First Steps : Starting a Performance Company

Essay Talk/Lecture  
A photograph of the original Stan's Cafe. The unit is empty now. An orange sign runs across the width of its blue facade the cafe's name is picked out in bulbous white capitals.

Transcript of a paper given by to the New Work Network at Brunel University, Uxbridge 28 February, 2001 and rhen re-presented in an amended form at the University of Wales: Aberystwuth 22 March, 2001.

First of all, my legal advisers have recommended I display this notice before today’s talk.

[ I Strongly Advise You Not To Become Professional Artists ]
This means in ten years time, when you are physically aging and emotionally broken, cast out by society and desperate for any source of income, you will not be able to sue Stan’s Cafe – the multinational corporation – for loss of earnings. Don’t say we suggested being a professional artist was a good idea but if you’re going to do it anyway, here’s some advice.

[ Stan’s Cafe purveyors of fine art (established 1991) ]
You’re all intelligent people so you will know better than to believe everything I am about to say. I am talking from ten years professional experience but things change and many of my ideas will be ten years out of date. A lot of what I will say can be applied broadly across art forms but my field is new performance work and more specifically theatre, a discipline with its own subtleties and prejudices. So do listen carefuly and critically, take what you want, leave the rest and feel free to ask questions. A version of this talk is posted in the Gazeteer section of the Stan’s Cafe website.

[ What gets you going? ]
Why do you want to be an artist? Why do you want to do it professionally? Why do you want to do it now? I never asked myself these questions this baldly. I’d become consumed by the process of making theatre, the joy of being good at something that also inspires you, the rewarding cycle of discovering and resolving performance problems, the ability to communicate with people through art. I was about to graduate and didn’t want to stop what I had begun, so I didn’t, I turned pro.

I left Lancaster University with a degree in Theatre and Independent Studies and a belief, inherited from my father, that if you were talented and worked hard, anything was possible. Whilst at Lancaster I’d met Graeme Rose, the most charismatic performer in a company called Glory What Glory. At the time I was looking for a vehicle to continue making work outside the privileged realm of education, Glory What Glory was falling apart. Over mugs of tea in Stan’s Cafe, Brick Lane, Graeme and I decided to team up.

It’s possible to have a rich and rewarding life without being an artist. Check out your motives, maybe the aspects of being an artist that attract you also apply in more secure, structured, remunerative fields of endeavour; if they do, follow that path instead, there may already be enough artists in the world. Mark E. Smith, asked about his career in music replied with a stream of expletives. If you’re approaching art as a career you’ve got it wrong from the start. Plenty of people pursue their artistic interests adequately as amateurs. I know of people who have retired to the arts in their thirties with a house and savings having burnt themselves out in the money markets. A host of successful artists have respectable employment histories. It is only recently that arts degrees have been considered vocational and talks like this have been commissioned. Professionalism is not a fait accompli. You should make a positive choice one way or the other. Ten years down the line it’s good to remember making the choice and recalling the reasons why.

Stan’s Cafe was to be an all terrain vehicle for our artistic ambitions. There was always the notion that it would be a theatre company at heart but have the flexibility to work in any field we fancied with whatever collaborators we fancied – not that working with people you fancy is a very good idea. We were determined we would run it – it was not to run us. Our simple mantra was to make work you would want to see yourself. It was to be a serious vocation and it had to be fun.

[ Love is … ]
Stan’s Cafe has yet to become a multinational corporation but it’s no longer the informal agreement it was for the first couple of years. It is a company limited by guarantee with a board of directors who employ me. I draw a modest salary, as does Paulette our administrator. Last year our turnover was over £75k, we are VAT registered, have a three year business plan, there are solicitors and an accountant on hand to advise us and check we fulfil our legal responsibilities. Despite all this, except in the blackest moments, I run Stan’s Cafe it does not run me. The reasons I started the company still seem as good as they ever did and this vehicle still does the jobs it was designed to do. By way of contrast, in 1995 Graeme decided the company no longer fulfilled the ambitions he had had when he started it, so he left. He now has another company, The Resurrectionists, which runs on a different model designed to suit his current requirements – we’re still good mates and he still works with Stan’s Cafe.

I love the variety involved working with Stan’s Cafe and I don’t just mean working on an opera one day, a radio play the next, an installation the day after and a publication the day after that, though that’s clearly fantastic. I love the other things, the fact that coming here to meet you is part of the job, as is balancing the books, plotting strategies, writing copy, commissioning print, lifting heavy objects, driving transit vans, wiring plugs and talking earnestly with mates in the pub. I love being consumed with a passion that’s a life. A life in which every day is different. A life that’s outside simple commerce, that fuses work and leisure, socialising and dreaming into a unified project. I love working with other people as a real team seeing our intangible ideas gain substance and reach out to be grasped by other people. When I think about being a professional artist in these terms I feel privileged, indestructible and in some small way significant. But remember, it is still, in graduate terms, little more than a substance existence. It is precarious, we have no guarantee we will still be doing this next year, no one has a pension. It feels like we’ve been really successful because we’ve managed survive ten years and do some stuff that some people have quite liked. In reality we’re a minuscule company, working in a tiny, marginal corner of an unfashionable art form. In the grand scheme of things no one has seen our work, even if they’ve heard of it, which is unlikely. There are still loads of promoters who won’t let us cross the threshold of their venues. We’ve had one review in the national press in four years, we’ve had our last two applications to the Arts Council turned down, our own Regional Arts Board uses our name but won’t give us any security. You have to be prepared to have a barrage of rejection directed at a thing you’ve committed your life to and you believe in more passionately than anything else.

I’m sorry I’ve gone all dewy eyed, which I should do, I’ve been discussing the things that got me going and keeps me going, but I’m not being paid to be a Performance Art version of Ned Sherin. I’m here to give you some meaningful advice, to talk about Stalin.

[ The First Five Year Plan ]
Sit down on your own with a pen and some paper and scribble a list of targets and ambitions, things you want to achieve in the next five years. Do this alone, be honest, ambitious and without shame. Your motives for becoming an artist will be intangible, the items on this list must be empirical they will give you a sense of direction, perspective and ultimately, when things are ticked off, achievement. Good psychology is to turn it into a Blue Peter style ‘totaliser’ with – to draw from my own list – ‘make some art’ at the bottom and ‘be the subject of a South Bank Show Special’ at the top.

Give yourselves five years. It seems like a long time now but as you get older five years becomes a smaller and smaller proportion of your life. Now days it takes me five years to wake up in the mornings. Say you’re twenty one when you graduate twenty six isn’t irredeemable. In five years you’ll have given it a good shot, had a good laugh, done some interesting stuff, met some great people and have a good sense of whether your project is worth pursuing. In the worst case scenario you’ll have developed a host of transferable skills, learnt a lot about the world and made a load of great contacts. You’ll be too old to join a firm of management consultants but not too old to do a law conversion course or become a teacher. Come Stan’s fifth birthday most things below the South Bank Show Special were ticked off my list (more an inditement of my lack of vision than testimony to our triumphal success). We were performing Ocean of Storms at The Royal Court, we had our first office outside my bedsit and had just taken delivery of a spanking new digital video editing system courtesy of the National Lottery. I signed myself up for another five years and tried to write another list, filling in gaps between where we were and world domination (lunch with Melvyn comes about half way).

[ Collaborators ]
Are you going to work alone, if not who’s going to be in on it? Working alone is simple, demanding and not something I know much about. Even though I operate well alone I think eventually it would drive me nuts. Collaboration is tricky but immensely rewarding. The New Work Network recently held a conference about artistic collaborations. The discussion was fun but the result a foregone conclusion. It is possible to build a collaboration on the comic book model – superheroes brought together combining their special powers to fight the evils of bad art – but if they haven’t been watching Sesame Street and can’t cooperate it will be a disaster. Graeme and I wanted the creative excitement, breadth of skills, ideas and interests that collaboration brings with it, without loosing the clarity of our vision, dissipating our energies in committees or shouldering the responsibility of providing for a huge number of people emotionally or financially. Our solution was to have a tiny core company and concentric circles of collaborators beyond that each with a differing level of responsibility and commitment. These collaborators have the flexibility to come and go, do other things, live in other places and answer the Batphone when and if it rings should they choose to. It’s swings-and-roundabouts, different models work for different people. Blissbody, the Birmingham based multi-media cooperative, have no leader and don’t vote on issues, they argue everything through until a consensus is reached. Theirs is a revolutionary approach, mine is Stalinist – totalitarianism under the cloak of democracy – both models work, only one is ideologically sound. You will find your own mates and your own models, the trick, as in so many things is clear and honest communication. Make sure everyone knows what the deal is and agrees with it, many relationships have been broken where business, art and friendship intersect. Maybe early on you should compare your totalisers so you all know what you want to get out of your venture.

[ Location Graph ]
You could go anywhere and do anything. We chose Birmingham through a simple index, in 1991 it was the British city with the lowest ‘experimental theatre company per head of population’ ratio in the country. Geographically it’s an ideal base for touring. It’s got character, so much character that there’s European urban regeneration money kicking around. It’s dirt cheap to live there, so cheap I’ve managed to buy a four bedroom house, that’s being burgled as I speak. In many ways our choice has worked a treat. We rapidly cornered the market in our kind of stuff, but it in the same way we’ve got no competition so we’ve got no real peers, no culture of attending this kind of stuff, no critical mass, no collective national profile. Birmingham is a weird and wonderful city and its character is written through our work.

So think carefully about location, whilst you can always move this becomes more difficult as your contacts build in any one place. Funding bodies are desperate for art to reach out of urban centres so you could consider the country-side, Dartmoor perhaps or even more fantastically, the seaside. Don’t rule out Europe, the depth of conservatism on this island shouldn’t be underestimated, we’ve always had a fantastic reception touring abroad, why not go to Berlin, Barcelona or Amsterdam, somewhere where people may have a more ready sympathy for what you are trying to do.

[ Pete’s Cafe purveyors of fine art (established 1969) ]
So you know who you are and where you are, now what are you going to do and who are you going to do it for? I find it tricky discussing Stan’s Cafe with my father. He tries to empathise with my motivations but all too quickly the conversation turns to the logic of figures. He’s a business man and if I had been born into the company as a family firm a> it wouldn’t be called Stan’s Cafe and strong> this talk could have been very different…

So you want to be professional artists? It’s about market economics. Who are your customers, is it the audience or the promoters? What do they want now? What will they want next year? How are people talking about work? What is getting subsidised? Much of this information is freely available in venue programmes and the literature funders produce. How can you make a big impact early on with little money? What are the media picking up on? What would stick in people’s minds? What does the commercial sector want? Could you do the same work in the broadcast field? Who are the true power brokers? Where are they based? How can you target them? I won’t bore you with my ‘everything is fashion’ theory. It’s not very novel and basically goes – you can get quite a long way with not very much talent or very many original ideas so long as you have good interpersonal skills and hit the zeitgist. This is a very cynical view but it is also balanced by the romantic notions that one must stay true to oneself and that good will always win out just before everyone starts living happily ever after. Maybe you should write down all the projects you want to undertake, then sit down and answer all the questions posed by Pete’s Cafe and see how your desires match the cynical go-getter plan, be flexible in all but your principles and you may find some useful correspondences. We stumbled upon one accidental early on. In 1993, when we wanted to make a show in swimming pool, it turned out people were mad for this site specific stuff, we got loads of publicity, got on TV and made a splash. For years that show was all anyone could remember about us but at least it meant they’d heard of us.

[ Admin v Art ]
OK let’s stop being cynical and start getting practical with some thoughts on administration. Basically you’re here to make art not admin. The lawyers advised against this bit as well but to hell with it. Don’t get carried away with the formal side of things too much early on. What’s the point in having a constitution, PAYE number and equal opportunities policy if you’ve got no money. After one show you may decide growing organic veg is far more rewarding anyway. Priority One – get your work made and get in front of people. Don’t expect an easy ride; at this stage you’re scum of the earth. Rough it, work from home, keep your overheads close to zero. Make a virtue of your limitations work with found or reclaimed materials; other people’s sets, stuff from skips, redundant technology. Blag time on other people’s computers, make friends in local colleges, arts centres and social clubs, exchange rehearsal space for labour if you can’t rehearse at home. Don’t tell promoters, curators, sponsors, friends, funders what you can do, they won’t believe you – show them. Inspire them with the work and make them feel part of the project, then they’ll feel good about all the favours you’re about to ask them to do you. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice. If no one will book you to do a gig in a venue do it outside a venue. Be prepared to work for box office splits, try not to hire venues if at all possible, you want to work with venues not have them as landlords. Maybe it will be good if only your mates and the hardcore New Art heads turn up see your early stuff, it will probably be shit. If you learn by ‘doing’ why not make one show a month for six months so you get as much learning done as quickly as possible before anyone notices.

Keep your admin coherent and streamlined. Make sure people know who they’re dealing with and what the deal is. Be honest and make sure the message you’re giving the world is a clear one, don’t assume everyone shares your knowledge or obsessions. When someone finally agrees to promote you give them as much help as you can. It’s a highly competitive world and no one likes working with unhelpful arses. This sounds obvious but its amazing the number of companies whose ‘artistry’ prevents them providing marketing departments with a simple description of the work, or anything except a evocative poem. Whilst Stan’s Cafe’s priniciples and aesthetic extend to all it’s activities and products, ultimately, promotional materials are advertising – get bums on seats then hit them with the art. My best administration advice is to find a charming, ruthless, highly literate, numerate saint and persuade them they want to learn to be an arts administrator at the same time you’re learning to be an artist.

Lots of new company’s get really hung up on funding as the holy grail. It’s not, getting your art in front of an audience is. Funding isn’t a right, it’s a privilege and early on you’re possibly more likely to benefit from business start up schemes through the local Training and Enterprise Council or even The Prince’s Trust. OK here’s how funding works. The government tax people, some of that money gets to the Department of Culture Media and Sport and some of that gets to the Arts Council of England. The Arts Council of England gives money to some arts organisations directly, we currently apply to them for money to subsidise national tours. The rest of the Arts Council’s money gets divided up amongst the Regional Arts Boards, along with a slice of National Lottery Cash. These RABs give money to arts organisations in their region. Most will go to big, building based companies and a tiny slither will go to folk like Stan’s Cafe, the most microscopic slither imaginable will go to companies who haven’t been going ten years. Everyone who gives out money, whether they be TECs, The Princes Trust, other trust funds, ACE, RABs or City and District Councils will work according to different criteria, different priorities and different timetables. The good thing is that they will be keen to tell you about all this, it’s their job to do so. Here, as everywhere, the key is to strike up relationships and get people to see your work. In one way, and one way only, you’re are in a good position – everyone likes fresh blood and new ideas. You still qualify as youth and so can get money to do art rather than smashing up phone boxes or going on the dole. There is a lot of emphasis on, and hence money in, training. You may consider a part time post grad. or vocational media course of some kind that will give you access to any kit you may need. Ask people, talk to people, in this field people tend to be friendly and helpful, even if they know a couple of years down the line you’re going to end up nicking their gigs, their money and their glory.

Until all this kicks in you’re going to need money to live on and if none of that advice is useful you can do what I did, work. I worked for the Employment Service full time for six months. I did a year or so washing up and a year or two waiting. These are good jobs because they’re flexible and you see some crazy stuff. Then I got a grant to do an MPhil “full time”, which was better but tough. Finally I started getting part time lecturing work, which was best of all because I earned as much in an hour as I used to for a days washing up. What you’re looking for, is what almost everyone is looking for, a highly flexible job that pays really well and doesn’t impinge on your brain at all.

[ Hard Core Facts ]
Well as if that lot were not nitty gritty enough, I’m going to finish with the nittiest and grittiest of all. The names and numbers and facts of what’s what.

Insurance: unless you can get on someone else’s cover you will need some public liability insurance. Partly because promoters write it into their contracts and partly because you don’t want to spend the rest of your life in jail if something goes hideously wrong with your durational plate spinning act. Try:

Performers – 01708 860999 ask for Scott and say Stan’s Cafe sent you.

If you decide you can’t live without a legal constitution you can adapt someone else’s or get in with a big legal firm locally, they’re often up for generating a bit of local good will. The excellent David Sefton at Laytons helps us out free of charge and had joined our board, I’m not going to give you his number, he’s ours.

Accounts: even if you’ve got no money you’ve got to keep some kind of books. The key thing is keep receipts and records, put everything in a ring binder and don’t throw it away. Ask someone you know who runs a shop or something to teach you the basics. If you’re in a partnership the company finances will be your finances and you won’t have to do anything except personal tax stuff, and the local Inland Revenue office help you out with this. If it starts to get complicated ‘tax’ a big local accountancy firm for help the same as the legal lot.

The =””>Independent Theatre Council will run up its members cheap constitutions and give them free advice on wages, fees, contracts etc. When you join you also get to go on a free course about starting up a company, it’s more dull than this and doesn’t cover the art but is a lot more responsible and managerially focused.

Funding bodies advertise their role, scemes and the names of the people you need to speak to: Arts Council of England, Arts Council of Wales, Regional Arts Boards andyour local authority may have an arts officer, usually in a department of leisure services or some such.

There are a few orgainisations especially concerned with new art forms: Live Art Development AgencyGive advice, especially for artists in London some regions have their equivalents, the West Midlands certainly has.

There are a number of initiatives to showcase the work of new or “emergant” artists, National Review of Live Art, Space Invaders at Warwick Arts Centre, check on these and other developments and opportunities at: Live Art Magazine

Keep in touch with other artists, lobbying support, events and information with theNew Work Network

You can re-live this paper cliche by cliche on the Gazeteer Section of our website (and you are).

And finally, for advice on coopearation visit:

Any Questions?

James Yarker 16th February 2001