Owls and Krakens and Bears, Oh My!

I’m writing from an artists’ residency in Berlin that I am crashing. It’s called HomeBase and is all about bringing together artists from around the world together to work on notions of ‘home’ – I am not one of those artists, I’m just visiting. It’s a really interesting project and you can find out more on their Homepage.

For me it’s a nice space to type out emails and write press releases and go out of my mind worrying about the up-coming National Arts Festival. It is right around the corner (at this point some of you will nod, mutter about how true that is, stop reading and switch tabs to get back to working on your own productions), and it’s going to be a tough one.

Mostly because I’m trying to wrangle Krakens and Owls from another continent (OK, so that accounts for two thirds of the titular menagerie… where do bears fit in? Well, the bears are a symbol of Berlin. There. Mystery solved.)

This first half of the year has been a roller-coaster, with highs like Alexander Upstairs and the amazing response at Brighton Fringe for A Girl Called Owl, and lows like my collapsed lung (a month in and out of hospital and the recovery period) and the low turn out for Get Kraken despite amazing reviews. I’ve made a lot of declarations about what I’m going to focus on, and then made a whole lot more declarations stating the opposite. The most important lesson is just to keep working; good things happen if you don’t give up.

Owl’s first week at the Brighton Fringe: Pints, Armchairs and Openings

We left Cape Town a week ago, Briony and I both racing through our last minute chores to make it to the airport on time. We checked in and suddenly the rush and the pressure to finish jobs and send emails and edit documents ended. We sat in Departures and we could do nothing more. It was bliss. After a week trying to balance rehearsals, marketing and managing the Upstairs, and getting my flat ready to be left empty for two months, I had finally reached the point where I couldn’t do anything more. Even if I had wanted to, I couldn’t.

We arrived 7.30am in London and hopped a train to Hove station where we’re staying with my sister. We didn’t have long to settle in because the main task for the day was finding an arm chair for Owl. We visited six second-hand furniture stores in the morning. It was proving difficult, there were many small details about the chair that I hadn’t realised were important: the angle of the back, the width of the arms, the depth of the upholstery. Fortunately there are a lot of second-hand stores here selling good quality stuff much cheaper than in Cape Town.

Briony outside Nightingale (480x640)At midday we popped in at the Nightingale Theatre, the space to be our home for the next couple of weeks. It’s a lot like Alexander Upstairs – a smallish room above a pub with a capacity of around 40 -50. It’s got a couple of advantages… better lights and more stage space; just as we have ours. Both of us share the problems of being a small space, the biggest being bad sightlines from the operating desk.

The Nightingale team is led by Steve, a trim bearded dancer who occasionally does kicks. He makes us feels very welcome and the office is very friendly. That’s generally the feeling of the Brighton Fringe – friendly and welcoming. The locals are far more mixed, ranging from the scarily grumpy to the scarily cheerful.

Thursday has me working on the armchair’s spinning mechanism and then watching as Briony subjects it to the blocking; spinning, jumping on it, tipping it and then deciding it was too nice. So we scratched it, tore it, kicked it and stained it in to a more suitably disreputable state.1368106666792 (608x457)

In the afternoon we went to a Participant Mixer hosted by the Fringe and featuring free pizza and wine. We set out to enjoy ourselves first. A lot of people see these sorts of events as opportunities to meet important people and make them come to your show. It’s not. It’s an opportunity to meet interesting people, have some free wine and have fun. Maybe you’ll meet important people too, and that interaction will be more rewarding because it doesn’t follow from an agenda. I met a Master synchronised swimmer, a part-time actor and air-steward, a former prostitute, a sartorial comedian, and a Welsh cake. Our new fest friends We Are Goose are doing a musical on the life and work of John Hunter. We had pints!

We opened with 2 shows on Saturday and one Sunday. The audiences were small but very attentive and there have been some great tweets about the show and Briony’s performance. So far we’re feeling confident that the run will be worthwhile. It’s also great to be out of Cape Town for a bit and some perspective on our little theatre world.

 

Owl at the National Arts Festival 2012

The Grahamstown festival costs a lot. It takes up money and time and it soaks up your passion like a wonder-mop. I’m going to run with the mop analogy I think; it has potential. For instance what you get back out depends on how hard and desperately you wring it. I’m not sure how the planning fits in, that might be an aspect that’s important in managing a project like presenting Owl at the NAF but not so much in mopping. There’s a law of diminishing returns that applies to planning for mopping, after an hour of preparation there isn’t much more you can do. Not so with planning a production. The more thought and planning you put in, the better the production will do at festival. I know people with five year plans. Yes, like Stalin – except not, you know, bastardy. I don’t have a five year plan. This time last year I had a one year plan and right now I have two year plan. I’m working my way up.

My plan for Owl was to do a two week run at the Intimate Theatre in February / March and then do it at the NAF as part of the Cape Town Edge and follow that with a run at the Schools Fest. From there we’d get exciting offers to go tour or do a run in Joburg. What I wanted to get out of each phase was different. The Intimate run I wanted to road test the material and get press coverage. This we achieved and we even made a modest profit; it’s easy to make a modest profit when your costs are so low. All this I covered here, in my report on Owl.

But now we get to the new stuff; how did Owl fare at the National Arts Festival? The critical success at the Intimate and the brief run at Kalk Bay Theatre shifted my expectations for Grahamstown. I thought Owl would have some buzz and pick up audiences from word-of-mouth. After all, we had loads of awesome quotes from press folk. But here’s only truth I’ve found in the theatre industry: talent, praise, charm and hard work guarantee nothing. They are necessary – no one gets anywhere without them – but there are no guarantees and you will always wish you had more of those qualities, believing that you could tip the scales just enough.

As it was, Owl was not a success at the festival in one, crucial way: very few people came to see it. It was a success in other ways though; the few people who did see it were the right people, the people who you want to connect with, and consequently Owl was invited to two overseas festivals, Brighton and Prague. Obligatory fist pump, just to show I’m excited. OK, celebrations aside, let’s get to the nuts and bolts of what went wrong and what went right.

First of all, I’m going to repeat that Grahamstown costs quite a bit. It’s not that any, single charge is unreasonable – it’s that there are so many of them to many different organisations. There are your festival costs (registration and venue hire), then there are your travel costs (petrol, accommodation and meal allowances – multiply this by the size of your team), your actual production costs (still mercifully low for Owl) and then your marketing costs (Labelled here as CTE contribution, since that covers the publicist, the posters, etc.) – an area where most people try to save money. By a strange bit of fortune my spending on the Festival, Marketing and Travel areas was more or less evenly divided, which isn’t actually a good thing. There is a rough correlation between the amount of effort and money you spend on marketing so you should always be throwing more into it. Your production values have less of a connection than most people would care to admit and the amount you spend on fringe registration and accommodation don’t connect to your income at all. In fact, since we already had the set and costumes for Owl there was no spending on this area.

Here’s a pie chart. My total costs were just under R15 000 while my income from an average of 22 people per show was just under R10 000. So we made a loss of around R5 000.

But we were saved financially by the Schools Festival, which runs for 5 days directly after the NAF. We applied with all that good press we’d gotten and so were included. The Schools Festival straight out buys the show, pays for your accommodation and S&T, and fills the auditorium with touring school groups. The additional performances increased our costs by only R500 but tripled our income. So, tip for the NAF: try your hardest to get on to the Schools Festival. That means having your press kit up to date and planning so you have some damn good clippings in it.

Where I think I failed was that I didn’t work hard enough to sell Owl to the festival punters. I was stage managing London Road and trying to run the Edge in general (more on the Edge later) as well as popping in on Godfrey Johnson’s two shows – Stories of Crime and Passion and Shadow of Brel. Owl certainly suffered for this. Another oversight is that festivals work differently to runs in Cape Town. The audiences you’re trying to coax in have travelled 800km, they have over 400 shows to choose from and they are away from their social networks – both real and virtual. In their home towns these people are the first wave of audiences, they have their ear to the ground and see a play almost every week. They are the ones who tweet and post on facebook about the must-see shows and they are the ones who listen to the buzz. It’s a situation of the semi-starved going on a binge. You can’t entice them the way you do back home and when they rave they don’t rave to their buddies who don’t often go see shows but might just if the week is looking a bit stagnant. Oh no, they’re raving to other festinos, other theatre-lovers. And most of them already have a pack of tickets booked. The raving has to be so good that they will squeeze in a sixth show on that day or even drop a show they have already paid for.

Your marketing has to be better. You’re competing against local theatre legends. You’re competing against a main programme with amazing international artists. You’re competing against music, beer and a decimated forest of flyers and posters.

My marketing was not good enough. Fortunately Owl didn’t get completely lost and the right people came to see it. Fortunately we were on the Schools Fest. These things aren’t chance, they happened because I worked to make them happen, just as a low audience turn out wasn’t chance either, it was the result of an area where I didn’t work hard enough. Not a mistake I’m going to repeat.

A Week to Talk About

Grahamstown is a week away. Literally. The first performances are Thursday the 28th – that’s Stories of Crime and Passion, the Shadow of Brel, London Road and Owl. That’s a hell of a day. In the fever of preparation it’s been hard to find time to write a meaning post on something significant like research or practical ideas on marketing and producing. Instead of writing it I have to be doing it. A pretty common excuse for artists, but ultimately we need to be writing down our thoughts for them to develop. Art grows when a thought is planted, in the hurly burly of production we have to find time to sit on a park bench and let our minds wander. It’s not that I can’t work under pressure, I can and do, but I can’t think freely under pressure. That stroke of insight, that ‘Ah ha!’ moment, needs space to happen. The gap between the first musing and the flash can be huge, sometimes years can pass before you’re ready to make an idea you had into art. That’s why I keep a notebook; it’s my external memory.

As much as this is fundamental to the personal act of making art, it is also crucial to the practical and social act of making art happen. The Cape Town theatre industry seems to have academic writing hanging around the university libraries and reviews at various points along a popular/critical spectrum. It’s hard to find out how people actually make art happen. It’s pretty much the point of this blog and I’ve been letting that down for the past month. So on the one hand, sorry, and on the other, let’s start a conversation about theatre that doesn’t happen over beer in smoky bars or in a library or a lecture hall. Let’s start talking about what it takes to make art in this country.

That was Owl – Part 3

The Building Blocks of marketing: A How-to guide to Estimating the Effectiveness of Marketing Strategies

With the tagline and a firm idea of identity I went into step two: drafting press releases and covering emails, creating content for the website and material like posters and flyers. But how do you decide what to spend you money and energy on?

There is a formula I use to work out how valuable a certain strategy might be. I made it up based on common sense, high school maths and general reading. If you can spot any problems I’d love to improve it. Basically answers the question: How likely is it to pay for itself?

Stage 1: How many people does it need to bring into the theatre to pay for itself?

Simple version:

(unit cost x number of units) / (minimum ticket price) = number of tickets you need to sell

Then take that number and compare it to the number of units. How likely is it to bring in those audience members?

Ticket sale target / number of units

This gives us a ratio to compare

So Case Study time! The design stuff is pretty straight forward for me, being a designer myself. I decided to make a thousand business card format flyers and distribute them. I handed them to people who wanted to know what I was up to. I left piles at coffee shops, bookstores, back packers, and had the magnificent Mwenya hand them out to her students. Yusrah recommended a super cheap printer out in Kensington 7th Avenue. They were R360 for 500, so we’ll plug that straight in:

R 720 / R50 = 14.4

Which means 1000 flyers need to bring in 15 people to pay for itself, sunk into a single value: 0.0015. We’ll call this number its minimum effective value. Of course this is pretty useless since we’re now just looking at it with our gut. Unfortunately until more people share their strategies and audience numbers it’s impossible to work out a statistically significant average effective value – and even then marketing is a remarkably tangled system. All we can do is rely on our personal experience to try figure out if the minimum effective value is greater or less than the average effective value.

Frustrating.

What we need is a Fermi formula – a means of organizing our ignorance and generating a logical estimate – to find the average effective value.

number of days x number of distribution points x (daily average traffic at distribution points x percentage of population interested in theatre x percentage of people who notice ad)* x percentage of people who intend to come and follow through**

* this cannot exceed the number of units per point if it’s a flyer.

** this is the ‘facebook event’ phenomenon – the percentage of people who rsvp ‘attending’ and actually show up.

This is roughly the way that websites and advertisers work out how effective an advert is, except that they have detailed numbers returned to them so they don’t have to guess.

OK, so plugging in the guesses:

7 x 10 x (70 x 0.05 x 0.6)* x 0.4

This gives us a total of 58.8 to 1000 flyers or an average effective value of 0.058

I’m not going to lie, this system is spotty and I may have missed some obvious modifiers but the margin between the minimum effective value and the average effective value is wide enough that we can safely say that flyers are good value for money.

Is anyone still reading? The point of all of this is that I can remember graduating and planning how to advertise my shows and doing things because they were what everyone else did. Really there is a lot to think about and you can go about it in quite a logical way. You can maximise your efforts by concentrating on improving one or two aspects of the formula. You could increase the number of distribution points, or pick points with greater traffic. You could discard the idea of flyers entirely and concentrate on more noticeable strategies with greater visibility but higher cost, like banners or posters. These formulas also help you to be realistic about free strategies like Facebook events or emails, which is what I’ll be covering next.

With these ideas in my head I chose to do business card flyers, 20 posters only, and to focus on free strategies: emailing, Facebook, blogging and Twitter.

Punching Theatre in the Face

People are trying to save theatre all the time. I recently sat in a circle of shell-shocked arts administrators at the PANSA Western Cape offices in Salt River and saw the zeal glinting from underneath the exhaustion. They try to grow theatre in townships and preserve particular art forms like dance, puppetry or spoken word. They battle bureaucracy and antipathy. Many of them started in the ‘industry’ as artists, gradually realising that art depends on someone filling out forms and sending out fifty emails a day. They wrestle and they keep going – some of those present represented companies that have been operating for over 20 years, each year entirely uncertain. Looking around that circle it’s hard to lay the blame on the arts administrators for the dearth of funding allocated every year.

Not represented except by myself were the ‘independent’ theatre makers (I can’t the label ‘independent’ seriously. I depend on so many people willing to do favours and take risks that I am more dependent than any company able to raise funding). It’s not that they couldn’t benefit from a workshop on fund-raising; it’s that they don’t believe in the funding system. I know I don’t.

Independents rely on a forward momentum to build in their careers. They start off shoving hard against a Sisyphean boulder; sweating and losing money they earn working for the establishment. Eventually people start calling them, start arriving at their openings and experiments and offering them better jobs, roles, collaborations, etc.

But neither of these strategies counts on the audience arriving.

The wild card ‘independent’ theatre makers try to get people with money to love theatre, and try enticing the intelligentsia and that massive stratum of Cape Town’s young middle class, the designers and advertisers.

However they will fail. And it’s not entirely their fault.

Newspapers and some radio stations maintain an interest in the theatre world and it’s possible to draw an audience through these narrow canals alone. However, they are reaching the people who already like theatre, who read the paper looking for a show to watch. My crisis of marketing is not how to reach those people (although on my list of things to work out is: ‘how to reach them sooner’) but how to reach the intelligentsia, the hipsters, the wired generation. I’m looking specifically for vectors that (in the words of the PR Institute of SA) objectify the information. Word of mouth is more valuable than a flyer not because you pay nothing for it, but because you can’t pay for it.

But what do we do when reviews become homogeneous? Surely positive feedback is good for marketing? Yes and no – if no one disagrees with your opinion then no one is listening. A hard statement, but if theatre is to be relevant then a spectrum of critical opinions must exist and they must be accessible. So I am left with this conclusion: I want people to criticise my work and to do so vocally. However, some reviewers will hold back a negative engagement because they feel it’s impolite or under the mistaken idea that their silence is a favour. I know some theatre makers and companies who believe that is true. I am not one of them, and I am just arrogant enough to believe I’m right about this.

There are people who are trying to save theatre and so they treat it with kid gloves. I think theatre needs to get smacked in the face a couple of times.

So, with thanks, I link to Scarlet’s review of Owl.

Reviews for Owl

Owl was invited to the Brighton Fringe Festival (UK) where it was one of three shows nominated for Latest’s Best International Performance.

Reviews are arranged from the most recent backward.

“Some shows are easy to fall in love with; this is one of them. A Girl Called Owl is a sweet, poignant coming-of-age story.”

5 stars – Darren Taffinder, Fringe Guru

“In this powerful one-woman play, Briony Horwitz portrays Olivia, the new girl in town, who we meet firstly aged ten and later aged 16. With just an armchair for a prop, Horwitz athletically climbs and stretches with all the agility of the child she is playing.”

– Tania Deaville, The Argus (Brighton, UK)

“Here is a lovely, rich sense of the physical environment conveyed through the writing and the telling. Briony Horowitz’s portrayals are vivid and her edits clean. She has great skill and obviously feels a real affinity with Jon Keevy’s material”

– R. Blackman, Fringe Review

“This is an absolutely charming monologue, performed by a brilliant actress with well-honed skills in multiple characterisation and in leading her audience on a beautifully-crafted narrative arc. The utter simplicity in set and costume design focus our attention in on the essential element of the theatrical experience – the pure art of storytelling.”

 5 starsLove Fringe

“A Girl Called Owl makes skilful use of the power of storytelling… It is simply a pleasure to watch.”
– Ellen Carr, A Younger Theatre
.
“This powerful one-woman play, was performed wonderfully as Briony Horwitz delivered a vivid storytelling experience. As she slipped from one character into another, bringing each one alive through accents, gestures and mannerisms, she recounted the story of a 10 year old girl, Olivia aka Owl.”
– Dade Freeman, Krysalis
.

“Horwitz delivers an enchanting performance. Her versatility as an actress is astonishing and her effortless handling of so many characters is to be applauded…. moving and evocative”

 – Tracey Saunders, Cape Times

“Owl doesn’t let you escape. Instead it draws you in and hypnotizes you with its apparent simplicity. Briony plays a slew of characters with a seamless breathless ease that had our eyes transfixed to her every movement. The stage is bare apart from a battered sofa which she uses and abuses as she lives through her characters. Fiona Du Plooy’ choreography is uncanny, a little distressing, but mostly mesmerizing as she directs Briony’s slender body through her agonizing and exhilarating moments.”

 – Astrid Stark

“Sy is ewe tuis in kinderlike onskuld en uitdagende tienergedrag. En alles word met empatie gedoen…..Die vertolkings en teks is selfloos.”

 – Mariana Malan, Die Burger

“Briony handles numerous characters with clarity and depth. Her vibrant imagination and deft handling of the image-laden text is enchanting.

“Keevy’s writing is delightful. It is full of punch and flow and sparkle. It is insightful and universal and touching and smart.”

 – 3Way Stop, The PonyRoach Review

“Beautifully observed writing makes this piece totally delicious. I usually hate grown-up actors pretending to be children, but here, Briony is strong, and unusual, and has an innocent integrity that manages to pull it off.”

 – Megan’s Head

“For all its beauty, Owl is a play that pulls no punches. Its themes are both innocent and brutal simultaneously. Coming of age is never easy, never idealistic. Keevy explores this without fear or prejudice, and with a great deal of honesty.”

 – Clifford Graham, the Monday Missile

“The skill and talent partnership of writer/director Keevy and actress Horwitz elevates Owl to more than just a mere coming of age story. It invites you in, to such an extent that you unknowingly laugh and cry along with Owl and Kay as they grow both closer and apart. You find yourself holding your breath as Owl utters the powerful final words … that you must go hear/feel for yourself.”

Theatre Scene Cape Town

“Owl a feather in Horwitz’s cap….4 stars”

 – Theresa Smith, The Cape Argus

And Some interviews with Briony and/or I: Daniel Derckson for Bizcommunity,