Since I started working in small scale theatre in 2007 this seems like the toughest time for new work with the primary problem being getting audience in to see the work. Combining the presentation of new work with us being a new company and the challenges are even greater for us. We don’t have anyone famous off the telly performing in the show and Paper Tom isn’t adapted from an existing film or book. What we do have though is a great show that I am really excited and proud to be touring around England this November.
So with the Autumn tour now pretty much finalised, I’ve been sorting out the publicity print material (flyers & posters) for our venues. Throughout the lifespan of the show we have been searching for the magic words that translate into people booking tickets. There have been so many versions of the show blurb and at every point prior to performances it has been revised. I feel pressure to get these words right and always to make the most out of any given word limit as it potentially has a direct consequence on ticket sales.
Following our experience of performing Paper Tom at fringe festivals I have major doubts over how effective flyers and posters are in the fringe environment. For us they don’t seem to have done much to the overall marketing. Their cost hasn’t translated into an improved return in audience numbers. It just seems like they’re done to make everyone feel better, like you have a presence and exist and to also add colour to the insulated fringe environment. Our handmade customised ‘homing pigeons’ have proven more effective in getting attention for the show. Sarah-Jane gets more use out of the leftover flyers as business cards in the months following the performances.
As the tour is all made up of one off performances this adds to the pressure of getting things right first time. Programme and website blurb for each venue has all gone off and is now out there but with our tour flyers and posters it feels like another opportunity to reach our new potential audience.
The first version of our Paper Tom blurb was done to describe our work in development performance for Pulse Fringe in 2010. We had a storyboard and a rough idea of what the show was going to be about but we hadn’t even been in a rehearsal room when we had to submit our blurb for printing. Near the end of the initial devising process I remember us all looking at what was written and feeling a responsibility to make sure that what we were performing covered the key points in the blurb we submitted. Looking back this seems a bit silly now especially when it was a work in development but maybe doing this kept our focus on the original impetus that inspired us to make the piece in the first place.
Following our feedback from Pulse and the changes we made to the show we then went a bit Ronseal with the blurb (ie matter of fact – does exactly what it says on the tin). In retrospect this unfortunately presented the show as quite dark and perhaps off-putting to a casual fringe theatre audience. A review of the show from the Buxton Fringe even went as far as to say that the show “sounded at best depressing, at worst harrowing” and stated the show had “a much wider appeal than their publicity blurb suggests”. So following this we decided to soften the language a little even though I don’t think this would’ve made much a difference in getting more audience in. Theatre shows with a serious subject matter seem to have it tougher in a fringe festival environment.
Following our Buxton and Edinburgh Fringe performances we got some good review quotes we could start using. The benefit of having some good review quotes is that we can use those to say the things that I find awkward to put into the blurb – like how the production is presented and how it emotionally engages with the audience.
The focus of the blurb has always been to try to sell the show truthfully as best as possible but now I’m of a mindset of perhaps less is more. Instead of trying to encourage people to come the aim of the blurb is to also not put people off with what can seem like a heavy subject matter and show. It almost feels a bit like damage limitation. I think we’ve got it right this time but I also hope the environment outside of the fringe is more considered. I am cautiously optimistic that flyers and posters at the small to mid scale play a significant role and positive impact on sales unlike the fringe environments we have previously faced.
It was a long final day in Exeter for us. Our last show started 45 mins late due to the previous show overrunning. This was a bit frustrating when we knew we were heading back to London that night and that delay would impact on our return time. So after the show we did the get-out & packed it into the tour bus. We had a quick farewell drink and then hit the road under guidance from Sheila (the name of Sarah-Jane’s Satnav).
Sheila wasn’t a great fan of the final 3 junctions of the M4 being closed – neither were any of us to be honest but we could accept the situation, unlike Sheila who persisted to try & get us back on to the closed M4. So at 2am we found ourselves heading straight into Central London.
We definitely need to update Sheila before we set off on tour in Autumn.
After dropping everyone else off Sarah-Jane and me finally got back home at 4:30am. We then unloaded everything from the tour bus and grabbed a couple of hours sleep before setting off to return the vehicle to the hire company.
We are now reaching the end of our 3 performance run in Exeter as part of the Ignite Festival. This morning we waved goodbye to the Travelodge and in 3 hours we will be performing our last Paper Tom of the run. Audiences have been small so far but the show has been well received.
It’s been a rapid process with only 4 days of rehearsal for these 3 performances. There has been so much to do with only so much time to do it in. It has been a real case of fighting fires at times for me balancing this activity with ongoing Autumn tour admin. Overall things have gone well and we’ve managed to blow the dust off the show and pick up another strong 5 star review that builds momentum nicely for our Autumn tour.
Our week of rehearsals is now over. It has been a rapid week and absolutely flown by. I think we would all have liked more time in rehearsals but I am happy that we have made the best of what time we had. Of course the proof of the pudding (or Steve’s Birthday cake – which was delicious) is in the eating. The performances next week will show us if we have made the right decisions and focussed on the right areas and this will inform our approach to rehearsals in Autumn.
Working with someone new to the show has brought in a valuable fresh perspective to Paper Tom. During the rehearsals there have been things in the show we’ve had to reconsider and it has been a bit scary to address and unravel aspects given our limitations on time. But I think this has really benefited the overall process and the show has a real freshness to it.
There have not been wholesale changes made to the text. I think we may have only changed 2 words since the script was finalised about a year ago prior to our performances at Buxton (that incidentally was version 23).
With a work that has a devised origin there is a tendency for things to be a bit more up for grabs in rehearsals, especially when the creators are present. You can sometimes be dazzled by the newness of something and think perhaps it might be better just because you haven’t seen it 100 times before. But on the flip side it’s also easy to get complacent with the work and just go along with something because that’s how its always been and you’ve kind of forgotten how it got like that. But it’s been a great rehearsal process being able to look at the characters in greater detail than before and fixing the performance without breaking the show.
So, when is a production is finished?
I think I find it’s usually when you run out of time and/or resources but perhaps it is more to do with there being an absence of challenge for all involved.
Well everything starts somewhere and this is where this blog is going to start.
We are now just a week away from our 3 performances in Exeter as part of the Ignite Festival. On Friday Sarah-Jane and I went on a site visit to the Bike Shed Theatre. The venue is new to us and it was great to get a look at the space, pick up a programme (always exciting to see your show listing in the programme & that novelty hasn’t worn off) and just generally get our bearings prior to the company arrival next week. These upcoming shows in Exeter are a great opportunity for us to present the show to new audiences and build momentum for the Autumn tour.
The process of creating a theatre show from scratch all the way through to its eventual touring has for me been like an egg and spoon race but at a marathon length. Hopefully this blog can serve as a document to the realities of touring new work in 2012.