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.
During the play Virgil catches his eye, he starts to try and seduce her, but,
unknown to him, the Devil supplies him with the perfect gift to give her. Once he
finally steals a kiss at a party everything changes. The whole world becomes
unlawful and, through frustration caused by the Devil playing with him, he begins
to make rash decisions. He tortures the Reverend, beats up Dante and takes Jethro off to be shot.
Devil – Summoned out of curiosity by Elizabeth and Christian Shaw, the Devil enters this
world looking for fun.
Cursing Elizabeth into a statue-like state, crashing the party unnoticed and playing people like a puppet. No one can stop the Devil, who seems to know the ins and outs of everyone before even meeting them.
It is revealed that Jesse has been working for the Devil all this time, feeding them the information needed to have as much fun as possible. Even with this newly found knowledge it is too late. The Devil is too powerful.
Elizabeth – Grown up under her gypsy parents but has become sceptical about the magic
they claim to have. She finds a book about summoning the Devil and convinces
Christian Shaw to try it out with her.
They end up summoning the Devil and Elizabeth gets cursed into a statue-like
state. Jethro becomes fascinated in the challenge to cure her, but it’s not until the
Devil decides that she can finally break free.
She tries to repent to the lord but it’s too late and it causes her intense pain. Jethro
witnesses this and, in a rage, lashes out. In defence, Elizabeth gets her taken away
by Solomon. Only to later realise the consequence of this.
Reverend J Miller – An aging Reverend who is beginning to struggle resisting temptation.
He notices new markings on his wife, Christian Shaw, after she misses his service. He recognises them to be satanic and in his frenzied search of her he rips her clothing and scares her away.
In his realisation, he finally breaks and turns to Jesse for a drink. In his
drunken state, he finds Christian Shaw, but she is possessed by the Devil and becomes violent. Once escaped, he begins to pray and is joined by Elizabeth but as she starts to pray too it appears to be causing her pain. Solomon hears of this and tortures him for the wrong he has done. The only one who steps in to help is the Devil, who cures him of his injuries. The reverend doesn’t realise who it is until it’s too late and begins to question everything.
Christian Shaw – After pretending to be cursed by witches when she was 11, causing 7
peoples deaths, she ran away with Reverend J Miller. She has become bored and when propositioned by Elizabeth to try out some witchcraft, curiosity gets the better of her and they successfully summon the Devil.
Her husband finds out about her antics and lashes out. She is found by Jethro and is examined for any health problems but is worried she’ll find out what she has done so runs away. She is later reunited with the Devil who then possesses her. She begins to lose her mind and regrets her actions. Once she regains control of her mind, she finds her husband tied up and frees him, but he appears to be scared of her. The only person to give her comfort is Jesse, who sings to her in the bar all alone.
There are forty-eight scenes and four hours of content packed into each hour of the show (the show repeats, making the performance two hours), and at any one moment there is up to six scenes being performed at the same time. During this the audience have complete freedom and choice to wander around the seven available rooms in Poltimore House. The house is an incredible venue, rich with history and character, and the perfect place to perform Umbra:
The rooms of the house are being transformed as follows:
Entrance Hall – Jesse’s Hole, a speakeasy bar
Courtyard – The backstreets of Birmingham
Operating Theatre – Jethro’s Surgery
Servery – Christian Shaw and Reverend J Miller’s House
Dining Room – The Chapel
Saloon – Peaky Blinder’s Gym
Red Drawing Room – Elizabeth’s Tunnel
Library – Tech room (out of bounds to audience)
During the show the audience will be masked, told not to talk and given free rein to wander around the building at will. There are no instructions as to where to go, no guide, and no “right” way of watching the show, it’s all about experiencing what you want to experience and building your own story. If you decided to follow a character, multiple characters, a prop or just stay in one room, it has been written and staged in a way that you will be able to comprehend a story and be fully immersed into the world. If you engage in discussions outside if the show you will then build an even bigger understanding of the world and begin to work out all the layers and connections within the world. Everyone will have an experience personal to them, and that is one of the things that makes the show so special.
Get Out Of My Space (GOOMS) was founded by myself and three other friends in 2014 in the attempt to push the boundaries of what people thought was possible of us. Being under 18 we were constantly told what and where to perform, and were never given the opportunity to choose or express artistic vision. So with everyone involved in the show being either 16 or 17, we successfully put on a production in a professional venue without any external help. And we sold out the run. This kick-started us to keep pushing ourselves and the boundaries other people set for us. I have been told by many people that to put on a production as ambitious as ‘Umbra’ it would need to be done by a professional company with years of experience, and there’s no chance I could do it alongside my final year at university. So I leapt at the chance.
GOOMS approached Theatre with Teeth (TwT) to collaborate on this production. We did this for 4 main reasons:
Being a young company, GOOMS has had to reinvest all profits back into the company, and in order to produce the next performance all those profits have had to be used. To date, our only monetary target has been to break even, anything extra was a bonus to go towards the next project. Although every project has produced success for GOOMS, we would need significant personal investment to execute a project the size and ambition of ‘Umbra’ on our own.
TwT on the other hand is an established and stable theatre society, and has access to a lot of capital we could utilise. To date we have not requested/needed any capital directly from their account, alternatively we have secured a ‘Guild Grant’ (“Guild Grants – Students’ Guild”, n.d.) of £700 from The University of Exeter Student Guild, something we wouldn’t have had access to without collaborating with TwT. They have also very kindly offered to pay for all travel of our team to and from the venue and have offered us an extra £300 to make the show the best it possibly can be if we need it (Appendix A).
TwT, being connected to The Exeter University Students Guild, already have insurance to look after our whole team, and also the audience, should anything go wrong. With the only condition being that every member of the production, who hadn’t previously, purchases a £5 membership from the society (Appendix A). Alternatively it could cost us £135 to obtain external insurance cover (“Insurance for the performing arts”, n.d.), which equates to more than our entire team paying £5.
TwT not only have access to University spaces free of charge, but also to a plethora of props and production resources that would be very expensive for GOOMS to obtain. Beyond this, and more importantly, they have access to human resources. They are the largest theatre society in Exeter and have access to some of the best talent the university has to offer. They also have a good relationship with the technical support society, who would be able to tech the show to a high standard at a reduced rate compared to an external commercial company.
4. Pastoral care
TwT have a support system in place for all of their productions. A production supervisor is present should anyone in the production have a complaint that they aren’t comfortable raising with the person in question. They can approach the supervisor and suitable action will be taken (Appendix A). I believe this is an invaluable resource to ensure the smooth running of a production, and something that GOOMS cannot offer as we are made up of four members, all of which are situated in different counties around the country.
This pastoral care can extend to the actual performance. This is extremely important in current climate where people are calling out for more protection of immersive performers against misbehaving audience members (Gardner, 2018). With TwT’s support, we can insure the safety and security our performers deserve.
As this is a very innovative and creative project, I wanted to attract people of varying ages and degree types. The reason I have done this is because ‘diversity is the mother of creativity’ (Baumgartner, 2016), and without creativity this production will not stand out, and its execution will not be at highest possible the standard it could be.
Approximately a third of all those involved in the project, cast and crew, either deviate from, or aren’t involved in, the drama degree at Exeter. This means that we can draw from different sources we have experiences across in our degrees to culminate a unique perspective on any challenge we are tackling, whether that be design-based or execution-based.
In addition to a very varied range of subjects being studied by the team, we also have a large range of student ages. We have a split of 9% 1st Years, 41% 2nd Years, 27% 3rd Years, 14% 4th Years and 9% MA Students within the production. This distribution of years is a more inclusive set of figures than previous productions this year (see below), some of which can be accused of verging on nepotism as a large majority of people involved were friends beforehand, creating a negative public relationship with the production. However, our decision on inclusivity wasn’t made for purely public image reasons. It was made mostly for creativity reasons again, as the different ages will bring a different variety of opinions and ideas, which could be used to our advantage, and partly because friendships aside, they were the best people for the job.
The age and degree distribution within ‘Umbra’ is also giving us a marketing advantage. We are making sure that we are appealing to all year groups of the university to have as wide a reach as possible. From personal experience, which could be seen as an ethnographic perspective of the market, I am aware that a large incentive to watch a production is if you know someone in/involved with it, and so if you have a small year and degree range within your team, then you’re likely to attract a smaller pool of audience members.
It is worth noting that we are not alone in doing this, as you can see above ‘Collaborators’ also had a good diversity of years within their production. Their preview show sold out (see below), and although the information isn’t available, it is safely assumed through word of mouth at the time, and the glowing review in which the reviewer stated that it ‘blew me away’ (Bell, 2018), that the other two performances sold and were executed very well.
All this lends itself towards a positive outlook on ‘Umbra’ when it comes to ticket sales and execution, but not enough to become complacent. There are far too many factors that influence the outcome of a production, this is just one of the foundations to make Umbra the best it possibly can be.
Budgets and Projections
At the beginning of the process, I asked myself “What’s more important, product or profit?”. It seemed like an easy decision, ultimately, I’d be prouder of an incredible production rather than an incredible profit. Through doing this project though I’ve realised it isn’t as simple as that, there needs to be a balance of the two to produce longevity for the company through both reputation and capital. An example of this was the decision of whether or not to use masks in the show, as it would save us £70 to not use them on the audience. We would need over 80 masks to cover the potential 60 audience members, 10 marshals and 10 spares to cover losses and damages, and 12 masks cost £10 (Figure 1). A mask provides a ‘liberating anonymity’ (White, 2009) which could add an incalculable amount of value to an audience member’s experience. After much discussion with my team we came to the decision that the value a mask adds to the production for audience members outweighs the cost, and therefore profit, so in this instance the product prevailed as more important.
(“12 Papier Mache Masks”, n.d.)
A moment where product and profit seemingly work hand in hand is the bar at the end of the show. It’s the most bubbling place of the immersive production because ‘everyone wants to share what happened to them’ (David Jubb cited in Gardener, 2007) with other audience members, and what better way to do that but over a drink? It provides a ‘commercial aspect to the production’ (Biggin, 2017) and if it is in keeping with the theme of the show, then can also be used as an artistic extension of the production, and, in turn, increases the value of the product. Another example where they work together is the programme, as it is another commercial cost for the audience which extends their experience beyond the production. The difference between traditional theatre and ‘Umbra’ means that the programmes will have to be sold at the end of the show, rather than the beginning, as we want the audience to have as much mobility as possible during the show and not be restricted from holding an A4 booklet. This means we can also use the programme as an indicator of the success of the production, as it is a voluntary extension of the experience via an extra cost that they are willing to endure. If the perceived value of the production outweighs the cost, then they are more likely to spend more money on acquiring a programme.
A much-debated topic was what price to sell the tickets at. Theatre with Teeth (TwT) pride themselves on being the most affordable theatre society in Exeter, with tickets being a constant £3.50 for members and £4.50 for non-members (Appendix A), and with the collaboration on the project, they expressed a desire for the tickets to be as low as possible. This performance is also happening during Exeter University’s T3 Drama festival, wherein there are multiple performances a day, all costing £1. This may initially seem like a potentially disastrous time to put on a high budget performance which requires a significantly higher ticket price, but theatre doesn’t work like other industries. From a consumer perspective, research repeatedly shows that once a consumer has decided to go a see a production, ticket price is a relatively low factor in the decision-making process when choosing what show to go and see. There are more important factors like the reputation of the producing company, advertising and word of mouth (Biggin, 2017). This meant that I wanted to set the price that was best for the production. A price at which the consumers would agree it was value for money, and we would also make a sustainable profit to move forward as a company.
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