We are delighted to welcome back Jolie Booth as a guest blogger on FringeReview. Jolie’s blog Hip at the Fringe followed her journey as a theatre maker. This year, Jolie charts reflects on her role as a producer of work that is part of the British Council Showcase…
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Being Selected for the Showcase
It’s very excited to be taking TESTOSTERONE by Rhum and Clay, in collaboration with trans performer Kit Redstone, up to the British Council Showcase in Edinburgh this year. This is the second showcase in a row that a production I’ve produced has been selected, so I thought that this time I’d share my experiences and tips. So here it goes…
First of all, to get onto the British Council Showcase you need to apply. The showcase is biannual and the application process opens around October of the fallow year. To be kept in the loop follow the Showcase Blog here.
I’m beginning to appreciate what kind of work the showcase is looking for… On the road with Backstage in Biscuit Land last year one of the wonderful things we discovered is how progressive the UK is. I mean obviously there’s a long way to go still, but in terms of conversations regarding access and inclusion, excluding Canada, the UK felt leagues ahead of many of the countries we visited. This should be celebrated. Which is what the British Council’s creative arm is for – celebrating British culture. As an aside, I think it would be in the British Council’s interest to do some promotion of this achievement in the UK too. All too often the narrative of being a ‘Brit’ includes the image of drunk xenophobic skin heads, but the reality is that we are inclusive progressives, and this is something we should be shouting about from the roof tops and proud of, it ought to be part of the ‘What it means to be a Brit’ lexicon. It makes sense therefore that Backstage in Biscuit Land was selected to be part of the showcase and TESTOSTERONE equally so. Both harbour a series of powerful, important conversations at the heart of a high quality playful piece of theatre. Not all work in the showcase is political, it’s showcasing quality work first and foremost, work that will sell to international audiences, but if that quality is also moving relevant conversations forward and is challenging cultural norms then all the better.
You don’t have to be an established theatre company to be selected, Backstage in Biscuit Land was Touretteshero’s first ever theatre show, but Touretteshero did already have a proven track record of delivering high quality events, talks and training, so you do have to demonstrate that you are able to deliver work that will represent the country in a professional light whilst overseas.
Last of all, the British Council need to have seen the work. This can be sent to them as a film, but it’s always better for them to have seen the show live.
Once Selected for the Showcase by the British Council
The British Council will contact you and let you know if your application has been successful. If it has then they will ask you to give them some additional information about your company and then they will send over a production company to meet you to make a promotional video for them to use as a way of introducing your work to the international delegates attending the showcase. To see examples of these videos then the one for Backstage in Biscuit Land is here and the one for TESTOSTERONE is here.
You need to then look back at your application and cast a critical eye over your budgeting and offer. Strangely, the British Council Showcase isn’t really that different from a normal Edinburgh run, in that you still book your own venue and do all the same promotion you would normally do (though obviously the additional marketing of being part of the showcase helps vastly) and in terms of putting together your information pack you need to think along the same lines as you would normally for touring to UK venues. Your budget for touring internationally needs to be realistic – no one has any money anymore – and your offer has to stand out. Just because you’re in the showcase doesn’t mean the delegates are going to book you. It’s no different to a normal run in that sense. There are many things to consider when trying to get booked, for example dance shows will always do well because there isn’t the language barrier. If your work is text heavy then non-English speaking countries will need to know why their audience might want to come and see your show? In this case it either needs to be visually spectacular, or high quality work that is exceptional to watch and can be enjoyed even if you don’t understand the language, or it involves challenging social and cultural norms in some way that can be utilised as an agent for change. Just like with UK tour booking, your work isn’t necessarily going to be right for all audiences at all the venues you approach, so don’t be disappointed if a delegate can’t see you fitting in with their programming.
But there are ways to make yourself more enticing.
For example, the legacy of touring Backstage in Biscuit Land was that the venues we visited had to rethink their backstage areas. Funnily enough we didn’t know this was going to happen when we set out to do the show, even though the title of the show suggests otherwise. The reason for this was that in theatres the front of house is accessible, but an assumption is often made at the design stage that wheelchair users will not be needing to access the backstage areas of the theatre and therefore backstage can often lack accessible toilets, dressing rooms and even wheelchair access to the stage. One of the legacies left behind from touring the show therefore was for venues to rethink the design of their buildings, creating a cultural shift in expectations that will hopefully make it easier for other performers who are wheelchair users in the future. With TESTOSTERONE we are hoping for the same kind of legacy, with regards to supporting trans audiences and performers, the issue of gendered toilets being an immediate conversation that springs to mind. If a show is likely to encourage a trans audience to the venue, how is the venue going to let this new possible audience stream know that they are entering a safe space that has considered their needs and is welcoming. Offering gender neutral toilets is an immediate action the venue can take that speaks volumes. Both front of house and backstage.
With the information sheet therefore (to be given out at the Networking Events, which I’ll talk about in my next post) your budget needs to be reasonable, your information needs to entice and you need to have considered what you’re offering to the delegates. After that it’s pretty much a normal Edinburgh Fringe run. You’ll be told when you can announce to the public that you’re in the showcase and you are encouraged to do this with great aplomb… And rightly so. In a festival of over 3000 productions, a showcase that makes you stand out from the crowd is a massive boost, for the show you’re presenting and for your future as a company. It’s a big deal and the fringe is a lot of fun when the ride has been made this much easier for you. But it is a responsibility. You are representing, not just the UK culturally, but also theatre as a sector. We tend to want to impress and make a difference in the world as theatre makers, and this is an opportunity to do just that.
Producing a show for the British Council Showcase Pt3
Network, Network, Network!
I love networking, which is lucky, as that’s the main point of the British Council Showcase. Obviously the delegates from around the world come and see your show during their visit and decide if it is for them or not. The work speaks the most. If your show isn’t going to be suitable for their audience then they ain’t gonna book ya. But it is possible to win over delegates who perhaps can’t quite see how the work will fit in, but are open to persuasion. That’s when the networking events come in… There are three types of main events; the opening ceremony, the networking breakfasts and the closing party.
The opening ceremony is fabulous. It makes you feel really special and it is the moment when you get to see everyone’s faces, so you know over the coming week that these people are either fellow performers, producers or international delegates. Clock them, remember them, and if you don’t get the chance to speak to them at one of the networking events then you might bump into them at another show. I won the pot of cash at Money by Kaleider in 2015 by buying into the table in the last half hour and suggesting the money goes to Touretteshero (because they wanted to give the money to a good cause, a performer and to something that was fun. Touretteshero ‘ticced’ all these boxes) and at the show (because it was also in the showcase) were delegates from South Korea. They then grabbed me at the next breakfast to say hello and to congratulate me on the win.
The breakfasts are great. The British Council put on a proper good spread and everyone’s there downing coffee and chatting shop. Don’t stress out. Eat your fill, don’t worry about having to look like you’re talking to someone the whole time. It’s early, so get your sugar and caffeine levels up first of all and then worry about networking. If you see a friendly face latch onto them and go prepared with some interesting tales to tell and decent questions that will ensure the person you’ve latched onto has to talk to you for a little while at least. It’s a good idea to know at least a bit about each show on the showcase so that you know who people are if you find yourself speaking to a fellow performer. Have your packs to hand – this is your information sheet, a flyer, your business card and any other bits you can afford to add in, all within a plastic wallet. Some people get badges made or stickers. If you can afford it then do it. If you can’t then don’t worry, the most important thing is the show.
Top tip with business cards… Make sure there’s room in the design to be able to write stuff on them. If there’s a recognisable thing about you (I’ve got leopard print hair for example) then write this onto your cards before putting them into the packs. It’s personable and means they won’t forget who you are. Make sure when you’re get a card given to you, as soon as the person who gave it to you leaves, write on the card what you talked about and where, so you’re not left with a load of meaningless cards at the end of the fringe. This was the best networking tip anyone ever gave me and means business cards remain useful years after they were given to you.
The last event is the end of Showcase party. Everyone wants to go to this and it’s a proper party. Obviously don’t do anything stupid, but do have fun. We got a few extra bookings from being the most fun people at the party in 2015. Think about it, if you run a venue then not only are you looking for great shows, but you also collect great people. If you liked a team and thought it would be fun to hang out with them then you’re likely to programme them at your venue, invite them over to your country and hang out with them. Do be yourself, have fun – don’t get pissed and try and pull – but do get pissed, dance and be fabulous.
Tour, Tour, Tour!
It can take ages for anything to happen, so don’t be impatient, but make sure when you get home you email the people you met. You’re given a book filled with the delegates you meet and it has photos. After presenting Backstage in Biscuit Land at the showcase, when I got home, I went through this booklet with a highlighter and marked off everyone I’d met and anyone I thought the show would be of interest to, whether I’d met them or not. Then I emailed them all personally, sending the information sheet again and let them know we were interested in working with them. We fairly quickly secured a date in Toronto. This meant that the game was on for building a North American tour, because venues need to share the costs if possible. We were able to secure shows in New York, San Francisco and LA. This took place in March, the spring after the showcase, which was pretty quick. It was great. The accommodation provided for us was incredible and the venues were so warm and welcoming.
Visas and tax are a nightmare so you have to just relax and take your time with this. Get as much help as you can from the British Council, who have done this job a thousand times. Whatever you do don’t panic. If anything goes wrong and your visa gets rejected it’s not the end of the line necessarily. These folks are used to this happening and they’re there to help.
We also got booked for a tour in Australia of Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide, which happened at the end of the year after the showcase. There were also separate bookings in Belgrade, Sweden and Norway. This has been since 2015 and there’s always the possibility that more shows abroad will be booked in still.
The show translated well into the different cultures we visited and was warmly received. As mentioned before it felt like we were making a difference in the world and this is such an honour. Really the the whole reason I make theatre is to try and make the world a better place and to mix this with getting to travel as part of my dream job… Well, it’s the experience of a lifetime.
We are creeping closer to the half way point of this year’s Edinburgh Festival and it has been the usual rollercoaster ride of ups and downs, but this year’s fringe really has been an eye opening experience for my team here at TESTOSTERONE. Having produced a number of different productions at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival over many years now, this has been the first time that a show my awesome team and I have flyered for has caused such a visibly disdainful reaction. TESTOSTERONE has proven to be much more divisive than I think we had perhaps naively expected. Although TESTOSTERONE is not simply a trans narrative, but an objective look at the sometimes toxic world of masculinity through the eyes of a new man, around one in ten tables of punters start slipping each other sideways glances as soon as you mention there’s a transgender person at the centre of this show. Some people are outright telling us this show is not for them as soon as we mention this.
There are many productions with transgender narratives at the Fringe this year. The overwhelming difference between TESTOSTERONE and the other shows being presented is that our production is not about being transgender or transitioning. That does appear as part of Kit’s story, but our focus is one step beyond that, transitioning has happened and is a thing of the past. What we’re interested in is what then happens once a FTM transgender person becomes immersed in the world of masculinity? What is the difference between the two gender worlds that they have experienced? What has Kit learnt? What has been gained and what has been lost? What does it mean to be a man? The perspective of TESTOSTERONE has far more in common with Grayson Perry’s The Descent of Man than it does with the other trans narrative shows at the Fringe this year. Perry observes in his ground breaking book that “Gender inequality is a huge issue for all of us and… the world would be a better place without it.” “I often look at men and think that they seem to be victims of this drive to perform their gender. What are they afraid of? Why do they play the man so extremely, whether with muscles or knowledge or wit?” “Boys are taught to be brave but in quite a specific way, mainly when facing physical danger on the sports field or in the playground. But what about emotional danger?” TESTOSTERONE is an almost feminist, light unpacking of this big and crucial issue. It’s not providing answers, merely signposting theatre goers who might not have heard of Perry’s argument to the beginning of the conversation.
But because there’s a trans person at the centre of this provocation it has proven to be divisive. We knew it would be, but it is interesting to experience this out in the field. I’ve said for years now that if it can be true to say that the future exists in a science lab somewhere then it can also be true to say that the future of culture exists at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. When I came here three years ago with Backstage in Biscuit Land by Touretteshero, the theatre and entertainment landscape across the UK presented a noticeably different face to the one we see now. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe itself was significantly less accessible, fewer theatres around the UK had considered how a person who uses a wheelchair might gain access to their stage – let alone get around the dressing rooms or have use of an accessible toilet from backstage. Comedians were still making inappropriate jokes about mental health and disability. It was socially normally for people to use discriminative language as part of their everyday speech. Three years later and any comedians making the same kind of jokes now get lampooned for it, language on the whole has been cleared up, and – in no small part influenced by the success of Backstage in Biscuit Land -many festivals around the UK are now much more on it with regards to Access, including the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. There’s still a long way to go obviously and it’s not all down to Touretteshero, but Jess Thom’s work has been a big driving force. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe implemented a three year access improvement business plan off the back of a meeting and discussion they had with Jess about her problems with getting around the city. The Pleasance Courtyard, which presented Backstage in Biscuit Land, has gone through a redevelopment and access has been at the heart of their improvements. Venues the show toured to throughout the UK have been able to push access to the fore – many of these local authority run, and often one of the last front line services being offered by councils and often the last department thinking about access and inclusion at the moment. By presenting a show like Backstage in Biscuit Land and inviting Councillors to see the show, venues have been able to demonstrate the need to implement a host of step changes in improving access and inclusion at their venue and throughout the council as well as helping cement their importance as a necessary front line service. Last of all, relaxed performances and access needs have become woven into the very fabric of theatre making. The culture around access in this country has noticeably shifted since one little production of Backstage in Biscuit Land nervously wheeled out onto the stage for the first time at the Pleasance Above in 2014.
And we are already seeing the same with trans issues of inclusion at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Many of the venues now have gender neutral toilets. I keep hearing the same conversation where ever I go… Men complaining they have to queue more now. Women pleased they no longer have to queue for so long. But no one really outright objecting. People get used to things very quickly… That’s why we’ve done so well as a species. We adapt. In three or four years time this will almost certainly be the norm all over the country. And the sneers and up turned noses being experienced by my flyer team and I at the moment is simply paving the way for future trans performers whowill be flyering this very same courtyard years from now without it being any kind of big deal at all. Adapting to be more inclusive and thoughtful of the needs of other people on the fringes of society is one of the best things about being British. We do it. And I think part of the reason why we are one of the more inclusive societies in the world is because we have the Edinburgh Fringe Festival driving this along. And then we take that drive and promote this inclusion all over the globe through the work of the British Council. It feels great to be part of this pollination process and it gives me the strength to continue flyering regardless of the rain and intermittent sour faces. We are paving the way for future smiles.
What a rollercoaster ride of a month August turned out to be… I’ve just got back from a break post Edinburgh (which I always book in each year otherwise you just don’t stop when you get back) and in a position now to be able to look back at that month objectively, I have to say it was the hardest Fringe show I have ever produced. Why? Well, partly the ticket sales seemed down somewhat across the board. Apparently the Pleasance sales were good – possibly even up – but a news report I listened to said audience numbers across the festival were down, especially in the last week. Which isn’t surprising really considering the current economic climate. But the main reason why this show was difficult is because it was right at the vanguard of change. And that’s exciting of course, the whole point of theatre as far as I’m concerned, but it’s lonely at the vanguard and bloody hard work, I’m the most broken I have ever been after a Fringe. And this time the vanguard was less lonely then it was when I was here last time with Backstage in Biscuit Land. Back in 2014 we were the only high profile show exploring disability, along with The Vacuum Cleaner, also at Pleasance, with his incredible production Mental, exploring invisible disability. This year there were at least five high profile shows exploring transgender narratives. This meant that sometimes we heard punters say things like “Oh we’ve already booked in to see a ‘Trans’ show.” Competition is healthy and the other trans narrative shows at the Fringe this year were great. Together our voices are louder, but it was still competition for ticket sales.
But it isn’t about ticket sales is it? It can’t be or we would never do the Fringe. No, the reasons for doing the Fringe as far as I’m concerned are these…
Edinburgh success checklist;
• Tighten the production – The production significantly tightened and developed during our month long run. The actual show developed and meant it had settled in and we were ready to hit the floor running during the British Council Showcase week at the end of the month.
• Become clearer on how to market the production – Also the marketing settled in as well. The best market research a producer can do is go out and flyer for a few weeks at Edinburgh, you’ll soon find out after a while if what you’re saying to punters matches what is written on the flyer. You discover what the right thing to say is to hook in audiences. Every year I get back from Edinburgh and re-write the show’s blurb.
• Have industry folks talk about the show and want to book us – We managed to get the industry talking about the show. There’s one major way of doing this and that’s to let everyone have a comp who asks for it. That does start coming out of your own pocket eventually, but I think it is an expense that’s worth paying. Industry people talk and they will talk about the show. They are the go to people in their circles of friends who are visiting the festival for information on what shows to go and see. They will talk when they get home. They then will also turn into future bookings for tours. Our comps ended up costing us around £1000, but this will be covered if just one or two of these venues go onto book us, and they already have.
• Receive a positive buzz from audiences – We received a standing ovation nearly every day and people tweeted about the show afterwards. The buzz definitely got out there. This is thanks to a mixture of postering, flyering, press and the industry buzz I mentioned earlier. Industry people tend to tweet, so they definitely helped with our online presence. Another plus to flyering for a show as a producer is you bump into people who saw a performance in the days to come and you can ask them what they thought and how they would sell the show to other audiences? And obviously at the end of each performance we asked the audience to tell their friends about the show and to tweet about it.
• Get good reviews for future touring – For this you need a PR person. You can’t do PR on your own. A good PR person knows the big journalists personally and understands how all the broadsheets, smaller publications and blogs work, so that they can tailor the way they pitch your show to attract as many of the right publications as possible. Reviews do and don’t matter. At the actual Fringe they help with morale and depending on the publication can help a bit with ticket sales, but even a good review or even a whole article from Lyn Gardner does not a full house make. The main use for reviews is for use on your flyers and posters afterwards. With reviews, it is more about the quality of the publication then about the stars. A four star review from Lyn Gardner needs to be up on your poster before and above a five star review from a blogger no one has heard of. If you’re not sure which of your review publications are the most prestigious, look at which ones other companies are using, especially companies you think of as a rung or two above you on the professional ladder.
• Earn a ‘sold out’ laurel – We sold out a good few shows, but we didn’t actually achieve a ‘sold out’ laurel this year. The sell-out status of your show is determined a few weeks after your Fringe box office payout has been sent to you at the end of September. The show would have had to sell 95% of its capacity across the entire registered run (excluding previews) from both the Fringe box office allocation and the venue box office allocation in order to qualify. The copyrighted logo was introduced to combat a growing tendency for shows to advertise a “total sell-out in 2009” when, in fact, they had simply sold out for one night of the run, perhaps when they stuffed the auditorium full of their family and friends. It is a bit arbitrary still though as a 50 seater sell out run receives the same laurel as a 150 seater sell out run. But every little logo helps, especially when it comes to designing your flyers and posters.
• Win an award – We won the Indies award for Best Theatre, Family, Musical or Dance Show at the Pleasance, Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2017, which was great. Awards are like reviews, they help your morale during the Fringe and they are another selling point to promoters and audiences. Even an award nomination is worth talking about.
• Be part of the British Council Showcase and attract international theatre promoters – The showcase week went exceptionally well and was full of surprises. We had been expecting the show to be of interest to the English speaking delegates from places like Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand, but to our surprise it was very much taken up by the South American delegates – from all over South America – and the South East Asian delegates too. These delegates saw the show and then expressed an interest in wanting to book us to bring our production to their countries, which is very exciting news.
Off the back of all this I will now be able to build a national and international tour. This means I am certainly chuffed. It was hard work, but we got what we needed. And the show feels in better shape now then it did when we headed up to Edinburgh at the start of August. Which is the main thing.