Edinburgh, St. Petersburg, New York, Brisbane and the importance of networking

The Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Richard recommends the Siberian section. Photo: Taraji Blue
Richard Jordan
Richard Jordan is an award-winning UK and international theatre producer. He has been a regular contributor to The Stage since 2005.
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Last month, I met George Washington. I can report that he was alive and well and could be found in full regalia strolling around the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) conference and arts market at the Hilton Hotel in New York City.

At the end of his pitch, I ignorantly asked him his name. “It’s George, of course" he replied and with a flourish of his ruffled shirt sleeve he was off into the APAP throng calling back "we’ll talk".

That is APAP at its most bizarre. Those reading this who have attended it will know that it is the largest presenters' market in the world taking place each January and can often feel overwhelming. Here everything is represented from the big Broadway touring musicals through to the small one-man show.

A few years ago, when I visited the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum, I was recommended to seek out the hidden-away Siberian section that nobody much visits but is actually really fascinating viewing. The same is true of APAP, where venturing into the outer fringes you can find hypnotists sitting side-by-side with Russian performance art troupes and Pink Floyd tribute bands.

But I have been to APAP several times and each time I question its effectiveness. Has it simply taken on a mythical status because of it being held in New York that makes it sound glamorous, when in reality it is actually a bit like swimming through tar?

An arts market that I have found to be far richer is the bi-annual Australian Performing Arts Market (APAM) which is taking place this week in Brisbane. Over the week there will be a series of pitches and showcase sessions by Australian artists previewing work for domestic and international touring alongside a number of performances and key debates about presentation.

APAM is a well-managed event; it is also curated, and here rests the ultimate success of a good arts market. It can be difficult, though, to assess a show simply from seeing 20 minutes of the work. Afterwards, one can often view the entire show on a DVD, but it is not as conducive to providing the same atmosphere or focus as seeing the work live.

This is one of the aspects that I have long admired in the work of the curated bi-annual British Council Showcase in Edinburgh where, through the Fringe environment, productions are afforded full presentations.

At all these arts markets and conferences, apart from watching the presentations themselves, the word "networking" is thrown around a lot. In attending many of them I have discovered that some people are simply serial networkers who collect names in the same way they probably also do with Facebook friends, wearing them as a badges of honour. But networking is also a very intricate and delicate thing to get right. Sometimes with so much onus getting placed on it, then an environment such as APAP can induce the very worst behaviour from our industry with people literally pushing each other out of the way in a desperate bid to speak to a particular presenter. There is an unfortunate perception in this industry that by being pushy you get results - but why would I want to work with any of these people based on the way they are behaving?

Similar to my visit to the Hermitage, at an arts market if you do not accept that it is impossible to see everything, you will get yourself into a trap of rushing around like a maniac not really absorbing or properly taking anything in.

Many "serial" networkers can be found hanging out at the bar; however, it is important to remember that very few deals are ever successfully made in the pub - likewise always be wary of any free bars!

In attending these conferences around the world, it can also help to have an understanding of the specific country’s customs in the meetings you take. For example, in Asia it is the exchange of the business card and its careful study which, if got wrong, can make any meeting a non-starter from the outset.

It is also easy for a perceived arrogance to creep in with some presenters relishing in the power of it all. I have seen presenters in the past turn up drunk for shows and subsequently sleep through them, or loudly leave during a performance. Sometimes, it can all simply come down to who has the loudest voice and this can be brutal and unfair with a quick dismissal of a company's entire body of work drawn from just one viewing of a particular piece, but a dangerous situation to be in when there are others around who will listen.

So, as we enter a new year of arts markets, the moral for this week for us all to remember is that a first impression can last a very long time and for both performers and presenters alike let's hope it's the right one.