The Four Steps To Opening A Venue From Scratch

by David Byrne

A Guest Blog by David Byrne, Artistic & Executive Director of the New Diorama Theatre

As we begin 2013, you can feel the excitement growing and the momentum building towards the opening of Park Theatre.

I’ve been through it before when we opened New Diorama Theatre, where I’m Artistic and Executive Director (a title that ages me terribly) in 2010. I can still remember sitting in our empty foyer fretting over what artists we’d be able to attract, how best to help them and if any audiences would come.

The last three years at NDT have been a real learning curve for me and I’ve learnt, like most things in the arts, running a building isn’t brain surgery but it is a lot of hard work (and sometimes almost as painful). But the basics are very simple and there are ultimately four main steps in opening and running any arts organisation. And here’s where I start being worried of sounding like “Pippa’s Tips”…

1. Put On Really Great Shows.
This is the most important thing any Artistic Director does. The most exciting and daunting part of my job – finding great companies and convincing them to come and work here at New Diorama. We don’t have the space or the money that bigger funded venues have, we also don’t have the location of Soho Theatre or, currently, the audiences of the Barbican or the staffing power of the BAC. What I have to do is work out what each company we want to work with needs, what will help them take that next step in their growth, and pitch how I think we can help them more than anybody else could. Often the biggest selling point is simply passion. One of our associate companies has dubbed me a “Super Fan”, somebody who regular sees their work (even in far flung spots) and tirelessly cheerleads for them.  How could you not perform your work in a theatre owned by your biggest fan? Once you’ve got the artists you want, those who are ready to go on the adventure with you, you’re ready for step two…

2. Get As Many People To See Them As Possible.
This is the hardest step. People aren’t used to new things and filling a brand new theatre every night is a hard task. You’ll initially have a small network, as will your artists, and together you need to work on getting as many people to see the work as possible. If you get a good relationship with your artists then slowly familiarity will set in and audiences will slowly start to grow. And when you’ve got them there you need to…

3. Turn Your Audiences, Artists, Friends Into A Network.
If you’ve got people in your theatre, gallery etc seeing great work, it won’t be hard to convince them to come back by treating them nicely – that goes for artists and audience members! The trick is taking that extra step and making them feel welcome, excited by your mission and making them part of the family. Here at New Diorama we throw a lot of parties and host a lot of events to keep audiences, artists and supporters interested and engaged with what we do. You’ll soon find your network snowballing from people from all different backgrounds: the NDT network is made up of over 40 theatre companies who have worked with us or with whom we have an affinity, trusts and foundations who have supported our work, individual donors (most of whom started off as just normal audience members), theatregoers locally, from across London and across the UK and even a healthy network of American high-schools and colleges who visit us every year. When they all get together, it’s a lot of fun. And now that they’re all starting to really get know each other, there’s an atmosphere that we’re all in it together.  

4. Repeat and Rinse.
And once everything is in place, you repeat! If you’re putting on great shows and encouraging as many people to come as possible, you’ll start to get a lot of repeat business. People will start bringing their friends to share. The friends start to bring their friends. Journalists write about you more and more, encouraging a greater and greater profile for what you’re doing. A bigger profile makes you far more investable to trusts and foundations. Which means you can afford more exciting and ambitious art. Which keeps your current audience interested, keeps the great art linked to your building  and attracts new people. Those new people like what they see. And invite their friends etc.

And before you know it you’re on a winning streak. It sounds simple but it takes a lot of work, energy, commitment, love and enthusiasm. All of which Park seem to have in spades. 

Personally, I can’t wait to become part of Park Theatre’s network and I can’t wait to come and see some great theatre in their new theatre in 2013.

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