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2007 artistic review
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Artistic Review 2007

The Loft Theatre Company’s artistic policy, and the structure of its artistic management team, are based on the report which resulted from our Artistic Review held in 2007. The final draft of the report may be found below; for a printer-friendly version, click here.


Loft Theatre Company

Artistic Review 2007

Introduction

Throughout this report, we have included a few quotes from members (shown in italics); some are positive, some negative, and some are complex and searching – that has been the nature of this review. But whatever the perspective, it is clear that there is a huge reservoir of goodwill towards the Loft amongst our active and audience members. Everyone wants to make the Loft a better and more enjoyable place.

This report is rooted in the responses we have received from over 30 members. We are very grateful to all those who have taken the time to respond, either in writing or in conversation. Most of the responses have come from active members, but we have also received some input from audience members – most of which has been positive. If you are interested in the process we have followed, please see the appendix.

Many people have taken advantage of this review to raise issues that are important to the Loft’s future, but do not come within the remit of an artistic review. We have not included consideration of these issues in this report, unless they have a direct bearing on artistic quality. The two main issues are the lack of social cohesion in the club, and the strain felt by active members in support departments. We will, however, pass on the comments we have received for others to consider. This will need to be done on a non-attributable basis, as confidentiality was assured.

We hope this review will be helpful to the Management Committee and the whole company. It has been a pleasure spending time talking to people, and thinking about this great company that plays such an important role in the lives of its members and the people of Leamington.

David Fletcher, Ann Rayns, Gordon Vallins and James Wolstenholme
August 2007


Overall Quality

The 2006/2007 season included some excellent shows that should bring pride to Loft members. But it also contained some disappointing productions. This has always been the case. Even in past seasons, that were judged to be very good, there were always disappointments. We have tried to examine whether there has been a decline in the overall quality of productions. The view of members who have seen many seasons is that there has been a decline. We share this view, but not perhaps to the extent that is perceived by some. We believe that this decline in production quality is a major factor in explaining the fall in recent income budgets, but it is not the only factor. We will leave it for others to judge the extent to which social change, marketing, bad luck or other factors have also played a part.

However, we believe strongly that the quality of our work can be improved, and that this is likely to lead to an increase in income. It may take a few seasons to achieve this, and steady nerves around the Management Committee table may be required through this journey.

Leadership

The view of members is that good leadership is the most important factor in artistic success – both from Artistic Directors and from individual show directors. There is also a perception that, in the last few years, this leadership has been less strong than it should be. We believe that it is unrealistic to expect that we can always have the ideal scenario – a single Artistic Director with leadership charisma, impeccable artistic judgement, extensive knowledge of plays, brilliant management skills and unrestricted time. We have been privileged to have seen many of these qualities in past and present incumbents of the Artistic Director role... but it is a job that most normal humans cannot do alone. We have, therefore, considered some ideas for a structure that could help to provide sustainable leadership.

There is generally little evidence of theatrical excitement in the building. Excitement is people; the catalyst for attracting people is artistic leadership that courts talent and talks up projects of all kinds ... do not attempt to progress creativity by any form of dictat from above, let it emerge from an exchange of ideas and enthusiasms.

We believe that the primary responsibility of Artistic Direction is to maintain and improve the artistic health of the company, through effective:

  • Selection and development of directors
  • Play selection
  • Casting
  • Design (the aesthetics, not the day-to-day management)
  • Learning and development of all artists
  • Practical co-ordination of artistic activity

We recommend a team of up to six people to take the lead in achieving success in these key areas. Each person would participate in the discussion of all the above issues but would take primary responsibility for one of them. The responses from members clearly indicate that the selection of directors is the most crucial task and we recommend that the person taking on that role should also be the Artistic Director. So, the team might look something like this:

  • Artistic Director – builds and leads the team and focuses on engagement with existing and potential directors. Needs excellent people skills, flexibility and strong powers of persuasion.
  • Dramaturg – focuses on play selection. Needs considerable knowledge of plays, an interest in new work, and research skills.
  • Casting Director – provides support and advice for directors, organizes auditions, scouts for new talent, encourages acting members, maintains the Actors Directory. Needs excellent people skills and the ability to spot potential.
  • Head of Design – recruits and encourages designers (stage, costume, lights, sound), composers, choreographers etc. Needs excellent people skills and the ability to spot potential.
  • Director of Learning – develops a mentoring and training programme for active members; explores the potential for a Loft Education programme for local schools and groups in the community; explores the feasibility of a Youth Group, with an annual production. Needs educational skills and long vision.
  • Production Co-ordinator – maintains a schedule of all activities at the Loft, and supports the rest of the team. Needs strong organisational skills and patience!

Director Selection

Most members believe this is the most important factor in improving the quality of our work. This is both because of the creative ability of the best directors, but also because they attract talent in all areas.

Good directors will attract good players and crew... Most people will not know much about a play when it is announced – but if it is led by a good director, people will want to be involved.

We believe that long term artistic and financial success depends on the quality of our work, and getting the best directors is the most reliable way of improving quality. We strongly recommend that Artistic Directors should take all necessary steps to secure their first choices for directors (which should include the development of promising new directors) – even if this involves compromises in other areas, tricky negotiations and risk taking with play choice. If only one of our recommendations were to be accepted, this is the one that should be chosen!

Good directors require a bit of persuasion – because they are good at what they do they always have other offers, projects etc... Can I suggest that some form of more extended courting might be appropriate.

If there is a shortage of good directors, we believe that the Artistic Director should feel empowered to ask the same director to direct more than one show in a season.

Some members suggested that new directors should be identified through watching the work of other groups. This can be valuable, and invitations to directors from other companies can be a good policy. However, we believe that the cultivation of homegrown talent is the best method of ensuring a sustainable source of new directors.

Play Selection

We received a lot of responses on this subject – but much of it was contradictory, and there is no clear consensus. So these are the recommendations of the review team.

We believe that play selection has been generally good in recent years. The main problem has been with the ‘popular’ plays. This has always been the biggest challenge for Artistic Directors – finding plays that will excite actors and directors and will also put bums on seats. Too many of our ‘popular’ shows have been poorly presented, and not all have done good box office. Also, there are no guarantees of box office success – we presented a good production of a Ray Cooney farce last year and it only achieved a little over 50% attendance.

Unless we want to be a purveyor of only the pops (a sure way of losing talent and spiraling out of control) we need to focus on the more adventurous repertoire. We should not neglect the popular play (and do them superbly well) they are economically vital, but our best hope of expanding our audience and maintaining long term health lies in those less than universally recognized titles that currently attract minority audiences. We must be trusted to deliver ‘serious’ work in these areas.

We recommend that more ‘event’ shows should be chosen – plays (or musicals) that are different from the standard fare. ‘Do the unexpected’, as one member pleaded.

We recommend that the best plan for artistic health and sustainable box office income is to reduce the pressure on Artistic Directors to find three ‘pot boilers’ every season. Priority should be given to the selection of well written plays in all genres that attract and excite active members. Of course, we need to select plays that our audiences will recognize, but let’s make Wilde, Coward and Ayckbourn the benchmark for writing quality for these choices – and let’s do them as well as we can!

Good play selection - the benefits

The Studio

Again, there was a lot of input on this subject, but there is no consensus. What is clear is that the work in the Studio is valued by members and has become a crucial part of our artistic life.

We recommend that there should not be a prescriptive artistic policy for the Studio. The ‘only plays written in the last ten years’ policy was a very good one and discovered new seams of work and a new audience. An emphasis on new and recent work seems an obvious choice for a Studio theatre, but we would encourage more flexibility in play selection. A new play could be followed by Greek tragedy or a ‘discovery’ from the past. We believe that the Studio should also be a venue where:

  • our most experienced artists can experiment,
  • we present plays that are not suitable for the main stage, and
  • great plays can be given a different treatment.
The only restriction we would suggest is that the Studio should not be used for plays that would work on the main stage, unless a very special treatment was planned.

The biggest divergence of views from members is on the subject of whether the Studio should be used as a ‘training ground’. Some people believe that the Studio should be subject to the same quality disciplines as the main house, and that Loft Extra should be developed as the training ground.

The Loft has always thought that The Studio was a good place for new directors to cut their teeth. I have come to the conclusion that it is a far more difficult venue than is often realized.


I can’t emphasise too much how strongly I feel the Studio should be used to nurture and develop up-and-coming talent.

Our view is that effective development of new talent requires a flexible approach, and that Loft Extras, Studio productions and even the main house should be used in whatever way the Artistic Directors judge best.

Casting

We strongly recommend that the primary consideration in all casting decisions should be – how do we ensure that we get the best cast, now and in the future?

We believe that a long term view should be taken when deciding on a casting policy. There must always be a range of ways by which new talented actors can find a home at the Loft. Our casting process should be as open as possible, should be transparent, and should avoid any sense of cliques, cronyism or nepotism. However, there is a clear majority (amongst the members who responded on this subject) that pre-casting of leading roles is acceptable, provided that it is transparent and well founded.

We recommend that the casting policy for the company should be set by the Artistic Directors. Our preference is that the current policy, stated on the website, should be amended to say that ‘Any pre-casting must be approved by the Artistic Directors in advance’. We would expect it to happen in a very limited number of cases. We would also encourage Artistic Directors to consider occasionally planning a production when the actor is chosen ahead of the director.

Auditions should continue as the best way of casting shows. We recommend that serious consideration should be given to actors who take the trouble to attend auditions. However, there should be no obligation to cast them, if better casting can be achieved by other means, provided that this takes place after the audition.

We are very pleased to see the Actors Directory on the website. This is a very useful tool for directors, as well as being of interest to all visitors to the website.

Some members suggested that priority should be given to existing members at auditions, ahead of non-members. We do not agree with this suggestion, although membership of the Club should continue to be a requirement for all actors performing at the Loft.

Planning

Earlier planning   If earlier planning improves our chances of attracting the best talent, then we should do it.
 
Run length   There is a clear consensus amongst members for variable run lengths, depending on box office potential. Ten nights should still be the standard run, but the AD team should review each case with Marketing.
 
Co-productions   These are now regular events throughout British theatre. We recommend that the AD team is given the freedom to discuss co-productions with other suitable organisations, if the opportunity arises. This could include working other companies and individuals who can bring artistic and/or financial input to our work – professional and amateur, drama and other art forms, adult and younger.
 
Outside Lets   Some members suggested replacing some of our own productions with outside lets. Others believe it is important to maintain our nine-play season. We believe that a substitution should only take place if it relieves the pressure to plan another ‘pot boiler’. We reject any suggestion that an outside let should be introduced at the expense of the less popular titles in the season. We encourage the planning of outside lets in addition to our own productions, but we are mindful of the additional pressure this would put upon support departments.
 
Loft Extras etc   We strongly encourage the whole company to create as much work as they possibly can! Whether it’s a main stage show, a Studio production, a Loft Extra, outdoor events, play readings, activities in the bar – anything at all, as long as it doesn’t put any strain on the support departments and doesn’t cost anything! DO MORE STUFF!!!!!

Design

The outstanding reputation of Loft design – sets, costumes, lights, music, sounds, props – is currently facing a significant threat. This is because a small number of individuals have done so much to create this reputation, but some of them are now moving on and there are few new people stepping into the breach.

We do not have any quick answers to this problem. It needs a wider discussion to ensure that new artistic talent is attracted, and also that management skills are developed to encourage strong and sustainable teams for the future.

Learning

We strongly support the development of learning as a major feature in the life of the Loft. We hope that our recommendation to identify a Director of Learning will be implemented, as this will be the most effective way of making the necessary changes. In the meantime, there are a few things that can usefully be done.

We were very pleased to see that Geoff Bennett’s recent workshop was such a success. We encourage initiatives of this kind.

We believe that some form of Post Production review should be re-instated. There are two main aims – to share information about practical issues that will be of benefit to future productions, and to reflect on artistic issues. We recommend that these two strands of learning should not be compressed into a single meeting.

Training of new technicians needs time, mentoring, commitment, support and a preparedness to take risks.

Conclusion

The Loft has developed a very strong reputation over many years. We do not subscribe to the view that there was a ‘golden age’ from which we have irreversibly fallen. These things come in cycles – and we are in a bit of a trough. We will rise again; the questions are – how far, how fast, will we hit financial crisis before it happens, and is there a ‘tipping point’ beyond which there will be no recovery?

We could just wait for the whirligig of time to help us float back to the top. Or we could seize the initiative and make the effort that is necessary to put us back where we belong. It may not an easy ride, but it should be an exciting one.

We hope that this review will be helpful in this process. We accept that some of the recommendations might encounter practical problems, particularly in finding enough people to provide leadership in all the necessary areas. But, we believe the effort must be made – and made soon.

All communities deserve live theatre that combines celebration and entertainment and the delightful with the demanding and the disturbing... Although, often rightly, we are dissatisfied with our experience of theatre, I know of no better way of finding out about myself.


As a 69 year old member who only participates as an audience member and who is not very knowledgeable about the theatre, I am not sure what I have to offer... I get something from going to see live drama especially when it is performed by people who are part of the local community. I am most drawn to drama that has something to say, be it aesthetically, poetically, politically, philosophically, etc. I am grateful that the Loft gives me opportunities for that... I would like to be introduced to what I do not already know. I would like more theatre that involves physicality as well as words, and which asks things of the audience.

Thank you for all that you do. It is highly valuable
.

Appendix – The Brief and Our Approach

Our Brief

The Management Committee asked us to conduct a comprehensive review of the artistic condition of the Loft.

Our Approach

We invited input from members. We decided to base our review and our recommendations on what the input from members – they know what works and what is not working at the moment. We asked for general views, but specifically views and ideas on:

  • the current quality of our work,
  • play selection and planning – main stage and studio,
  • director selection and development,
  • casting and auditions (including the vexed issue of pre-casting),
  • rehearsals – e.g. how many weeks? should actors learn their lines in advance?,
  • design (sets, costumes, lighting, sound, music, props).
We also asked members to let us know what’s missing – maybe directors and actors they hadn’t seen for a while, plays and genres that we have neglected recently, ways of working that we aren’t using etc.

We received many written submissions, and also had discussions with a range of individual members. We devised a series of questions on a range of topics to guide these conversations.

General

  • When considering the current quality of the Loft productions what areas:
    • Do you see as positive?
    • Do you see as negative?
  • During your input to a season/production to what degree would you say you are encouraged by a culture of freedom, encouragement and support that allows you to express your creativity during:
    • Pre-production?
    • During production?
    • Post production?
  • Would you have any recommendations to allow us to facilitate the above?
  • What do you deem as obstacles to the flow of energy during your input?
  • Do you know of any reasons why some people would take their energy elsewhere?
  • Are there any specific ways of working that we aren’t using to prevent people moving?
  • What activities would you encourage to help extend the talent pool?
    • Actors?
    • Directors?
    • Backstage?
  • Would you consider methods such as post-show productions and regular directors meetings effective ways of improving our learning? Would you suggest any other methods to these?

Planning

  • Has the recent play selection in both the main stage and studio been satisfactory from you point of view?
  • Is the length of both main and studio stage runs too long, too short, too fixed?
  • Do you think the current rehearsal period is effective in length and weekly commitment? Do you think actors should learn their lines in advance?
  • Do you think we have the right quantity of work (would less be better, would more be possible, would other ‘art’ mediums such as readings, poetry, music make the ‘Loft experience’ a more attractive one for you?)
  • Do you consider that there are any plays or genres that we have neglected recently?
  • Do you see any methods we could adopt to attract wider audiences?

Directors

  • How would you rate our director selection and development? Would you consider ways of improving this?
  • As a director would you consider directing a play that was pitched effectively to you by the Artistic Management rather than one you, yourself, chose?
  • Are there directors you haven’t seen for a while and would like to see back?

Casting

  • Do you consider the current casting and audition process to be effective (including the vexed issue of pre-casting)?
  • Should there be open company auditions, and how might they work effectively?
  • Are there actors you haven’t seen for a while and would like to see again?

Design

  • How would you rate the quantity and quality of talent in the departments of Set design and build, Wardrobe, Lighting, Sound and music, Props, Stage management?
  • In your opinion are we spending enough money on shows or simply not being creative enough with the budgets allocated?

Coming soon
Scrooge – The Musical 3
Dec
ABBA Tribute – Swede Dreamz 14
Dec
The Exorcism 17
Jan
Collaborators 14
Feb
Get Happy 22
Feb
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Updated: 23 May 2008