A Journey to Edinburgh Fringe: How Young Performers Can Make It Happen
Ollie Norton-Smith is a young artistic director making work for this year's Edinburgh Fringe. If you're keen to get your own work to the festival, learn all about the process from inception to performance in this series!
I thought it would be funny to create a show where every single thing that the audience sees is created with parts of a vacuum cleaner. So, we did it. It’s obviously not as simple as that, but we didn’t wait around - or even buy the vacuum cleaner - before we pitched the idea. Trusting in the ideas you have is vital at this early stage.
Hello! I’m Ollie, I’m 20 years old and I’m the artistic director of Spies Like Us, a theatre company that I, along with co-Artistic Director Hamish, set up with a group of extraordinarily talented friends when I was 19. We are all students at various stages of our university education and this was our first attempt at going it alone in producing theatre. With a sold-out run at last year’s festival of our debut show, Our Man in Havana, we will be returning to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe with two productions this year.
I’ve already made clear that I’m not a gnarled and battle-worn producer of theatre with bags of experience – this summer will mark only my second time directing a show on my own at the festival – but even if I were, I wouldn’t condescend to explaining a simple ‘3 steps to success’ type model when it comes to creating work for Edinburgh. Nonetheless, I’ve been commissioned to write these blogs with the intention of demonstrating how it is that we managed to do what we’ve done so far.
The seven of us (five actors, our producer/technician and me) who make up Spies Like Us all met making theatre with Young Pleasance. This is the Pleasance’s youth theatre company, which we were variously part of between the ages of 14 and 18. As part of Young Pleasance we were afforded the opportunity to take risks in the rehearsal room and we learned to feel confident in our ideas. We took a playful approach to everything we did, something that has become a guiding focus of our theatre work.
We remained friends in the intervening years and all reunited last year. There are enough talented, available, young creative people out there - that’s why drama school applications are so tough and why people sign up with Spotlight! If you meet someone who you get along with or who you think has exciting creative ideas, then make sure you stay in touch! You never know when you might have something that’s perfect for them, or vice versa…
Starting with one silly idea…
We got started because I had a silly idea. A very silly idea. I had read Graham Greene’s classic spy satire a few years ago and fallen in love with the evocative world full of colours and smells and silliness that he created. The hero of the novel, who is accidentally recruited by the British Secret Service in a dazzling instance of assumption, sells vacuum cleaners and fabricates his reports, sending drawings of vacuum cleaner parts but pretending they are military installations in the mountains. I thought it would be funny to create a show where every single thing that the audience sees is created with parts of a vacuum cleaner. So, we did it.
It’s obviously not as simple as that, but we didn’t wait around - or even buy the vacuum cleaner - before we pitched the idea. Trusting in the ideas you have is vital at this early stage.
The first obstacles…time, money and rehearsal space!
Time, rehearsal space and funds are always going to be in short supply at an early stage of making work, and with all of us in different cities across the country for our studies, we pitched our idea to Pleasance Futures without any tangible, ready performance. Only ideas and confidence. We had the five actors, the idea of the vacuum cleaner and the concept for a fast-paced physical farce. Hamish and I believed we could make our idea work, so we were bold with it. No one is going to make it happen unless you do.
When we’re pitching an idea to each other, we always try and come up with 40 words of copy for how we’re going to sell the show…
The hardest part of any of this is always money. You can work for as long as you want to try and raise the funds necessary to produce a piece of work that you’ve had in your head for months or years, but if the show dies on its arse then everything is gone. In our work so far, I’ve compartmentalised financial viability into two parts: marketing and monitoring.
We consider the marketability of shows extremely early on, it’s one of the first things we do. With the seemingly endless shows on every day in Edinburgh, and the apparently bottomless well of talent also present during the festival, we are only too aware of the fact that we have to make people want to choose our show. I’ll discuss strategies for marketing and appealing to audiences in detail in a later post, but when we’re pitching an idea to each other, we always try and come up with 40 words of copy for how we’re going to sell the show.
Getting set up for success…
Having an idea of why people might come is incredibly handy in developing productions, as it makes sure you keep sight of why you want people to come and can inform how sequences of the show develop. When we started as a company, I convinced everyone in the company to contribute the same amount to cover costs. As part of this deal, everyone has a stake in the theatre company, and we all have a degree of authority, with every decision being made as part of a democratic process. I convinced people to buy in because I told them about the ideas I had for Havana and other future projects, and because the opportunity to be a part of something you own is exciting. I’m responsible for the money we raise and spend as a company, so to ensure we are always in the green, I have monitored and logged every penny ever spent by Spies Like Us. Our inflow and outflow financially is constantly monitored and consulted before we make any major decisions, and ensures that we (hopefully) won’t find ourselves suddenly struggling.
We’ve been lucky to have the opportunity we had with Pleasance Futures, but we have made the most of it. A year on from early workshopping of Our Man in Havana and we have the same amount of content for our new show Woyzeck, a host of excellent reviews behind us and a belief that we can take this company forwards. I’m excited for what the future holds for us, but I understand the potentially precarious nature of our position. All we can do is keep trying to make it happen and getting better at what we do as we go.
Ollie Norton-Smith is a 20-year old Writer/Director and is the Artistic Director of Spies Like Us Theatre. He is currently studying English Literature and Drama at the University of Manchester. He directed and co-wrote Spies Like Us' debut production Our Man in Havana, and is currently working on their new project, Woyzeck. Having won Theatre Weekly's 'Best Fringe Debut' award last summer, they hope to go on to more success at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2018.
Image credit: Ollie Norton-Smith, Marko Marsenic