THE STARK TALE OF A STARTUP – ITS DRAMATIC UPS AND DOWNS With intangibles now possibly the largest part of our economy, it is bad news to find seed-funding tied by fixated criteria and subject to protracted delays. This project shows that support is quite as valuable as funding; and support alone can make the difference.
A new and radically different approach to production suggested itself to two experienced and talented people who worked in one segment of this multi-skilled field. They had come to feel that the ways in which material was produced in a related segment could be better served by adopting an approach that would transfer from a third segment.
The segment in question, they felt, though successful to its dedicated customers, was somewhat stylised, and stuck in its mould; and its output is exceptionally expensive.
They had developed a clear concept of how to demonstrate that a new way was possible; they had assembled experts who would take part in the demonstration, they had located where it would take place; knew how long it would take; and how much it would cost.
After looking for some long time for seed funding from one public body that would have added considerable credibility to their project (it had encouraged them to make an application), they eventually came to appreciate that its criteria required something more proven, with immediately widespread side public benefits, as well as post-completion benefits; and they had to abandon that line of approach.
There proved to be no public body either in this field or in any related field that would put up the necessary seed funding; and other organisations in this field had their own incubators.
So they turned to people who were passionate about this field (‘friends and family’); but they first had to enable them to contribute in the form which they required, and attract their interest – in settings that appealed to them.
Finally after eleven months of hard labour, they were able to embark on the ‘real work’ – two months of creating a demonstration that their approach was feasible; and it was very well received by its customers and by the Press.
If this was in industry, it had all the elements of a project that would attract grants from Innovate UK – as a pathfinder project. But it is in the Arts, – where every project is in the nature of an innovation; and this is in a specialised sector.
Instead of working mainly with established opera productions, one of which is dustied off, recast, and presented in an established opera venue with a new director and conductor, the plan was to take an existing opera and in six weeks, to develop a new production before putting it on stage – in the way that most theatre is produced; and – this was a twist – not in an established venue, but in an intimate setting. They sought ‘to create an exquisite world-class production in an intimate space’.
The idea was conceived by two friends who had often worked together in writing music for shows and directing plays. They hit upon an existing opera – The Rake’s Progress – whose libretto was by W.H.Auden and Chester Kallman and music by Stravinsky, which happened also to be set in the eighteenth century, an opera that one of them (an actor and director, who had produced eighteenth century theatre) had previously worked on in a project at the National Theatre’s Studio. And they knew world-class performers who would be interested in this. ‘We had a fit; but no money!’
They contacted key singers and set and costume designers (one person just led them on to another) all of whom they had worked with before; and decided to have a go.
With 12 months to go, they registered a company, and 4 months later (crucially) booked the theatre (Wilton’s) – on the basis of sharing the takings; ‘and all our key contacts then started to turn down other work. And we revised the budget – cutting a third off it – making savings on performers, sets and costumes, but not on the orchestra.’
They then made an application for funds to the Arts Council – ‘a monstrous process’. Encouraged there to apply for a big sum, it emerged later that they might only hope for £15k and that there were many boxes that they could not tick: they were a new company; they had no community outreach nor benefits to offer; their work offered no legacy etc, etc. And they got the thumbs down.
In March (ie 6 months before opening day), they sought to register as a charity. But approval was delayed – the Charity Commission was overloaded; they didn’t hear and didn’t hear, despite continually trying to communicate with them; and only at the end of August did they get approval (ie only 3 months before opening day). Though that felt quite scary; it gave them enormous commitment.
They realised that they had to raise the funds themselves; and started by employing a fund-raiser, but ‘he was hopeless’ and after a month they gave him up; and everyone said: do it yourselves.
‘Opera fans tend to be boundlessly enthusiastic and sometimes quite rich; so we were looking for donations from their trusts or charities. We ran a series of fund-raising events – in the likes of small museums (the Soane Museum, the Handel Museum), at which we offered enticing performances, drink and commentary. They were all about networking; grinding work – most of it negative, that got you down.
‘On the advice of an expert fund-raiser (though for another opera company, and too grand for us) who helped us with how to go about it and how to approach people, we did briefly employ a marketing person and a PR person.
‘Our best donor gave us £20k with no strings; and another supporter offered his house for an event and a small donation, because he believed in us even though he had doubts about whether we could do it.
‘And four months before rehearsals started, we lost one singer – who was too busy getting divorced, and the month before rehearsals started, another, who had to go and look after his ailing father.
‘If we hadn’t booked the theatre, there were moments when we would have rethought the whole project – usually when a possible donor turned out to be a dead end. Unless we got there, it was a dramatic failure – we were naïve enough that we knew we would never pull out; we would do something somehow! The product itself was never in doubt; but the business stuff was so difficult and so new to us. But once we had decided, we were very upbeat and it was exciting.
‘We reached the first day of rehearsals (in October 2017) with great pride; and then our work started – to create our vision.’
The six performances were completely sold out and were very well reviewed (with four stars) in the Times and the Guardian, and accorded Pick of the Week. They have achieved their objective: they have proved that opera can be performed to high standards, in less grandiose settings and through different creative channels – which ought to cause the Arts Council to reconsider its approach to the production of opera.
What would they have liked that would have made made it easier for them? Two things: first, someone who could have helped them with strategy – what to do and how to do it; and second, more fillips to their flagging confidence that Arts Council approval would have given them.
So what’s next, people ask.
John Whatmore, January 2018