Features Essays Published 22 May 2018

A Programming Model That Puts Artists First

The New Diorama Theatre is revolutionising the way it's programmed. Here's the venue's AD David Byrne on why he's putting companies first.
David Byrne

‘Queens of Sheba’ by Nouveau Riche

For early-to-mid career theatre companies, performing in London gets more difficult every year.
In my job as artistic and executive director of New Diorama Theatre, in London, a large part of my job is to listen to artists and do whatever I can to help them make their best work. While it’s true that every theatre company and ensemble are different, many of the problems each face are depressingly similar.

I’m writing this on the day we’re launching a brand new programming model – one that turns the relationship between theatre companies and venues totally on its head. But before I get into what that is, let’s briefly take a look at the current state of play.

In the capital, even the very best early-to-mid career companies are forced down one of two paths.

The first is hiring a theatre to get their work seen. Hiring a theatre in London, even a small studio fringe space, can be overwhelmingly expensive. The going rate for a space with under 100 seats can be as much as £2,200 a week (plus VAT, of course) and those theatres that may be slightly cheaper will also want a large percentage of your box office takings – in some cases almost half. Working in this way requires huge amounts of artist fundraising if you want to pay all your creatives at anything close to a living wage, and that’s before you’ve bought a single sock for costume or a single poster.

This requires you either to have a lot of money in the first place that you want to plough into theatre (please feel free to get in touch!), or being a wizard at fundraising (please feel free to get in touch!) or willing to take a huge amount of risk.

The second path is performing as part of festivals. Traditionally, a large number of the opportunities on offer for emerging and early-career talent has been festival-led. Either taking your work up to Edinburgh, or to one of the many fringe festivals that run around the country or in London, was the only way you could get a proper run of your work and, while expensive, these can be great opportunities.

However, over the last few years, even Arts Council funded venues – those whose mission it is to support artists when they’re starting out – have increasingly adopted a festival-style model: programming large numbers of companies, often several in one night, for short runs. And, frankly, it’s easy to see why. The funding application writes itself: more artists supported than ever before, box office booms because what artist can’t sell out one or two shows – and you’re getting a generous split of the box office, and not paying any fees.

For artists, this is the theatre equivalent of the gig economy. Already almost impossible to make a sustainable living performing just one or two shows, things get even harder when festivals are centred around a theme, as shows then aren’t as easily transferable elsewhere. If that’s the way the theatre that supports you works, you’re also limited in your ambition because, with work “stacked high”, you can never be truly ambitious with your technical vision, with your design, because you’ve got to be out and struck within 10 minutes (15 if you have a particularly generous technical manager, or one that’s open to bribery).

With limited performances, how can you build an audience for your work? How can you get a proper critical dialogue going? How can you ever show off what you can really do? You’re only ever showcasing a diluted shadow of the work you really want to make.

At this point, I should say that I have nothing against festivals. I’ve made work for them all my career, but as the model becomes more prevalent – and the length of a festival run becomes shorter – how can artists ever break out of that cycle?

Even those lucky enough to be elevated above these two routes are up against theatres now offering commissions of just £2,000, coupled with unfavourable terms where the artists and venue are “sharing the risk”. When I started out, a commission used to be ideally £10,000 and no less than £6,000. A few thousand and “sharing the risk” is not an even playing field.

Artists are struggling to pay rent, often working temp jobs to pay the bills. Most venues offering these deals are multi-million pound enterprises with a substantial chunk of public funding, spaces to hire out for expensive conferences and pension plans for their staff. The idea that artists could re-coup losses or shortfalls on anything like the same terms is wilful naivety.

So what can we do to change things?

We all know what artists and theatre companies are asking for.

They want proper money upfront, that they can match in funding applications and actually spend – not just reams of in-kind support – as starting from a zero budget is near impossible.

They want to build proper and substantial audiences for their work, who will stay with them and support them across their career.

Artists want to be ambitious in their artistic vision – nobody thrives in a design process that’s led by the notion everything has to be struck and thrown in the back of van in under ten minutes.

Many of them want to work on bigger stages, with a larger canvas, but the gap between where they are and where they want to go seems insurmountable.

It all boils down to this: artist development, early-career artists, emerging practitioners, mid-career companies -all they really want is to make The Big Show. What if a venue for emerging companies programmed less like the Edinburgh Festival and more like the Almeida Theatre?

And that’s what we’re going to do. At New Diorama we’re going to radically turn the London model on its head.

Next season we’re going to reduce the number of companies in our main season from around 30 to just seven.

Instead of offering small bits of support across a large number of groups, we’re going to make a game-changing investment in our most talented companies.

Instead of companies expecting to pay large hire costs to perform in London, we’re going to give each programmed company £10,000 in cash up-front. Allowing them to invest in their work from day one and secure substantial match funding.

Instead of limited performance runs, across next season we’ll be building up to make five week runs the standard length of a New Diorama supported production – allowing word-of-mouth to spread, attracting more press – and we’re giving each company a full technical week, so they can realise a more ambitious technical vision.

Instead of piecemeal marketing support that groups are getting used to, we’re going to take on the full responsibility of marketing and selling productions. As part of our next season, each of our programmed companies will receive around another £10,000 of direct marketing spend in their show – we’ll pay for all photography, design, printing and we’re paying for PR gurus Borkowski to handle the press. And we’re hiring a full time Marketing and Audience Development Manager to help us oversee the challenge. We’re going to be tireless in building new audiences for their work.

Instead of expecting artists to shoulder the risk, we’re going to share the reward. We’ve been looking for the best deal on offer in the UK for emerging companies and we found one venue (much larger than NDT, and an NPO) offering £2,000 a week to their visiting companies for a week-long engagement – and we wanted to go one better! Instead of taking the risk and keeping the box office, we’re capping our return at 50%. Once we’ve sold half the tickets, we’ll split the rest evenly with our supported artists. Artists may not be taking the risk, but we want them to share the rewards.

We’re creating great partnerships to boost companies up to the mid-scale. We’re already talking to the Royal and Derngate, Barbican and 59E59 Theaters Off-Broadway about how they can help transfer our selected shows to bigger audiences and opportunities. A five week run in London will demonstrate a mid-scale appeal – we just need the partners to help make it happen. We’ll actively broker those relationships and, because we’re here to help our artists fly – not clip their wings when they start to soar – we won’t take any future life royalty for the work we’re supporting.

We’re not an NPO. We don’t have Arts Council targets. So instead of ignoring our social and sectoral responsibilities – or waiting for someone else to fix the problem – we’re going to take their published targets and aim to beat them. We’re going to be running, and paying for, access performances across the whole season, we’re introducing £3 preview tickets to those on Job Seeker’s Allowance. Every show will host a matinee for older people, from our local community, who are isolated with little or no access to culture. Working with New Horizon Youth Centre, we’re going to be hosting regular curtain raisers for homeless young people who need to perform for audiences to get their Arts Award – the first step towards a future in the arts. And we’re going to quota for the very first time. We’re setting targets for the number of disabled, D/deaf and neuro-divergent people working on and behind our stage. We’re setting ambitious quotas for the number of black, Asian and minority ethnic creatives we want work at New Diorama, and for the number of women we want to see leading our processes and productions.

As a theatre outside of the National Portfolio it’s our responsibility to be radical, try new ideas and kick up a fuss. We want to work with our supported companies to bring about a seismic culture change across our work.

We’ll still be running our Artist Development Programme, INCOMING Festival and a host of opportunities – including our Edinburgh and NSDF Funding – to ensure new companies have clear routes into working with us at NDT.

We’re excited by these plans, but we’re scared too. This new model, this new adventure, represents a huge risk for us. We don’t have funding for commissions or deep enough pockets that if something goes wrong it won’t have stark consequences. But the nerves we feel now are a reminder of the huge risks artists feel every time they decide to put on a show in London, every time they try to make the work that only they can make.

Later this summer we’ll be announcing our first season under this new model. If you’re excited by the new possibilities this way of working unlocks, I hope you come and support us, buy a ticket and bring a friend.

There’s nothing better than seeing a problem, trying to fix it and changing the world. Come and be a part of it with us. Because if we’re not going to change it – who’s going to?


David Byrne

David Byrne is Artistic and Executive Director of New Diorama Theatre, London.



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