STAMP Connects: The theatre world demystified

STAMP is a network of London-based theatres and theatre organisations, including the Barbican, the Old Vic, Battersea Arts Centre, the Yard and others, dedicated to supporting artists. On Thursday 1 February they held an event at Shoreditch Town Hall for emerging theatre and performance-makers to learn more about breaking into the theatre world.

There are 35 organisations in the STAMP network. Some are massive, some are tiny; some have vast spaces, some have no space at all but there’s one thing they all share: “We all work with artists to bring their ideas to life,” said Shoreditch Town Hall director James Pidgeon in his welcome speech. The idea behind the event – STAMP’s biggest to date – was that, particularly at the beginning of your career, the ins and outs of how theatres produce new work can seem pretty mystifying and the only way to understand the industry is from the inside.

“Soak up the knowledge, ask questions, eke out as much information as possible from us!”

James urged artists as they poured in, clutching tea and biscuits. The main hall was a buzzing marketplace, where stalls from 23 organisations were on hand, sharing information about their artist development programmes and youth projects. But a hush fell on the space for three fascinating in-conversations, during which Kneehigh Artistic Director Mike Shephard, poet and playwright Inua Ellams and Graeae CEO and Artistic Director Jenny Sealey each talked about routes into the industry and their unique approaches to making new work.

Mike Shephard recounted how Kneehigh was born “out of adversity.” He’d started his career working as a teacher in a secondary school in Archway where “the students completely ignored me,” he explained. “I tried everything. I showed films, played music, danced and they still ignored me. Then I got a polaroid camera and they wanted to take pictures of themselves.” He took them off into the streets and photography turned into graffiti turned into a kind of performance.

This unlikely start laid the foundations for Kneehigh’s approach. “I’m still really interested in the conditions for creativity. It has a lot to do with not knowing what you’re doing,” Mike said, before talking about how, after leaving his teaching job, he started the company following a “horrendous, humiliating” failed audition for Levi jeans. Together with “a random group” of people in Cornwall, Mike started a pop-up venue called The Asylum, performed in the pouring rain, battled broken toilets, and put on homemade firework displays until the authorities caught wind and made them get proper security. The Asylum is still going – and Kneehigh has taken him to the backstreets of Bogota to the jungle in Calais, bringing theatre performed “joyful anarchy” to everyone.

For Dajana from 27 Degrees Theatre Company, Mike’s talk was a real highlight. “I came here today because I’m starting research and development on a new project so I wanted to meet venues and find out more about what they do. I found what Mike said really motivational and inspiring,” she said. “Life as an artist can be up and down and it’s good to hear that others are struggling too.” Caleb of Shake it Up, a new improv Shakespeare company was there because “at some point I don’t just want to perform in a pub but in a theatre space,” while Jude of 44 Theatre added:

“It can be lonely producing a play on your own. Today’s been really energising.”

Over in the council chambers room, panels discussions were underway with organisations Soho Theatre, Gate Theatre, Artsadmin and Ovalhouse, sharing insights into how they programme. The question on everyone’s lips was what are theatre companies really looking for? “Our biggest space is for 150. It’s intimate. We want to see work that takes that into account,” said Charlotte Bennett, Associate Director at Soho Theatre, adding: “But often you don’t know until you find it. We want to give a feeling of what we’re looking for but we’re wary of being too prescriptive.”

Ovalhouse Theatre are after “authentic stories, people who have a real connection to the story.” For the Barbican it’s all about “experimental, multi-disciplinary projects. In applications to the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award, we’re looking for bold, innovative, challenging work – something that we haven’t seen before” says Producer Leanne Cosby. Penned in the Margins are “really keen to publish more writing by BAME writers” said Director Tom Chivers.

Diversity was a theme that came up throughout the panels. “For a long time, theatres understood diversity as casting non-white actors in plays but more work needs to be done,” pointed out Gate Theatre Associate Director Anthony Simpson Pike. “How diverse are the people making the decisions? A theatre might have 20 black people working there but in the bar, not making decisions,” he continued. “It goes to the heart of who is allowed to tell stories on stage.”

Many theatres now have diversity policies, officers or schemes aimed at supporting theatre-makers from diverse backgrounds. Anthony benefited from taking part in a scheme called Artistic Directors of the Future. Unlike some, Ovalhouse has a quota that two thirds of their programme must be led by diverse artists, while the Barbican Open Labs scheme for emerging artists, monitors representation of different groups. Although Gate Theatre don’t operate quotas, they’d never have an all-white or all-male cast or make a piece of theatre that feels “exclusive”.

The wide-ranging conversations also touched on programing for younger theatre goers – they’re all doing more of it – and the Edinburgh Fringe – a great opportunity to get your work seen but expensive and by no means the only route in – and tips for sending that first email to a theatre. “You want to feel that it’s bespoke to you and your venue,” said Leanne. Ovalhouse Head of Theatre and Artistic Development Owen Calvert-Lyons agreed but failing that, recommended including “a really sharp trailer that gives a sense of the work.” Don’t just blandly list all the venues you’ve worked with, said Ashleigh Wheeler, Producer at the Yard Theatre, who was chairing the discussion, “it’s more compelling to talk about what you’re excited about.”

Two sessions with Arts Council England about funding for emerging practitioners proved extremely popular. Will Young was a theatre producer before he started working at ACE so he’s had personal experience of the challenges faced by members of the audience. From the next financial year (April 2018) Grants for the Arts, ACE’s main funding stream of interest to early career artists, will become Arts Council National Lottery Project Grants. Plus there will be a new grant called Developing Your Creative Practice (DCP), with four application rounds per year.

You can read more about Project Grants here but essentially they aren’t going to be all that different to GTA beyond an increased overall budget available, a new openness to funding projects in creative and digital media, and some small changes to the online application process. DCP will offer grants of £2-10k to individuals who need funding for research and development. Unlike with Project Grants (and Grants for the Arts), there is no public engagement requirement. It’s designed to support artists develop their careers and artistic practice – as the name suggests.

Whichever grant you’re applying for, keep Will’s words in mind: “Be clear, be engaging. Use subheaders! Think about what it might be like to be a busy person reading your application.Tell us what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Draft it, give it to a friend who isn’t in the arts, get them to read it for five minutes and tell you what they gleaned. Never make assumptions, always give evidence.” But don’t get so hung up on ticking boxes “that you lose your authentic voice.”

Great advice not just for funding applications – but for every step of your creative life!

Find out more about STAMP here.

Written by Rachel Segal Hamilton.