Here’s a blog we wrote for The Guardian about collaboration. The full text is below or you can read it over on The Guardian website.
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There’s a theme emerging from the many passionate calls to arms in the aftermath of last week’s cuts: the need for collaboration. Of course, the arts are already an innately collaborative industry, which is a big reason why we are the second most profitable UK industry behind finance, and a damn sight more responsible. We have to work together to make a little go a long way.
But with the treasury resolutely blinkered by a grim reaper mask, the pooling of resources and ideas becomes an even greater imperative. As Lyn Gardner said on this blog the other week: “Every bit of theatre is now reliant on collaboration.” We can collaborate more, and we should. Not only to make public subsidy stretch further, but because partnerships are so creatively rewarding.
There are lots of success stories to draw upon. At the Drum theatre, the work Simon Stokes and David Prescott create with other buildings such as the Royal Court and Lyric Hammersmith, and companies such as Frantic Assembly and Told By An Idiot, make Plymouth a creative hub that resonates far beyond Devon. The Young Vic’s hotly anticipated I Am the Wind is multiply co-commissioned by a pan-European conglomerate. Warwick Arts Centre widely co-produces with UK and international partners and an innovative hook-up with Druid has seen a fruitful cultural exchange between Galway and the Oxford Playhouse. The National theatre’s relationship with Travelex is a beacon for corporate partnerships – and the National, along with the RSC, has embodied the spirit of post-cuts collaboration by offering to share their resources with smaller companies.
We at touring company Paines Plough never work alone. We were fortunate enough to receive a small uplift last week and we intend to make the extra money go as far as possible by working with ever-more partners. This year we are co-producing with eight other theatres and counting, enabling us to tour 11 productions to more than 40 towns and cities across the UK. Economically, the benefits of co-production are obvious. The more co-producers, the cheaper the pre-production costs to each partner. But the mutual benefits of collaboration run deeper than the bottom line of the budget. By combining two or more bodies of staff, we access a greater wealth of ideas, experience and energy.
At the inception of a project our core staff of five is bolstered by our partners’ expertise, infrastructure, systems and facilities. In exchange, we can offer a long life on the road for productions that might otherwise have a limited run in one location, meaning more taxpayers in more places have access to ACE-subsidised work. With Sheffield Theatres, for example, we’ve conceived a 150-seat portable in-the-round auditorium within which we’ll premiere three new plays in Sheffield in the autumn. The auditorium and three plays will then tour nationwide in the spring in collaboration with multiple theatres. It’s costing no more than it would to produce the three plays normally, but thousands more people across the country will get to see the work. The long-term plan is to offer the auditorium to other companies to maximise its usage.
We sometimes hear arguments against collaborating, but in our experience the old adage that too many cooks spoil the broth doesn’t hold. If collaboration is rooted in shared taste and clearly articulated objectives, then the more people at the table the better. Collaborating means constructive arguments as well as agreements. Brand dilution is a concern, but we know from our audiences they don’t care about billing as long as the work is good, and we’re learning from the commercial sector here and in the US to focus more on partners and less on credits.
We’ve also heard the argument that co-producing reduces jobs for actors. In fact, the opposite is true: it makes more productions possible. Last year, we employed 61 actors in nine productions; on our own, we could have managed two. Co-commissioning might reduce the number of commissions handed out to playwrights, but it improves the conversion rate from commission to productions. We’ve co-commissioned six playwrights so far this calendar year, and committed to producing all six plays, extending the ethos of collaboration to playwrights. Handing out 20 commissions and hoping a couple of them make the stage is selective, not collaborative, and is exactly the sort of opulence that will see our funds slashed further. Now is the time to invest strategically, and deeply, in the top talent in this country.
Over the next few years, we envisage the nature of partnerships changing. There will be more co-producers per show, longer runs to help reduce costs, wider-ranging partners from corporates to education establishments to local communities. Partnerships will be forged at the inception of projects with multiple co-commissioners firmly committed, not taking a punt. Traditional models of budgeting will adapt and change, as ever more inventive collaborations are imagined. Nick Hytner, the National theatre’s artistic director, says the best work comes when artists are “exhilarated by a new creative ideology”. Post-cuts, that new creative ideology is collaboration, collaboration, collaboration.