. People so in love with their work that they’ll go for it whether they’re playing to four hundred people or two men and a dog (and I’ve played to an audience of two in Edinburgh. It’s a tough gig…)

There’s nothing like The Edinburgh Festival. For some, it’s about making money. For some, it’s about having a go at things. For some, well, it’s just what they do. Where I fit into this I have no idea.

All I know is that tonight, after handing over the show to people I’ve grown to trust and respect, and having seen other people’s work without having to worry about my own during a night on the town, I met the Edinburgh Festival properly again. The Edinburgh Festival that I love, in the company of people that I’ve grown to care about very much indeed.

And we talked about some old times, and we drank ourselves some beers.

Still crazy, after all these years.

Rafe

 

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