This blog features a provocation I wrote for INCUBATE: PROPAGATE - Networked Ecologies of New Performance-Making hosted at The Central School of Speech and Drama in June 2017. My specific question to explore was 'What’s Working? Platforms, Strategies and Partnerships for Extending New Work Development?'
Scheme, Initiative, Programme, Platform, Call-out: these are all words found on many of the leading arts organisation’s websites when you search for artist development or opportunities to make new work in England. There are numerous places you can go. You could try scratch at BAC for a chance to present an early idea in front of an audience, or apply to the Starting Blocks Scheme at Camden People’s Theatre to benefit from artist peers, space and the Sprint Festival platform. If very early in your career you could apply for a No Strings Attached grant from Farnham Maltings to create your first piece of work, or apply to be part of the Graduate Companies programme at New Diorama to gain training and the opportunity to develop your overall practice.
In a lot of ways we as a sector are doing pretty well in supporting new work to be created.
But today, rather than focus on the numerous schemes, initiatives, programmes, platforms and call-outs available for us to learn from and engage with, I’m going to look at partnerships. Not just partnerships in the organisational sense, but what is to be gained from exploring the specific partnership between an artist and producer. Because, when tasked with this question, this relationship was the first thing I thought of.
To this end, I’ve created a list of the characteristics I see in successful artist / producer relationships, which in turn supports the artist to flourish and develop new work.
Fiona Baxter at Farnham Maltings has worked with Little Bulb Theatre for 9 years, Kate McGrath at Fuel and Inua Ellams have collaborated for 9 years and Jo Crowley has been with 1927 for around that time too. I myself worked with physical theatre company Rhum and Clay for four years, and know the difference it makes when an understanding of an artist’s practice has developed over a greater amount of time. The support of an artist over a number of years not only develops new work but extends their overall sustainability and resilience.
Or marriage as it can sometimes feel. It’s a common joke with producers that you can feel like artist’s partners, spouses, or parents when you work to support their work and practice.
The personal relationship is the foundation on which a successful collaboration is built. And it’s not exclusively found in the independent sector – if an organisation’s leadership empowers the wider team to hold and support those relationships, friendships across teams can grow – Victoria Melody, produced also by Farnham Maltings, is an example of this, who on arrival to the building wanders up to the office to check in with the whole theatre team and share news of her latest project.
With friendship comes the recognition that the artist has a life, that they are artists all of the time and their wider life and challenges impact on the development of new work. I’ve packed extra towels when heading on tour because I knew an artist would forget, I’ve taken calls at midnight because a new idea just had to be discussed. And I’ve seen organisations recognise personal challenges of artists too – when Little Bulb were first starting their relationship with the Maltings they were all living separately and trying to make it work in London on artist wages – the Maltings, with a resource through circumstance which I understand is rare, was able to provide the company with a cottage next to the building in which all of the artists could live on reasonable rent.
When an artist has had to go through application processes and interviews to reach the opportunity on offer, I wonder how much they feel trusted and empowered by the organisation behind it. This, like friendship, takes time but is vital in enabling them to create new work in a supportive environment. The artist / producer relationship is founded on trust – that the artist can reach their vision of the work, and that the Producer will be able to fundraise and advocate for it.
Much more than a logo, within a collaboration it’s key to recognise the creative team, producers and organisations fairly. Trickier is how to express recognition in partnerships or wider networks – though this is possible if thought is given to how the artist is asked to express the relationship within their supporting marketing materials. It’s also worth highlighting that not all support should be expressed in the same way – I have spent much time trying to squeeze 10 logos onto a flyer design when those involved have supported the production in totally different ways – from in-kind rehearsal space to substantial commissioning money. Surely there is a better way to express recognition and support from partners which supports and not burdens a marketing campaign.
For an independent producer supporting an artist in raising all of the funds necessary to enable a production to happen, the risk is very real. If the money doesn’t come in then you’re not paid. Or if less money comes then you’re paid less like everyone else. Platforms and opportunities from organisations to support new work creation are also taking risk of course, but too often I’ve heard of organisations not supporting the second stage R&D because the first showing wasn’t what they were expecting. The risk the producer faces acts as a bond to the artist – that you’re both in it together. Though hard to replicate in a formal programme or partnership, an awareness of where the risk is placed would be beneficial.
Because of the time, friendship, recognition and trust between a producer and artist the R&D or show which didn’t succeed is looked past, and instead the future and the next new piece of work is focussed on and work towards. And all the while, producers don’t call this anything specific like a programme or initiative. It’s about supporting the artist to lead their own development and the development of their work.
When thinking about establishing a new kind of partnership or strategy to support new work, going back to these simple characteristics will make for a more interesting, genuine and relevant idea to the sector and the challenges we face currently.