Guardian Theatre Blog

In January 2011, I was asked to write an article for the Guardian Theatre Blog about the way in which Theatre Delicatessen developed its relationship with the corporate property sector.

The original article can be found here on the Guardian Theatre Blog.

The Guardian Titlepiece

Commercial break: how big business helped fund our show

Many theatremakers regard corporate philanthropy with suspicion, but working with a property group gave our company space to develop – and helped us get funding

Theatre Delicatessen's Pedal Pusher
Free ride … Alex Guiney, left, and Tom Daplyn in Theatre Delicatessen’s Pedal Pusher, first performed on Property Merchant Group land. Photograph: Holly McGlynn/PR

As cuts to funding become a reality for arts organisations across the UK, the advice from government is loud and clear: artists should be looking to business and individual philanthropists to fund their work. It’s a message that is driven as much by political ideology as the need to cut costs.

Of course, cuts to arts funding should be deplored and fought against by the artistic community. State subsidy should be the cornerstone of any funding model. At the same time, artists need to be exploring every opportunity to seek financial support – and should not be afraid of collaborating with business to make the work happen. This is, of course, the norm with large-scale arts organisations and their high-profile corporate supporters. But our experience of setting up Theatre Delicatessen, a pop-up theatre group currently resident in the discarded offices of Uzbekistan Airways in central London, is an example of how working with business can help new small-scale companies and artists at the start of their careers.

Theatre Delicatessen was created by three young directors who wanted to create alternative performance spaces in which to explore the relationship between audience and performer by immersing both in the world of the performance. We were hungry to take on large-scale ensemble pieces that seemed beyond the scope of existing fringe theatres. Certainly, developing an immersive promenade production of The Winter’s Tale in April 2009 or the massive theatrical marketplace we called Theatre Souk, which in October 2010 took over five floors of an empty office block a stone’s throw from Selfridges, would have been beyond the scale of any of fringe venues where most young directors and theatre companies cut their teeth.

To make this dream a reality meant not only finding an empty space but convincing its owner to let us take it on. Pause for a moment. Ask yourself the question we asked ourselves: why would a landowner give up few hundred square metres of corporate real estate in central London to a new theatre company so they could stage a production – and for free? The key to our relationship with James Bowdidge at the Property Merchant Group (PMG), who granted us our first home at the old Boosey & Hawkes building at 295 Regent Street, was to approach them as collaborators. Together, we worked out what we could offer – and quickly discovered we had more to offer than we thought.

Alongside PR opportunities and organising gala nights for our sponsor’s clients and colleagues, we help secure rate reductions for landlords, who no longer have to pay rates on buildings that are lying empty. We ensure the security of the premises and give a reason to keep the utilities running.

Artists tend to balk at anything that limits artistic freedom, and of course working so closely with a corporate partner can come with restrictions. All our programming and productions had to be discussed and agreed – but then compromise is the essence of partnership. If anything, having to take on board the needs of our corporate partner made us sharpen up and think more carefully about what we wanted to offer our audiences. At the same time, PMG allowed us to take risks on projects, including developing a play about the Tour de France, Pedal Pusher – which, having been performed in London, transferred to last year’s Edinburgh fringe – and a revival of David Hare’s Fanshen, which beautifully charts the struggle between Chinese peasants and their feudal landlords. It’s hardly your typical corporate fare.

We were given an early Christmas present in the form of our first grant from Arts Council England, for our latest production of A Doll’s House. Made through the grants for the arts programme, and funded by the National Lottery, this bursary is essential in enabling us – for the first time – to pay everyone involved in the project. I hope it also means we will be able to look to the Arts Council again in the future to help fund our work.

At the same time, we have to acknowledge it was collaboration with the private sector that put Theatre Delicatessen in a position where it could be considered for funding. The two most precious things for young artists are time and space – time to grow and develop, and a space to experiment, to create work and to make mistakes. That is exactly what our partnership with PMG offered us, and hopefully others will discover similar opportunities in the future. Then, perhaps, we can start to break down the barriers to – and the stigma of – artists and business working together.