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A Short Guide to moving from small to mid scale work, as an artist-led company

After 7 years of trying we have finally made some headway in our attempts to move from making small to midscale work, or from being a small to mid-scale company. It has been hard work for us - perhaps for others it comes more quickly and easily - but to ease other companies and artists on their way here is: Poppy' Short Guide to moving from small to mid scale work, as an artist-led company (Just my humble opinions and experience - no hard and fast rules)

To summarize the below - small scale work is artist-led both for venues, funders and audiences. Midscale work is much more audience led - ultimately you have to make work that significant audiences will want to see, and that venues can feel confident of selling. You also have to feel really comfortable with the idea that you are making work to be sold (which is not generally how most companies conceive of their small scale work). Ultimately you have to start thinking strategically about every choice you make, and that doesn't make you any less of an artist.

- Audiences. You have to be confident that you're going to make work that will appeal to a significant number of people. Very rarely do I meet artists who genuinely make work for (or often even think about) their audiences (except when they're writing their G4A applications). They make the work they want to make, or express the thing they think needs to be heard but if that is too narrow in scope it's very hard to transition to mid-scale. Audiences love to be challenged - but challenge them with heart of the work not with the marketing/offer of what the work is. No one has any money any more - funders, venues, audiences - so they want great art that is bold but not a risk at the point at which they buy a ticket/book the show.

- Hooks. Venues want something they can sell (they may also want quality and originality and diversity but not always). The hook can be a title (preferably out of copyright, that makes life much), or a named actor/writer. We spent 5 years trying and failing to get venues interested in tours of projects without a sufficient hook (albeit with great reviews, images, semi-names, strong scripts etc). Jungle Book was booked entirely off the title - in some instances literally from a one sentence description. Avoid Shakespeare though as you'll have too much competition from established mid-scale companies. You must still make the work that's in your heart too (we didn't realise Jungle Book was SUCH a hook/title when we started developing it - it was the show that we wanted to make).

- Venues. Get them to see your small scale work and begin the conversations. That said there are relationships we've been developing for 10 years where they've seen (and liked) our work and still not booked it and venues we ring up and then and there they offer you a slot and £20k for the week with no knowledge of the company and the work. Again the power of having a title or hook. But in general it is helpful to invest your time in developing your relationships with venues. We have a database of 200 venues, 100 meaningful-ish, maybe 25 properly properly meaningful. But even the latter don't always want the work. They have a programme to balance and you won't always know what else is being put out there. Once you have some venues on board though do mention their names to the others. Also there are degrees of mid-scale - both in size (Jungle Book played Winchester with 350 seats and Eastbourne with 900) and in wealth (which often correlates to level of subsidy rather than size) and in prestige. The lower end of any of those spectrums will have less choice available to them but they will also (generally) do less work for you because their own resources are stretched.

- Advocacy. Having someone already at that scale who will speak on your behalf can work wonders. Since 2012 we had English Touring Theatre mentor us and either through their contacts or their direct advocacy we booked our first full midscale tour (Jungle Book). One of the venues was Exeter Northcott Theatre where we've now been made an Associate Company and now they talk to venues on our behalf and open up the possibility for dialogue with organisations who have never returned our calls for a decade.

- Time. We have been going for 11 years. We having been trying to make mid-scale work/become a mid scale company for the last 7 years. It's happened in a meaningful way over the last year. It could happen quicker - it will also depend on where you're at within your own career, if you start the company already mid-career with a huge network of contacts and strong reputation (as Improbable did) it could be much quicker.

- Budget. Try to make each venue/week wash its face so if you require either subsidy or investment that's only for the creation of the work. We have NEVER yet achieved this because our mid scale work is either for family audiences (which gives you much lower box office yields and/or guarantees) or with casts too large to be effectively viable on the mid-scale. You want a book-able title and a cast of 4 or 5.

- Tourbooking - aim for a guarantee when you can. Venues will programme over your dates with other work (also true at the small scale) so if they've gone quiet push for a deal memo. No one has time to programme so it's done in a rush on Friday afternoons (because it' soften the most creative/enjoyable part of their job) or random times like Sunday morning or Christmas Eve. Go to the overpriced conferences (UK Theatre Touring Symposium and the AGM, Theatre 2016 - which will presumably be repeated) and any conferences specific to your art form, because you can meet all the programmers face to face and network.

- Workload. It quickly becomes untenable to run your company on a voluntary basis when you move from small to midscale (and that is the reality for the majority of small scale companies). Assuming core funding is unlikely and given the prevailing economic climate it is (whether from ACE or Trusts & Foundations) you MUST try and budget full cost recovery into each project OR increase the number of people running the company with you on a voluntary basis or you will go insane. Midscale companies are no more financially viable than small companies as a business model - in some ways they are less so because the extra bodies involved requires more communication/management/admin. You can also mix and match and only aim to realise a midscale project every two years for example (but you do have to maintain relationships with those venues in between).

- Being clever with scale. A two hander can feel mid scale if the piece and/or design is epic. A very pared back minimalist design (cheaper to build and tour) can still have impact and feel midscale. No set or lighting at all but 10 actors can also. Presumably the desire to upscale as an artist is driven by the desire for more resource with which to express your art/vision so make sure you use maximize your resource at any scale. A cast of 6 - all of whom are used a lot can feel more 'mid scale' than a cast of 8 where 3 of them appear only once as maids.

Finally question your motives. Why do you want it? It's no less financially secure, in some ways it's less so because the budgets are bigger, the lead times are longer (so you need to contract people for longer/further in advance) and you'll inevitably take more of your income from box office which is riskier unless it's all guarantees/fees which is unlikely (except in circus). Given the priorities of funders it will probably necessitate touring which may reduce your public and industry profile - it's infinitely easier to get press and industry to see work at a 50 seat fringe venue in London than eight 500 seat theatres across the UK. More things go wrong more of the time - there are more people involved and the possibilities for human error are hugely amplified.

Or more positively: What can scale add to your art? How can scale help you grow as an artist and/or as an organisation? Is it politically important that your work is seen at a larger scale in terms of the message that sense to other artists not currently represented at that scale? (The latter may be a harder sell to the venues but a much easier sell to the funders so you can potentially offer venues an interesting and quality piece of work for a cheaper rate knowing that it's more heavily subsidised.)

And ask for advice from all those who are either making the same transition or have made it or were always making work of that scale. Nice/good/ethically sound people will make the time because they're nice/good/ethically sound and they will connect you to other people who are nice/good/ethically sound.

By Poppy Burton-Morgan

changing the world through imagination

Anniversaries. Time to look back and time to look forward. Nice to reflect and so as well as thinking about how we continue to evolve and adapt for the future, given the ever tightening resources from funders and venues, it's also nice to celebrate our successes. 2015 has been an extraordinary year for the company with the combination of large scale opera (Cosi fan tutte), our first midscale tour (The King of Tiny Things) and some astonishing new writing playing in the west end to 5 and 4 star reviews (Mouthful). But every year is an extraordinary year at Metta towers so I thought I'd revisit some highlights from this last decade as we celebrate our 10th anniversary...

‘stirring and moving…one of the most riveting conversations I have ever had the privilege of seeing unravel on stage… mesmerising.’ ★★★★★ London Theatre1 on Mouthful

One of our first productions back in 2006 was a site responsive staging of Ed Hughes' contemporary opera The Birds (after Aristophanes). As well as sewing the seeds of our trademark cross-art-form style by combining mask work with some imaginative movement involving a lot of coloured scarves it featured a cast of extraordinary singers many of whom including Rebecca Lea and Lucy Page are now the rising stars of the classical music scene. It even featured one of our longest and best loved collaborators, now a west end choreographer and musical director  Tim Jackson, back in his counter-tenor days.

'the production was outstanding...excellent.’ Daily Info on The Birds

Cassie Raine as Claudius, Orna Salinger as Laertes. Photograph William Reynolds.

The highlight of 2007 was our all female Hamlet - which we hope to reprise in the not too distant future. It was a beautiful fluid production, our first collaboration with award winning composer Jess Dannheisser and a brilliant cast including the wonderful Cassie Raine as Claudius, who has recently established the brilliant Parents in Performing Arts (PIPA) campaign.

'a beautiful and bold production, full of wonderful detail' This Is London on Hamlet

Marta Rizi as Snake Puppeteer, Rebecca Lea as Elephant. Photograph William Reynolds.

We went all out on the opera front in 2008 with our haunting staging of Poulenc and Cocteau's La Voix Humaine at Riverside Studios featuring Rebecca Lea again as the doomed heroine and over 100m of red ribbon as her ever lengthening telephone cord. Followed by a contemporary opera by Jess Dannheisser (words by me) based on the Just So Stories which was our first flirtation with family work, for the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola.

'delightful...combining dance, song, puppetry and story telling into an effective drama to entrance both young and old.’ Musical Pointers on The Elephant's Child

Marlon Day as Leonardo, Jade Anouka as The Bride. Photograph Anna Hammersley.

2009 saw us taking over Southwark Playhouse with our immersive Caribbean South London version of Blood Wedding garnering a slew of great reviews and 200m of bunting which has served the company well over the years. Featuring Trevor Michael Georges and Jade Anouka in one of her early stage roles it was a tour de force of acting and powerful re imagining of Lorca for the 21st century.

'a relevant and powerful production.’ ★★★★ The Metro, Critics' Choice on Blood Wedding

Trevor Michael Georges as Otieno, Kevin Golding as Kagiso, Rhoda Ofori-Attah as Bamidele, Jack Hawkins as Ian. Photograph Anna Hammersley.

2010 was a busy year with both Otieno Trevor Michael Georges' Zimbabwean version of  Othello which enthralled the critics (in no small part due to Will's atmospheric set of blood-like red sand and characteristically dark lighting) and a piece of verbatim music-theatre Waiting - about the wives of detainees of Guantanamo and Belmarsh, starring Juliet Stevenson which sold both of its runs at the Southbank Centre.

'a highly effective, imaginative response to the classical play that both grips and stirs.’ ★★★★ The Times on Otieno

2011 began the start of our touring adventures as we took our site responsive staging of Pirandello's The Man With the Flower in His Mouth to cafes across the UK. With extraordinary performances from Liana Weafer and Sam Collings - now firmly entrenched at the RSC - this was another show that wowed the critics and another opportunity for me to redress the gender imbalance of our playwriting culture by switching the gender of the roles. We also began working with circus for the first time with our adaptation of Jeanette Winterson's Sexing The Cherry which had a sell out run at the Southbank centre.

'stunning performances... an enthralling hour’ ★★★★ Whats On Stage on The Man With the Flower in His Mouth

©Richard Davenport, London UK, Soho Theatre Upstairs. Metta Theatre presents Arab Nights. Directed by Poppy Burton-Morgan

The highlight of 2012 was Arab Nights - a sextet of short plays exploring the Arab Spring by writers from across the Middle East and North Africa which wowed the critics at the Soho Theatre before touring the UK. We also started developing our opera Flicker exploring Locked in syndrome, a stunning chamber opera by Jon Nicholls (words by me) exploring Locked in syndrome, which went on to première at Sadlers Wells in 2013. Oh and we also gave birth to our first son Noah.

'exquisite…impressive… the physical wit and economical elegance carry you on into empathy' ★★★★ The Times on Arab Nights

29th September 2013. Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds UK .Metta Theatre present WELL. Photo Credit ©Richard Davenport

2013 was also a circusy time with another site-responsive tour, this time to playgrounds, of our new circus show Monkey and Crocodile. Bringing a quietly progressive story to families across the UK, many of whom had never seen live performance before. In the autumn we also premièred our stunning aerial dance theatre show Well highlighting the ongoing global tragedy of arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh.

‘utterly irresistible …an enchanting mix of music, circus skills, story-telling and apples…genuinely touching' ★★★★ Exeunt on Monkey & Crocodile

Last year, 2014, saw us on the road a lot with two UK tours of Alice - exploring the story of the real life Alice in wonderland who lost two of her three sons in WW1 . With veteran puppeteer Mandy Travis and star of War Horse Jack Parker offering haunting and poignant performances with stunning puppets from Yvonne Stone. In between the two tours we also popped out a little brother for Noah in the form of Finn.

'transforming the ordinary to the remarkable…poignant and bewitchingly magical.’ ★★★★ Exeunt on Alice

Which brings us back to the now. It's fair to say our work has been hugely diverse, spanning various artforms and scales including a smattering of site-responsive work as well. It's interesting to me to follow the threads through the work, because while it's not been a linear path for us there are multiple connections. Our opera has tended to the personal - offering quietly feminist reinterpretations of the repertoires' classic female roles and stories. The plays have been more overtly political, raising consciousness about everything from South London knife crime to the Mugabe regime, the Arab Spring to the Global Food Crisis. Our family work has also trodden a socially engaged path, exploring interracial relationships, pacifism, and representations of disability and difference. Mostly through the mediums of circus and puppetry, of course.

Remembering some of our earliest conversations about setting up a company - one of the major drivers was wanting to present diversity on stage, both in terms of gender and ethnicity, and to be a platform for those voices which felt pretty unrepresented - definitely so a decade ago and hopefully a little less now. We were cautioned about making this an explicit part of our mission statement for fear of being tarnished with the 'worthy' brush - but looking back over our productions with their countless gender reversals and having employed over 50% female artists and at least 50% BME performers it feels like those principles were definitely still guiding us.

‘captivating… a triumph… genuinely heart-warming’ Oxford Times on Cosi fan tutte

‘fantastic…great singing, scintillating puppetry and skilful circus.’ ★★★★ Parenting Without Tears on The King of Tiny Things

'a knock-out… heartbreaking... has to be seen to be believed. Make sure you do.’ ★★★★ The Times Critics' Choice

Metta Theatre. Ten years of theatre, opera and circus. Ten years of unheard stories and voices. Ten years of changing the world through the power of imagination.

Here's to the next decade.