By Alastair Michael
I have never naturally felt the same mix of fatigue, relief, adrenaline and ecstasy that I have felt as the curtain comes down on a show. With that high as an incentive, it is not at all surprising that so many young theatre-makers are drawn to the challenge of establishing new companies.
With four others, I recently established Ransack Theatre. We started out like everyone else: fresh-faced and wide-eyed with an overwhelming sense of promise. Of course, there was the small matter of choosing the name; Ransack came out of numerous votes, lengthy discussions and a few false starts. Then the excitement of creating a logo and company ethos, soul-searching for that all important ‘USP’ and perhaps, even, opening the business bank account. All these infantile experiences are tinted with the thrill of novelty, which makes the act of setting-up the company fairly painless. But, like most things, it is after the honeymoon period that the real work begins.
The acid test for a new theatre company is whether it can sustain its initial momentum. This is especially the case in a society where we are told that theatre is underfunded, under-attended and unimportant. In such conditions, young companies often struggle for support and fall off the radar. Very few have the privilege of private funding or progenitor pay-outs. Most, including us at Ransack, have to make their living through demanding day jobs and hope that the Arts Council will look upon them favourably in the near future. For theatre companies, funding pots like these are vital. Without them theatre would not be what it is. So achieving sustainability, and with it longevity, is a source of great pride in the theatre world.
Adam Quayle and Hannah Tyrrell-Pinder’s Box of Tricks Theatre is a company who can lay claim to this kind of success. I was able to catch up with Adam before they took their new production, In Doggerland, on a national tour. “Learn quickly”, he said of the challenges facing fledging theatre companies. “There are ways of overcoming obstacles without money but you have to have ambition beyond one performance.” For a cast, nothing exists outside of the play. This is not the case for companies. Yes, the play is still the thing because it is ‘the product’. But it is essential to think beyond one show. Time must be poured into considering what the company is and what it does, who the audience are and how can we bring what we do to them.
Likewise, our energies have to be directed at nurturing relationships. This is a view I share with Box of Trick’s Adam, who did not hesitate to tell me that “theatre is so much about relationships”. The importance of connecting with other theatre-makers, with theatre venues, with press, actors, writers and, most importantly, with audiences, cannot be overstated. Thankfully, Manchester is just the place for this ethos. Our city might lack the financial support of the Arts Council when compared to London, but one thing Manchester does boast is a more open-armed and supportive theatre network.
Money isn’t everything, anyway. Time and again, the theatre industry has adapted to survive with limited funding. In fact, our current social and economic climate is exactly where theatre can be at its most passionate and provocative. It is often the case that new and fringe theatre companies lack money. But it is frequently forgotten that some of the best theatre happens in the fringes. This is the arena where the directors and production teams have to be that much more creative to overcome their financial obstacles. In these instances a production is not judged by how much money went into it and how well it was used; instead it is judged on its core components and so often simplicity is more striking than spectacle.
Lack is something that fringe theatre is always using to its advantage. For start-ups, a lack of money also results in a lack of time. Outside of the rehearsal room young theatre-makers crop up everywhere: we assist school teachers; we serve you food at your favourite restaurants; we serve you drinks at your local watering hole; we clear your tables; we rip your ticket for the newest blockbuster; we gift wrap your Christmas presents with a flourish. We do everything we can to survive in a job that isn’t our passion so that when we do have the spare time we can write, rehearse or produce a play.
But this too can produce great theatre. Of course, it is not a sustainable model for a company but, in the beginning, it can drive everything. Every meeting, every minute rehearsing, every second together becomes precious, saturated with our full passion and ambition. The result is fringe theatre that has our blood, sweat, tears and lives invested in it. And because of this it demands to be seen and respected. Not for its production value, but for its absolute passion.
There are no established “how to” courses and there is no right way around it. In all honesty, establishing your own theatre company is a challenging, expensive and often stress-inducing rollercoaster. But daring to take on those twists and turns merely makes the ride more thrilling.
By Alastair Michael (Co-Founder of Ransack Theatre)