Paschale Straiton met the fabulous ladies from Fools Paradise in the early summer of 2017 and a conversation ensued about the challenges of the current climate and tips for staying ahead of the game…
Paschale: So, Nicki, Jo and Boudicca – thanks for having me. As you know the outdoor arts sector has seen quite a few changes over the last few years due to arts cuts. I’d really like to know how this has affected your work at Fool’s Paradise over the last few years and how it is at the moment.
Nicki: The market’s diminished and it has diversified. So we’ve moved away from working with local government to all kinds of areas. And we have to work much harder to sell and get stuff out there. It’s challenging.
Paschale: Has the explosion of more alternative music festivals affected you at all?
Jo: It has affected some people but we don’t get many bookings from those festivals. We still get city centre events but shopping centres are a huge part of our work now.
Nicki: Yes, shopping centres and BIDs.
Jo: They want to increase footfall so it’s much more commercial. You used to work with an Arts Officer putting on an established, community street festival that had been going for years. And they had teams with a whole infrastructure around them. But that’s been dismantled.
Nicki: And it’s the actual event itself that’s suffered.
Ok so there’s loads of funding for commissioning and touring but that doesn’t help a broad spectrum of performers. It’s helps very few. And they don’t continue touring that show for long because there aren’t the gigs and they go for another commission the next year.
There used to be 3 or 4-day events. Those have gone or reduced to 1 day at best. Unless we can think of a way to get money back into community events, then it’s always going to be a struggle.
There used to be massive street festivals even in this city, in Exeter. We used to have 10,000 people out and it’s all gone.
Jo: We’d have a lovely big budget and bring in acts from all over the country.
Paschale: Is there nothing happening in Exeter these days?
Jo: Hardly anything.
Boudicca: There are smaller things happening. It might be something like a small event on a Thursday afternoon or a Saturday afternoon. It has to be something entertaining and most probably walkabout, which are good for city centres.
Nicki: There’s a festival in this street – in Gandy Street – run by or inspired by one of the shopkeepers who got together a forum and got some money from the BID to have some performers there.
Paschale: When you say bid, do you mean that there’s a pot of money from the local authority that people bid for?
Nicki: No – I mean a Business Improvement District, so they get money from the rate payers. Every town or city, if they want to, vote whether to have a BID or not. The BID runs for 5 years and everybody who pays rates over a certain rateable value, contributes to the BID. And they do things like marketing, signage, tapping into tourism and they’re in some way filling the big hole left by the local government employees who have gone. But obviously, they’re commerce driven because most of the people who have funded the BIDs are retailers.
Jo: And we have commercial rivals in shopping centres. The shopping centres know that they’ve got to have live entertainment but they might bring in face-painters – not that there’s anything wrong with face-painters – but they’ll bring in big commercial teams, or they’ll bring in loads of people in Disney costumes, or the Coca-Cola Bus. Those are all rivals.
Nicki: Or Snow Globes, which you can go inside and have your photo taken.
They’re all entertainers that also promote a product. If they can bring in Disney look-alikes that promote Disney, then that’s good for business. Sometimes they put in a lot of money.
Jo: And they won’t bring in our acts. They will the next year because they realise they work better. And the poor public aren’t given a choice.
Boudicca: There’s an issue about time with the Snow Globe and the Coca-Cola Bus. Because the Coco-Cola Bus is there for a set amount of time, or perhaps the whole season and they’re open for 6 or 7 hours a day. They are giving value for money as far as the people who are booking them are concerned. Whereas our acts do three 30-minutes and they don’t think that’s enough to justify the cost.
PS: Are there any tips that you could offer?
Nicki: Longer sets are brilliant. We have two lots of performers who will do two or three 45-minute slots. If you put that in the proposal, they’ll get booked over the ones that don’t, quite obviously.
Jo: Unless they’re booking something that has a huge costume or is an acrobatic act, where they’re getting more of a spectacle.
Thinking about themes is a good idea: nautical themes, food, space, historical, environmental, gardens…having a variety of work is useful.
Boudicca: Or being flexible. Things that are selling well are shows that are flexible. Like Shed of Stories – you can book that in any theme because they can theme all the stories and possibly the costumes as well.
Jo: Also going that extra mile. A performer that everybody loves is Gary from Bread and Butter Theatre. a) He’s always going to get asked back because he’ll always deliver. b) They’ll ring him up year after year and they’ll say, ‘Well this year we’ve got a French Countess theme’ and he’ll say, ‘Right I’ll get a French Countess’ costume made then.’ Or whatever.
Nicki: But it is disheartening after 26 years to be shoe-horning everything into a theme. It really is. To be driven, not in a creative direction, but in the opposite direction. To be pushing everything into shopping centre land.
Jo: You get to a shopping centre with the acts and you see all these amazing acts and they’re just pushed about like performing monkeys. ‘We want you to go there because that shop’s complained that they’re not getting enough entertainment.’ And the people who are there to meet them, don’t even know what they’ve booked. They just liked the picture. It’s not all like that of course.
Nicki: But there really are far fewer events that are put on for the event’s sake.
Paschale: Where can you see any future opportunities?
Boudicca: Funding is dramatically increasing for libraries and museums in particular I’d say and there’s money going into events in places like that.
Paschale: Do you think that there’s an opportunity for you to be brokering deals for performers in those kinds of places?
Boudicca: A lot of those new clients are coming to us because we know the sector. They know that they need entertainment and don’t really know what they want or what will work.
Nicki: There’s a new client spread from places like National Trust, stately homes, The RHS [Royal Horticultural Society], Zoos, Wildlife Parks…
Jo: They’re all starting to get the value of really good quality entertainment, especially shows or walkabouts that have been running for years who really know what they’re doing.
Boudicca: Again, with them, they’ll start with the established themes and then, after a couple of years, they’re happy to move into other types of entertainment.
Paschale: Wildworks had a show called The Enchanted Palace at Kensington Palace quite a few years ago now. They palace were shutting half of the building to put in proper disabled access. And the curator thought ‘We’re compromised because there’ll be loads of disruption but I think that we should take a risk and get a really alternative theatre company in and see what happens.’ Wildworks built an extraordinary installation with trees inside the building and all kinds of magical objects and a bonkers storyline, playing with the idea of time – it wasn’t straightforward.
The building was quite conservative and there was quite a lot of resistance from conservators and wardens who felt like their toes were being trodden on a bit. But the company dealt pretty well with them and after a month or so they turned the whole thing around.
The installation included a dress by Vivienne Westwood, and there were fancy hats by Stephen Jones. And suddenly they had the fashionista brigade coming for night-time balls and those types of events. It completely transformed the image of that place, which was very fusty. It was interesting to see how quickly you can have a really massive effect. Obviously the curator was supported by a massive organisation and I guess they could afford to take a risk. But it was amazing to see.
Jo: All those years ago when Zap went around the country and put on festivals, or Jeremy Shine did, they did wonderful things. And then when they left, the local government took over and carried on because a tradition was in place then. And they built this really effective infrastructure. Lots of little kids grew up into adults with those festivals and they became part of the psyche of the town. When the cuts came, those events stopped. And so it’s not just about brining the money back. It’s about brining the whole culture back that was welcome in those towns.
Nicki: – That feeling of community.
Jo: Meanwhile they get Disney characters and Snow Globes.
Nicki: Yes exactly. We, as a genre, spent years building up and building up and building up trust. So you’d go from booking artists who are less challenging, to artists who are more challenging and they would be embraced by a city. And now we’ve gone back 5 or 10 years. We’ve lost all of that understanding. It’s a real shame.
Jo: We feel – I don’t know if it’s true – but we feel that most of the artists have other jobs. So this is not their full-time income. The only ones that do have it as a full time job are funded and therefore they’re making new work. That solid base of really good entertainers who can make a full-time living out of well-honed acts is no longer there any more.
And I think that effects the quality of the work. It’s quite a subjective viewpoint of course.
Nicki: I think you’re right. You’ve got to do it and do it and do it.
Boudicca: Show’s don’t always work to start with. So, it’s about building the show as well. If you’re working on a funded basis, you are having to do something new each year, or in each funding round. And that’s not always going to work.
Jo: – Not in our sector because in the first year you’ll get six gigs. All that money’s going into six performances and next year they’re going to be doing something else.
Paschale: In the world of New Writing it’s exactly the same. In places like the Royal Court Theatre in London, there’s a cult of newness – finding the fresh new voice, or the community that’s not been heard from before and it’s totally unsustainable. And then on the other hand you have someone like Clarke McFarlane who plays Mario, Queen of the Circus – he’s been doing that show for donkey’s years.
Boudicca: And it gets better and better and better.
Paschale: And he says, ‘This is my craft – there’s still room to make it better.’
Jo: That’s what I always say, it’s not about the show being new – the audience is new every single time. And if they’re not new, they’ve come because they want to see it again.
Boudicca: And your experience of it will be different every time, even if you have seen it before.
Paschale: And if something is good you can watch it loads of times. I can always watch reruns of Faulty Towers.
Boudicca: We had 20 minutes of Gumby clips from Monty Python this morning. I’m introducing my 7 year old to Gumbies!
But it’s got to be entertaining. That’s is my favourite word. If a show is entertaining, you want to stay there and you want to interact with those characters or you want to see what happens in the show. There has to be a connection and that is often through entertainment. I know people think it’s a terrible word but it’s really key.
Jo: It’s not about the show. It’s about the audience. And if it’s entertaining, you can get a big audience. And when you get a big audience, you get magic. Because it’s about how the audience behave and react. It’s for them.
Paschale: Which comes back to those community events that are about getting people together for a shared experience and a sense of community. It’s just so sad that that’s not valued in the same way anymore.
Nicki: It is.
Jo: They are still happening but they’ve been more commercialised.
Paschale: Being based in the South West, where there are still plenty of traditional events, carnivals and so on. Do you see those changing?
Jo: They just carry on. The Padstow Hobby Horse will continue because the community take care of it.
Nicki: People will always just dress up and do it.
Paschale: Maybe we need to be taking a leaf out of there book. If community events can’t happen maybe we need to do things differently and make more participatory events.
Paschale: On a different note, people are talking quite a lot about fees at the moment. Obviously there’s a sliding scale but do you have any standard recommendations for a walkabout act or a show?
Nicki: 2 people doing a walkabout would charge £500 plus travel costs, per day for 3 shows.
Jo: If you’re 18 and you’re starting our, go for £300 and once you get busy, put it up.
Nicki: But work the show in first. Although it will go out if it’s cheap.
Boudicca: – Like a stilt company who is working in walkabouts at a low rate.
Nicki: They’re offering 2 stilt walkers for £350. They’re a very established company but they’ve brought on all these young, new performers so they’re going out at a low cost and they’re getting loads of bookings.
Paschale: And a show with 2 performers that is 30-45 minutes long, which would be performed twice in a day, how much would that go out for?
Nicki: 2 people doing a show would be anything from £550 to £800, plus travel and accommodation.
Jo: Those fees feel like they’ve been the same forever.
Boudicca: Things lifted a couple of years ago and before the Olympics.
Paschale: I’m certainly paid the same as I was in 2008. Times were really good around then, just before the financial crash.
Nicki: Yes it all went wrong after 2010. But we’re still here! There’s always something. This year there’s the Women’s World Cup and Cricket working quite nicely for us thank you very much.
Paschale: Do you get many sporting events?
Nicki: We get a few. We’ve got some tame local government officers, sports related who like walkabout at their events.
Paschale: The go to person in the local authority has often changed department now. The Arts Officer might no longer exist, so it must be a headache to find them.
Boudicca: That’s a big part of our job, finding the right person.
Nicki: We spend days doing it.
Jo: Months. We spent the whole of last winter going through our database. Because we realised that we were sending out newsletters and a lot of them are bouncing back because of that.
They used to be called Arts Officers and now they’re called Events Officers…
Nicki: Or Festival Officers…
Jo: Or Heritage and Cultural Learning…
Boudicca: Or Libraries and Culture…
Nicki: It takes hours and hours to track down one lead contact in local government because they don’t give any names on their websites.
Jo: One minute there’s a Cheshire East Council Arts Officer and then suddenly they’ve changed. If it’s a woman, they may have got married and so their name has changed. And they’ve also become Cheshire Heritage Cultural department and it’s privatised and their email addresses have all changed.
So you sit there and you Google, and Google and then you fall asleep. And then you go on Linked In and do all that. And finally you find them and you email them and they never answer! Every now and then they do. And they go, ‘Oh wow, it’s so good to hear from you, thank you.’
Paschale: Well I should say thank you very much and leave you to it. You’re obviously pretty busy.
Nicki: Thank you. It’s nice to be interviewed sometimes.
Jo: It’s good to talk about it.