By Livi Player, Arts Editor
Epigram speaks to Incoming Festival's co-director Eleanor Turney as she builds up to their first series of theatre events in Bristol running June 26-30.
What is Incoming Festival and why was it started?
'Incoming Festival is a celebration of emerging theatre companies. It came out of a website called A Younger Theatre, which started as a blog run by Jake Orr, who felt all mainstream critics were three or four decades older than him.
'Jake and I we were increasingly doing things like running workshops and offering post show talks, and taking young people to their first Shakespeare, or their first opera where they’d also get behind the scenes tours and chances to meet the cast afterwards. These were always incredibly popular – we realised there was a real gap in the market for that kind of thing.
‘We both felt quite strongly that offering a review to early career theatre makers is a genuinely useful and supportive thing to do, even a negative review, that kind of critical feedback is really important to people who are developing work.
'If theatre makers feel that ‘emerging’ is a useful label to attach to their work, we will consider their work for the festival.'
Eleanor Turney on the types of artists supported at Incoming Festival
‘We were talking a lot about what we could do to develop and expand what we were offering that would help emerging theatre makers more. We kept coming back to this idea of some kind of festival. Then one night up in Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival, David Byrne, who runs the New Diorama Theatre in London, turned to us and said, “Okay, stop talking about it and do it, if I give you my theatre for a week, for free, what would you do with it?”
‘New Diorama’s entire remit is to support emerging theatre companies, making it a perfect location and support for our new festival. He gave us the New Diorama space for a week, and the three of us, including David, became co-directors of the festival. We did two shows a night, all Fringe shows, all about an hour in length. In the space of time where you would usually see one show, you’d get to see two shows with a gap in the middle to get a drink.
‘We’ve since expanded to Manchester last year, and this year we decided to come to the Tobacco Factory for the first time. It’s about supporting and nurturing emerging theatre makers. We don’t like to use the term ‘young’, so what we do is we allow people to self-identify. If theatre makers feel that ‘emerging’ is a useful label to attach to their work, we will consider their work for the festival – we do not have an age limit. Occasionally we have student companies, so it tends to be people who happen to be young.’
‘We wanted to move out of London, and we are trying to be accessible and open to everyone. Our ethos is that we don’t just want to be London-centric, as so much of the arts is already London-centric. That said, New Diorama will always be our home base because they are co-producers of the festival and it would not have happened without them.
‘I had already been having conversations with Mike Tweddle from the Tobacco Factory Theatres about the possibility of coming to Bristol. We were thinking about big cities that we thought would have an audience for this kind of work. In an ideal world, we’d love to take it all over the place, but logistically that’s not possible and we need to be confident that there is an audience for it because the tickets are so cheap if we don’t sell to a high volume we don’t break even.’
Why do you keep all of your tickets at £5?
‘It’s something that is really important to us as a festival, and one of the two things that is non-negotiable when talking to venues. We do it because we want as many people as possible to be able to see the work, because we believe in the work. But we realise that theatre is expensive in general for most people and if you’re asking people to take a punt on someone they’ve never heard of it’s a risk for them.
‘We felt that £5 for most people is an acceptable risk, but a higher amount than this would put people off. Particularly if you’re asking people to take a risk on something they might not like, then £5 feels like quite a good price point for that. Especially in big cities, like London, where £5 is basically the cost of a pint.’
How and who chooses what to programme in the festival?
‘This year we actually have changed the model quite a lot. The previous five years it has mostly been me and Jake and David programming and choosing the shows. Partly because Jake and I used to be critics, we were very much part of the critical community. That was sort of a selling point and unique part of the festival: we were not just programmers and producers, we were critics, putting our money where our mouth is.
‘Gradually we both stopped reviewing, so we invited a panel of critics to help programme the festival this year. Jake and I have very different tastes, and we are only two people, so we really wanted to expand the scope of what we were seeing and what we could programme from, so they each selected 2 or 3 shows they really wanted to programme.
‘This year for the first time, we held back 2 slots for the best shows from National Student Drama Festival to be involved in Incoming Festival. And we make an effort to go and see shows outside of Edinburgh Fringe, as not everyone can afford to go there. We set ourselves targets to have a certain percentage of shows based outside of London, as well as women led and BME led.’
What are the struggles for emerging artists making theatre? How do you manage to support emerging creatives?
‘Every company will have their own struggles, although a universal struggle is money. People who want to make theatre usually maintain several jobs alongside it, such as bar work, baristas, office jobs, arts admins, and make their theatre around the edges. Making the move from emerging creative to mid-career is possibly the biggest struggle, because by the time people have been doing it for a decade or so, they might still be living in a big city, struggling to pay rent, living in a house share, working one or two jobs to make a living and do their theatre.
‘Sometimes people just want a little more stability and you can’t always find that as a theatre maker, unless you’re very lucky. There is less and less funding to go around for emerging creatives. Each company applying for funding are competing against one another, and the application process is difficult. We ourselves have luckily always got funding eventually, but not always first-time. We fundraise ourselves, but it is a real struggle.
‘Part of the ethos of the festival is to be nurturing and supportive. We offer the best financial deal of any Fringe theatre festival in the country, which we as a festival are non-negotiable about. We pay the companies a flat fee, which almost nowhere does, alongside a box office split of 50% of everything that comes in from ticket sales.
‘The venues don’t charge us anything to hire the space, and provide us marketing support, the box office staff, front of house staff and a technician. We offer workshops during the week which anyone can attend, costing £3, which for the level of professional development we are offering is unheard of, including a fundraising workshop on how to write a good arts council funding application.’
What can audiences expect from the festival this year?
I hope they can expect to see some of the best companies making work in the UK today. We have one company coming across all the way from New Zealand, and one from Ireland. Audiences can see the best work from emerging artists from across the UK for the cost of a pint! Also, they can expect to see a real mix, there are two shows on every night, you will get something different from every show; it really shows off the talent, breadth and the richness of the sector.
More information can be found on Incoming Festival's website.
Featured Image courtesy of Incoming Festival
Which new shows will you be seeing as part of Incoming Festival 2019?