How To Stage A Play: with HighRise Theatre

How To Stage A Play: with HighRise Theatre

The Tung first came to know HighRise Theatre through their last production, Big Foot. Writing for The Tung, Tutku Barbaros commented that the play was 'an astonishing achievement and vitally political,' and praised the collective for their risk-taking and their representation of real London voices. It's clear that theirs is a spirit of collaboration and hard-graft, and that it's as important to them to put effort into working creatively with disaffected young people as it is to spend time crafting their shows. We reached out to the team to ask for some tips for our readers who are thinking about producing their own theatre, and Co-Artistic Director Dominic Garfield delivered some of the most open and honest advice we could've asked for. 

Hi Dominic! So first things first - what was the first play you ever produced, and how did It go? 

Our first piece was called ‘Between the Cracks’. It was a forum theatre production set during the 2011 London riots and we performed it in several community spaces across London. The piece went well for what it was and the stage we were at as artists and we created a really rowdy room of opinions. Stuff got heated at points but we managed it despite our naivety and the piece worked. Following the production, we realised we wanted to continue pushing peoples buttons and giving platforms for unspoken taboo subjects. From that HighRise was born in 2014.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known then? 

Not to be afraid of who we are. When we first approached making work for an audience we thought we had to censor ourselves. In our approach, our energy, our themes and most of all the slang and language we use as inner-city London artists. Basically, we thought we had to ‘whiten up’ and tone down our behaviour. This isn’t the case (95% of the time) and most theatres and commissioners are learning to accept us for the vagabonds we are whilst we hold back on our censoring. 

How might a small theatre company go about funding their first play? 

I wish I could answer that with confidence but basically keep your eyes open to opportunities. At an initial stage of a project for a small/newer company, I would split energies into two different sources of support. 

1. Find a venue partner. It is important to do research and learn which theatres support work at this stage of progression and at your level. There are small-scale venues that focus a lot of their attention in promoting and developing initial plans and artists that are new to making work. This doesn’t make them any less credible, they just have a different focus to the likes of big new writing venues like The Bush or The Tricycle. An example is Camden People’s Theatre who continue to take risks on new ideas over numerous different platforms and opportunities, particularly for BAME artists. Check them out. 

Once you have identified someone that wants to support your work, see what that support includes. Space to perform, space to rehearse, marketing support, dramaturgical support. Also, a key can be some support with fundraising.

2. Fundraising. The big issue is that you will have to bend over backwards to get your first pieces of work on. Whether that is financially or artistically, things are never as they seem. Be prepared for that and you can’t get heartbroken. Plus you build a resilience. Get me. 

So having your venue partner on board will start to make funders take you more seriously. This is a must. Show that as many people as possible believe in your work and want to support you. You just need them to help financially realise the idea. Basically: All these other people are backing me, you should too, it would be mad not to and so much time has already been invested (meetings, partnership agreements, brainstorming etc). 

As far as who to go to, it's hard, and there aren't a load of options. The Arts Council is a push to rely on for your first project. That machine is a beast that needs time attention and plenty of time to fail, adjust and learn. There are small pots you can go for all over the place. Check out foundations that support arts at an early stage. Also start to think outside the box, if you apply to arts funding, you are up against another 2.7 million people in the arts making shows about wanking on washing machines in Tibet. Think about the themes of your work, what kind of issues does it throw up and who from those worlds may be interested in supporting your work. I have received funding from charities, housing associations and even a halal meat company. Be sharp. Be entrepreneurial. This will give you a stronger foundation moving forward

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How can you gauge how much money you’ll need? What do you need to take into account?

This might sound mad basic but it's like any other business. You need to budget. Set it all out on a spreadsheet. If you can’t use a spreadsheet, bring someone into your squad that can. Build the empire early. It is a lifesaver. work out what you need to spend and therefore how much you need to get in.

Make a top end budget (Pragmatic Dream World). Then make a minimum budget (the minimum you will work for as artists). Remember to always take into account your time and adding a contingency for things to go wrong.

Don't do things for the sake of it. Save money where you can, be fluid if something seems really expensive. Think outside the box, find your own rhythm and don't think that running an arts company doesn’t need the same entrepreneurial spirit that any other startup company needs.

When marketing on a shoestring, what are the priorities? 

Social media means free marketing. Start with your personal networks and move outwards. Make sure the whole team are on it too, pushing the work and promoting. Push for retweets from influential people.

If you have some budget, it is always important to realise who it is you want to see your work. Narrow it down and focus on that group. Get to them through the platforms they use. Keep it relevant to the piece and your company. There is no point attacking a west end musical forum or blog when you are making a one-person show about Mental health. It's wasted money.

Do…

Research, make a battle plan and attack. Be quirky, exciting and true to yourself. Use photos/videos of rehearsals or any sort of jokes you can create in the rehearsal room. 

Don’t

Oversell. Your personal networks are your best friend. Don't piss people off by over posting or posting the same content again and again. 

I often see people offering workshops for hard to reach people with no experience of delivering this service (for a bit of extra subsidy). Don’t offer workshops for money to people you have no experience in delivering to. It takes a specialist facilitator to work with certain groups of people. Being an actor doesn’t make you a facilitator. Bring someone in who is one, or learn your skill properly so you can have confidence in what you deliver. Believe, with no experience in a prison, PRU or old people's home - you will feel massively exposed when you begin delivering.

Thanks to Dominic for the sound advice!

Follow Dominic on Twitter @DomGarfield
Follow HighRise on Twitter @HighRise_UK 
Check out the HighRise website here

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