Giving an insight into the wider world of touring, this week we have a guest blog post from theatre company Fol Espoir about their experience of tour booking for the first time.
In December 2011 the actor/writer Freddie Machin and I decided to create a show about the early adventures of Winston Churchill. At the time, we had no star actor, no experience of touring and we were virtually unknown. Nearly two years later, the show has just finished a two-month national tour. I’ve often been asked how we did it, and the answer is quite straightforward: we bugged our friends and contacts for advice, made the show as brilliant as we could, put in a huge number of hours chasing venue programmers, and invested in the best marketing images we could afford. We were also careful in our choice of subject – a thin Churchill with a full head of hair was a good way to get people’s attention.
From the beginning, our target was to take the show on tour. Programmers have an unenviable amount of choice, and I quickly realised that solid salesmanship skills would be required to get their interest. The first thing was to set up shop and get our work seen, and the obvious choice was the Edinburgh Fringe. It’s an exhausting, expensive and exhilarating experience which certainly isn’t right for everyone. For us, though, it would give us access to a huge number of industry buyers. If we could get them to sample our show, we were in with a chance.
Our minds focused by the huge financial risk of an Edinburgh run, a major priority was to make sure our show was ready. We previewed in Brighton, Buxton, Liverpool and Jersey, constantly working and re-working the text. At the same time, we built a database of contacts we could send invitations to. We had two targets: small-to-mid-scale touring venues, and rural touring networks. For the rural venues, we bought a list of contacts from the National Rural Touring Forum. For the conventional venues we begged friends to share their own lists, combed through the tour schedules of similar shows, and looked through our own lists of industry contacts for leads. Eventually we had a database of totalling hundreds of venues. About a third we felt were most likely to take our show. These became the main focus of our attention.
As programmers make their Edinburgh schedules far in advance, we sent invitations months before the festival began. We didn’t have much, but we knew that Winston Churchill was a great hook, and we prioritised the publicity image, making it as eye-catching as possible. Our previews also gave us a steady trickle of favourable reviews and even an award – Best Actor for Freddie at the Buxton Fringe. Combined with recommendations from a few of our industry contacts who saw the show early on, our product was becoming more enticing. At the festival, we were rewarded with a steady stream of programmers.
Post-fringe, it was time to book the tour. Initially we focused on venues that had actually seen the show, and this bagged us great dates. We then began on the programmers who hadn’t seen the show. Images, reviews and marketing blurbs were posted and emailed, phone calls were made, and interest was definitely ignited. Persistence was key; the list of people to email and call seemed never-ending. Highlighting the bookings we had was incredibly helpful; not only did these serve as the best possible recommendations for the show, but it also meant programmers could talk to people they knew and trusted about our work. Patience was also paramount. Some venues book a year in advance, some only a few months; some gave you an immediate answer, others took months. Rural schemes were perhaps the most tricky. They’re a huge market, but their booking process is admirably, if sometimes frustratingly, de-centralised. Given that you’re often asked to block off a slew of potential tour dates, the process can take a frighteningly long time.
Price-wise, we had to balance our desire to tour extensively with our need to balance the books. Each show would cost about £750 to put on, and that was where we set our fee. However, we also gave venues the option of a cheaper guarantee against a box office split – a sort of introductory special offer. This shifted a lot of risk onto ourselves, but still gave us a guaranteed income.
Over the course of a year, the tour grew from a few dates to nearly forty. A generous Arts Council grant covered our financial shortfall, and in September, Winston went on the road. As it comes to an end, I’m immensely proud of what we achieved, both artistically and in developing our company’s reputation and relationships. Most of the venues we toured to have already asked us what we’re working on next. For the moment, my only answer is ‘a long holiday’!