Get Out Of My Space (GOOMS) was founded by four friends in 2014, and has had a focus on defying what people thought possible of us. In the summer of 2018 GOOMS’ producing a show, ‘Umbra’, in collaboration with Theatre with Teeth, that will once again go above and beyond people’s expectations.
In this Business Project I will be explaining where the idea has come from, what the idea is, and how I am marketing the show in a way that most theatre companies fall short.
There is a gap in the market which is currently being over looked by theatre makers and marketers and is one I think I can tap into. Young people attendance is falling (Bernstein, 2014) because their expectations are not being met within this technologically expanding world, and traditional theatre is not offering what they crave. ‘Umbra’ is. It’s an immersive piece of theatre, with the focus on experience, where the audience take control and are active, rather than passive like in traditional theatre. There are nine characters spanning across seven rooms, creating a world wherein the audience have full autonomy to roam where ever they wish.
Within the project I highlight the key reasons why I have decided to collaborate with Theatre with Teeth on this project, the first time GOOMS has engaged in a collaboration. I also have explained why I chose my team, and why they are the best people to help me lift ‘Umbra’ up to be the best show possible. I have compared this to other productions that have been put on previously, this is to make sure that I have put the show in a strong position next to the theatre festival it is being performed at the same time as.
Within a creative project like this, product vs profit was a common discussion to be had. Sometimes working hand in hand, other times opposing, and finding that balance Is key to success of a theatrical production. Around this kind of thinking, budgets and projections have been made in the best interest of both the production and future of the company.
Another key element to ensure success is marketing, something that the arts industry isn’t very successful at (Bernstein, 2014). In light of this I have created an innovative and creative marketing campaign to help differentiate and effectively sell the production, in a way that will effectively communicate an intangible product.
At the end of the project I have taken time to look forward and display the wheels in motion to help stabilise the company in financial security for the future. Commercialisation is a point of tension for theatre companies, giving them a strong income for other projects but can be harmful to their reputation. I believe that collaborating with another experienced based company and becoming part of the product being produced, rather than advertising it, is the key to executing this successfully. If done so, can create a more stable financial future, not dependent on external funding.
The Birth of an Idea
The performing arts industry is on its last legs; audience size is declining and greying, expenses are spiralling, deficits are of crisis proportions, and reliable investment has taken a dramatic fall (Bernstein, 2014). The National Endowments for the Arts (1988) argues that art is our most precious heritage, as it reveals the ‘inner vision which guides us as a nation’, and because of this we must accept that art does not exist ‘to serve a practical purpose’, it is an end in itself (Morison & Dalgleish, 1992). In today’s society it appears anything and everything is getting its funding cut, from both public and private sectors, with only the highly profitable and practical seeming to survive, putting the arts in the firing line. Our nation is reducing arts funding dramatically year on year (Hutchison, 2016), and so the industry is facing a double jeopardy of shrinking audience and reduced funding.
A major weakness within the performing arts industry, and most likely another reason why attendance and funding are falling in this profit driven world, is “cost disease” (“An incurable disease”, 2012). This is the observation that as other industries become more and more efficient, such as within manufacturing, their costs reduce, and productivity rises; meanwhile a performance, of Hamlet for example, will always take the same amount of time (“An incurable disease”, 2012). It is possible to utilise economies of scale by introducing additional performances within the same time period, such as matinees, or performances in larger venues, or it can be more profitable to perform for longer seasons (Baumol & Bowen, 1968). All of these strategies fall short in the harsh reality that they require the organisation to attract a higher number of audience members within a diminishingly engaged with industry. Cost disease backs up Robert Brustien’s claim that the arts require funding to maintain its ‘ideal’ form (Lambert, 2012). The reduction in funding causes a lower standard of performance and outreach, which lowers audience engagement, especially new audience engagement, resulting in a further reduction and greying of the audience, and this leads to even more cuts in funding.
In order to break the cycle of declinging production funding and audiences, an idea is desperately needed to invigorate the industry. With its educational and wellbeing advantages, we should be striving ‘to make [art] part of the lives of all’ (Morison & Dalgleish, 1992) but right now, it’s the younger generation’s needs that seem to be unsatisfied by the industry. This results them turning elsewhere for stimulation. So we need an idea that appeals to the younger generations, as well as one to restore the investors faith in the arts. Managers are concerned about their greying audiences but are currently waiting for audiences to appear, they need to acknowledge they are responsible for creating new audiences (Campo-Flores, 2012). They need to create new needs in the marketplace, rather than just meeting existing needs (Bernstein, 2014). There is a perception of “cultural spinach” which is the elitist notion of art doing something good for us (Jensen, 2002) resulting in a distancing of those who do not “get” or like what is currently on offer, if we break this perception the managers will have a brand-new market to tap into.
There is increased competition from cheaper and more convenient forms of entertainment (Bernstein, 2014) with the likes of Spotify and Netflix costing around £10 a month, which also have the advantage of being enjoyed within the comfort of your own home. This lowers transport costs and time, and also the time and effort it takes to get dressed to go outside. These costs, monetary and otherwise, are all cumulative to the true cost of watching a production. For example, to watch a National Theatre production, if you’re lucky enough to acquire, and meet the requirements of, a student standby ticket, an unsold ticket, reduced in price for students 45 minutes before the performance, it could cost you £15 (“Help Centre | National Theatre”, n.d.). In other words, this is equal to a month and a half of unlimited streaming on Netflix. A bold claim for a 2-hour production to have the entertainment value equal to a month and a half of unlimited streaming of some of the best TV and Films of all time.
So how do you compete with the likes of Netflix? Ultimately, the theatre industry has to capitalise on what sets it apart from watching recorded entertainment; the idea of a live experience.
One of the largest growing industries, which is going almost unnoticed by theatrical managers, marketers and artists, is the videogame industry (Pay, 2017). This is evidently where the younger audience craving performances turn to, as it is satisfying their needs in a way that the live arts currently aren’t. Alan Brown (n.d. cited in Knell, 2006) argues that ‘we cannot invent a more viable future for our institutions and agencies without a deeper understanding of how consumers fit art into their lives’, and with similarities between videogames and theatre, a more secure and obvious bridge between the two must be made for the younger generations in order to increase their engagement.
Within most videogames, the player will project themselves unto the character they are playing as (sometimes aided further through a first-person perspective), as Keith Stuart puts it: ‘they weren’t really his eyes, they were mine, and the things I did were my actions. At least that’s how they felt’ (Stuart, 2014). Much like an audience will do with a character they emphasise with within a play. The major difference between videogames and traditional theatre however is the element of choice. Watching a play, the audience has no control; whereas the player of a videogame has the illusion of full autonomy, even though they are placed within a world filled with constrictions and rules. To extend the first-person experience in videogames for consumers, companies are introducing virtual reality (Salomons, 2017).
Virtual reality supplies an immersive experience by putting the audience in the centre of the action, and they have full autonomy to look and move wherever they choose (Levine, 2017). It fully submerges you into a world and creates a sense of the otherness, ‘neither fully lost in the experience nor completely here and now’ (Griffiths, 2008). Theatre has the ability to take this a step further, theatre can truly make this real and put the audience in the centre of the action, not as a character, but as themselves. By making theatre immersive, the audience can roam through a spatially innovative environment, usually multisensory, with emphasis on choice or freedom (Biggin, 2017). When it comes to immersion ‘the more real it is, the deeper it becomes’ (Barrett, 2013), and this is the advantage that theatrical productions have over virtual reality.
This is not a new concept, but with only a couple of companies executing shows in this style, most of which sell out almost instantly, it is one I believe is not being utilised to its full potential. Through buying a ticket to a production you engage in a “social contract” between audience and the company (Bennett, 1997) to fulfil exactly what the audience has perceived of the show from the marketing and information they have seen. The main criticism of immersive theatre comes from the ‘perceived gap between the promise of experience implicit of calling a production “immersive” and the reality of physical pragmatics in the space’ (Biggin, 2017). This has emerged from the misunderstanding and misuse of the term “immersive”, as companies use phrases such as ‘a truly immersive experience’ (“Now Showing films at ODEON cinemas”, n.d.) to describe all kinds of entertainment from theatre to film to literature. This buzz-word use in order to grasp the audience’s attention, and lack of honest results, has created “immersive fatigue” within a significant number of consumers, leaving them disappointed with the experience (Higgins, 2009). It has now become a term which causes hesitancy, or even deters consumers from attending or purchasing the product. Therein lies the challenge for theatrical marketers of emerging companies to sell a truly immersive production, as you don’t want to deter audiences, but you also have an obligation to market your production honestly.
The word immersion is rooted in the ritual of baptism, wherein it is an intense, temporary experience where the participant is fully submerged into action (Biggin, 2017). Using this we can build the basis of a truly immersive show. It should cause some kind of anxiety and apprehension (Freshwater, 2009), as these emotions cause a focus on the “here and now”. This makes the audience forget about anything outside of the immediate moment, because if their mind wanders beyond the boundaries of the show, as artists, we have failed to create an immersive production (Barrett cited in Gardner, 2007). This is why films, literature and traditional theatre shows feel they can market themselves as “immersive”, if the audience becomes absorbed in the content they may only be focusing on the “here and now”, and, arguably, have an immersive experience. Thinking in the layman’s definition of something immersive though, this is not what the consumers are expecting, and as mentioned will be detrimental to truly immersive productions.
I believe that a truly immersive theatre experience will be able to compete with the larger commercial entertainment ventures, like Netflix, for an audience share in the younger age groups that have proven to be elusive to traditional theatre productions. I have created a new immersive theatre production which will be performed on the 30th May – 1st June in Poltimore House, under the collaboration of Get Out Of My Space and Theatre with Teeth. I have rethought the marketing and promotion process in ways which most theatre companies are not doing, in a way in which will engage a younger audience and attract them to the production.
It is my pleasure to unveil to you my truly immersive and innovative production:
The Idea is Nurtured
1. The darkest part of a shadow
(“Umbra and Penumbra”, n.d.)
2. An uninvited guest accompanying an invited one
(“umbra | Origin and meaning of umbra by Online Etymology Dictionary”, n.d.)
Umbra is my brainchild. I spent the summer of 2017 writing the show, autumn planning it, winter and spring directing it, for it to be performed summer 2018. The theme of the show is taking inspiration from the Peaky Blinders, a gang that operated in 1919 Birmingham and were described as ‘the Sopranos of the post-First World War era’ (Williams, n.d.). The narrative is inspired by Woyzeck, a famously incomplete play that explores the ‘dehumanising effects of doctors [and] the military…on a young man’s life’ (Burt, 2015), and the real life of Christian Shaw, whom lived in the 17th century and declared she was being possessed by witches, and was responsible for 6 people being hanged and 1 suicide (Irvine Robertson, 2009). The rest of the characters are inspired by the people they meet in their life/narrative, or characters I have created to complete the story. Everyone’s lives/narratives have been transposed and adjusted to fit into 1919 Peaky Blinders Birmingham to tie all the stories together in an exciting context.
Rather than a single script being written, due to the nature of the production, I had to write a separate script for each character, nine in total. All of which can be condensed down into this table:
Dante – A solider in WWI, returning with PTSD, suffering with violent visions and is not quite
the man he once was. He has regular visits with the local doctor, but the treatments seem to be getting stranger and stranger.
During the play, the visions get worse and worse. He begins to question everything he’s seeing. He sees his partner, Virgil, cheating on him with Solomon but doesn’t know if it’s real. He spirals through insanity and ends up fighting Solomon before losing his mind and killing Virgil.
Virgil – Virgil’s eyes begin to wander from Dante. She sets her sights on Solomon and they
begin to steal moments during the evening. Dante catches her with a gift that Solomon gave to her and their relationship begins to crumble.
Unfazed by this, she ‘completes’ the infidelity. She becomes hysterical when she finds out Dante knows, and after not finding him she tries to run away. He finds her just as she is about to leave, and she believes she can make amends. Dante views this differently.
Jesse – Calm. Seductive. Enticing.
Jesse loves a party and loves to be centre of attention. Jesse owns a bar which everyone loves to visit. Jesse convinces the Reverend to get drunk, comforts Dante in his troubles, and even temps the audience to have a tipple.
But it is not as fun and games as it may seem. It is revealed that Jesse works for the Devil, but under threat of punishment. Jesse steps out of line and the wrath of Lucifer gets thrust upon them. Once this is revealed, the glorious life that Jesse portrays actually becomes a sad lonely life of someone who needs saving, but no one can do anything for.
Jethro – Jethro is the local doctor who has seen medical training fail again and again when
away at war. This causes a spiral of depression and a turn to unconventional medicine. Namely, peas.
Jethro looks after many patients during the play and believes that the procedures are bringing them health. One patient doesn’t act as planned though. Witnessing Elizabeth and the devil performing ungodly acts, the little faith that Jethro had in medicine is lost and she lashes out. The outburst is poorly timed and is seen by the wrong people. Jethro is then taken away by the Peaky Blinders to be shot.
Solomon – Toughened by the war and enjoys violence a little more than he should. He is the
muscle behind the Peaky Blinders and isn’t afraid to assert dominance if needed.
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