So, you wanna tour the world with your creative work, and maybe even the whole galaxy?! Cool!
Here’s a few tips I’ve extracted from the Touring 101 workshop which I run, about self-producing tours. I’ve been touring my one person theatre shows for over 6 years in Australia, Canada, the USA and mostly recently Puerto Rico and Europe. My learnings have come both from my touring successes and also from falling flat on my face. Tip number 1 could very well have been “learn how to scrape the mud out of your eyebrows (preferably before your next show)”. I could also have started with “make sure your touring outfit matches your suitcase” but I would hope that’s obvious to you.
1. Figure out your touring goals
The most important first question – what are you hoping to achieve from your tour? Is it about connecting with different communities? Having an adventure? Making money? Challenging audiences? Improving access to your content or style of art/performance? Growing your work through exposing it to a range of audiences? Building professional networks?
It takes a LOT of time to self-produce your own tours. So get clear with your goals so that you can use your time wisely.
2. Consider different styles of touring
There many different ways of touring performance, music and art. Touring to professional venues is not necessarily the only or best way to tour, depending on your goals. Here are some options for styles of touring:
- Professionally presented – theatre seasons, art galleries, small, medium or major festivals.
- Community presented – figure out which groups would be a natural fit for your work. You may need to support them in the technical aspects of presenting your work. I greatly expand the presenters/venues I can work with by touring with my own mini theatre lighting, dimmer packs and computer software.
- Self presented (hiring a venue yourself) – after some epic failures, I don’t tend to self present unless I’ve already performed in that place and have a strong audience base there.
- Niche presenting e.g. Pride festivals, health conferences, libraries…think about who would be a good match for your work
- Colleges, universities & schools – particular departments, student groups
- Fringe festival circuit
- DIY Style – whatever venues you can beg borrow and steal! Warehouses, youth centres, cafes, living rooms, basements, backyards, alleys, seedy bars, parks, malls. Yes, you can do a smash hit tour entirely in living rooms, and in fact, some of the most interesting stuff I’ve seen has been outside of professional venues.
Factors affecting what style/s of touring you do:
- Your goals & preferences
- Your resources
- The stage you’re at in your creative career
- Your profile
- Your connections/ relationships
- Your technical specifications
- Your capacity to deal with uncertain finances (see money section).
3. Find Champions for your Work
Whenever you have a show, think very carefully about who you’re going to invite. Be generous with free tickets to people who you want to see the work. Think broadly about this and consider inviting not only presenters, but also people who are likely to sit on funding bodies, festival panels and potential mentors.
Many professional presenters won’t book work until they have seen it in person. Invite them along to shows, even if they’re not in the same location as the show (“just in case you’re in the area, I’d love to offer you free tickets to my show”). Or better yet, find someone who has seen your work and who is respected by the presenter and get them to invite the presenter personally.
I try to be very strategic about who I invite to see my work. For example, my first San Francisco performance in 2007 was in a showcase in a small theatre. The Director of the theatre saw and liked my work. He was a very well networked and influential person, and he became an awesome advocate for my work. He offered me a 3 month residency culminating in a showing of my piece “Other-wise”, to which he invited the Artistic Director of the National Queer Arts Festival (NQAF). The NQAF Director loved the work and then presented me in her 2008 festival. I now had two influential champions who successfully helped me pitch my work to the San Francisco International Arts Festival, where it was presented in 2010. It is with this tiered approach that I’ve built a lot of my networks in many other places too.
4. Make sure the work is good!
But before you invite fancy people, make sure the work is at an appropriate level of development and it’s going to be shown in a way that will do the work justice. There’s nothing worse than inviting a presenter to a show that they end up hating. Second chances are not always easy to get. Even if I’d managed to get the SF International Arts Festival director to see my 2007 show, I seriously doubt I would have ended up in the 2010 festival – my work wasn’t ready at that point and I didn’t have the technical support needed to show it in it’s best light. First impressions can definitely support or hinder your reputation.
Make sure you don’t get distracted from the creative side with the endless work of producing tours!
5. Support other artists work
Before you ask for support for your work, consider how you are supporting other artists’ work. Look up from your own work and get connected to a bigger picture. Supporting others to make awesome work and get it out there is a big priority to me because I believe in the power of art to transform our world. And the awesome side effects of supporting others are that I get to learn and build creative community. For example, instead of asking artist-producer mentors a million questions about how to tour, if I volunteer with them I learn how they do things at the same time as supporting their work. Go to people’s shows. Volunteer on the door for artists you like. Curate living room line-ups of other emerging artists. Promote other artist’s events…
6. Research, Research, Research
It’s worth doing your research well to figure out who is the best fit for your work, in the places you want to tour to. I still pitch pretty broadly, but I spend most of my producer time tailoring my pitches to my dream matches.
Make sure you know who your intended audience is and figure out who engages with that audience and presents work with/by/for that audience.
Research can involve:
- Web research: I google things like “queer festival Berlin” “independent theatre Calgary” etc.
- Use your social networks for advice
- Local sources of knowledge: I ask people who live in my touring wish list locations for their advice on local festivals, venues, presenters, youth centres etc.
- Follow artists who’s work is similar (in content or aesthetic or their stage of development) and see who presents their work and where.
In your research, find out the following (without bothering presenters themselves with questions that you could have answered online or elsewhere):
- Professional companies: do they present outside work or are they more geared towards producing their own work? What sort of work have they presented? Do they have specific festivals or programming? What’s the application process? Is their venue a good fit for your work?
- Community groups: do they present creative work? Do they have a venue/ access to a venue?
7. Spreadsheet, spreadsheet, spreadsheet
You need a really effective way of storing info. You might have a different preference to spreadsheets – find a system that works for you. I use spreadsheets to not only store contact info, but also jot down notes in a “contact status” column about when/how I pitched to them, whether they responded etc.
I also immediately add to the spreadsheet people I meet who I might want to contact later – e.g. someone who comes up to me after a show and says “I’d love you to come to Vancouver”. They may not be a presenter themselves, but they will likely have suggestions and maybe personal contacts.
8. Add-on, add-on, add-on
Consider what else you have to offer in addition to shows, like workshops, residencies, talks & other activities. This is how I often make the money side work, and it becomes more enticing to presenters. In fact, several times a group has initially decided to present only my workshop (no show) due to their limited resources and not knowing my work, and then after being exposed to my workshop, has gone on to book a show.
9. Get Together Good Materials
Consider carefully how you describe your work. Get outside input – sometimes we’re too close to our own work to describe it in a compelling yet honest way. Make sure you include not just what your work is, but why it is important. Give a sense of both content and aesthetic.
- Email blurb – short, snappy, enticing, bold the action that you’re hoping the person will take (Presenting a show? Suggesting presenters? Helping promote?)
- Well laid out promo document with show blurb, press quotes, very brief tech specs (like run time and set up time – save the detail for later), very short biographies of key artists, add-on possibilities (workshops etc), photos, video link
- Video trailer of the work – prioritise getting good video footage. I usually try to do various different edits:
- A version for the general public– highlights only, something snappy which gets them excited about the work. This is what I have on my website. 2 minutes max.
- Second version for presenters of about 4-5 minutes with some longer stretches so they can get a good sense of the work. I send the presenters a private link
- Full show footage for presenters who want to see the whole show – private link
- Detailed Tech Specifications – send these after you’ve gotten their interest
- A different promotional pack (aimed at the audience, not the presenter) for after the presenter has booked the work, with various length blurbs for them, print and web quality promotional photos etc.
10. Approaching potential presenters
- Relationships relationships relationships: when I identify a really good fit for my work, I try to see our relationship building as a multi-year thing. I introduce myself. I send them an invite to my shows. If appropriate, I occasionally email them because I’m interested in their work – like to congratulate them on a show of theirs I’ve really enjoyed. And sometimes it might be a full year before I pitch work to them. Timing is important and so is building trust and showing that you are a dedicated, organised and respectful artist. I believe a really important thing is to be genuine – connect with them about what you genuinely like about their work and how you see your work is a good fit for them.
- There are also some shows I do specifically with the goal of getting my work seen by presenters. For instance, putting work in festivals which attract out-of-town presenters might not make me much money, but are investments in future. Presenters that would never fly in to town just to see my work, will come to festivals to see lots of work at once. If you’re programmed in a festival, see if the organisers will give you their list of industry professoinals in attendance and personally invite those who you’ve researched are the best fit for your work.
- Find the right people within companies to pitch to – usually some combination of the Artistic Director, Producers and particular program coordinators.
- Understand how different presenters/groups are likely to book work e.g. some will want to see if before they book it
- Introductions by people trusted by presenters are more effective. Give them blurbs written in third person that they can adapt. The vast majority of my shows happen because either the presenter has seen the work themself OR because a person they trust has raved about the work. This has a snowball effect – once you get your best work out there, it will generate more opportunities
- Show them you have researched them and really know who they are. Reference to them why you think they’d be interested, based on what you know of their work.
- People are busy, so not hearing back doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not interested. Always follow them up (gently). 1st email. 2nd email. And if you’ve identified them as a key contact – call them.
- If you’re cold pitching (ie you don’t know them)– try and find some connection to them.
11. As brutal as dating: learn how to deal with rejection
I get probably around 10-15 “no”s for every “yes” I get. Deal with it graciously and make sure to thank people for the time they took out of their busy schedule to consider your request.
Do things to stay inspired. I stick up maps of the places I want to tour to and start following the work of artists/companies in those places and dream of getting to check out their work in person. I also try to get connected to local issues in that place to build my excitement for how my work can support local activities.
12. Build your itinerary strategically
- Long range bookings/pitches – figure out which festival/ venues/ presenters program with longer lead in times and secure these first. At any given time, I’m generally pitching to key presenters about 1-2 years in advance.
- Medium and short range bookings/pitches – build them around your key opportunities
- Ask confirmed presenters to introduce you to other potential presenters they think might be interested in your work
- Leave some space in the itinerary for last minute opportunities, if possible
- Schedule days off! Touring is intense! Travel days are not days off…
13. Money, money, money
Ah yes, money! Build yourself a robust money plan with a combination of the following:
- Combination of fixed fees from presenters and split of the box office
- Add-ons: workshops etc
- Fundraising: events, online campaigns, pitches at the shows, etc.
- Touring funding: do your state and federal bodies have touring funding? Read the guidelines THOROUGHLY then talk to the grant officers. Often the funding is designed to get you there, not pay fees. But that’s very enticing to presenters if they don’t have to pay travel fees. I’ve just received my first ever touring funding – all my tours to date have been financed without funding.
Budgeting – I do up a thorough budget that includes flights, excess costs for set, fees, accommodation etc, then figure out how much money I’m going to need to get from most shows. Particularly for tours with expensive airfares, rather than pitching to one presenter and expecting them to pay my entire airfare, I either:
- ask for a contribution towards travel costs (the airfare split between 4 or 5 presenters) or
- I build it into my fee or
- I find one show that will pay a high fee, then use that to cover the airfare (and don’t pay myself a fee for that show), so I can go ahead and commit to being in the area and then generate my fees from all the other shows in the area.
It can definitely be stressful – frequently I commit to shows before I know that I’m going to generate enough money from the tour to cover all my expenses. I find the more I commit to going no matter what, the more things come together. It’s more enticing for presenters to hear “I’ll be in your area in Feb/March” rather than “well, maybe I’ll be coming, but maybe I won’t, I just need to see if I can get the fees to cover the airfares”. If I leave myself with enough lead-in time, the sooner I bite the bullet and commit to going, the faster the commitments tend to flow in from presenters. I usually make sure that I’m only taking on a certain number of risky financial endeavours per year, and that I have other work that is more certain. I also try and balance the fixed fee income with box office income so I have at least a good chunk of guaranteed income from the tour.
Ways to cut down on touring costs:
- Consider staying in hostels rather than hotels or staying with friends of friends
- You may want to consider adapting your set to cut back on freight/ excess baggage costs.
- Flights – play around with whether you book one way flights or multiple flights at once (sometimes there are weird combinations that save you a lot of money!)
- Where distances are not too long, take the bus/ train or hire/borrow cars instead of flying.
- Are there some stages of the tour that you absolutely need more or less tech people on tour with you? I frequently tour without a Stage Manager/ tech people and retrain new tech people in each city, but don’t underestimate how exhausting this is.
14. Tech negotiations:
Don’t assume they’ve read the tech specifications you sent them! Follow up and go through it in detail with them. Ask them to confirm each and every aspect, not just “is it all ok?”
- Give them minimum vs optimal tech times. Be realistic. Don’t underestimate your tech time just so it’ll be more enticing to them.
- Non-professional presenters – include all the fine detail e.g. specify
- the tech people at the rehearsal will need to be the same people operating the show
- who is responsible for setting up and operating the equipment, and whether you need them to have the equipment (e.g. PA system) set up before you enter the space
- do they need gaff tape? Extension leads? A desk lamp for the tech table. Tell them everything!
- If it’s not their venue, get them to visit the venue to check everything that was advertised is in fact in the space
- Get them to send photos of the venue so you can spot things like that support beam right in the middle of stage that they forgot to mention
- Consider investing in some of your own equipment, e.g. projector
15. Promoting your show
It’s best to not just leave all the promo up to the presenters, particularly if you’re being paid by the box office. Work with them to identify your target audiences. Make sure they have the right materials from you. Ask if they’d like lists of the types of community groups who have come to your shows in other places. Provide them with other content like blog articles and other things you’ve authored, links to your various social media etc.
16. On Tour:
- Document document document! Post photos and stories. This is something I want to get way better at – I often forget how interested others are in the behind the scenes aspects of touring.
- Clear aside as much of your non-touring related schedule as you can – touring is intense!
- Make sure you have good internet connection, phone plan for the area you’re travelling to etc. If you’re self producing, no matter how organised you’ve been, you will still need to do a bunch of organising on the road.
- Put on an email auto-responder saying you’re away on your inter-galactic tour and so you be slow to respond to emails
17. Pick yourself up and dust yourself off
If you haven’t had at least one (or more) show on tour where only 4 people turned up, I’m going to guess you haven’t done much touring! Take it as a challenge to see how you can give the best possible show for those 4 people. Don’t take it personally. It happens to all of us.
18. After the tour:
- Make sure you’ve scheduled some rest time, or at least a slower pace. (Note to self: take my own advice!)
- Coming down from the adrenalin of touring can also be intense – sometimes I get post-tour crashes, so I try to make sure I have things to look forward to.
- Send thankyous to all the presenters and others who helped. You also may want to ask for feedback.
- Enter all of the new contacts you made into your spreadsheet and make notes about them. “Ann-Marie. School teacher. Met at Sydney show. Said she can suggest presenters in Darwin and could organise a school workshop”
GOOD LUCK! Send me stories from the road!
Want to present my Touring 101 Workshop?
This was a small taste of a touring 101 workshop I run. It can be tailored to your group. Minimum 1 hour, preferably 3 hours or longer. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.
Some other popular blog articles:
Check out video, photos, theatre shows and workshops on Sunny’s website