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BCKR Event: High Tide Festival Theatre

BCKR Event: High Tide Festival Theatre

This week we were joined by Steve Atkinson – Chief Executive of High Tide Theatre Company – and former lawyer, Graham White, who has taken the interesting step of becoming involved as one of their board members. They shared their ideas and experiences with us and you can read a summary here:

Introduction to High Tide and its board

High Tide Theatre arose because the majority of plays that theatres commission are by writers already known to them. Many great plays by unknown writers never get produced. High Tide Theatre was created in 2006 to change that. Steve Atkinson is its chief executive.

High Tide produces four plays from new writers each year for performance in a rural festival setting in Suffolk. The audience takes a risk by seeing the works of new playwrights alongside talks by famous actors and directors. After the festival, the plays go on tour nationally and internationally.

The theatre board currently has 14 directors drawn from the world of theatre and beyond. There are currently two lawyers on the board – one property and one employment. They are able to offer specific guidance using their professional expertise, but they are also able to contribute more broadly. For example they need to contribute strategically, to work through the funding issues and many other business aspects. As the festival has grown and the early board members have started to rotate off, it has become harder to find people who are willing to do it. It is time consuming.

High Tide costs about £700,000 per year to run which is funded as follows: one third Arts Council investment, half individual donations, the rest box office income. The challenge is how to turn that around and make money from the festival alone, as third party funding declines.

Graham White’s journey

When Graham left Slaughter and May he didn’t want to be only mixing with retired lawyers and people of 55+. He wanted to learn new skills and High Tide filled all the requirements.

There was no carefully executed plan, he met with Steve through a chance introduction. As Graham was a property lawyer and High Tide were planning their move to Aldeburgh they thought Graham’s skills might be useful.

Useful points

Why have two lawyers on the board? Recruited specifically for property and HR knowledge, but more time spent dealing with finance, conflicts policy, terms of reference for the nom comm and reviewing their production agreements. Theatres need professional help because they can’t afford to buy it. But all the board members need to do more than that too.

What’s the time commitment? The board meets 4 times a year and reading the papers probably takes an afternoon per meeting with phone calls and subcommittees in between.

How involved are the board in artistic decisions? They are given a broad overview of the plays to be produced and then move on to the finances. In terms of measuring success it is more a question of looking backwards and understanding why something didn’t work.

How involved is the board? They like to engender a team spirit and try to arrange team events. The execs understand that the board need to get something out of the relationship too.

How do you get on an arts board without an introduction? High Tide sometimes uses “BoardBank”. Smaller theatre companies can really struggle to find trustees. Networking is key.

How do you determine if an unknown organisation is worth taking a risk on? Check the accounts on the Charity Commission website. Meet the chair and chief exec. If you believe and trust in them that should be enough – you will sniff out the weak ones.

Diversity: There is still an issue around diversity in the arts – particularly ethnic diversity. Still very white and middle class. Need to reflect the diversity of their audience.

Do you ask for financial contributions from the board? yes, current board is very good at raising money. And no, the board members are not required to contribute cash, though some do. It’s not all about money. The company still has to be good at directing plays.

When you look at your board, what do you expect from them? Time commitment – Networking – Fundraising