Theatre Critic and Journalist

London Calling: the capital’s touring circuit

London Calling: the capital’s touring circuit

Published in The Stage, 22.03.2012

Last year, Will Adamsdale took his Perrier Award-winning Jackson’s Way to 26 different London venues in as many days. This ‘Jacksathon’ was intentionally absurd, perfectly in keeping with the show, which preaches the benefits of pointlessness. What could be more unnecessary than touring neighbouring venues in one city?

“It’s perverse. No-one does it because it’s really complicated,” Adamsdale told the Guardian at the time, “It’s almost annoying.”

However this year, two productions will follow his lead, albeit to a lesser, more sensible extent, and play several London venues. Later this month, Caroline Horton’s solo-show You’re Not Like the Other Girls, Chrissy runs at Battersea Arts Centre, before playing the Bush Theatre in May. Iron Shoes’ Fringe First-winning production of Gbolahan Obisesan’s Mad About the Boy will visit the Unicorn, the Bush and the Young Vic theatres over five weeks this summer.

At first glance, this looks totally counter-intuitive. The artists have all the hassles of touring – get-ins, get-outs, techs and so on – despite next to no change of location, while venues lose any exclusivity within the city – even, in the case of the Unicorn and the Young Vic, a single borough. Surely if two local theatres want the same show, they battle it out?

That’s what used to happen. Co-artistic director of BAC David Jubb recalls how, ten years ago, venues regularly engaged in “internecine warfare, scrapping over artists an shows.” So it’s even more astonishing that, in both cases, it was the venues, rather than the visiting artists, that proposed splitting dates. For all the voguishness of collaboration, no one would expect it to come at the expense of any party. It should be mutually beneficial, not a compromise between rival competitors.

In fact, at least with regards audiences, London theatres are barely competing at all. As Penny Mills of Audiences London explains: Research since 2004 shows that “individual venues (presenting the same or similar artforms) are not in competition for the same individuals…Essentially, most people are loyal to one venue and do not attend that often. Only a very small percentage of core arts engagers are frequent and promiscuous across venues.”

Across London, 30% of households have attended a performing arts event in the last four years, but 74% of them have only visited a single venue. Audiences London have found that the twelve off-West End theatres in the London Theatre Consortium share an audience crossover of only 1-13%.

If each venue’s potential audience is distinct, a single show has a far wider reach by not confining itself to one. The result is far less financial risk, both for venues and visiting companies, and a more responsive attitude to programming. Shorter runs become viable, meaning venues need sell fewer seats, thus increasing confidence in a show’s breaking even. Locally, each leg becomes more of an event.

That transfers to the company. Though Iron Shoes have different financial agreements with the three theatres they’ll visit, all have offered a guarantee against a box-office split – something producer John Hoggarth says is rare in the capital: “Normally, it’s really difficult to get a sustained run in London without taking on a more commercial contract.”

Admittedly, a venue’s earning power decreases, but realistically such small-scale shows aren’t programmed for profitability. Breaking even is all-important, so what better means of rebutting recent claims that the subsidised theatre is playing it too safe in the face of funding cuts?

The model also allows increased responsiveness to a show’s proving successful. “It seems utterly ridiculous to me that, if a piece of work is any good, you can use up an audience in four weeks,” says Jubb, “If the work is good, you should be able to exponentially grow the audience.”

Not only can momentum grow from one venue to the next, the chances of future revivals are stronger if different venues provide untapped audiences. After its first London run in 2010 at BAC, Little Bulb’s Operation Greenfield played Soho Theatre a year later and now returns to Battersea in June. Suddenly, a small, emerging independent company increases the earning power of a single show, making a sustainable repertoire conceivable.

There are concerns, not least the potential for audience confusion and Hoggarth admits that press night needed particular negotiation. Moreover, the model could weaken the case for regional touring, if London tours offer the same advantages more manageably.

However, Jubb dismisses the possibility of uniform programming: “It’s equally stupid to pretend that we’re not competitors. Venues will continue to have their own individual tastes and styles.” In fact, individual shows can chime in different ways at different theatres. Mad About the Boy is youth-orientated enough for the Unicorn, formally inventive enough for the Young Vic and still fits the Bush’s new writing agenda.

The biggest worry, however, proves the strength of the London touring model. As Hoggarth asks, “If this becomes a regular model, is it enough to continue playing just one venue in London?”

Photograph: Iron Shoes

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