Guest blog: Tim Bell on collaboration and development

In our latest blog, Tim Bell of Marine Theatre talks more about collaboration with other venues in the region, and the role that plays in long-term development.

 

No matter how many times I’ve checked down the back of the Marine Theatre sofa, we don’t have any money. Believe me, I’ve removed those cushions many times in desperation. For all the bits of fluff and broken toys I find, I am completely sure of one thing; we’re quite, quite, skint. We’re a small scale commercial theatre; we’re not an Arts Council Funded organization, we’ve a hole in our roof that’s going to cost 95k to fix and, as I write, I’ve already tripped over the office carpet today three times where it’s stuck down with gaffer tape. However, what we do have is friends. And thanks to them we’ve been delighted and surprised to see how much we can offer neighbouring venues, visiting companies, and our audiences.

Our friendship doesn’t really have a name, but we refer to it as The 3 Venues Collaboration. Catchy, right? The Marine Theatre, Bridport Arts Centre and Dorchester Arts are 3 West Dorset venues of a similar size. Bridport is around 9 miles away, Dorchester 26. The major difference is that Bridport and Dorchester are NPOs, where we are not (which in itself has its benefits). One thing we do have in common is that we are blessed with receiving grants from a forward thinking district council.

West Dorset District Council sat the Chairs and artistic directors of the 3 venues around a table, gave out its publicly funded stationery and asked how we could better work together. Art led the way and programming came out as the priority for all reps from all three venues.  Joint programming was naturally followed by joint marketing. These became the operational groups, and the strategic group remained at the core of the partnership. Meetings were planned, chaired by the Council’s Cultural Development Officer or her contracted-in deputy.

There were some benefits to the collaboration that immediately bore fruit. By sharing information on insurance providers, for example, we instantly reduced the Marine Theatre insurance bill by 2k. A list of equipment each venue had was drawn up, and we began to share resources. So now, when we need a dance floor, I know I can drive up the road and load one into the back of my Fiat Panda. However, when it came to programming and marketing, instinctively, there was a feeling that other local organizations represented a threat. Competition that had to be out-maneuvered. But a modest audience survey was embarked upon which showed clearly that despite our close proximity, this was not the case.

Audiences stay loyal to their venues.

Suddenly, there was a sea change in how we operated. Now, when a programmer at one of the three venues finds a show of particular artistic excellence, or a show they want to bring to their venue but they can’t afford, they email the other programmers and express their interest. Our counterparts reply, often with a one word answer. If all three venues agree, the company is contacted and a deal negotiated for not one show but three, usually on consecutive nights.

As soon as this started, the fees we were paying for shows plummeted. As with all of these things, the numbers do the talking. Up to June 2014, we’ve toured 14 theatre events to all three venues, and 23 events to two venues. We’ve achieved better financial deals on fees, travel, accommodation and marketing – this has resulted in £12,015 saved over three years. The joint marketing achieves greater impact, leading to larger audiences and higher venue profile. Whilst the estimated savings on marketing has been a mere £525, audiences attending events are always significantly larger, have often doubled, and in one case rose by 120%. The sense of a healthy arts offer from venues, whose shoulders are broadened through collaboration, greatly outweighs the cost of shared programming.

There are artistic benefits too. Being in the collaboration gives us greater confidence to promote more risky shows and the ability to attract shows for a three-venue tour which would normally be out of the reach of individual small venues. We also have creative support and career development for programmers in what is a highly stressed and often lonely role.

The 3 venues collaboration deliberately doesn’t have a name because we think it should be something that works behind the scenes, not another barrier between the work and our audiences.

And we’ve evolved further still.

Theatre friends are now offered reciprocal benefits and discounts at all three venues, we have identified audience demographics we want to develop, we have a fourth strand of working together based around outreach and learning (which may lead to a joint post shared between the venues), 2 more organisations have been invited to become permanent members, and we’re about to embark on the ridiculously titled Sprout, our artist development programme. Between us, we increase the viability of touring small-scale work in our region.

All in all we’re pretty smug about how this has worked out. We have a busy, buzzing theatre with many excellent artists passing through. We have been blown away by the quantity of excellent ideas from our neighbours. The regular engagement with other arts organisations in the area has given us creative recognition nationally. We have in turn been energised and sustained by the organisations we have been lucky enough to collaborate with. We would encourage you to invite your friends over, sit them down on that moth-eaten sofa and see how you can work together.