Taking her show ‘The White Bike’ to stage proved a difficult task for playwright Tamara von Werthern after it was rejected for ACE funding. In this guest post she discusses the challenges she faced and how still dealt with them, ensuring the show would go on!
I got the email from the Arts Council (ACE) and my heart was pounding. We had been working so hard to make this production of my play The White Bike happen. Now everything depended on one email.
Inspired by the true story of Eilidh Cairns who was crushed by a tipper lorry in 2009, the play follows a young mother on her journey by bike through Hackney.
My own journey towards this production had started when I cycled past the crash site after returning to work from my maternity leave. As a cyclist and young mother I felt vulnerable in traffic, and my natural reaction was to write about my fears and concerns.
I was lucky to be invited by the Arcola Writers Group to develop my thoughts into a short play under Duncan Macmillan. The piece was then showcased at the Arcola Theatre in 2010, directed by Caroline Leslie.
But that was just the beginning. We were now on the brink of a full professional production with an amazing creative team, an exciting cast and a new full-length script, developed over years of workshops, and Research and Development. We also had help through my own involvement in campaigning for safer roads and from interviewees who had been affected by road violence.
It is hard to make a production happen – finding the right people, convincing a venue, getting funding. I was lucky that I had met director Lily McLeish two years previously, who was equally passionate about the importance of the play and deeply committed to seeing it on stage. (If you want to read more about the early development of The White Bike, click here.)
After securing The Space as our venue and working on all aspects of our production for many months, we had now raised a phenomenal £4,313 via Kickstarter.
But support also came in other forms, including donated rehearsal space and even getting safer cycling charities and independent bike shops on board. There was now a real buzz around the project, and we felt that if everyone else was behind it, the ACE just had to support it too. I clicked on the email. My eyes flew over the page.
And there it was.
Our application had not been successful.
I felt numb.
We had had ACE funding for our Research & Development week and had a committed and brilliant team on board. We had 130 supporters who had given money towards this, our venue was booked, and we even had a publishing deal.
It felt as if the rug was pulled out from under us at this crucial moment, when everything was going so well. Ironically, the main reason why the application was rejected was that at the time of applying we didn’t have enough money already confirmed, though now we did.
The worst thing was that we had no time to reapply. It takes three months for a grant application of over £15,000 to be considered, and it was now the end of July. The show would open on 19 September.
Sadly setbacks are an inevitable apart of the theatre industry – it’s about what you do next that matters.
Back to the drawing board
A few phone calls later I felt a bit better. The director, producer and I were equally gutted but we set up a few emergency meetings straight away to consider our options. We drew up a new budget, cutting away as much as we could and trying to safeguard the money needed to pay our team and cast. We cut rehearsal time down and decided on parts of the process we could each take on ourselves.
In the end we had something to work with. We still had to raise money to make it happen, but, with a bit of luck, it was achievable.
It took a whole day to phone up financial headquarters to find out if they had a social responsibility scheme, which is when financial institutions have a goal to support the community they are rooted in.
As The Space is just across the river from Canary Wharf, we thought it might be feasible that the companies situated in our neighbourhood might help us out financially. In return we could offer advertising in our published script or even workshops on physical theatre in a corporate environment.
Unfortunately, it turned out that most banks only support community projects which include financial education, and unfortunately not the arts.
We also applied to trusts and foundations, including The Paul Hamlyn Foundation, the Esmee Fairbank Foundation and the Royal Victoria Hall Foundation, amongst many others. For some of these you need charitable status, which we have through co-producing the play together with The Space.
We wrote to Hackney Council, where the play is set, and to Tower Hamlets, where both the production and rehearsals (at Queen Mary University) would take place, to ask for help.
While some of these leads gave us hope that they might be interested to partner with us and support us, most of our emails and letters remained simply unanswered. It was all pretty frustrating.
Most of all, I felt disheartened by the fact that we were rejected by ACE, ashamed even: my first thought was that it had happened because the play was just not good enough.
But then I realised that I needed to just tell people. I put a ‘black box’ on my Facebook page, fessing up. And what happened next was amazing. I got loads of messages of support, including ones from friends who were just as gutted about it as I had been, as well as offers of help.
It was heartening to realise that people were really rooting for us, maybe even more so, because we had had this setback.
It turned out that the biggest resource we had were our friends. Many thinking caps were put on across the country and we suddenly had a rich pool of suggestions of where to go and who to ask, and a huge amount of encouragement and support.
I also heard from friends who were in the same situation with their funding having also been rejected, which made me feel much less alone with the problem.
Being open and honest about having experienced a setback was the best thing I could have done, and the reaction from those around us was what made the next steps towards making it happen possible.
I thought up four different ways of raising money and tested them on Facebook, just asking people to put them in order of what they liked best.
My ideas were a clothes swap party with an entry fee where I would serve tea, coffee and cake; a ‘gala dinner’ which I would cook at my house with three courses and drinks at a set price; a pub quiz at our local pub; and another bigger cake sale.
I got so many responses, it was unbelievable. The pub quiz won in the end but I also got offers of people who said they’d bake cakes for me, as well as lots of other tips on where to go for funding. It was amazing to feel there was so much interest and good will behind it all.
Turns out the clichés true: while one door had closed, many more doors suddenly opened.
Think outside the box
There might be ‘pockets’ of potential funding which you can access by thinking about people you know who, though might not necessarily be your target audience for a given project, may be interested in something else you have to offer.
For our Kickstarter campaign, for example, I had crocheted cycling gloves and flower badges as prizes, which were really popular. It is good to have something that is handmade and unique to show your appreciation of the support you are getting.
Another slightly strange coincidence was that I had written a book in German for my dad’s 60th birthday. It was a spoof crime thriller with him as the sleuth. It was a bit of a family in-joke, but it turned out to be hugely successful among his friends and also people I knew back home and even German-speaking friends in London.
I again used Facebook to gauge interest in this, take pre-orders towards a reprint, and ended up making quite a bit of money towards the production.
As The White Bike is about safer cycling, we went to bike shops, wrote to big cycling companies and companies renowned for their involvement in cycling. We also asked charities such as SeeMeSaveMe and Sustrans to support us, and were largely successful with this.
As well as the larger companies, we also got support from individual donors, who gave small or large amounts, often after a personal chat about what we needed and why, and also where the money would go.
We spread the word through Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, on organisational newsletters and in the media. In short – we tried every avenue we could think of and then some.
And the show really does go on…
It looks like our strategy worked out: The White Bike will run at The Space in East London from 19-30 September 2017.
Video made by Tom Goudsmit
After approaching so many people for help, we eventually secured financial support from Phil Jones Associates and Hackney Council.
We might not have got the money from ACE to make things easier, but we got so much support from the people around us, which was in a way worth even more. Experiencing this one setback has only made us more determined and motivated to get the show on the road and make it the best it can be.
If you’ve experience what might seem like a failure while trying to put on a production, it could actually end up being what makes your performance. You’ve just got to be determined and learn to think outside the box; and whatever the problem was, it won’t be a setback for long.
To get tickets to see The White Bike, click here. We would love to see you there.