We were invited to share Heroes' table top production of Sea Wall as part of INCOMING Festival, a co-production between A Younger Theatre and New Diorama Theatre, London.
It was an opportunity to test my if theory that this show could go to any pub proved true. The fact that the entire show can fit in a box the side of my head is pretty exciting and pro-touring. Let's go!
The venue was ace - props to the INCOMING team for setting us up in a great bar. We didn't have any technical specifications but I gave them some vague guidelines for the kind of vibe we found worked well - the kind of place you'd go to the pub quiz with your pals on Wednesday and get lunch with your parents on a Sunday.
Once Alan and I arrived In the basement venue, we dragged chairs around, fiddled with the dimmer switches, lit some candles - set the mood, baby. I kept finding lots of little secret stories in the decor around the space which supported the production. I like that as humans we look for connections and patterns in things. Always looking for the story in things.
Alan performed three shows back to back. We were delighted to have a large ex-Glasgow contingency show up to support us away from home which was ace. But it was also great to try out our ideas for the production on more people who don't have a personal connection to us or Heroes.
A great little jaunt with a great script and performer.
I have a list of qualities/themes/stuff that I use to prioritise my projects. There are 42 priorities that contain things like;
I really wanted to do Sea Wall as it checks off my main priority with Heroes of staging brilliant contemporary plays. But how could I make it more in line with my other priorities?
The “beer” and “new structures” boxes were currently unchecked. They seemed to go well with “looking people in the eye”, “heartache” and “wounds” boxes that Sea Wall was currently filling.
Staging Sea Wall as a pub crawl of Glasgow bars, gathered around a table in the venue and asking people to chuck whatever they wanted in a box afterwards felt like it would work for both the type of play Sea Wall is and for the production I wanted to make. Beer. New structures. Boom.
Here’s what I found from our experiment. There’s not much in the way of analysis – I’m still trying to work it out and I’d be happy for a coffeechat to go through my budgets and our box office. The production was all in response to ARC’s Pay What You Decide toolkit. It’s invaluable. Go read it.
Average ticket price across the run was £8.40.
Show to show, this varied between £3.75 - £13.10
I’d budgeted in line with ARC’s findings of average ticket yield of £7.20 and a 30% drop off (we had a 20% drop off) so I was pretty happy with this.
If we had performed in a theatre space, our ticket price would be set in line with the rest of the theatre’s offerings, typically £10 (£7.50 concessions). With Pay What You Decide, there is no capped ticket price but there is a risk that you might sell out and still make a loss.
With this model I liked that some audience members could pay more if they were in a position to do so and their contributions would bolster up folks who couldn’t/didn’t donate more. A fiver is worth something different to everyone. Christine Irvine had some thoughtful comments and critiques of the pressure she found as an audience member in her review of the production for Exeunt.
We did take reservations for bookings which took us to 110% capacity. There were quite a lot of non-attenders but we did take additional business on the door and played to 80% capacity across the run.
There is an audience development model that exists for this production in another universe where you forgo any traditional marketing channels and rely solely on drumming up interest from the folk who happen to be in the bar that night. This would be my preferred model as we had a great time with people who decided to join us on a whim. I really like the idea that person’s day ended in a completely unexpected way than they wouldn’t have imagined. That’s kinda magic and wonderful. Actually. It is just wonderful. Unfortunately I am not the person to do that. I am shy. I am S-H-Y.(it’s probably why I have to make theatre. I’m trying to make myself understood and understand other people).
Usually we'd present work in theatres with a 60:40 box office split in our favour. With Sea Wall, we had a range of deals with the venues;
Pub theatre isn’t a thing in Glasgow, which makes me really sad as a lot of my favourite work I’ve seen has been shared in pub theatres and studio spaces. Some artists who I look up to say there isn’t an audience for it but I dunno. We’re also the city that routinely sells out lunchtime theatre with UK’s largest producer of new writing in A Play, A Pie and A Pint and has a National Theatre that is more at home in towerblocks, barns and ferries than in theatres so it’s not as if we aren’t up for a range of opportunities to have a good time.
This model worked for us on this production. I was able to pay living wage, cover our costs (a pint of beer a night) and offer audiences more options by having flexible pricing and a range of performance times in different venues around the city. It was a win: win with wine. The licensor was very helpful in being flexible and offering us a good deal that enabled us to work this way. Thank you.
The level of risk involved was really low. There was only two of us on the project and we made the most of our week's rehearsal that the budget allowed. If you wanted to do anything other than have one person telling a story, this model wouldn't be as effective for you as it was for us. And theatre needs range.
Our model didn’t differ from the hunners of folk who do the Free Fringe in August and versions of that. The difference here was the context, producing something outside of that oversaturated marketplace I think made audiences more generous and perhaps surprised by our stripped back staging (we didn’t even have a stage, sake.)
With just the two of us on the show, some things were a bit sticky as we adapted to a different method of presentation than we were both used to. We got better at it as the run went on. A third team member would have been useful to take care of front of house, make sure I didn't forget the gorgeous handmade freesheets designed by Georgie Mac, hustle the venue for audience members. But one extra person would drastically inflate our costs and mean no-one was getting paid properly. Better for me to roll up my sleeves and get-over-myself.
We learnt loads. Stuff like what sort of collection boxes to use, how to sign post venues, setting up a free online box office that doesn't list your event as "free", how many or few people should be in the audience.
I think we'll be back. We leaned on the strength of the writing, stripped everything back and found a model that provided security for us as artists and removed risk for audiences.