Ready to Export?

Feature in Issue 13-1 | Spring 2001

UK theatre companies no longer 'tour abroad'; they ‘export product'. Anne-Louise Rentell went to the British Council Overseas Touring Seminar...

It is an ambition of many theatre companies to tour their work internationally and this ambition is more often than not supported by the British Council's offices here in the UK and its network overseas. Through its Cultural Industries Unit the Council is developing opportunities for British performing arts to ‘excel and impress on a worldwide scale'. To make these opportunities happen, the Unit is working in conjunction with Trade Partners UK, the leading Government trade support service for British companies trading in world markets. The performing arts are now being redefined as exportable product within a system that was originally created for the country's primary and secondary industries.

This was the subject of a recent Ready to Export seminar hosted by the British Council. The seminar's purpose was to disseminate the information required for performing arts companies to learn the language to exploit these opportunities; to look at 'exporting rather than touring'; to see arts festivals as 'trade fairs'; and to understand how to market creative product, your 'brand', as 'goods and services'.

Both the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) are brought together in Trade Partners UK. But it is the Creative Industries Export Promotion Advisory Group (CIEPAG) arm of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) from which decisions about the UK's cultural export are informed. Established in 1997 to ensure that Government support was being appropriately targeted in the arts, CIEPAG covers a range of cultural product from the performing arts to tourism, hospitality, galleries and heritage.

Most importantly, the Performing Arts cluster group within CIEPAG decides where the priority international markets for exporting performance and related skills are. In turn, Trade Partners UK works on CIEPAG's decisions. Known as a service for commercial trade, Trade Partners does not have a tradition of helping creative industry, but a shift at government level is now enabling it to broaden its remit of support to include the performing arts.

The focus for Trade Partners' services is the website, a simple-to-navigate address which offers advice and information on overseas markets. Trade Partners also has local and international trade teams or Export Development Counsellors based at branches of Business Link across the country. Overseas Trade Partners UK is represented in the commercial section of the British Consulate. All these representatives are there to talk to and to seek advice with on any export opportunities available.

The British Council also works with Trade Partners UK to create a programme of work including Trade Missions to countries overseas. Trade Missions provide opportunities for research into intended markets as well as enabling representatives from performing arts companies to establish relationships with potential partners overseas. The aim of a Trade Mission is to generate business for your company but it must be remembered that developing a relationship can take time. Trade Partners will cover some of the costs of being part of the Mission but the rest will have to be funded by your company. In this sense, the Missions are investments in your company's future with no guarantee of immediate results. You can find out when and where Trade Missions are taking place by visiting the database of events on the website.

Claire Findlay, general manager of Theatre Cryptic, a multicultural music theatre company based in Glasgow, spoke at the seminar about the work required for and the benefits of being part of a Mission. She highlighted the essentials of preparation: time dedicated to researching the country you will be visiting, gathering information from companies that have already been there and setting up meetings out there before you leave. A lot of this work will ensure that you are also finding out where not to trade. It is also worthwhile to translate any company material you have into the language of the country you're visiting and to learn at least some of that language yourself.

Findlay summed up the benefits of a Mission as the bonus of being part of a group attached to the British Council name, an association that opens doors and lends weight to your visit. This then places you in a good position to network through the Council's reception and one-to-one meetings, and with other companies attached to the Mission. However, there are also drawbacks. The Council staff cannot give your company their sole attention and when you are part of a group all trying to do the same thing, it is difficult to have your 'brand' stand out. In anticipation, she suggests you provide company publicity which is 'sexy' and try your best to sell one-to-one. Follow up all Missions with contact thanking those you met and updating them with any subsequent company developments to ensure that any progress you made on the Mission is maintained.

Theatre Cryptic produces one production a year which tours Scotland before being available for touring oversees. In the past three years the company has toured to Italy, Mexico, Colombia, France and Venezuela. Findlay stressed the importance to a successful mission of a company's ability to get to grips with the language of trading goods and services. It is also necessary to understand your work in terms of it being a two-way endeavour and understanding how your export will contribute financially to the UK economy.

Another case example presented to the seminar came from Maggie Saxon, the managing director of West Yorkshire Playhouse. A couple of years ago a Japanese producer/director visited the Playhouse and saw in action its programmes of theatre work for young people and people with disabilities. Impressed by what she saw, the producer invited Saxon to a conference in Japan to speak about this work which was a new dimension in theatrical practice for the Japanese. Since then a relationship has developed whereby skills and knowledge will be exported overseas and contribute to the cultural development of another country as well as providing work for employees in the industry in the UK. Saxon stressed the importance of thinking globally through skills exporting and thinking locally in terms of the impact of this export on a country overseas and here at home. She also pointed out the added value of exporting skills rather than productions.

If you are a company interested in looking into the possibilities of exporting your work and skills, the British Council and Trade Partners UK are the best places to start finding information. Once you have highlighted a country and market to which you would like to export your work (your goods and services), you must research that market. The British Council has a number of ways of helping – from papers they already have on file, through to collating further information on potential markets and further collaboration with Trade Partners UK. The Cultural Industries Unit also has a website which is still being developed but definitely worth a visit:

The Chambers of Commerce in Coventry also runs an Export Market Research Scheme (EMRS) which provides a research service for companies who have the funds to buy in the expertise rather than doing the legwork themselves. For instance, the Royal Shakespeare Company commissioned an EMRS to ensure the development potential of their North American market was met. The RSC is in a different league to small-scale companies but still an EMRS is an option for any company embarking on this work.

The British Council is not a funding body and the funding resources within the Cultural Industries Unit are limited to what Trade Partners UK provide towards the Trade Missions. Part of the Council's agenda is to access further funding for export opportunities. It is good also to note that funding is now being redistributed from London out to Regional Development Agencies.

Because the funding and staffing pot is limited, the Council has to be strategic and this means that it also has its own priority markets. These are countries in which a sustainable relationship with the UK is trying to be established – such as Russia, China and India. That said, different departments within the Council vie for priority space and therefore North America becomes a priority purely on the basis that UK performing arts have such a strong influence over there.

Whatever your product, whatever your market, there are now opportunities for theatre companies and venues to get a foot in the door of what was traditionally only for commercial industries. The fact that the performing arts are being included in the UK's export policy is a major plus for the creative industry as a whole. As long as you understand how to play the possibilities to advantage, and start to think in different ways regarding your creative product and where it can go, there is a whole world out there waiting to be discovered.

This article in the magazine

Issue 13-1
p. 12 - 13