We often talk about this part of the programming process as the “big jigsaw puzzle”; where we try and slip, slot and slide the shows that have been successfully selected to be part of the programme into the most suitable dates, slots, and venues for that show – virtually simultaneously. Which is a pretty crazy, unenviable task. For VAULT 2018 we have around 270 slots to fill which is our most to date. We’re lucky that quantity isn’t an issue – this year we received over 1000 applications so we could fill the festival four times over; but suitability can be.
But to call it a “jigsaw puzzle” isn’t entirely correct. That implies there’s a finite combination of possibilities and that there’s one perfect outcome (or pretty picture of a steam train trundling through the old English countryside) at the end of it. Which as anyone could hazard a guess, isn’t the case.
There are a vast number of factors we have to consider when “slotting” the programme together. They tend to fall into three categories, which naturally overlap in a Venn diagram of overlapping lapness. But principally these are: Time, Space, & Audience.
This could be working to the company’s availability – a lot of the companies and shows that come to us are doing so as part of a tour, or are working on other projects or are just not available certain dates. So week by week, or even hour by hour (i.e. what time they finish their day jobs and therefore what time they can get to the venue!) can be determining factors. It could also be making sure the running time fits the slot available – some of our slots have a bit more flexibility than others, but also worth considering that a good amount of shows we programme haven’t been made yet – so we’re working on approximate running times, rather than confirmed – so it also needs to be considered that things might change. Or It could be making sure the time slot offered is in line with the content of the piece – some content suits later or earlier slots accordingly which definitely crosses over into the “audience” category below.
Our venues suit different styles of work – some venues suit more intimate performances, some require certain considerations, some come with their own intrinsic challenges. So spatially and stylistically we have to consider if the venue is right for the show and if the show is right for the venue. This could also be considering basic practical functions such as is the stage space big enough for what the show requires, or does the space have the technical capability of realising that show, or can they fit their set in the space, or if can they do the double somersault flame juggling circus routine at the end of the show in this venue?! Again this invariably crosses into the “audience” category too as the larger the space, the more seats to fill but can also cross into realms of potential issues such as noise bleed – is this musical going to trounce this solo performer show if they’re next door to one another?!
The number of seats in a venue seems like an obvious one. But still has many considerations within it. Sometimes bigger isn’t always better. Some shows want a more intimate performance, some shows would prefer a specific venue with a lower capacity if it suits the show better, others need to maximise their sales potential in order to balance costs and stand a chance of breaking even. There’s also the consideration of getting bums on seats – we don’t want empty shows, it’s not good for the artists or for us. So we want to pitch where the show is able to fulfill its financial ambition but not too high that it falls short of its creative one. It’s possibly the most obvious criteria but also possibly the easiest to get wrong. Sometimes the “sure-fire-winners” flop, and other times the under-the-radar shows smash it and sell out. Every year there’s one or two surprises. Pick a dart and throw it at the programme, that’s your answer for which they’ll be in 2018. Then there’s also how many performances the show should do – this could be anywhere from 1 performance to 12 and again needs to match the ambition and reality of the show being successful with audiences. That’s not to say good shows always do well or that a show’s success should be measured on it’s sales. But it certainly needs to be factored in order to make sure we’re providing the best platform for these artists as possible.
Essentially, the slotting process boils down to wanting to give the companies and shows the best circumstances in which to present their work that will allow them to realise their creative and financial ambitions inline with the scale of their work in a positive and enjoyable environment. Easy, right?!
We’re yet to build the “slot bots” who can do this process for us – but then we don’t necessarily want to either. We want to remain human in our decision making. I’m a big believer that having all three of us (each representing Communications, Production & Strategy respectively) doing the slotting makes for a festival that is more acutely programmed than most. We know the venue and festival’s challenges and practicalities better than anyone. So we’re hopefully also the best at solving the problems too and putting artists in the right places.
With this human side (until the robots take over) we do always try to maintain a degree of flexibility with the offers we send out to the artists – we would never say “this is it, like it or lump it” as we always want the artists to be in the place they want to be. We inevitably lose a few shows along the way but generally only a handful; this year the running total is seven so far which i think goes a long way to showing the effort that goes into accommodating the various needs of the shows and the artists.
So, perhaps, rather than the process being like piecing together a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle with your Nan on a rainy Sunday afternoon, the slotting process is more akin to trying to solve the plots to 270 Agatha Christie novels simultaneously. Keep your eyes on the detail, and think fast; sometimes you need to think instinctively, other times you need to dig deeper, piece together the facts available to solve problems outside of the proverbial box. Occasionally the outcomes will surprise you, but it’s nearly always the butler.