International: Using London as a global launch pad
London-based company BeFrank’s latest play, The Point of No Return, is based on real stories from Ukraine’s Maidan revolution in February 2014. It’s a hard-hitting, visually ambitious mix of politics and human interest, the sort that only theatre seems able to present convincingly. The production is also notable for representing the type of new financial model that mixes European funding with a more commercial edge that often typifies much of British theatre.
Setting up productions within the constantly shifting financial landscape is challenging, says BeFrank’s artistic director Tommy Lexen: “We learn from every show we do. We want to do theatre based on themes that make people think. With The Point of No Return and the Ukrainian revolution, for example, you have destruction, people dying, social upheaval – they’re all hard topics and that makes it risky. The question becomes ‘who is your audience?’ Who wants to see this type of work? And, just as important, who wants to fund this type of work?”
Lexen therefore factored funding into BeFrank’s creative concept from the moment the company came into existence in 2010. An international theatre company consisting of an ensemble and creative team from nine countries over five continents, BeFrank states that it “focuses on subjects that encompass bigger questions and highlight new perspectives on the world, both on a social and political level”.
The UK has proved to be the perfect base camp to scale the rest of the world for Lexen, a Swede raised in Stockholm. “I was running a fringe theatre company in Sweden but I felt blocked somewhat in my way of making theatre.” So, in 2010, he moved to London to do a masters in theatre at the Central School of Speech and Drama.
“That was when I began to develop BeFrank as a platform to build on global events to make theatre interesting and acceptable for a British audience and have that as a starting point for creating international theatre which can then tour outwards from London and abroad.”
Why not do all that from Stockholm? After all, the city is the capital of a country that boasts impeccable international cultural credentials. But Lexen says there is far greater flexibility in London. “Making theatre in Sweden is very much stricter in terms of partnerships and collaborations. It’s a smaller society, so the exciting, ever-growing industry that the UK has, along with its new generations of theatremakers, doesn’t really exist in Sweden. There, risk-taking isn’t such a factor: you do your theatre training, you go and do an internship at a theatre, if you’re lucky you stay there for a bit, assisting for five years, then climb up the ladder slowly to create your own shows.”
Ideas for making the sums work also diverge. In Sweden – and indeed the rest of Europe, save perhaps for beleaguered Spain – projects such as The Point of No Return would be prohibitively expensive and so unlikely to attract funders or even creatives willing to risk joining up. It takes between one and two years for BeFrank to create a play, and to achieve this successfully it is London that offers the greatest opportunity to make such theatremaking cost-effective and more likely to find its audience.
Focusing on a slot for European funding comes into the process early on, stimulated by those international themes running through BeFrank’s work. However, a complicating factor, as Lexen points out, is that “most foundations and funders that we are in contact with will not fund anything that doesn’t happen on UK soil”. Luckily, a feature of many of the current permutations of European funding is that they are set up to get companies from disparate countries to work together in each other’s territories.
Boosted by such political-economic frameworks as the European Neighbourhood Policy, which establishes links with countries to the east and south of the European Union, as well as the volatile situation in those regions, Europe has now started prioritising culture and business links with Ukraine.
One related programme, run by the Amsterdam-based European Culture Foundation, not only proved perfect for R&D for The Point of No Return, says Lexen, but also became an opening for wider contact. “Along with our composer Ben Osborn and movement director Svetlana Biba, I applied for an individual travel grant to go to Kiev and Lviv. When we came back, the foundation came back to us and said: ‘We have another programme that we’re just starting up and we think you should apply for that.’”
This was the Tandem Cultural Managers Exchange, a programme created by the European Cultural Foundation and Berlin-based MitOst to find European partners for Ukrainian companies to create an exchange of skills, culture and projects. BeFrank applied and swiftly found a partner in the shape of Kharkhiv’s Theatre na Zhukah.
The pairing led to BeFrank becoming one of 12 European organisations chosen out of some 120 applicants. “There were quite a few big organisations applying there as well,” says Lexen. “The only other English company that was brought onboard is the Roundhouse, so it’s us and them, which of course is a pretty interesting mix. But like other companies at our level at the moment, we are the ones that have come in still struggling to find sustainable income streams. Of course the European money is an important stream, but it only does 10% of the full funding of our current project; for example, while we have other sources of funding that cover around 25%. We also have other research and culture partners who provide a little bit of investment for development. Our full donation list requires rather a lot of space in the programme!”
Because The Point of No Return runs for a full four weeks at the New Diorama Theatre in London, ticket sales are also significant, as is the box office from runs in Sweden, Denmark and Ukraine. Lexen says: “In order to get the money together, we had the European partners who needed it to go to Ukraine, we also had our Swedish partner who needed the show to go to Sweden. So already from the outset we knew that we would tour three different countries.”
As many programmers as possible have been brought in for the London run, says Lexen. “We have started a dialogue with the British Council and we hope to make the production a touring piece that fits their own international model. Over the last year I have also been travelling to conferences where I have met with venues and we now have a few of them in Europe interested to see how this run will turn out. With good luck and good artistry we can win new partners and hopefully build a major national and international tour for 2016.”
Other funders form an array of trusts, foundations and charities, including Arts Council England, Old Vic New Voices and the Peggy Ramsey Foundation rubbing shoulders with Germany’s Federal Foreign Office and Lund University’s Centre for European Studies. What becomes clearer each year is that this mixed funding model is key to the sustainability of a cutting-edge company.
“Obviously there are the theatres too – we wouldn’t have been able to do anything without venues like the New Diorama. And there are other areas which also make their contribution such as workshops and our expanding outreach programme. These are a vital part of what we are now – we don’t want to just do a show, we want to engage people in discussion and share our research.
“Of course, many traditional funders may be wary of supporting what we do because on the surface it might look as if we’re political activists.
“But as much as we can, we try to avoid all that and just concentrate on our business of telling real people’s stories, and from all sides of the divide.”
The Point of No Return runs at the New Diorama, London until May 23