The big theatre news in Durham over the last two years has been the appearance of Elysium Theatre Company. Set up by Jake Murray after moving from Manchester to Durham via London and using a core cast he already had links with, the company began with three productions in the Assembly Rooms: Days of Wine and Roses, Jesus Hopped the A Train and a Samuel Beckett double bill. This was then followed by The River at the City Theatre.
But 2019 is the year that marks the transition to bigger stages. Miss Julie is being performed at the Gala Theatre as well as three other venues in the north-east. Most notably, Queen’s Hall Hexham – who originally took on a single performance of The River in their studio space the week after the City Theatre run – are acting as co-producers for this play.
Starting your own theatre company from scratch: a brief introduction.
I am a theatre director of 25 years experience. I have worked freelance during that time, been part of the artistic team of several different theatres, most notably the Royal Exchange in Manchester. I have run my own small theatre company three or four times – Allende Theatre Company, State of Unrest and Panache Theatre Company. In 2017 I founded Elysium TC with my actor friends Danny Solomon and Hannah Ellis Ryan, with a view to directing new plays and classics in the North. Based in Durham, we have split our work between the North East – Durham and Hexham hitherto – and Manchester. This March and April we embark upon our first North East tour with a production of Miss Julie which will play at Queen’s Hall, Hexham, the Gala, Durham, the Exchange, North Shields and the Majestic in Darlington.
Of all the companies I have launched Elysium is the most exciting. We’ve begun to fulfil a long standing dream of mine, which is to build up a proper ensemble with a proper production team which performs a rolling programme of work. Its not an easy thing to do, but for most of us in the Theatre creating your own company is the only thing to do. Now that I live and work in the North East, I meet a lot of young artists and practitioners who are entering a profession which has a distinct lack of opportunity, thanks to years of budget cuts. These people are as passionate and fired up about what they do as any generation before them. What is the best way of helping them realise their dreams? Here are a few thoughts by someone who is having a go:
Why set up your own company at all?
In the absence of any proper funding for the Arts from the Government, the only way forward is to build our own companies. When I started directing in the 1990s British theatre had already been suffering cuts in funding from the Thatcher government throughout the 80s. There was still a reasonable network of regional theatres across the country, but more and more were closing. Back in the day every important city and town in the UK had its own subsidised theatre that did its own work all the year round, meaning gainful employment for actors, directors, designers and so on, and a career ladder. Every important artistic director in the capital had risen through the regional theatre system: Richard Eyre, Sam Mendes, Phyllida Lloyd, Stephen Daldry, Marianne Elliott. Theatre critics used to cover the regions as regularly as they did London. Good work was being done all over.
Now almost no theatre company does its own work all the year round beyond the national companies such as the RSC or the National itself. Theatres like Live and Northern Stage in Newcastle, the Royal Exchange in Manchester, the Birmingham Rep or the Sheffield Crucible do brilliant work, but outside these flagship cities theatre is struggling with underfunding. In the absence of a sudden change of heart at a governmental level the future for the rest of us lies in creating it for ourselves. We have to go back to basics, build our companies from the ground up and build the kind of theatre we want. We all know there is enormous passion and talent out there looking for a home – writers, directors, actors, musicians – all of whom want to tell new stories that speak of our experience today. The only way to do that is to make it happen ourselves. This is, after all, how it was always done before one of the most enlightened governments of the twentieth century decided theatre should be available to all. That time is gone, so it’s up to us.
How do you start?
To begin with, you have to start small. We at Elysium started with a two-hander by modern Belfast-writer Owen MacCafferty, ‘Days Of Wine And Roses’. You’re not likely to start with massive resources, so choose that first play with that knowledge. Make sure you don’t need a massive cast or an enormously expensive set. Fortunately there is a wealth of writing going back to the 1800s that is perfect for that.
If you want a period piece, look at Strindberg’s plays, especially works like ‘Creditors’, ’Miss Julie’ or ‘The Dance Of Death’, all of which were written with his Intimate Theatre in mind. Strindberg never had any money, but was passionate about theatre, so wrote plays that could be done on a shoestring.
If you want something more contemporary, you have everything from Beckett and Pinter to the wealth of modern plays also written for two or three actors. Get out there and read everything you can that has been written and performed in America or Britain since the 90s – Roy Williams, Simon Stephens, Polly Stenham, Duncan MacMillan, Mike Bartlett, Ella Hickson, Laura Wade, Caryl Churchill. There is a host of brilliant playwriting out there written for small casts that will excite people now. A smart move is to look at works that have not been done in your region before. We at Elysium have done three plays that were new to the North East and Manchester, two of which had never been seen in the regions at all – ‘The River’ by Jez Butterworth and ‘Jesus Hopped The A Train’ by Stephen Adly Guirgis. There is a wealth of new writing that gets seen once in this country and never again. The whole of Britain should be seeing them, not just London.
Failing that, find new plays. Many theatres have new writing courses which see talented people pass through them, but can’t then produce their plays. Contact those theatres and ask them to put you in touch with those writers to see if they have anything worth doing. Up here in the North East both Live and Northern Stage are good places to start for that.
The important thing is to find something that isn’t being done by anyone else. Regional premieres like the ones I have mentioned above are a great idea, but also look at how you might be able to reboot classics, or stage musicals, in a way that no-one else is doing in your area. Look for the gap in the market and fill it, find your niche. There is always an appetite for something new, or for something old which has not been seen for a while. Learn what it is and get it out there.
Building a company
Once you’ve got your play, find your actors. A good place to start is always with people you know. Because the going is likely to be tough, you’re going to want to work with people you trust, who excite you and who you know will be as passionate as you. Elysium TC was started by myself and Danny Solomon, an actor I had helped train with whom I had done shows with before. We brought together other actors, producers and practitioners that we knew to start building a team. They brought talented people with them, and gradually Elysium started to form.
Our goal is to build an ensemble of actors who were work with over and over again. We will always seek to expand it, but in building an ensemble we are building a team that enjoys working together and that we know will go that extra mile to deliver the goods. Usually in the theatre you choose a play and cast it, hoping you will find the actors you want. With an ensemble you are choosing your plays with your actors in mind. This is how every great theatre company worked in the past. Shakespeare, Moliere, Chekhov, Brecht and others all wrote for a group of actors they already knew. It brings the best out of everyone, and sees everyone grow as artists together. Everyone is focused on getting the very best out of the material you are working on, a shorthand is found in the rehearsal room, everyone has a stake in the future of the company. It’s the best way. As the company grows and is more successful, everyone grows with it.
Be prepared for the fact that we no longer live in the era of quick success. ‘If you build it, they will come’ is no longer a ruling principle. However, ‘If you build it and don’t stop they will come’ is. Keep going. Expect very little financial remuneration at first, so make sure you have other things you can do to keep you emotionally and mentally satisfied as well as financially secure. Apart from those lucky enough to work in subsidised theatre, to have a West End hit or consistently good parts in a movie or TV series, all of us have to find ways of making money to survive that is not what we love doing. There is no shame in that. Be proud of it. Aim to make money eventually, and be mindful that actors and practitioners appreciate even small payments at first if they know they have a stake in what they are doing. Treat your team with respect and dignity, because its not easy what they – or you – are doing.
Theatre people are at their best when they support each other. When I started out, and there were many more subsidised theatres in the country, there was far more rivalry. Companies were competitive and often didn’t want to work with other companies. Some were secretly happy if another company had a dud show or, worse, closed. This always seemed to me to be the wrong way to do things, and the lack of solidarity that used to the norm was one of the ways in which cuts were able to slowly erode the theatre network.
Now that culture is changing. We have to work together. However small your company is, get out there and make connections. Find out what your local theatres are and see if you can get meetings with them. It was a major surprise to me how vast the theatre network in the North East is. As well as the Newcastle venues there are theatres in Darlington, Hexham, Witham, Bishop Auckland, Richmond, Whitley Bay and many other towns. There are fringe theatres popping up all over the place – Alphabetti in the centre of Newcastle, the Exchange in North Shields, a new space mooted in Durham attached to the Assembly Rooms – all of which are good places to start if you are beginning a company. In addition, a lot of larger theatres have fantastic studio spaces waiting to be used by small companies. The Gala in Durham can adapt its rehearsal space to become a studio theatre, for instance, while Queen’s Hall, Hexham has the Green Room, an absolutely wonderful small space where we did ‘The River’ last year.
Make connections with other theatre companies in your region too. Use Twitter and other Social Media to attract followers and share opportunities. Retweet other companies and actors’ tweets publicising their work. Support others and they will support you. Connect with the different performing arts courses across the region, with cultural outlets like Northern Heartlands, the Cultural Spring, all Northern Creatives and so on, all of whom are keen to collaborate with local artists and provide access. Link up with schools, offer workshops, get known.
The Manchester theatre scene is a model for all of this. Always a big theatre city, Manchester’s actors and directors are always supporting each other, setting up initiatives, going to see each other’s work, promoting it on social media, alerting each other to opportunities. Let’s create that culture up here. Let’s create that buzz.
This is always a toughie. Resources are always an issue. None of us are short of fantastic ideas, but most of us are short of the money to make them happen. To start with, expect to do everything on a shoestring, which is why choosing your play is so important. Make sure you can achieve what you want within your means.
At the outset, like any small business, you are probably going to be working for nothing, investing your own money and perhaps pulling in donations and/ or sponsorship for your work. Look at Crowdfunding and other ways of raising cash – sponsored walks for instance. Offer workshops, build connections with theatre groups and training courses, engage with the local community, use your connections to raise your profile. None of this is cynical; its what theatre always should be doing. We are here to serve the community, to connect to the community, to inspire the community.
Build up to approaching funding bodies like the Arts Council. They will start to get behind you once you have a track record. In the meantime, talk to them, reach out to a representative, find out what they are looking for and how they can help. Even if they can’t fund you they will be able to point you in the right direction. Think about the Heritage Lottery Fund and what they are keen to support: works of theatre that celebrate the local culture and history. The UK is chock full of amazing stories that could make wonderful theatre. Seek those out.
Look at what financial model you want to pursue: sole trader, social enterprise, charitable status and so on. All have their advantages and disadvantages, but all open you up to different funding opportunities. Working in the regions you have an advantage because they are underfunded, so if you can find the right projects that excite people people will get behind you.
Never pay people nothing. We theatre folk are used to working for nothing, but people respond to the dignity of being paid with extra loyalty. If you are running a company, never pay yourself if you are not paying others. If you’re asking people to work for little, put yourself at their level. You are their leader, their inspirer, not their exploiter. The ultimate goal is to be self-sustaining, but with every small business that takes time. Make sure you are financially secure as you work your way up from other sources.
Reach out to venues. As I said above, many theatres are eager to open their doors to enterprising companies doing exciting work. Some will offer you guarantees. Build relationships of trust with these theatres and they will support you as you climb.
Never give up
Building a theatre company up is tough going, but the endless rule of working in the Arts is: never give up. Its a cruel environment and many people give up after years of feeling like they are swimming against the tide. But if you are smart there is always a way.
Britain loves its theatre. We are still seen as world leaders in drama. Every small town and village has its own amateur dramatics society, every school has its school play, every university has its drama society. Its in our blood. Tell stories that people want to hear, that entertain them, that excites them, that inspires them, and you will succeed. Just don’t give up.
Miss Julie opens at Queen’s Hall Hexham on the 13th & 14th March. It then tours to the Gala Theatre Durham on 23rd March, The Exchange North Shields on 28th – 30th March and The Majestic Darlington on 3rd & 4th April.