Why Won’t They Just Say No? (producers and programmers in conversation)

Convener(s): Julia Bird

Participants: Kas Darley, Jennifer Jordan, Garry Robson, Suzy Harvey, Mark Courtice


Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

JB explained that she was a live literature producer, in the middle of her first tour which is visiting arts centres and studio theatres. She wanted to discover if that her experience of selling the show had been fairly universal one – ie – it sometimes took a dozen phone calls just to elicit a ‘no thanks’ from a venue programmer.

KD, an actor and producer of site specific work, said that her experience of dealing with the press is very similar. She said that she had a producer / marketer friend who was a very assertive networker and repeat caller, and that this approach did work – but how does one balance assertiveness against possible annoyance? 

GD, artistic director of a Liverpool-based company, says that although he doesn’t book tours himself, his colleagues do and he is aware of their frustration. He talked about how dealing with small scale venues is more frustrating than with large scale ones; and also about how his professional experience with the Edinburgh Book Festival differed from that with the Edinburgh Fringe – at the former, he felt welcomed and valued, at the latter he didn’t. 

JJ mentioned that small venues are more likely to be run on a tight budget, and that they might not always have the resources to be able to deal quickly with phone enquiries.

SH said that in her tour-booking experience, ringing repeatedly did work, but that each phone call should end with the venue saying ‘yes’ to something – ‘Yes, I will book your show / Yes, you can phone me back / Yes, you can keep me informed about your work.’ She mentioned the importance of logging all conversations on a chart, developing personal relationships with the people you’re calling, maintaining a thick skin and not taking any decisions or rebuffs personally.

GR agreed – yes, we do have to be pushy, but asked why it sometimes felt like producers and programmers were combatants rather than collaborators – surely we need each other, don’t we?

JB made a suggestion that venues whose season programming period is complete should post this message on their websites, which would save a few unnecessary phone calls at least.

SH said that she had worked as a receptionist, and had become adept at working out how to field multiple phone calls. She said that anyone who asked for a member of staff by role rather than name had never been put through. KD said that this might not always be the case in less formal small arts organizations.

GR & KD led a discussion about the varying levels of expertise and interest in people with the same job titles in different organizations, and how this might mean that a one-size-fits-all approach would not work.

JB asked if there were any practical steps that producers and programmers could take to cut down on the need for multiple pestering phone calls. GR recommended developing personal relationships between company and venue, and used the example of his show ‘The Last Freak Show’ which came with a raft of added extras - interventions, street theatre, workshops etc - to help build up an audience before the show itself took place.  KD talked about a piece she had made in a library, rehearsals for which took place during library opening hours, therefore involving library-users and potential audience members before the show. GR said that it was important to maintain these relationships even when you weren’t trying to sell a show; and KD said that this approach had also worked well when dealing with journalists.

MC, an ex-programmer turned tour booker, arrived at this point.  He had a number of recommendations, namely that the most successful approach was via an email containing the pedigree of the show – how it might link to a programmer’s prior knowledge and experience.

JB asked why people don’t say ‘no’ earlier in the process. MC said that saying no was a difficult task at the best of times, and that sometimes programmers liked to be able to keep their options open. MC added that the least successful way of dealing with programmers was to waste their time by chasing then rejecting them; and to push people to programme shows that were unsuitable for their venues, programmes or audiences.  He also recommended inviting programmers to see producers’ shows in other venues; accepting the fact that programmers are nervous about taking a risk on unknown work; and developing a relationship with venues before you try to start selling them the show.

He said that the most successful plug he had ever had from a programmer involved someone ringing up and saying ‘I’ve looked at your programme, and see that you’ve got A, B & C; X, Y & Z on. My show is like B, X & Z, and I used to live in your area. One of my friends who still lives there is a teacher, and will guarantee a party of 100 students to come and see the show’.