Sunday 26 January 2014

Playing, Paying, Pubs and Value

BABYLON is touring pubs. Not pub theatres, but just pubs. To the glorious and the good inns across the nation. We're two weeks in, we've two and a half to go. This is a massive learning curve, in a good and honestly very hard way. But we knew that. Touring to pubs wasn't the easy option, it was an option we wanted to explore, play with and see what we could make work. Last night was hard. The hardest yet.

We opened at The Fauconberg. Home crowd, sold out. A lot of fun and great support for the first night of a show. The second night we arrived in at the venue and they asked if we could just play a gig instead of doing the show. And, actually, that's fine, because we can. And it's more important to us that we work with a pub, rather than just impose ourselves on it. So if we can tell the story and bring a group of people through playing a gig, instead of a two act show, then that's okay. Although I don't imagine you would ever get asked that in a theatre, but that's why we're touring pubs. People liked the gig, bought CDs and signed up to our mailing list for future work.

The next night we were back to the show. A busy, noisy pub on a Saturday night. Act 1 was great,  lots of singing and dancing along. Act 2 was hard, didn't work, turned too much in to a play - too much like traditional theatre to work in this environment. A good lesson learnt. So on Monday - after playing in a lovely pub on Sunday with very tasty food (a nice perk!) - we went back in to the rehearsal room to change a lot of Act 2. We knew now what we needed and what we wanted, so a good day of reworking was had. And Monday night the show was great. A brewery packed full and with us the whole way. Then in Manchester on Wednesday and Newcastle on Thursday the show grew and bedded in. 

Friday we were to head to Bristol. One van broke down, the other van took 9 hours to get here and arrived at 7.15 for 8pm show. But we were in a great pub with a brilliant room upstairs and a great crowd of Bristolians. Some who meant to come, others who just wandered in. Then last night we were in Bath. Again, great pub and great room out the back. We went and played a few tunes in the main bar to drag in some punters and as the room filled up we looked forward to a big show.

There were two groups of people worth mentioning. There were two lads, maybe 20 years old, who had come to the pub for a few pints of lager. They liked the sound of the music so they came in - they hadn't come for a play, they'd come to the pub on a Saturday night. But they stayed watched a two act play. That's what they did, with their Saturday night out drinking - they sat through two hours of theatre and sung and stamped along. They cared and watched the whole way. They were on their feet in the revolution and sat at a table with new people they hadn't met. That is great. Your Saturday night out on the town turned in to a trip to the theatre - that's perfect.

The other group to mention were more difficult. Maybe 6-7 of them. Very trendy looking folk who, again, we're out for drinks but I think they had come to see us, which is great. There were two women, though, who wanted to talk the whole way through - mainly to us. So I have a conflict here. People have come to see us in a pub, you are allowed to chat  and talk in pubs. We're doing a play, you're not really allowed to talk in plays. We've tried to structure the show so it takes you with it - it quietly teaches you the rules for the evening. There are songs and narration and scenes, we try to let you know when to sing and dance and when to sit and listen. Last night these rules didn't work so well. And I don't know who's to be held accountable.

In a big scene at the end of act 2 Hetty asks Oli 'So why did you marry me then?' - this is the first time we've heard they're married, you find out why later in the play. 'Hang on' says one of the women from the group 'When did you get married? I missed that. Why are you married?' - she asks directly to the characters. You can feel a little bristle run through those who are at the theatre, and you can feel the opposite from those who are the pub. It's a fair question, we just aren't going to answer it now. So, by theatre rules this person is being disruptive - the rules are you don't shout out, if you're in a theatre. But she's not being abusive, she wants to know about the story, about the characters. So, in a way, she's with us. We tell her in the interval that she'll find out the rest in act 2. They stay for act 2. 

By the end of the show there is silence. Everyone is with us, those at the theatre and those at the pub. But we're knackered and a bit disgruntled because we have made, crafted, cared for and loved this thing of a show and we've spent the night having to work so hard to make other people care for it like we do. And I don't know what's good and what's bad about that - there's both. I'm still figuring it out. 

What is hard though is this, and I don't like that this is hard, but it is. So there are maybe 30 people filling this little room. They've spent hours at the pub. They've all spent however much on wine and beer and shots. They've walked in to this back room for free. Unsubsidised this show costs maybe £700 per performance. At the end we explain it's pay what you think, that there's a hat. From these 30 people we get almost £20 total. The group of loud drunk people leave without paying anything. I don't like valuing things on money but that hurts a bit. We're worth £20? That's less than a round of drinks.

The whole budget for this tour is £20k. We've bee granted pretty much £15k by the arts council, so we need to earn £5k in a month. It's very low, but we'll still lose money now. There is a brilliant value in touring around pubs - in the two lads with their lager accidentally spending their evening at the theatre, in the people who just wandered up for the second act who wished they've been there from the beginning so they'll come back - but doing a four person, two act show for £20, that doesn't feel worth it. That's about 66p per person. What else costs 66p? I don't think you can get a chocolate bar for 66p.

So it's interesting. It's hard and it's wonderful. But I guess this is why we're working like this, is to learn. And we need to learn, we need get better at bringing people with us in the narrative and also get better at asking people to part with their cash, because what they've watched and been a part of is worth it. 

Upwards and onwards. Next week nights in Sheffield have turned very quickly in to nights in Cardiff and then we're back to Yorkshire. Then Croydon, Somerset, Leeds, Oxford, Birmingham and London. Some tickets, some pay what you think, some guarantees. More learning, more playing, more understanding what on earth we're up to. Hopefully see you on the way!

Sunday 12 January 2014

Making Different and Making Harder

I am 25. In one way or another I have been making work on offer to the general public since 2007, really. During this time, so much of our focus has been dominated by The Edinburgh Fringe. It's a wonderful place and I owe it a lot - for a lot of fun, a lot of stories and a lot of shows. It has it's pros and cons but I wouldn't change anything about the summers I've spent there. This is, I realise, where we launch our work. By 'we' I make a drastic generalisation about people a bit like me or companies a bit like ours. In short - we make shows which are around 1hr long, we play them in one hip-hop-and-happening city for a month and we hope to any gods that public, press and industry like them. I'm sure me and thousands of other theatre makers have got used to this system. It's a fine, fun, and sometimes very rewarding system.

We're making BABYLON in a stone barn behind a pub in Coxwold, North Yorkshire. It's January - the Edinburgh Fringe is ages away - and we open a national tour on Thursday. We play 26 shows in one month covering hundreds and hundreds of miles around the country. We open our show, not to a jam packed city full of arts-folk, but in villages and towns full of people who may or may not care about what's going on. We have two vans to drive in. We have funding from the Arts Council. We are going on a bloody NATIONAL TOUR! 

Who let this happen? This isn't cosy and safe and well known territory. This is god-damn terrifying.

This has only just really occurred to me. It's a bit like being a real, grown up theatre company. And the thing which is perhaps hardest to come to terms with, is that the show isn't 1 hour long. It's 2 hours long, with an interval. That sounds basic, but it's not, far from it. 

The reason, though, the show is 2 hours long is because it's a damn big story. And one we want desperately to get right and tell well. The work we've made before (Beulah / Some Small Love Story for instance) is so very near and dear. But BABYLON is different, I don't think BABYLON will make anyone cry - most shows I write tend to make people cry. It might make people angry, or provoke a discussion, or make people put their arms around their friends and sing longer in to the night. But it's not a show about beauty and it's not a show about love. It's a story about people and about how sometimes we can get it wrong and, hopefully, about how we in real life might not. It easily takes 2 hours to tell. It could take a hell of a lot longer - but we want to tell it well and we want to tell it in 2 hours.

So we're not opening our show at Edinburgh Festival - we're taking it on a national tour around pubs and non-theatre spaces, many of which haven't had any theatre in before. And we are telling a long, involved, social and political story which, we think, actually matters. We're all, like I said earlier, a bit like me. And it feels like we're all leveling up - growing up - as writers / performers / artists / directors / makers. Like we've found ourselves somewhere where we have to take a big leap. Honestly, it is quite scary and it is very difficult. But it feels right. And difficult is a relative term but my brain is working very very hard and the answers aren't always coming easily. It's that kind of difficult.

I don't know whether this is something that happens to everyone at a certain point in the career or development or adventure. Or whether it is happening to us because of our country, our government, the slow dismantling of our industry. But either way this is our response, it would seem - to level up. To grow. To make different and to make harder. To imagine better - both in the telling and the models we use to tell.

I hope, in just over a months time, we have learnt more, know more, have met new people, understood new things, have found out how best to tell our story and to have provoked some debates, conversations, friendships and late night drinking sessions. And, yes, the show might end up in Edinburgh - but it will still be 2 hours long because that's the story we have made. 

Yesterday was a tough day - we got stuck. It's fine getting stuck. The way out is to find a way through. If we never got stuck, we wouldn't get better. If we never got scared, we wouldn't get braver. If it never got difficult, it probably wouldn't ever be any good. 

We open on Thursday 16th Jan with our 2 act, full length, social and political folk romp and then head out on a national tour to pubs and communal spaces across the country. For us, that's a hell of a sentence. I'm sure we'll enjoy the ride. 


Listen to SILVER, a song from the show, here

Tour details are at / keep up to date on twitter @FlanCol

PS - The photos are entirely irrelevant. They are simply three photos I took on a walk yesterday when the world look pretty golden and there was a peacock out on our hill.

Tuesday 7 January 2014

Not Against Theatres

Yesterday I was on the phone to someone talking about BABYLON, a new show we're making. The person on the other end of the phone was someone  I like, respect and who knows a lot more about theatre than I do, has spoken to far many more theatre-makers than I have, and has a far better notion of what is happening nationally and internationally than I do. 

She asked about BABYLON. I told her it was a folk show touring pubs; that we're taking our new show on national tour to as many pubs as we can in a month. She asked why. I said that we we had managed to make some good friends, other companies or touring schemes who had been willing to take a punt and help get BABYLON in to their local - brilliant people like Point Blank, Fine Chisel, Greenwich Theatre and Theatre Orchard. And she asked why I thought all these people we're starting to make work in that way - or build those sorts of networks.

Of course, making work in pubs is nothing new. There are pub theatres everywhere. But I'm 25 and have grown up going to theatres. I live in the middle of North Yorkshire in the countryside and, as a kid, we went to the theatre - the building. I have been lucky enough to work in theatre full time since I graduated - and almost full time before that. We've worked in a lot of theatres. I work in a theatre now, York Theatre Royal, a wonderful big building - a regional producing theatre. But, instead of theatres, we have actively chosen to tour our show to pubs, and seemingly so are other people. Why? It's a good question. 

My initial answer was economics. That's a good answer for most things at the minute. But it's true. I think it probably is cheaper to create a show for pubs - or at least the outlay is cheaper. However the potential income is far lower. But, if you're making work in a pub then you're not asking people to drive for an hour to then spend £25 to come and sit in a big dark room with you; you're asking people to walk across the road and spend £8 tops. My second answer was audiences. Taking a show to an audience, rather than getting them to come to you. Again, old news - this is a brilliant idea which every rural touring scheme and company in the country will swear by. But it's true. I see people at shows in our local pub - take Midnight At The Boar's Head by Fringe First winning company, Fine Chisel - who I would never see in a proper big theatre. So it's partly that. 

To be honest, though, it's because I like it. It feels right. 

On the 2nd of January, Joe Hufton (the director), Amos Jacob (the stage manager) and me spent the day sorting our rehearsal room. It involved shifting laundry, boxes full of pint glasses, logs that were in there drying, a cat which needed to find a new shed to live in, clearing and cleaning the various detritus the cat had left behind, and lifting an actual vintage car outside. We're rehearsing in a brick barn out the back of The Fauconberg Arms. It's very cold but it's very wonderful. There's a beautiful view over the North York Moors. Last night, I found the cast wrapped around the piano, by the fire in the bar, writing a new song with a pint. Ed can be found chopping wood outside. This all feels very normal, very relaxed. A very lovely place to be. 

And I think that's it - I/we feel at home here. Maybe I/we don't feel at home in theatres. Or our work doesn't feel at homes in theatres. Theatre buildings are wonderful places, but there are an odd, learnt set of rules and expectations that go with them. Theatre: 'What time does your show start' - '7:30' / Pub: 'What time does your show start' - 'Probably around 8 but we'll play a few songs and wait until everyone's in, they can bring their food in with them.'

We're very lucky. We have small grant from Arts Council for this tour. So we can work how the pubs want us to. Some have separate rooms, some a space around the corner, some just have the one bar. BABYLON, our show, doesn't have a tech spec, doesn't have a minimum playing space, doesn't need a blackout, it doesn't have a set financial deal - it can play anywhere because we genuinely want it to play anywhere. We want it to play to people, to communities, and we want to try and play where communities gather. 

People gather in theatres to see theatre. People gather in pubs to talk and chat and drink and eat. Often, theatres are empty pretty soon after the show has finished. Almost no pub I've been to closes it's doors at 11pm with the bar having been voluntarily vacated. 

In some ways it's hard work because we're making a new network - working in lots of pubs who don't put on theatre, who haven't had a company tour there before. But it's an experiment, the beginning of something, hopefully. And, looking at the worst case scenario, if noone turns up, I'd rather be sat in an empty pub than and empty black box. But fingers crossed we'll be in pubs full of wonderful folk. 

But never in a million years would I want rid of any theatres whatsoever. Theatres and theatre buildings are hugely important. I remember Joyce McMillan saying that you could tell what industry had failed by what buildings the arts were using - old churches, old factories, empty shops. If the theatre buildings fail then we're in a sorry state of void affairs. But in the last month two pubs which support the arts in Manchester  - The Black Lion and the Lass O Gowrie - have closed. We were touring to The Black Lion and that's where we rehearsed and opened our Some Small Love Story / Beulah tour. For us, these buildings are as important. 

The next five and a half weeks are exciting. We're off to perform in 25 pubs around the UK. Some old, some new, some borrowed. Some ticketed, some on fees, some Pay What You Think. And perhaps 'pubs' is the wrong word - we're off to Slung Low's HUB too - so 'spaces which belong to and are used by a wide bunch of people' might be better?

If it goes well, we'll keep doing. In a few years we might have figured out why. But, I think, right now, it just sort of feels like the right place for us to be heading. BABYLON is a show about communities, about sharing things, about the importance of people, about taking decent care and consideration of each other. It's also got a bunch of damn good folk music in it. Pubs feels like the right place to be. And let's not get too worthy or clever about it - it's damn good fun. And it should be fun. / @FlanCol