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Features Published 16 October 2017

Why Touring Theatre is Weighted Against Artists

Lauren Mooney explores the fraught business of booking a tour, and the glaring power imbalance between venues and freelance artists.
Lauren Mooney
The performers of Cuncrete. Photo: Paul Samuel White.

The performers of Cuncrete. Photo: Paul Samuel White.

There are probably lots of ways to book a tour, but I suspect most small to mid-scale and emerging artists and companies in UK theatre go about it similarly. Once you’ve made your show, the first step is inviting people to see it; if you’re at the Edinburgh Fringe and getting good press you might get some programmers along, even though they’re busy and in-demand, but if you’re premiering somewhere else you’re probably going to spend many hours making a tour pack, compiling a big list of email addresses and sending the pack to everyone on your list. Unless you already tour regularly or are quite high-profile, you’ll probably be rejected or ignored by most people, maybe because they don’t have space, maybe because they’re busy, maybe because they don’t like your work – but some programmers, hopefully, will offer you space. You’ll agree (read: haggle) what you get and what they get, and once you’ve confirmed bookings with a number of venues, you can apply for funding. Then, depending on your finances and success with the funding application and when you were contracted, you go on tour.

I describe this not to bore you, but to illustrate two things:

1) The huge amount of work involved in organising a tour, and how much of that needs to take place before you’ve even put your funding application in – i.e. how much of this labour is unpaid, even on funded tours.

2) How frustrating it would be for a venue to cancel a booking at that final stage without offering any compensation.

The latter’s what happened to Rachael Clerke after a change of staff at the Luton Hat Factory. The venue’s producer booked Cuncrete, Clerke’s remarkable drag king punk show about housing and architecture, for November of this year after seeing it at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016. After several phone calls sorting the company’s fee and performance date, the booking was agreed by both Clerke and the venue, then “when we got our funding I wrote to the producer and said, ‘We’ve got the funding, we’re going to definitely do the tour, can we have a confirmation email?’ Because I had to then prove to the Arts Council that everything was happening. So then I got sent an email [confirming the date].”

As time went by, though, Clerke was sent none of the vital follow-up information she or her tour manager needed. “I sent an email I think in July,” she explains, “saying, ‘this is four months away, can we get some more information? Get a contract?’ etc. Then I got an email back saying, ‘oh that person’s left and we don’t know anything about your show and it’s not happening’.” This was a point at which Clerke – Cuncrete‘s lead performer and lead artist, who did most of the unpaid tour-booking work herself – had already contracted the artists taking part, all of whom were working towards (and expecting to be paid for) a date that, as far as the venue was concerned, no longer existed.

What followed was an email chain of, essentially, flat refusal and disinterest from the venue. The email thread reads like an anxiety dream, as a remarkably calm Clerke eloquently explains the effect this late cancellation will have on her company, and meets a brick wall of disinterest from the venue, maintaining that, as far as the current staff team are concerned, the show was only pencilled in, and the lack of a contract means she has no rights at all – despite their having agreed in writing to programme the show on a mutually agreed date, for an agreed fee. “When I was emailing and saying, ‘Do you think we can still make it work?’, their response was like, ‘We can’t accommodate your proposed performance,’ to which I was like – ‘it’s not proposed. This is very confirmed.'”

Clerke spoke to trusted arts producer friends and colleagues in the industry, but quickly discovered that “nobody really knew what we should do and what our rights were…I spoke to the Arts Council and even they didn’t know if we had any legal footing.”

This is obviously a story about a very particular and unfortunate situation in one small, pressurised regional venue, who don’t deserve to be demonised for a mistake – but Clerke’s story speaks to a wider problem in the ecology of UK theatre touring. The problem of risk.

“Fundamentally I think the way that we fund touring theatre in this country is absurd,” arts producer Joanna Green tells me. “Every time we book a tour, I feel like both us and the venues are putting a plaster over the massive festering wound that is this broken system, and that eventually something’s got to give.” Green’s the producer for an emergent company who’ve successfully undertaken several tours over the last five years, and Joanna Green is not her real name. She didn’t want to be identified for fear that making too much noise about the difficulties of touring, and imbalances in the system, would affect her company’s relationships with receiving venues.

“In terms of deals, this is so ingrained that it seems silly to point it out, but when you think about it it’s actually quite shocking there’s a blanket assumption you’ll be applying for ACE funding to subsidise your tour, rather than venues themselves securing enough funding to programme the work,” says Green. “Often venues are very supportive with this aspect – offering to contribute letters of recommendation or even proof-read your application – but this is still a massive transfer of responsibility onto the visiting artist to make the theatre’s own numbers stack up, and this labour is almost always undertaken for free.”

One of the reasons Clerke wanted to talk about her experiences with Luton Hat Factory “is absolutely not to run a smear campaign on that venue, but to try and have a conversation about the huge power imbalance that exists there. Even if we had cancelled on them at that point,” rather than the other way around, “the implications for them are very minor compared to the implications for the artist when a venue drops out. I think.” For one thing, venue staff “will still get paid. They’re on salaries, and they’ll get paid at the end of the month – so them withholding any kind of payment from us felt crazy and frustrating.”

Both respondents keep returning to the imbalance of power and risk, and the lack of mutual understanding that accompanies this. “Too often, I think, theatres treat small-scale touring companies as if the two parties are equally sized organisations entering into a working agreement,” says Green. “When the reality of that relationship is that in terms of rights and resources, the visiting company is more like a temporarily employed freelancer. So sums of money and levels of financial risk that are negligible to a large arts venue make up a huge percentage of a touring company’s budget; paperwork that could occupy an administrator’s salaried office hours gets squeezed into a visiting artist’s lunchbreaks and evenings; the (constant) late-payment of box office settlements is a finance officer’s put-off bit of admin and a theatre producer’s disastrous cash flow.”

After seeking legal advice, Clerke’s company managed to recoup 20% of the agreed fee from Luton Hat Factory, and put out an open call for a new venue. They managed to find a replacement for half the fee they would originally have been paid. Though the company will still be touring this autumn, it’s hard to see how this is a sustainable model for artists – or what other options touring artists and theatre companies have than to, essentially, gamble. You can either sign contracts after your funding is confirmed and gamble that venues won’t drop out in the meantime, as Clerke did, or be, as Green says, “pressured into signing contracts” before your funding is confirmed, and enjoy a “white-knuckle six/twelve/18 if you’re lucky weeks of waiting to hear and wondering what they hell you’ll do if 50 percent of your budgeted income disappears” ahead of a tour you are now locked into.

With so much arts subsidy going into London, touring is vital to a truly national theatre ecology, but artists and companies are currently bearing the brunt of financial risk in supporting a system that doesn’t benefit them, working unpaid to book tours, and being given financial deals that invariably put them at a loss. It’s not clear what the answer is – but it is clear from speaking to both Clerke and Green that something must give. Both of them bring up Bryony Kimmings’s renowned You show me yours blog from 2013: Clerke notes that she was primarily keen to talk about her recent experiences to try and revive this conversation, which seems to have died down. Green, meanwhile, reread Kimmings’s blog after booking a recent tour “and found it depressing to realise that for all the conversations around that particular moment, in the last four years absolutely nothing seems to have changed.”

Cuncrete is on tour. Forthcoming dates on 21st Oct at Derby Theatre, 10th Nov at Aberystwyth Arts Centre, and 18th Nov at SHOUT Festival Birmingham

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Lauren Mooney

Lauren Mooney is a writer, producer and arts administrator based in London. As well as writing for Exeunt and The Stage, Lauren works at Clean Break and is the writer-producer for Kandinsky.

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