THE WORD Partnership and Risk: a balancing act for creativity

It’s time to look at a different approach to partnership in the theatre, says Damian Cruden, artistic director of York Theatre Royal

In common with many artistic di- rectors I am entering into the next NPO period in search of what might be called strong and stable partnerships. The call to co-production as an integral part of our programme of work is loud and clear. We are all on the lookout for the right combination of partner, title and star.

When we get it right the value is clear. We start to climb out of the “four hander” into casts of six or even eight and this opens up a wider range of titles, many not seen on our stages in the last 10 years. The work is fully exploited and reaches a wider audience and there may be slightly greater re- source available to make the piece.

Co-production with commercial producers of varying scales and their support in the project, sometimes even a third partner, can grow possibilities even further. However, with this type of partnership, certain challenges need to be confronted, if there is to be commercial FInance mixed with public investment or the mix of subsidised touring risk with building only risk.

For example, the typical model of co-production is to split the origination costs, with the participating houses paying the wages and keeping their own box office. The touring partner (whether commercial or not) then takes the risk on the road. This model can be tricky. The loss of perhaps three to five weeks’ worth of income means taking the work to houses with established audiences and a good reputation on deals, a combination that can be difficult to secure. For a commercial producer, particularly at midscale, the time left to recoup can be far too marginal to be safe.

Neither does this approach help with either ACE’s or the industry’s desire to build drama audiences in communities that are currently low at- tenders. It also means that any investors don’t get a cut in the co-producing houses, often houses with good drama audiences that would bring recoupment sooner.

With this in mind, some of us in the regional theatre world are having conversations about spreading risk in a different way. The idea is to see each project as a stand-alone, and to create a very clear and transparent budget that shows all the costs, setting agreed rates between the partners for the roles and tasks which will deliver the project. Each partner invests an appropriate portion in the project and then shares in the income over the whole duration of the life of the work.
The pluses are that it opens the work to investment from other sources because all partners will share in the total income against the project, and all the partners retain an interest in the project throughout. By using existing resources that the given partners may have will be paid in their entirety by the project, nothing would be given in kind. All partners would be able to exploit future income from the project if it continues to tour beyond the initial run.

The minuses are that building based producing theatres would be taking risk out on the road alongside the touring company/commercial producer and they don’t get to exploit their own house for themselves alone. Persuading a theatre board that this risk is acceptable will be difficult. Of course, some projects will carry acceptable risks, others less so and some will be financially foolhardy even if they are creatively wonderful. The latter are not really suitable for this new kind of partnership. While the box office certainties, if such a thing exists, should be easy to argue, it’s those that are difficult to call that are the problem and as any theatre director will tell you, these are the most common type of project.

ACE is currently engaging in a series of conversations with commercial and funded producers to talk about how touring can be supported into the future. It is keen to experiment with a variety of different models. Under- writing against loss is one of the areas it is keen to explore. There are various nuances and at the discussion I at- tended there were a variety of different suggestions and concerns around the concept.

One size never fits all when it comes to cultural investment. There will always be a need to invest in work that has to be made because it says difficult things and speaks to smaller groups, or work that needs to be taken to places that will struggle to find audiences. Projects that take this on need support in a very direct way. Other work, created and managed well, might stand a chance of washing its face and it is these that could benefit from loss underwriting. To qualify for loss underwriting there must be a good financial case that the project can break even and possibly bring a return greater than the investment. It is these marginal projects that often fail to get started because of a very understand- able nervousness to take risk. If risk were to be removed, we might be able to commit earlier to work and truly share in the whole project. This would in turn increase the amount of quality touring work available on realistic terms to theatre managements.

 

 

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