I’ve been reading a few blog posts from Slung Low recently. I haven’t yet seen their work, but I love their attitude to theatre and marketing it.
Before I began touring, I expected that after making our first 2 person show, and tour many small studio theatres, I would go on to bigger (and presumedly better) things, such as a 5 person show to mid-scale venues, and onto make larger and larger work. That was to be, I then thought, my marker of success.
Ahead of my second tour of The Hot Dots, when people asked where we were going, I proudly announced that we would be performing at The Lowry, Theatre By The Lake, and the like. Don’t get me wrong- I absolutely loved performing at both of those venues (despite breaking my big toe a couple of hours prior to the Keswick show). The venues I thought more prestigious were those I showcased, whilst keeping rather quiet about venues such as Keinton Mandeville Hall, Kilmersdon Village Hall and No. 8 Community Arts Centre. What a snob I was!
These were the very venues where we were most welcomed, with packed out audiences and lively post-show Q&As. Villages where people were so delighted to have something going on in their hall. On the whole, these audiences were not those who regularly consumed contemporary circus. One or two might have made a trip to London to see Cirque du Soleil- but for most, this was totally new for them. We were welcomed in, not only to their halls, but to their homes. We were offered dinner, and homemade chutney and elderflower wine. We were introduced to Wassailing and told the village gossip. We turned around halls with low-ceilinged stages, putting most of the audience onstage instead, so that I didn’t hit the roof.
What I love about this blog post by Slung Low is that they absolutely throw out any tiny bit of pretentiousness, in order to achieve their larger goal of bringing new, brilliant theatre to those who would otherwise miss out on it.
So whether it’s making wings out of upended trestle-tables or sitting in a caravan in Tesco’s carpark, this sleeves-up approach is absolutely what I love about theatre.
This is a picture of 500 tickets to The White Whale.
The White Whale by James Phillips is the new Slung Low show. A free adaptation of Moby Dick. It will perform on a floating stage with boats and fire effects and harpoons and flares and storms. The audience stand around the side of Leeds Dock and listen to the action through headphones whilst it takes place in front of them.
We’re planning for it to be a piece of theatre spectacle; combining the wow effect of outdoor events with the dramatic intensity of a piece of theatre. That’s the plan. (www.thewhitewhale.org)
The idea won the Leeds Inspired large grant, a £40,000 commission for ideas from artists who wanted to create an accessible event for the people of Leeds.
The tickets are free. They were always intended to be free. This is in keeping with the direction of travel that Slung Low has been on for a long time and that is preached and practiced weekly at the makeshift arts centre that we run in South Leeds, The Holbeck Underground Ballroom. It’s a complicated exploration that needs constantly defining, redefining and developing of how we value things, how theatre companies can behave in these straightened times, what is the definition of success and what are the ways that artists can respond to the preposterous demand for constant growth.*
Tickets being free for the White Whale is one of the responses to these questions and challenges, another way is the company wage we operate (more on that here). There are others.
Mostly The White Whale, its epic production style, its subject matter, how James has written it and yes the tickets being free are all focused on making a piece of theatre that might be equally attractive to those who love adventurous theatre already and those who fervently believe that theatre isn’t for them.
But free tickets are only any use if you hear about the event. And you are only going to hear about the event if someone tells you, and you are willing to listen. If you don’t think that theatre is for you you are unlikely to seek out the theatre pages of the Guardian. If you don’t think that theatre is for you then you are unlikely to have signed up to the mailing list of Slung Low, or Leeds’ Grand Theatre. In fact if you don’t think that theatre is for you then you are unlikely to even pay any attention to the big poster you see at the train station for the theatre show that I am sure everyone would love if only they gave it a go.
In fact if we can’t tell people who wouldn’t normally think theatre is for them about The White Whale then the decision to give the tickets away for free is doing more harm than good because I think the 400 people who immediately signed up for tickets after we announced on twitter would have paid money for them.
So we’ve given this quandary real thought. In a world of limited resources it would be a dereliction to spend all our resources on marketing to people who think that theatre isn’t for them. We could potentially end up with no audience.
This belief that many have that theatre isn’t for them is systematic, it’s learnt behaviour. It isn’t based on actually having ever gone to the theatre. It’s based on decades of how we speak about theatre, of how we market theatre, of Julian Fellowes** on the radio, it’s based on decades of the word luvvie being used by lazy journalists. And yes, sadly, based on hearing the stories told by others of money and evenings wasted on some truly terrible theatre and the perfectly reasonable desire to avoid that at all costs.
But I hold on to the sincere belief (I have to, I’m 35 and can’t go and do anything else now) that if you tell people in actual words that human beings use, rather than arts speak gibberish that alienates so many, what it is and why it is exciting then more people will be interested. That a lot of how we have been talking to people about theatre assumes that they already understand what is exciting about it. That’s not going to get it done any more, if the theatre world is going to survive in anything resembling it’s current relevance then attracting large numbers of those who think theatre isn’t for them has got to happen.
The people who aren’t meeting us half way are the people we wanted to attract with The White Whale, that was the point.
So (amongst many other things including a ‘proper’ marketing and press campaign) we have printed off 500 tickets to The White Whale. And over the next five weeks our airstream caravan is going on a tour. A tour of some of Leeds’ town galas (Beeston, Kirkstall, Holbeck for example) and supermarket car parks. We’ll park up and spend the day telling people about The White Whale. In return for an email address (to remind them nearer the time) those who are interested can have tickets: we’ve printed them off ready.
Up to and including the Conservative Culture Minister, we in the arts now believe that culture should be excellent, affordable and accessible. Maybe we all always believed that. But those words don’t mean the same things to everyone. £10 is an absolute bargain for a play I think. But if you’ve never been to the theatre and only ever heard stories of people getting swindled by trips to hoary old crappy plays that talked down to the audience then £10 is a good two hours in an All You Can Eat Chinese Buffet and only a mug turns that down.
Yeah that’s right. This blog is basically me letting you know that I am going to sit in supermarket car parks and tell people about theatre in the hope that they’ll come and see our free play.
I don’t know whether this will have an impact. But I do know that we are hopeful and we promised to do it. So do it we shall.
A friend of the company suggested the other day that we might be reaching a peak of quixotic behaviour. Not even got started yet. All aboard, I reckon that windmill is looking at us funny.
More dates will be announced but for now the Airstream caravan is confirmed in:
Sat 14th June – Beeston Festival
Wed 18th June – Tesco Extra/Seacroft Green
Thurs 19th June – Morrisons Harehills
Sat 28th & Sun 29th June – Waterfront Festival, Leeds Dock
Fri 11 July Trinity Leeds City Centre
Sat 12th July – Kirkstall Festival
*It’s also a process based on where Slung Low is and what we want to achieve. We’re not telling anyone else how to do their business, so take your “Well try that with a staff of 65 full time professional staff!” indignation elsewhere, I’m not buying. This is Slung Low’s way, we don’t think anyone else should be made to walk it. Although all fellow travellers are welcome to join us for a stroll, naturally.
** There are people who say that this isn’t all Julian Fellowes fault and it’s unfair that I keep blaming him. Those people are puddin’ heads and should keep their opinions to themselves. In addition I also lay the blame for some of this at the feet of Simon Callow and his stories on Wogan.