Complimentary tickets are the bane of my life.
Not because there’s pennies to be pinched - although I am renown for being particularly tight with the company purse strings. More that when such a request drops into my inbox, I am immediately aware of the inevitable ‘yes, absolutely!’ reply that my fingers will soon be typing out, a life all of their own.
We are a young company, an emerging (to coin a phrase - ugh) company and a company that lives in Hull. We love our city, but for the time being it remains a place difficult to ‘attend’. Attracting outsiders is hard work, and so contemplating saying ‘no’ or even ‘why’ to someone wanting to see our work for free is often out of the question.
Never is this more prevalent than at the Edinburgh Fringe, from which we have recently returned. With programmers, producers and reviewers travelling from far and wide, it is in your best interest - nay, it is your duty - to offer as many complimentary tickets as you can. And by and large, it makes financial sense to. Whether you see a boost in sales from a nice review or a conversation is sparked about possible programming, the risk of giving away a potential paying bum-on-seat is usually outweighed by the hope of something more.
But sometimes it’s not.
Within our company, we try and keep as open a book as possible. So here’s a few things to consider.
1) We, like most, lost money at the Fringe. It cost us £13,300.59 to go, and without having had the final box office report from our venue, I am expecting a return to the company of around £3,300. We have, though, hit our conservative estimate, which means that with support from Hull City of Culture 2017 and others, we won’t come home out of pocket.
2) We were allowed to give away a set number of complimentary tickets per show - either 4, 3 or 2, depending on the week. After this, the company would be charged for the amount owed according to the box office split. As such, my best guess right now is that we will owe around £300 for the comps we over-allocated.
3) Many of these comps were allocated to venues we know weren’t particularly interested in booking the show or to people we knew could afford to buy a ticket, either personally or through the organisation they were representing.
‘So quit complaining, grow some balls and say no once in a while!’ I hear you cry. And you would be absolutely right. If you don’t ask you don’t get, so who am I to blame people for asking for free stuff.
Instead, I want to try and push the word out about who Middle Child is and what we are already trying to do to make theatre as accessible as possible, both in terms of content but also price structure. I’ll use our upcoming production of Mercury Fur as an example, where we are running our own box office and have, for the first time, complete control over the ticket deals.
1) Our most expensive ticket is £12. These will be sold on the door.
2) Our most expensive ticket bought in advance costs £10 (plus 60p booking fee). These can be bought via our website, or by ringing a temporary box office number.
3) During the two week run, we will be running two nights of a new scheme: Pay-What-You-Want-Wednesdays. Audience members will need to reserve their ticket in advance, but other than that what you pay is up to you.
4) Another offer we are trialling is Five for a Fiver. Again, pretty self explanatory; Any advanced booking of five or more will see each ticket price drop from £10 to £5.
I’m happy with that. I hope we’re covering a few different bases: those who want to come and see our show at a time that suits them, they can, and for a reasonable price; there are incentives to get larger groups of people down, and there’s reason for those who haven’t come before to give it a try. We’re doing what we can to make it affordable and accessible - only time will tell if we succeed.
So here’s my plea. If you are a reviewer, a venue, a programmer, we really really want you to come and see the show. We’re having a press night on Tuesday 13th October. We might put a donation pot around somewhere, so if you’d like to support the production in some way that’s great. We won’t hold you to it. If you can come that night, let me know and I’ll send you a link whereby you can reserve a place.
If you can’t come that night we still want you to come - there’s loads of others! And I don’t think the prices are too bad at all. Our capacity is 40. We really need to sell out the show for the public run in order to pay our staff. I’d love it if you could see the value in contributing to that.
And if you still believe you should be offered a complimentary ticket, that’s ok, but here’s the deal. I’m going to do my best to hold back on the yes absolutely’s, and we’re going to have an honest conversation about the why’s. If there’s value there’s cause, so let’s have a chat.
Middle Child Producer
The last time I wrote one of these we were about to enter into the precipice of the Edinburgh Festival with our show Weekend Rockstars. The good news is that we survived; survived the late nights, the Royal Mile and the threatened financial oblivion. We also came away with some nice reviews, tour interest, a lot of really lovely tweets and a bloody award for innovation in musical theatre! In short, I’m delighted with our August and in particular with our brilliant Weekend Rockstars cast and crew (if I took real time to say how brilliant they all were it would make this blog unreadably saccharin, so I’ll spare you that). In spite of all this I’m still stuck somewhere in the middle of a Tom Cruise-on-Oprah style celebration of the Edinburgh Fringe and a Tony Blair-on-Jeremy Corbyn kind of revulsion. Let’s see if I can explain why.
NB: This isn’t going to turn into a criticism of the financial realities of Edinburgh, nor a detailed analysis of whether the Fringe is ‘worth it’ for emerging (ugh) companies or otherwise. Other people - much better placed than me - have already written at length on those subjects, and in any case the two things I’m certain of are that it’s 1) not a good way to make money, and 2) definitely worth it.
Instead, I want to write about how we do it, and to start that I’m interested in asking a few provocative open questions. Feel free to comment on this, tweet at us/me, send an e-mail or just have the thoughts in your own head (though that’d be a shame). I’m interested in knowing if I’m in the minority or the majority with these questions…
1) Why do we have star ratings? No-one seems to like them yet everyone seems to use them. Reviewers write blogs about not liking using and then proceed to use them in their next review. Theatre makers blog about not liking them and then tell their cast they have to spend their mornings stapling stars to flyers (sorry…!). And does it really serve audiences, or is it completely reductive? I know that in planning my festival I would often resort to scrolling through Twitter and making a mental note…’ooh only three stars, maybe I’ll give it a miss’ … ‘Five stars?! Well I’d love to see a perfect piece of theatre!’ I’m not the first and won’t be the last to make this point but, like a Conservative government, we only have them because we choose to have them surely? And is there anything us companies can do to move the debate away from ‘how many stars did you get?’
2) Who are the shows at the Edinburgh Fringe for? As I’ve bored people about previously, my main problem with most theatre is that there isn’t often much consideration of who the work is made for and why it’s made for those people in that way. For me, Edinburgh is the apotheosis of this. From what I can work out Edinburgh is largely about showing your work to other theatre makers, to tired reviewers and to the occasional promoter or venue. I’m not necessarily criticising this but I feel there’s a side to the Fringe that I’m missing out on, or perhaps stupidly ignoring. Do ‘normal’ people go to shows at the Fringe? Do they just not stick around after shows? Are they not as dutiful at tweeting? I’m genuinely intrigued to know the answers to these questions. I know there are a few non-arts types who see stuff and it’s entirely possible that I just missed a whole mass of people choosing to indulge in the Fringe but the majority did feel like art for artists.
The question I need to answer from a Middle Child perspective is - why would a company interested in engaging new ‘non-traditional’ audiences go to the Edinburgh Fringe, other than to further the reputation amongst those who make and write about it? Or is that enough, is that okay?
3) Is reviewing a two-way conversation? Again, I’m not breaking new ground here but I’m intrigued on this question and without agenda. We had some really nice, glowing reviews and some which were the equivalent of shrugging your shoulder and seeing what is happening around the corner. Both of these responses are totally fine - as are constructive nasty reviews (which thankfully we didn’t get) - but my question is prompted by some reviews I read (mostly not ours) which were just poorly written, lacked genuine engagement with the work and in all honesty just felt like they offered neither critique nor purpose. Not all of these were badly rated either, some great reviews I read felt as though they meant less to me because of the lack of engagement with the work or the celebration of the fact that the actors seemed not to forget their lines and that the lighting cues were delivered on time. Again, I’d like to know if we are supposed to engage with these reviews as a conversation or a statement? Should we expect as much from reviewers as we expect from ourselves? Or do we become better at understanding that some reviewers are learning and honing their craft in the same way that many companies do at the Fringe and bite the bullet? My broadest question is what are the reviews for - are they to help audiences select how to spend their money, to develop and challenge companies or to enable us to rise above and sell tickets regardless of marketing budgets? My hope is a healthy mix of all three, yet I read too many reviews this year that felt as though they were working against at least one of these suggestions.
4) Are we allowed to retweet praise? Anyone who (still) follows the Middle Child twitter account will know that my personal answer to this is ‘YES’, but every time I did so I was aware of an audible tut somewhere across the border. My justification is that we’ve spent a hell of a lot of money going to the Fringe and it's really hard to get an audience so when someone takes the time to tweet something nice it’s not only like a high five from a parent (an exciting treat that never gets old) but also extremely useful. Does this mean we are disgusting egotists? Is it sickeningly un-British to gloat and share positivity in such a public forum? I dunno…
5) At what point do we say what we think? This is definitely a broader question than the Edinburgh Fringe but an important one which I feel is highlighted by the festival. People who loved Weekend Rockstars generally stayed behind for a beer and said nice things to which I awkwardly muttered thanks. I guess people who didn’t like it or who weren’t that bothered disappeared and were lost into the night. Some probably said they liked it when really didn’t, and others possibly thought we didn’t want to hear which bits they liked and which bits they thought were unnecessary. This feels like a shame and a real gap in the kind of critical conversation which would undoubtedly improve future work. I wonder if people are often reticent to say things while knowing companies are in the middle of a run - fair enough - but can we please find a way to have conversations deeper than ‘it was brilliant’ or ‘it was shit’ without ego, schedule or politeness getting in the way? Making a bad show is a very real possibility — even probability; as is making a mediocre one, a boring one or an overambitious one, however that is often necessary in order to ensure that the next one is bloody brilliant. Let’s not stop that happening because we assume companies don’t want to have those conversations. We definitely do and I’m sure we’re not alone. (If you sure Weekend Rockstars and we didn’t chat about please drop me a line - firstname.lastname@example.org - whatever you thought. I can take it, I promise)
Like an Edinburgh Fringe show I’ve written this blog as a provocation of thought. Where a show at the Fringe provokes us to consider what it is to be human, I hope this blog may (in a minor way) make us consider what it is to take a show to the festival, and ask whether we can get better at it.
Greetings! I'm Jamie, the new communications manager at Middle Child. Over the next few months I will be working with people and organisations across Hull and beyond to spread the word about our various productions.
First, though, a confession. I have little experience in theatre, aside from the occasional visit to watch a play and a childhood interest in making Lego movies. I also played a hooligan extra when ID2 was filming in Hull, so I suppose that's some kind of dramatic credential. However, I have a thirst for storytelling and words, and I'm excited to approach this role from a fresh perspective, to see what we can do to get more people enjoying theatre in Hull.
My background is in journalism and internal communications and I continue to work with an anti-poverty charity in York, as their intranet dog's body. Previous roles have included briefly working as a reporter in Ecuador, blogging for the Men's Roller Derby World Cup and covering climate change protests from my mobile phone.
The potential of digital media and the arts fascinates me. I wonder, what even is theatre in a world where people, especially young people, create, perform and share their own tales with technology that fits in their back pocket? How can we engage such audiences in Hull, bearing in mind many people also still have limited or no access?
There is a real buzz around this city and an infectious can-do attitude, from Humber Street Sesh and Freedom Festival, to projects like Hull Independent Cinema, Kardomah and, of course, Middle Child. I can't wait to be a part of it.