Production is Art - An Afternoon with Pirates of the Carabina
As a small arts company currently working on our creative development we have been conducting research into establishing self-sustainability in the arts. As part of this we are interviewing companies of varying scale, to help us examine the strengths and strategies of today’s creative industry. Our aim is to open up conversations about good practice in becoming self-sufficient in the arts. We invite you to join in the conversation in the comments and on our social media. We think that conversation is key to building and supporting the industry. We are going to explore how artists can be best supported to work together and aim higher in terms of building value, attaining funding and creating outstanding work.
To kick off the conversation we visited Jade, Barnz and Shaena of Pirates of the Carabina. Their debut, full length show ‘Flown’ toured in 2013/14, performing 80+ shows to over 22,000 people. It has seen capacity crowds at Glastonbury Festival, Bristol Circus Festival and Edinburgh Fringe, where to their complete surprise, they won the Total Theatre Award for best Physical / Visual Theatre show. You can see ‘Flown’ at The Minack, Open air Theatre, Cornwall on 27th-29th April 2017.
So where did this success come from? In 2009 Barnz and Shaena were dating and both working for No Fit State circus based in Cardiff. Shaena is an aerial performer and Barnz is a rigger and counterweighter, both have an incredible creative talent and a desire to push the boundaries of what can be achieved within aerial circus.
The best circus has the whole team working together as part as the performance. The counterweighter needs to be just as physical and synchronised as everything that is taking place on stage. Barnz is a cheeky fella and back in the day his mates on the spotlight would chase him about the rafters suddenly lighting him up to see what he was doing. “It was a fun game,” he says. However some with a more traditional approach to circus disagree about how visible the counterweight and other technical production should be.
2 months before the birth of their son Taidgh, Barnz and Shaena left No Fit State. The following year Barnz was watching a show with Jade in the Theatre & Circus Big Top at Glastonbury Festival and talking about her desire to create a show - Jade has worked in the Theatre and Circus areas since the age of fifteen and was invited to join the Big Top team from seventeen, and took over the leading the Big Top team, stage managing and programming it since 1995. She is a successful creative producer and stage manager who grew up around the Gerry Cottle circus. It is from these beginnings that she has fuelled her fascination and developed a deep understanding of everything it takes to produce circus including the production; technical and otherwise, the rigging, management and not least - how to bring all those elements together seamlessly. - So after a bit of a cider—fuelled discussion they realised that they shared the same ideas and vision and basically decided that they had a concept that could work.
Jade has always seen the beauty in the technical side of circus. She believes it should be part of the art. She says, “that’s what’s exciting, we mix the artistic and practical.” She explains how showing the rigging makes the show more exciting in her opinion. “It doesn’t make sense that it should be hidden from the audience. The actual performance is only one element of the whole show.”
With Barnz and Shaena becoming parents it was a good time to make the leap and bring their creative ideas combined with Jade’s knowledge, so they became Pirates of the Carabina - a name given to them by Barnz's nephew The team gelled and they are emphatic that their success is in part due to being around the right people at the right time. With the aid of a commissioning grant from Glastonbury Theatre and Circus - something which is offered to help develop exciting, new ideas every year, - they created the first version of Flown.
Flown began life based around Barnz and Shaena’s aerial hoop act. Jade says that the counterweighting for this is just as much an art form as the hoop as it makes the mechanism the art form. In it you can see unwavering trust and an uncompromising dynamic. Everything about it flows effortlessly and you can see how much fun they are having.
In 2011 the first performance of ‘Flown’ was shown in the Big Top at Glastonbury Festival.
This was a collaborative production based on the original premise written by Barnz and Jade.
Six performers joined Barnz and Shaena as equals, each bringing their own ideas and acts, and presenting their work as they saw fit.
With only 3 days working with director Emma Lloyd the success of the show was a testament to the passion of Gwen Hales ,Seth Allen, Jaako Tenhunen, Laura Moy, Faucauld Falguerolles and Freddy Montigney. Thom Pod (a musician and Jades dad) joined in the tech run at Glastonbury. That year at the Circus Futures showcase in Bristol Rachel Clare, Artistic Director of Crying Out Loud saw the show and they loved its potential so she recommended it to 2 venues in the South West for bookings, as well as booking extracts of the show to appear as part of Piccadilly Circus Circus in 2012.
In 2012 the Pirates received a Grants for the Arts award to conduct research and development. They redeveloped the show and then brought in a collaborative director- James Williams. They presented him with ideas and then let him work like a composer to weave the different elements of the show together. They say it was useful to work with a director with no previous experience of directing circus in order to bring out the best of the other elements, but so that they could maintain their creative vision.
Crying Out Loud (COL) then offered the Pirates a tour in partnership with COL, which enabled residencies at La Brèche, Cherbourg and the Lighthouse, Poole and a tour of six UK venues. The budgets were limited because circus is considered a large cast, which meant what money was available had to stretch a long way.
“The key is to never let anyone compromise your artistic integrity. Never let them push you into job roles.” Only you know your personal boundaries and abilities. “Go with your gut, especially considering safety issues.” The Pirates say they work by consensus not compromise.
Despite each member of the company being paid a token amount each for the month long run it was their performance in Edinburgh that became a keystone to their independence as a company. They were so shocked to win the Total Theatre Award that they hadn’t even attended the ceremony and had to hurry in to receive it. That was a turning point for them, with a great deal of shows being booked off the back of it.
In 2013 they embarked on a full-length tour. This is when they realised just how important effective marketing is to support a touring company. It takes a substantial financial investment to make it work, but it is absolutely crucial if you are to sell enough tickets to breakeven and build up to making a profit for the company. One particular struggle associated with booking circus into theatres, is the length of the get-in compared to how much revenue can be generated from just a couple of shows. Because the size of cast in circus is that much larger, it requires a venue with a greater number of seats than standard capacity small theatre and a stand of more than two days to become profitable. It’s fairly typical for theatres to think that this is unfeasible and circus can also be viewed as a risky booking. Pirates of the Carabina currently comprise a fourteen-strong cast.
In 2014 they applied for a small amount of strategic funding for marketing - for Crying Out Loud to support bringing in unusual audiences. They say they employed a combination of traditional marketing; posters and flyers and contemporary media online. Then disaster beset the Pirates with the theft of their van which was fully loaded with their bespoke set and rigging. After an appeal, the van was returned, minus smaller valuables like laptops and drill bits. Fortunately, their unique, hand-created set for ‘Flown’ was returned and the other pieces could be replaced with a public fundraising campaign.
That autumn they performed in Sweden. Driving 2000 miles to perform two shows. They barely covered their costs. Jade took on a huge amount of the work herself including marketing and all the production. Thanks to Jade’s expertise they have remained strictly within budget, managing to avoid costly contras by writing watertight and comprehensive contracts, stating that contras will not be accepted. This is where the venue creates you a bill and adds items used during your performance. This can escalate costs beyond your knowledge and without your permission.
In 2015 the crew changed and they applied for funding from England and Wales arts councils. They received the welsh award. This was based on a marketing strategy that insisted on longer runs of 10 shows per venue. Performing in Pontio was the first time the company made money.
Next they found themselves heading to Australia! They packed their kit into a shipping container in a muddy welsh field bound for the Australian shore, where not a speck of of flora, fauna or otherwise could contaminate the load. So no pressure! The container took six weeks to arrive, where they followed it. This was a huge risk so they quoted really well, being careful that the cast would be paid for their travelling time. Suddenly they were performing in 1650 capacity venues. They grew confident realising that they could grow to fill that size of event space really easily.
Then they scored a Christmas run at Brighton Dome. They had to pay the cast for rehearsals themselves, but they knew it would be worth it for such a premier booking.
2016 has been a much quieter year for recharging and some contemplation. They have returned to performing in a few smaller venues. They are particularly looking forward to performing in Ireland and Cornwall’s world famous Minack Theatre in 2017. They have also just received a large Grants for the Arts to develop a new production for the company- RUHM- Relentless Unstoppable Human Machine, due to premier in early 2018.
What we love about the Pirates is that they are a family friendly company just like us. Barnz and Shaena’s little boy is always with them and it makes the team especially close and hard working to have him around. The crew prove to be especially vigilant when it comes to avoiding litter or dangerous items being carelessly discarded.
They are excitable and fun loving but they run a tight ship. They have learned and grown personally from their adventures with ‘Flown’ so far and their horizons have expanded, although they remain humble, realistic, interesting and thoughtful. They are a small company who give their time and energy to support others where they can. They are always learning and take great bounds in their stride.
We have learned from the Pirates that it’s okay not to know absolutely every detail before you embark on such an ambitious journey, but that you have to know enough to ask the right questions of your team and contacts. New companies are born out of a passion to do things in a better way and express yourself creatively because there is love and support for your ideas. Working together in the right way sees those around you, who you believe in, reach the next stages of their potential. Making fresh work is about moving away from working formulaically. They are naturally drawn to taking risks and facing personal challenges.