A paper commissioned by Fierce Earth and presented to artists and producers on a residential course targeted at helping them work abroad.
At Lancaster University I was incredibly impressed by tales of Impact Theatre touring Europe. I had difficulty imaging how glamorous it must be rehearsing a show in Italy and the fact that their show The Carrier Frequency had its last performance in Poland the day Chernobyl blew was exactly the sort of thing I saw as the ACME of cool.
I’ve been asked to talk about international touring from a Strategic and Artistic perspective but, before doing this, it is important to speak from a personal perspective. The personal has always come before the pragmatic with Stan’s Cafe.
See The World
My work ethic has always been too acutely developed to do the bumming round the world thing. There seemed little chance that I would ever be able to afford much in the way of foreign holidays, so if I was ever going to see the world it would have to be through work.
When I started Stan’s Cafe with Graeme the image I had held in my head was of us, in shades, in the sun, outside a Cafe somewhere on mainland Europe. Once we were their doing that I learnt that one of the fantastic things about seeing the world via work is that you end up going to places you wouldn’t otherwise have thought of going and when you are there you see places in a way you wouldn’t if you were a tourist. You meet people who live in the place and you feel welcomed as an artist not a wallet on legs.
Ego / Recognition
There’s not much glory to be had in this game and being invited to present your work abroad remains one of the better feelings you get. Suddenly you aren’t social outcasts but exotic foreign artists. You get met at airports and driven around, you are interviewed by interested and articulate journalists, who write considered and informed reviews of your work in languages you cannot read. Suddenly you are on the radio and the television. In Skopja, with the Gulf War kicking off, word went out from Foreign Office to Embassy to British Council to us, “keep a low profile” – the warning came too late, in the previous two days we must have been seen on every TV station in Macadonia and Steve, who had driven the van out on the promise of a week on a Greek beach, was in a police cell wondering why he was seen as a terrorist suspect.
In my opinion there is little ‘difficult’ about Stan’s Cafe’s work. We’ve been knocking out reliably decent quality stuff for comfortably over a decade and yet we’re still touring to roughly the same number of venues as we ever have. It’s pathetic and a nightmare. A nightmare shared by pretty much every company I know. By opening your doors to international touring you are opening up to a bigger market. There may only be three or four venues or festivals that may book you in Spain, but that’s three or four more than you would otherwise be pitching to and multiply that three or four by a fistful of countries and, with a hit show, you can stay pretty busy.
Last year we earned £83,000 abroad, that’s a third of our turnover and a little under twice our basic Arts Council Grant. This year we expect to comfortably exceed that figure and have taken on a full-time production manager to deal with the logistical implications.
Realise Your Dreams
Working Internationally may help you realize your dreams. Certainly, when I did the calculation that suggested the world’s population measured out in rice amounted to 104 tons, it seemed unlikely that this version of the show would premiere in the UK, and it didn’t. Two years after the UK version opened at Warwick Arts Centre the World Version was staged in Stuttgart as part of Theatre Der Welt 2005 – a testimony to the vision of festival’s team and the financial clout they were able to muster.
Engaging With International Work
We have seen some amazing work whilst we’ve been away, some of it amazingly good, some of it just amazing. International touring is a fascinating opportunity to experience and learn about work that will never make its way to this country. It’s a great chance to place your work in the international arena, to be appreciated by and inspire people in other countries and from other cultures.
It was through having Be Proud Of Me commissioned by a venue in Frankfurt that we learned what it’s to like to work with a Dramaturge. Initially this was a disconcerting experience. The guy who had commissioned our show whisked me away after an early work in progress and took the show apart. I was taken aback. I thought he was just an ace away from pulling our money and his gigs. Eventually the cent dropped, he was doing The Dramaturge Thing. He explained that a classic example of how this relationship would be Dramaturge would cry “that scene is a disaster, it doesn’t work, it is twice too long” and the Director would reply with similar fervour “you are right, it is a disaster, it doesn’t work, it must be twice as long”. So with plenty of useful opinions and responses ringing in my ears and a fresh case of culture shock we could move on to finish the show.
To balance everyone’s bounding enthusiasm for international working here are some caveats:
Long Lead In
It’s difficult to get a gig in the UK without the promoter having seen your show in advance and you can multiply that degree of difficulty a number of times for international work. Years ago we rather grandly, some might say arrogantly, turned down an international gig with Ocean of Storms saying the show wasn’t available but that the promoter was welcome to have the new show – sight unseen. Of course he said “No thank you” and has shown no interest in us since.
We learnt our lesson and partly by design, partly by accident, developed a portfolio of shows in which performers could be interchanged almost at will, and with minimum re-rehearsal requirements, and thus we can always say all shows are always available.
Focus Off UK
We now spend so long delivering our back-catalogue that finding time to make new shows has become a challenge. We used to make a new touring show every year, now it’s every couple of years if we are lucky. I occasionally wonder where we would have got in this country if we had devoted all our attention here full time and knocked out a new show every single year.
Logistics and Communication
It’s probably as well to have experienced a range of venues in the UK before touring abroad. Cultural and language differences mean everything will feel heightened even if it is just the same as at home. Your encounters will range from the almost intolerably uptight venues who will drive you to the edge of distraction with their demand for detail, to the terrifyingly laidback who will test your poker nerve. There will be technicians who would saw their own arms off on the spot if it helped the show and others who reassure you everything will be sorted out tomorrow, presumably through some act of God. When one of the major state theatres in Germany struggled to locate a dimmer rack that would deliver a smooth fade on our pin-spots we took the decision to invest in all the technical kit we needed to run It’s Your Film before we took it off to three venues in the Czech Republic. It made things easy for them and relaxed for us.
Other arguments against international touring are ethical. Is it justifiable to burn a transit across Europe and fly people hundreds of miles back and forth to perform a four minute long show which, if sold out for all sixty performances only plays to sixty people each day. Now, with Of All The People In All The World purporting to have some consciousness raising dimension, we are implementing our own carbon tax in a desperate effort to offset our spiralling guilt and carbon emissions – Craig and Karen are currently in Melbourne… on a site visit!
As elegantly structured performances often do I return almost to my starting point at my conclusion. The greatest drawback of international touring has become personal. We’ve failed to run our lives in the most convenient chronology. All those years we were young, single, lacking all responsibilities and gagging for international touring action we failed to score. We expect to perform abroad over 100 days this year, but with partners and kids galore these trips have become a mixed blessing. You pay a heavy personal price to discover the technician’s room, somewhere in Europe, papered entirely in Camel cigarette packets.