5 Tips for Starting a Theatre Company

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Article by Phoebe Wall-Palmer

I’m writing with my experience from forming Flickbook Theatre – we’re only 2 ½ years old. Basically, a toddler starting to talk. So here goes…

 The Name

I’ll start with this, not because it’s the most important, but it’s naturally the first thing you’ll discuss. When we were choosing ours it was a hard slog. The thesaurus will become your best friend. You will ask everyone around you for their ideas. For kooky phrases, idioms and random words that just feel like they should fit together. It is important, especially at the beginning when you’re starting to set up your brand and you’re having to tell people. It’s probably like naming a baby. At least it feels like that. But after a while it won’t be new to you, and it will just be what it is. I’ll be honest, I’m still not sold on Flickbook Theatre (especially when the logo, at first glance, looks like we demonstrate some kind of Karma Sutra in front of an audience), but it’s ours and it still fits within our mission; to be folksy, hand-made and tell stories about very human things.

— Make sure it’s easy to say and easy to spell. Most importantly, make sure no one else has it, or you won’t be able to register as a company.

The People

It might be that you know you really like working with a group of people. It might be that you made a show as part of an assessment and then want to keep working with them. It might be that you and your best friend have the same politics in common and want to make work together that says something. But the most important thing we found was that you have to stand being in the same room as each other 24 hours a day, probably 7 days a week. Not literally, but you will constantly be thinking and chatting over Facebook or email to get stuff done. I don’t think I’ve gone much more than a day without speaking to someone else in the company.

When we started out, some members were good friends and some were acquaintances. We were very lucky that we had a similar taste in theatre and had some idea of where to start. But if you’re good friends, and you feel uncomfortable delegating tasks to them, or picking up on them when they’re not pulling their weight, or you feel that someone else has become a crazy dictator and not letting you help, then perhaps it’s not a good idea to go into business with them. Because sometimes you really have to remember that this is, or will be, a business. Of course, you can still work with them collaboratively on projects, but the core of your team needs to have transparency and be professional with each other. End of.

It’s also a very good idea to keep it simple. There’s 4 of us now, and that seem to be the perfect amount for us; we share responsibilities that all play to our strengths, and we all perform too. Lots of companies only have two or three members and occasionally hire in performers or a stage manager for bigger projects. If there’s 8 of you, it might be a struggle to get a word in. And realistically, if you all want to eventually get paid for doing this then its unlikely many venues will take you, when before you even get going that’s about £800 for you all on a day rate.

However, if you are forming more of a collective, that breadth of skills and knowledge could be really useful. Just make sure there is a couple of you looking after the daily runnings.

— Make sure you respect and rate who you’re working with. Be prepared to get a thick skin by taking and giving criticism. Think logistically and double/triple up on responsibilities to save money. Don’t ruin friendships.

The Mission

This is simply making sure you are all on the same page. What do you want to make and why? Who will watch it? Is it for anyone? A good place to start is to think about theatre you already like. Was it the style or the subject? What did it make you think about?

Then think about what you’re not (this might actually be easier!). Talk about theatre you’ve hated. Highlight things that really don’t live in your mission as a company, or in your shows. This could be from aesthetics of the show to branding of the company.

Have a go at writing your mission statement: a good place to start is to write down a list of phrases or just words that apply to you before you structure it properly.

— The mission is really important, not just so your audience understand the work you make, but to print in a really big font and pin up in the rehearsal room so that you remember why you’re making art. With this in mind; have specific aims but don’t be too narrow or you’ll find you’ve put yourself in a box too early, this can be creatively stunting.

Get a Mentor

I literally cannot stress this enough. Get a few mentors. Get 10. Make sure they already have an investment in you and your work. They will have a much better idea of how to help you (and they’ll want to) because they see your potential.

When we first started thinking more seriously about starting up, we set up meetings with anyone and everyone we could think of that we thought might offer some advice. We perhaps asked too many, which led to some conflicting opinions, but you can pick and choose – it’s your company. And definitely choose people who will be frank with you…

We spoke to our friends at Egg Box Theatre (then Karkinos Theatre) as they were a few years ahead and the initial set up stuff was really fresh in their minds. This was particularly useful for prioritising what to do first, not feeling the pressure to get the business stuff down too quickly! It was great just hearing what they did in the early days (and what not to do!) A bit later on though, do find someone or another company that can give you sound, tried and tested, business advice – it can get very confusing (and dull). Egg Box have been great for this when we were ready for it.

We had a chat with Craig Morrow (Artistic Director at Lincoln Performing Arts Centre), who had just seen our first show at assessment level. He thought it might have legs so gave us our very first opportunity – to come back in September and do our first professional show (after a few necessary tweaks!). He has continued to be one of the most supportive people in our network, with both kindness and brutal honesty. It’s great to chat to Craig because he has the perspective from a venue and as a programmer. It’s very useful insight when you’re looking at getting booked!

We then spoke to Wes (our lecturer at Uni & Co-artistic Director of Proto-type Theater). This was the most vital, sort of ball-breaking, meeting. The main message being – you have to work your arse off if you actually want to do this. Yeah, he’s spot on. But it was so important for us because we’d just left the bubble-wrapped existence of being a student and having unlimited support from lecturers. He really made us realise it won’t fall into our laps. It wasn’t scary. It absolutely made us go for it and every good thing that happened was even more rewarding.

— Seek advice, seek wisdom, seek honesty but also inspiration.

What to Do First

So the company is formed, the mission is in place and you are fired up to begin. Whether you have already made your first show at this stage or not, get back in the rehearsal room. I’m guessing the reason you’re on here is because you want to work creatively, by making shows and either perform, direct or stage manage. So get together and play around and start making. It’s a good shout to look for scratch opportunities or just schedule a work-in-progress performance at a reasonable point in the future – it keeps you on track and you all have something to work towards.

Set up your social media stuff and start building your online presence. It’s a bit laborious but this is the main way we get the word out about our shows and events. If someone in the company is already glued to their Facebook, perhaps they’re the best person to take charge of the marketing? It’s also a good idea to make friends with a designer who’s happy to help you out with a logo and some basic marketing stuff in-kind or mates rates.

Be everywhere! I’ve said this in my last article but it’s super important at this stage. Find out where the local artsy people hang out. Go to shows. Find out about workshops and master classes (if you’re in the East Mids I cannot recommend In Good Company highly enough: https://www.derbytheatre.co.uk/artist-development/good-company).

Apply for opportunities. There are more than you’d expect. Some might be aimed at mid-career artists so make sure you read the application pack fully. But I remember applying for about 20 different things in our first year. When we hit gold (getting a mentorship with Proto-type Theater) this was a massive game changer and seriously propelled us forward. It came with a little bit of money, but their knowledge and expertise were so much more important to us. So don’t spend all your time looking for pay-outs. Look for the people that can really make a difference to you.

All for now! x

Flickbook Theatre is a Lincoln-based company, making work that glories in the little absurdities of everyday life. The company are currently working on their next show, Casket Case, which is all about the fear of death, dying and being dead (with comedy songs). For more info, visit their website: www.flickbooktheatre.com.

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