In a turbulent year of politics, cuts and uncertainties, it’s refreshing to see theatres continuing to run festivals that encourage new writers, new directors and new companies to experiment, take risks and innovate. Incoming Festival has quickly become synonymous with this safe environment and is back for a fourth year of shows by emerging theatre companies that push boundaries, ask questions and challenge pre-conceptions.
Co-produced by Jake Orr and Eleanor Turney, Incoming Festival is run with the support of A Younger Theatre and New Diorama Theatre. All three have emerging at the heart of what they do – a theatre space for new companies to programme work and grow their brand, coupled with a publication that champions an emergin generation of journalists and writers to test their voice. I caught up with Eleanor Turney to discuss how this year’s festival was looking and the challenges of securing funding in the current climate:
Incoming Festival is back for another year – year 4! How is everything shaping up?
It is really good. We have our line-up finally and are just juggling all the slots – I’ve left Jake [Co-Producer of Incoming Festival] with that task because I did it last year! It’s been a little bit more difficult to pin people down this year. We have to find the balance between people who are high profile and therefore touring (so we’re going to be a stop-off on the tour), versus the new companies who can’t necessarily afford to rehearse or find cast members. Obviously if a company has to re-rehearse or recast it can start to no longer be worth their while. But we don’t only want to take shows that have already got a tour because we want to use Incoming Festival as a launchpad.
Our thing has always been that we don’t want the festival to cost people money, which is why we pay people a fee and they get half the box office – but the box office is a negligible amount because we keep the ticket prices so low. It’s always a kind of push and pull between those things. Some years we’ve had a bit of money so we could to offer to cover travel costs for a company, but budgets are very tight this year.
We’ve also got two shows offsite this year, something Jake was really keen to do again. We had one before in a charity shop, a show about women’s relationships with clothes and fashion, with how we dress to present ourselves to the world and how that can change as you change. But obviously, if we’ve budgeted 20 shows and suddenly have 22 (the regular 20 in the theatre plus two offsite extras), we have to find the additional fee, which isn’t simply covered by the increased ticket revenue.
I think what we’re going to do for the first time is offer some companies a double showing, which we’ve not done before. A lot of our shows sell out really quickly so we’re gambling which those will be this year and do a Friday/ Saturday night double bill. Within every line-up, we spot the ones that are likely to be the popular shows, or a comedy performance for a Friday night. We had Police Cops [by The Pretend Men] on Saturday night last year, we usually put Kill The Beast on then as well. So, it’s just thinking about which shows make sense.
How do you go about booking the shows in the first place – do they come to you? Do you see them in other venues?
We do an open call-out every year pre-Edinburgh Festival and people apply online. We don’t limit by age – ’emerging’ is if the company chooses to apply that label to themselves. For example, last year we had Chris Goode’s Ponyboy Curtis – he himself is by no definition an emerging artist but Ponyboy Curtis is his new group. So, we asked him, fully prepared for him to say no, and he decided that it would be a usual platform for them. The audience we get are young, experimental and interested in trying out new stuff so it felt like quite a good fit. We programmed it on a Friday night as a late showing after Human Zoo’sGiant – it sold out. We usually do 7pm and 8:30pm shows, but this one had a more late night club feel. We took all the seats out the space and had the audience standing in the round with the work in the middle, so we’re trying to be flexible.
Then after the open call-out submissions, one of us works out what we can go and see between us at the Edinburgh Festival. I normally go for a week but am only doing Incoming, whereas Jake is up for the whole month but is also producing shows. If there’s stuff that neither of us can get to but want to see, sometimes David [Artistic Director, New Diorama Theatre] will go, very occasionally we might take something on a recommendation from a small network of people that we trust.
But we generally try and see as much as we possibly can – the first two years we committed to seeing everything, but we were getting tens of applications. Now we’re getting well over 100, about 140 for this year, so we can’t do that with two people. I saw 65 shows in eight days in Edinburgh last year! It’s not fair on the company, they’re all going to blur into one and you’re not giving them to attention they deserve. Jake and I have very, very different tastes, so very often when we’re divvying up the shows we’ll specifically go and see the ones that we think we will like – it’s not fair on a company to go and see something and dismiss it just because it’s not your taste. Jake is much more into experimental, physical and avant garde theatre, whereas I like things with a script and a story.
We are very aware of course that Edinburgh in and of itself is not especially accessible; a lot of companies don’t see the value of going, they can’t afford or it’s just not the time. So, we also try and see shows in other places – Jake travels a lot for work anyway. We both go and see stuff in London (such as at National Student Drama Festival) and David has a big connection with Hull – Pub Corner Poets for example came out of that. Occasionally we’ll take videos of work if we can’t get there physically and only once we’ve programmed a show off a script. We’d much rather see the work if possible but we don’t want to exclude talented companies just because they can’t run a show that we can see.
How important is it for you as programmers to bring regional companies into London?
Very – the arts are too London-centric. Our aim is to have a minimum of 50% come in from outside London, ideally more. But Jake and I are both based in London and so are more likely to see work here – we often go to The Albany, The White Bear, The Cockpit or Tristan Bates Theatre for example – they’re all spaces that are producing early work. But we try very hard to see stuff outside London and if we can’t go we ask someone to film it.
Do you ever see any themes or concepts that regional companies are more likely to explore vs. London?
Not that I’ve noticed yet, but we’ve seen themes every year when we start laying out the brochure and the timeline – maybe Tuesday could be Angry Feminist Night, or Wednesday could be Death Day! There was a year where we had three shows about parents dying; last year there was a lot of work exploring masculinity and how to be a man in today’s world. The year before we had Eggs Collective, Sh!t Theatre and The Roaring Girls – if you had to categorise them, they were the glittery feminists. We only just finalised the line-up for this year, so let’s see what theme comes out!
How difficult has applying for Arts Council funding been this year?
This year our application was mainly about consolidation. Last year we applied for a bigger grant – our first festival was a week long, then ten days and we were applying for ten days again but we wanted to expand the artist development side of the festival. The performances are good but it doesn’t feel particularly like a festival, there isn’t that much opportunity for the companies to interact with each other and make some very fruitful connections, collaborations or advice sharing. It’s the environment that Incoming Festival is missing because the companies normally only get one night.
But last year’s grant application was for over £15,000 so we were competing nationally for the Arts Council money… and we didn’t get it. The extra money was to do this artist development but also to offer accommodation bursaries – companies that aren’t based in London would stay for two or three days, see some other productions and network. The only other way would be to find a hotel that wants to sponsor us and give us this for free!
As part of the development programme, each year we run workshops – I run one as an introduction to marketing and press (very useful pre-Edinburgh); Jake does an introduction to producing; David does a masterclass introduction to fundraising. We also let companies pitch workshops – we’ve one on physical theatre, one on clowning, one on puppetry, one on devised work and new writing. Lyn Gardiner has run a workshop for us every year too, the British Council run touring workshops and we’ve got a partnership with Equity who offer a session with each company to talk about how they can help. We also pay the workshop leaders and sell tickets. In the first two years, tickets were free and last year they were £3. Little Angel Theatre give us the space so it doesn’t cost anything to hire. But all this still costs time, money and resource to put them on. If one of us is running tech rehearsals at New DioramaTheatre then the other has to be at the workshops, so we’re constantly running back and forth.
This year we’ve found enough money in the budget to have an assistant, which we didn’t have last year. We decided we wouldn’t have one that we couldn’t pay – I wrote a piece about whether it’s enough of an opportunity for someone to get work experience if we aren’t paying them. This year they will help with the marketing before the festival and with running the workshops during the festival itself. But because it’s a low rate it still limits us to someone who lives in London – in an ideal world we would pay enough for someone to stay in a hostel and come down for the role. We want it to be a genuine learning, hands-on experience; both our past assistants still work in this sector.
Tell me about the fundraising quiz that you also run.
I run a quiz that this year on 7 May – it’s really hard to write a quiz, I’ve used up all my questions! It costs £10 per person for the quiz, a free drink and a raffle ticket. The team who won last year are back this year, but only won by one point so it’s all to play for.
We also sell raffle tickets separately at £2 each with really good prizes – tickets to shows at The Barbican/ Battersea Arts Centre/ The Albany; tickets to the new David Hockney exhibition at the Tate; a bottle of champagne; a bouquet from Bloom and Wild. We also run our own bar and Mobius kindly sponsor the event. Last year we raised £1,500.
Incoming Festival runs at New Diorama Theatre on 2 – 11 June. For more information, visit the festival website.