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Matt Trueman: Small-scale artists need help to take the next step

Staged in 2012, The Magic Flute, a co-production from Komische Oper Berlin and 1927, marked the latter company’s first large-scale production. Photo: Freese/Drama-Berlin.De Staged in 2012, The Magic Flute, a co-production from Komische Oper Berlin and 1927, marked the latter company’s first large-scale production. Photo: Freese/Drama-Berlin.De
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How do independent artists scale up? If the last decade, with its mantra that small is beautiful and rough is ready, resulted in a proliferation of emerging artists, it has now brought about a blockage: too many artists and companies trying to take the next step, pushing for bigger opportunities, but plateauing in their absence. Such theatre-makers are always promising, but find themselves unable to push on. Those that started out as the recession first hit have grown as artists just as arts funding began to shrink. It is a common complaint: How do we continue to grow?

The jump from small-scale to mid-scale work is just that: a jump. It doesn’t just happen. Shows cannot simply hop across that chasm; a studio success might suffer in a larger space, even if it manages to fill the stalls. Scaling up has to start from scratch. It means making new work, possibly in new ways, not just reaching more people.

That, of course, requires support. However, in the same period, the model of distribution has worked against independents. The collaborative producing model, particularly the idea of regional hubs, leaves them at the behest of larger organisations and venues. Artists cannot scale up alone, funding a show and finding a venue. They need backers from the start: partners, not just producers.

Artists are right – or, at least, within their rights – to want to scale up. Moving into bigger spaces (and so, potentially, on to bigger audiences) is a move towards sustainability. It means increased fees, yes, but more crucially the time and space to create the work they want to make. To create small-scale work is to succumb to a constant churn – both of making and of performing, often of touring. It is a restless existence: nomadic and potentially precarious. Scaling up affords an artist control.

It also enables ambition – artistic, not career-driven. Big spaces allow big ideas. Not that small spaces don’t, but size and scope go hand in hand. Bigger stages call for bigger images, bigger casts, bigger performances. They can free artists from the constraints of the hour-long studio show – a convention that has crystallised for practical, not artistic, reasons.

Bringing artists through, and developing them, is vital to the overall health of the sector

The problem is perennial: the mid-career artist. Supporting emerging companies is easy by comparison: cheap, manageable, risky in its own way. One producing theatre can give many young companies a start without much strain. The question of continuing that support, pushing those artists on, is harder.

Frustrating as this is on an individual level, it becomes all the more pressing when applied across the sector. In the present moment, it means a wealth of unrealised potential, as artists find themselves pigeonholed. Worse, a stratified sector that stunts artists can only result in a shortage of large-scale work in the future. Bringing artists through, developing them, is vital to the overall health of the sector.

Equally, any such blockage works against diversity – and not just because it privileges already established artists. Personal financial instability pushes against artists from poorer backgrounds, while diverse work gets stuck on the small-scale: minority artists for minority audiences.

However, venues cannot simply wave a magic wand and change things. If the onus is on them to help artists, so too is the burden of risk – and the nature of that risk is very different. Independents can be adaptable and mobile, venues less so: their audiences are localised; their runs, fixed; their overheads, ongoing. As such, the level of risk involved rises.

Those risks are exacerbated by the gap between small and mid-scale. There are few spaces in between, 200 to 250-seaters, that reduce the gaps between the rungs. Even a seemingly small increase, an extra 50 seats a night, is, in practice, much larger. It must be multiplied over the course of a run.

You end up with all manner of Catch-22s. Artists can only acquire the skills to work at scale by working at scale. They can only grow their audience when they can accommodate a bigger audience. With different venues at each scale, artists often need to find new champions. There’s a pressure to replicate past success, particularly at a time of straightened funding. Small-scale work can be supplemented and sustained with support-in-kind; mid-scale means money.

There are other ways of scaling up. Working outdoors immediately opens up the question of scale, as does community and participatory work. A decade ago, Slung Low was making shows for solo audience members in shipping containers. Today, the company works with casts as big as 100 – not to mention flame-throwing tanks and speedboats.

Alternatively, artists can expand their work’s scope instead of its scale. Andy Field’s Lookout, a personal encounter on the rooftop of a multi-storey carpark, will play in cities around the world next year – a small thing multiplied. Action Hero’s next project will involve the duo travelling Europe in a camper van: a huge process behind (most likely) a studio show.

Politics is at play here – an argument against scaling up that resists the idea that big means better. Small-scale, shoestring work proves that anyone can make great art in any circumstances; that nobody needs permission to do so. It advocates intimacy and engagement – a personal connection – between artists and audience. Progress, its champions insist, does not necessitate scaling up. The pressure to do so complies with the neoliberal ideal of growth for growth’s sake.

However, if this movement triggered a cultural shift, it has only permeated so far. Most mid-scale work remains as detached and impersonal as it ever was, and it still requires skills, resources and permission. That’s precisely the problem at hand. Besides, it’s perfectly possible that bigger auditoriums and bigger audiences diminish the very qualities that makes those artists great.

Rewind a generation. The big fish of today were encouraged on to big stages early. Six years after its fringe debut, Complicite was in residence at the Almeida; Improbable at West Yorkshire Playhouse after three. Today, those stages programme much more mainstream, established work.

Yet that very push, in time, triggered a wider cultural shift. As those companies grew, along with their audiences, so British theatre changed as a whole. That process of reinvention will only continue if experimental artists are encouraged to work at scale.

It can work – and it does. Take 1927, playing a tiny Edinburgh vault nine years ago. It then comprised two performers, a pianist and a projector. The company is now filling 1,200-seaters around the world. That shift started with a single commission: a push to make something bigger from Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre. International producers on-board meant more at home and, by 2011, its second show was at the National, first in the Cottesloe, then the Lyttelton.

I started with a question: how do independent artists scale up? The answer is simple: they have to be pushed and, risky as it is, venues have to push them.

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