Justin T. Cliffe is co-founder and director of Tin Shed Theatre Co.
When we started Tin Shed Theatre Co. back in 2010 we didn’t know much about business side of making theatre. We were never taught about funding, or support schemes, we didn’t really know what R&D meant, and we never performed any sort of “work in progress”, we just made things and found places to perform them. We worked two jobs and paid an equal share into our productions to get them off the ground. Five years on, reflecting on our early work methods, the whole thing seems ludicrous, and never something we’d do now.
We used to perform in bars and split the money we made on the door, which 9/10 times would just go back behind the bar before the night was through. We toured from town to town in a tiny car, rammed with costumes, props and pieces of paper on which we’d written the plays locations to save having to make sets. 5 years on we sit at desks, talk on the phone, send emails and type reams of wordy, eloquent bumpf in order to convince people we’re worthy of their cash. We drink more coffee and less beer, we no longer perform in the grubby backrooms of bars, but in lovely studio theatres, and although never content with “right now” always looking forward to “what’s next” I sometimes yearn for the days of “back then”.
The philosophy this work ethic developed, I think, followed these rules:
+Don’t stop, just do.
+Talk less, move more.
+Make one another laugh.
+Always surprise the audience.
+Resist buying anything and use what you already have.
+Ignore all and any conventions.
+Turn “we can’t” into “how can we”.
+Never say no to anything.
This early, almost accidental rule making has stayed with us and although has been slightly amended, has become intrinsically threaded into our work, and even though we now rely on funding and commissions for most of what we do, I feel we still have that spirit of poverty in us, and in a way, I feel our work was better back then. It wasn’t convoluted by the bending of ideas to appeal to the ever-changing demands of funding, or subject to a permanent state of “not-readiness” because we trapped it in development. It was wild and loud and raw and exciting and born of cardboard and charity shops. On some of the larger commissions we’ve had, I’ve been left feeling like the work suffered from an abundance of budget, resource, time, and paycheck, like we were swamped with possibility and prospect. The restrictions we’d become accustomed to, no longer exist.
Now, don’t for a second think I’m anti-cash, or even anti-funding… Hell, if you’ve got some cash you want to give me, I’ll prove it. I’m also completely aware that some of the greatest work I have seen simply wouldn’t have existed had it not been for the fiscal component that supported the grass roots exploration, or the international collaboration, the initial opportunity or the overall prospect. I’ve seen phenomenal work that cost millions and phenomenal work that cost hundreds.
For me the problem arises when money makes the difference between ‘yes’ and ‘no’ for a young company. Too many times have I spoken to emerging theatre makers who have thrust their hopes into the hands of invisible forces that grant cash on what ever basis. I’ve heard so many ideas that will never exist outside of the types of conversations that evoke them. These early companies are often rejected for having no prior experience, and the result is, they make nothing at all. In the quest for budget, quality, time, space, production value etc. they are stuck on the corner square of the board, scared to roll the dice and make the first move.
My point is this; I wonder if the current culture of funding, research and development, work in progress, support schemes, and fiscally incentive initiatives sets an unrealistic precedent for young theatre makers. I wonder if it dilutes the spirit of “doing it” and generally limits the taking of risks.
I wonder if, rather than encouraging the creation of new, exciting work, it creates a vacuum of discontent, in which it never gets made at all.