It is that time of year where students are leaving us and we are all just really hoping they don’t take our jobs too soon.
Most years, as they get ready to leave us I send out an email filled with self-care tips sourced from the broader arts community. But this year’s cohort have had me rattle on about self-care a lot and since they are already filled with excellent collaborative teams I decided that this year’s parting email could be crowd-sourced tips on starting your own company. And I thought I would share it here too because the wisdom of the crowd is beautiful, thoughtful and generous.
To kick them off, a couple of tips from me: firstly, talk about money! I think the biggest mistake I made early on was not spelling out what things like ‘profit share’ actually meant: it doesn’t mean we split 100% of the box office takings, we split 100% of the profits, so all the costs of the show are taken out of that. One simple conversation could have made that clear.
I would also advise that you follow up phone conversations with venues and organisations with an email:
‘Thanks for the phone call. Just to put in writing what we discussed…’ Leave a written record of everything.
Now for smart words from some generous artists:
Anastasia Ryan, production manager:
Contracts! Even if you’re doing it with your best mate, just a super simple 1 page thing saying what each persons job is, the expectations and the agreed money (if there is any) helps so much.
Nithya Nagarajan, neo-classical Indian dancer, producer and arts educator:
Go to grant writing info sessions, often hosted for free by City of Melbourne, Australia Council for the Arts and Auspicious Arts. And if you go into arts work, keep your arts administratior and performance maker hats very, very separate.
Rebekah Montague, playwright and (strange combo) financial educator:
Have a separate bank account for your art.
Izzy Roberts-Orr, poet, playwright and artistic director of Melbourne’s Emerging Writers Festival:
Clear communication, structured meetings if that’s your style, and a record – get things in writing (e.g. minutes / letters of agreement / emails clearly stating what’s happening) it feels silly having meetings / agendas / defined roles as you’re starting out, but before you know it you might have actual money on the table and need a bank account or be running projects at a scale where everyone needs to know their role in order to do it. Also if they’re your friends, make sure you have friend hangs outside of work! Plus space as friends to talk about your work practices if needed, and make sure you’re still nurturing each other in both your role as a collaborator and your role as a friend.
Tim Byrne, arts journalist:
Try your very best to temper ambition with a tiny bit of clear-eyed perspective. One (or two at the most) little shows a year, honed into perfection, are worth far more than some grand vision of cultural dominance. That ties into money too: the greatest art comes from thinking your way around obstacles, so treat lack of funds as a challenge. Oh, and don’t give all your time to your work, even if your work is your love. Get a walk in there, or some lying about watching trees. Perspective.
Patrick McCarthy, director and playwright:
I’d say most of the problems people run into early on (and even later) occur because not enough time was spent talking in the lead up to the project. Spend as much time as you can talking with your collaborators, about practical things like money, schedules, venues, personnel, marketing, publicity, insurance, etc. But also spend as much time, if not more, talking about methodology. How are you going to work together both in and outside of rehearsal, how will you communicate with each other, who has decision making responsibility around what elements of the work? Have some rules about how your process/room will operate (including things that need to be zero tolerance, even if they seem like they should be obvious). Schedule time to sit down and talk throughout the process, to see how everyone’s tracking and problem solve things that aren’t going well. Eat together. Have alone time if you need it. Have a review process once the season’s done to figure out what worked and what didn’t so you can adjust for the next show. Don’t let things fester.
Mohammad Hash, theatre and film producer, now living in Cairo:
Delve into diversity and create minimal sets that spell big works. Understand grant applications and go to as many arts talks as possible. Australia Council is fantastic support and always look for international opportunities. It worked for me.
Indira Carmichael, visual artist and community arts administrator and advocate:
MOUs (memorandum of understanding) are great if contracts between mates seems a bit heavy. It’s a good way of getting everyone on the same page. Sometimes you don’t realise that your motives for doing a show are different to others until it all falls apart.
Goldele Rayment, director and company director:
Don’t be afraid to let projects take time. There is less rush than you think. It’s less stressful and more satisfying to take a bit more time with development and forward planning. Be kind, be gentle, be generous but also learn it’s ok to say “no”. I don’t like that creatively, that’s not for me or please don’t treat me like that.
Pippa Bainbridge, venue manager and production manager:
Values. Interrogate what they are for you, and make sure they are aligned with those of your collaborators and of each project you work on. Values. Articulate them, share them, uphold them, tend to them…and you’ll never be disappointed with what is returned.
Mike Greaney, animator:
I think the thing that is really important to work out early on is set in writing the structure of ownership over the venture. Have the hard conversations at the start when you are talking about % ownerships of nothing, because once money and ego get involved down the line, those conversations become very difficult. Talk about these things with your collaborators as well, and make clear what they are trading their time for/ getting out of working with you.
Stephanie Speirs, producer, production manager and venue manager of the Fringe Hub:
When you agree to anything (a new venture, the mission/direction of your project, helping someone out, donating stuff/money/time) be explicit in what that agreement entails. If you can’t stomach writing things down yet, at the VERY LEAST make sure you’ve all said out loud what you understand by what’s been said, and clarify exactly what that means to you. Any project will possibly mean hundreds of hours of work for those involved – so be sure that everyone with a stake understands WHAT those hours of work are and WHO has agreed to do them. (Or if NO-ONE wants to do the work, then the project shouldn’t happen!)
Libby Klyse, performer, writer, manager:
Know who is the boss for each project. Someone needs to be the director and/or producer, with the ultimate decision-making and budget control.
Georgia Carter, performer:
Understand budgets and pay attention to the numbers. You need to have someone that understands it… and audiences don’t just happen. They take work and strategic planning is essential.
Ramona Barry, artist and writer:
Written agreements – I’ve seen many a friendship fall foul of business mistakes. Even if you are the very best of friends get it all in writing
Natalie Wadwell, arts administrator:
Get a shareholders/partnership agreement, friends don’t always make best business partners and skill sets should compliment not duplicate, talk about money. To add to that really talk about your personal and business values. Where do they see themselves and the biz in 1, 3 and 5 yrs time? Do it separately and then discuss. Have an exit strategy upfront and a plan of what milestones you need to hit to maintain working together.
Individually, these are great tips for professional practice. As a whole, they mean something even better: they mean that all of these artists want to see you succeed. They want to see you build partnerships and careers that are sustainable, caring, productive and healthy. It is easy to think that you have to fight your way into the industry (and it is a tough industry) but remember that people wish you well. Great artists support artists, advocate for artists, mentor artists and enjoy the successes of artists. Remember you’re not alone out there. Hold onto the relationships you have made and get ready to meet some amazing new people who are excited to see what you make next.
Wishing you all the best,