Larger Than Life - A Festival of Delight and Provocation

Feature in Issue 4-2/3 | Summer/Autumn 1992

During the cold, wet months from October to February, people hibernating in Salisbury, Oxford, Poole, Plymouth and Swindon missed an opportunity, offered by enlightened arts centres and small-scale theatre managers, to sample the unfamiliar and the new. It was Larger Than Life – a new theatre festival.

The festival aimed to raise the profile of five small-scale companies with a larger than life sense of comedy and an impressive range of styles, broadly defined as Mime or Physical Theatre. Companies that took part were Jonathan Kay, Kala Chethena Kathakali Troupe, Richard Cuming, The Right Size, and Black Mime Theatre. An essential part of the project was the involvement of the venues in a full-scale marketing campaign. This was to include audience research, targeting of publicity, education events for particular groups and the general public, and networking to build a support structure for mime and physical theatre in the community However, it seems that most venue managers and marketing teams expected the leaflet to do the work virtually unaided. Qualitative research was undertaken among theatre-goers in Oxford and Swindon to try to establish a style of print required. This research largely upheld the agreement of those involved in the project for an ‘upmarket and serious’ style to give authority to the publicity and a full-colour leaflet/poster. Accordingly almost a third of the budget was invested in it. But for all the impact the Larger Than Life leaflet seems to have made, the run of 60,000 might just as well have been consigned to the recycling process as it came off the press…

Reaching those parts…

Attendances were not insignificant: over 1500 people in five cities attended 25 performances of what, in a national context, is considered to be a developing artform.

Attendances ranged from 14 to 140 across the widely differing venues and though some dates were disappointing, most companies were pleased with their audiences. It takes a long time to build a reputation and create a following, so hopes are for a return visit in the near future. The Larger Than Life Festival at least ensured that some of these shows ‘reached parts that otherwise they would not have reached’.

Audience surveys conducted in Salisbury and Oxford provided useful information for future target marketing. Apart from the leaflet somehow ‘misfiring’, there were no discernible patterns of success or failure: each venue had idiosyncratic chains of cause and effect. Perhaps five months was too long a period to gain any mileage from bonding together five versatile mime / physical theatre shows performing across four counties.

Venture capital

It is important to foster innovative small-scale work regardless of the size of potential audience, i.e. in commercial terms, it should be regarded as a ‘loss-leader’ product, funded on a venture capital basis with no apologies.

To quote Poole Arts Centre’s Marketing and Sales Director, Vivien Bolton: ‘Ways of accommodating this level of development and building our reputation need to be investigated… although it is certainly not a cost effective venture, in the short term, it is one method of providing a wider breadth of art experience to our public.’

I hope all concerned would agree that Larger Than Life was a festival of delight and provocation, not a meaningless exercise.

To end where I began, in support of ‘…local arts centres (that) give opportunities to theatre companies…’ as Brian Cox concluded, addressing business sponsors at the ABSA Scottish Awards presentation in April, ‘They are the pulse of the community that 16% of you marketing managers wish to reach and are worthy of investment for an even greater dowry for the future.’

Ellis Rothenberg is the Southern Arts Marketing Consultant. Originally published in Sprung Floor, Southern Arts Dance and Mime Newsletter.