London Classic Theatre’s Michael Cabot shares his tips for those hoping to hit the road.

Production shot of The Birthday Party
London Classic Theatre is currently touring ‘The Birthday Party’

The most important factor in getting a theatre tour up and running is to give yourself plenty of time. Once you have decided on what the project will actually be, whether a classic play, devised piece or new work, it is vital that you allow as much time as possible to get the project organised.

Programming cycles are hugely varied. We usually propose our tours 12 months in advance, but some promoters will try to pencil slots at venues more than two years ahead. Theatres will usually try to have their programme finalised roughly six months in advance, but there are some who leave it later still.

Venues are not just publicising your project, but a whole season of events. Each season is promoted in a brochure and these don’t always fit a predictable pattern. Some venues will only produce two season brochures in a calendar year, others as many as four. You can’t second-guess how a venue’s advance planning works, but the vital thing is to be ahead of the game. Let programmers know what you are planning as early as you can.

The product

Choosing the right project is vital. Above all, you have to be passionate about the show you’re selling to theatres. From deciding to propose a tour through to the final performance can take up to two years. The show, both in planning and as a physical reality, is something you will live and breathe for many months. You will talk about the project for hours, whether selling it to venues, engaging creatives, employing actors, discussing marketing strategy or keeping friends and family abreast of your progress.

Booking a first tour can be hard work and you will need stamina, resilience and good humour. Although there will be small victories – the first time we got a full week booking at a No. 1 theatre, I danced around the office – there will inevitably be disappointments. Venues can occasionally need to move or cancel a booking, so you can find yourself with a gap and worrying financial shortfall overnight. I’m happy to say that the vast majority of programmers who pencil shows do so fully intending to commit to a booking, but I have occasionally had my fingers burnt.

The market

Be specific about what you are offering the industry. As well as a clear sense of your identity as a producer, venues will want to get a handle on what kind of product you offer. There are 250 theatres on our database, ranging from 100 seat studio theatres to 1,000 seat main houses. The industry will always want to define you.

Are you small-scale, mid-scale, large-scale, or a combination of all three?

With London Classic Theatre (LCT), we have always tried to be as flexible as possible with the scale of our shows, making the work available to the widest constituency of receiving houses, but there’s no question that in the early days, we started off very much as a small-scale touring company. As things have grown, we have become more ambitious with the scale and production values of the shows we offer, but we maintain a dialogue with all the venues we have visited. No show will suit every venue you approach, but it’s important to make the wider industry aware of what you are doing.

The money

You may be seeking funding for your tour, which will need a lot of thought and planning. Who are your audience? What age bracket will you appeal to? Are there any significant groups who the tour may attract? Schools audiences are often thought to be the bedrock of any touring production, but how are you going to connect with them?

At LCT, we have never received any funding or sponsorship for our work, so we have had to keep an eye on the commercial viability of projects. I’m very fortunate to have a supportive bank manager, but there have been some hairy times when we have literally pulled through a tour by the skin of our teeth. When budgeting, be specific and thoroughly research all the costs you might encounter. Always have a decent contingency.

The audience

Your first conversation will be with a venue manager, artistic director or programmer. These people are hugely important to your endeavour. They are responsible for a venue’s output and decide which shows fit in where and when.

A programmer will be dealing with proposals from comedy promoters, dance companies, theatre companies, amateur groups, children’s shows and one-off events. They are always trying to provide their audience with an interesting, balanced programme of events, so give them as much information as you can and try to work out how you might fit in. Make sure you know if a venue is focused on a particular type of product.

Of course, beyond the conversation with whoever is booking touring shows, there is the audience itself. The people who buy tickets ultimately have a huge bearing on how your work and credibility will be perceived. You never know who will actually pay to see your work, but it is important that you have a clear idea about the kind of audience you want to attract.

Above all, work hard and keep a positive frame of mind. Touring theatre can be incredibly rewarding.

Michael Cabot is the founder and Artistic Director of London Classic Theatre.

LCT is currently touring Harold Pinter’s ‘The Birthday Party’, which opened at the Cheltenham Everyman Theatre in February and visits 36 venues on a 16-week UK and Ireland tour.

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Photo of Michael Cabot