Incoming Festival was started by two critics Eleanor Turney and Jake Orr. They tell Ava Wong Davies about supporting mid-career artists, engaging other critics to help with programming and how they found themselves running a fringe festival in London, Manchester and Bristol simultaneously
Now in its sixth year, Incoming Festival started off as a “fairly pie-in-the-sky idea”, according to two of its founders, Eleanor Turney and Jake Orr.
They met at A Younger Theatre, a publication founded by Orr in 2009 that seeks to support and nurture emerging theatre creatives, which Turney – who also contributes to The Stage – joined the following year. Incoming bloomed out of a desire to support the young companies they so often reviewed.
Turney says: “We wanted to help the creatives more. It’s about putting your money where your mouth is. We batted around the idea of starting a festival for emerging creatives for a while, without really knowing what that meant.”
It was only when David Byrne, artistic director of New Diorama, got involved that the idea became more concrete. “We were really lucky that David took a punt on us,” Orr says. “He just told us to stop talking about it and do it. He essentially said: ‘If I give you my theatre for a week, then what would you do with it?’”
The majority of performances at the first festival in 2014 sold out, which The Stage said at the time was “a sure fire sign of a hit”, and it helped launch companies such as Kill The Beast.
Four years later, Incoming reached beyond London with a concurrent run at Home in Manchester, and this year it has expanded once again to Bristol’s Tobacco Factory Theatre. This year 15 companies are putting on 38 performances across the three cities.
Byrne says: “We’ve always searched nationally for the best work to include – so it felt only fair to share the programme with audiences across the country.”
Orr agrees: “We’ve been driven by the question of how we can do more for the artist, the participants and the audiences. These venues can be difficult to get programmed in, so we offer the opportunity to develop relationships with the buildings.”
It also allows for some structured touring – it offers a £500 guarantee and 50/50 box office split for the companies. “That’s pretty unheard of for emerging companies with no prior track record,” Orr adds.
In recent years, they have asked other critics to help programme the festival, including Lyn Gardner and Fergus Morgan, who write for The Stage, as well as Critics of Colour and Exeunt Magazine. “We could only see so much work,” Turney says. “And as three white people, we wanted the festival to be more diverse, obviously. It means we have a reasonably varied slice of what’s out there.”
Orr adds: “It’s so much more exciting to bring other people on board and ask them: ‘What are you seeing? What do you find exciting? What are we missing?’”
A big question facing theatre is how to support early to mid-career artists. “You have to pay people,” Orr says. “There are loads of schemes to develop artists, and that’s great, but at the end of the day you need to give proper commissions, pay people appropriately, give the best financial deals. There’s a problem where people like to develop artists at the very early stages but once the first show is done it’s: see you later.”
They both think there is a lack of financial and creative support for companies making the jump from ‘emerging’ to ‘mid-career’. Turney says: “Artists find little pots of money at the beginning, but then find it difficult to transition into the main house… There’s a conveyor-belt feeling.”
Incoming’s model tries to push against this, with more established companies such as The Pappy Show and Police Cops making a return to the festival this year, alongside debut companies such as This Noise and Ugly Bucket.
“We’re having ongoing conversations with our companies,” Orr says. “Say, if a company couldn’t perform one year, then we could give them a slot the following year.” It’s a unique model for a theatre festival, especially set against something like the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
“The fringe obviously allows companies to have a full four week run,” Orr says, “and we only offer three performances. But it’s incredibly expensive and difficult for companies to go up to the fringe.”
Incoming’s curated programme also allows for a more congenial and productive relationship between programmer and artist in a way that is impossible at a larger festival.
And, as for the main problems facing young theatre companies? “The bottom line is that we need to pay everybody, but there isn’t enough money, and we all know it,” Turney says. “Everyone is doing their best. The problem is that the fucking Tories have destroyed the ability for people to get into the arts and it’s becoming the playground of an elite and privileged few.”
She stresses the importance of mentorship and openness in the industry. “It’s why our ticket prices [£5 for every performance, with 380 free tickets being offered to marginalised groups] are non-negotiable with our venues – because if you’re not accessible, then what are you doing?”
Incoming Festival is at Manchester’s Home, Bristol’s Tabacco Factory Theatre and at the New Diorama in London until June 30. For more go to incomingfestival.com