How to start a theatre group

 5 September 2011

Tai Ling is the acting Artistic Director for the Improsarios, a theatre group who specialise in creating improvised plays. He spoke about starting up a theatrical enterprise.

Tai couldn't find a group of actors to perform improvisations, so he started one.
Tai couldn't find a group of actors to perform improvisations, so he started one.

Why start a theatre company?

Rather than waiting around for a theatre company to call, why start one yourself? Most actors have dreamed about following their theatrical passion, but it can be hard work making this dream into reality.

"We put on a show at the student bar, and it just kept growing from there.”

One of the best ways to keep that passion alive is to act upon it. Often the idea of going out and making your idea happen is more daunting than actually doing it.

Tai is an actor who had an ambition, “I always wanted to be able to improvise a play with a group of actors to the standard that you’d find in a rehearsed play.”

There wasn’t a group out there doing this kind of work. So he started one.

Turning a hobby into a profession

At university, Tai enjoyed being part of a group who did improvised comedy together. When he started training at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, he found he missed it.

“I got a group of people together. There was a group from my year and a group from the year above. We put on a show at the student bar, and it just kept growing from there.”

It sounds like a small start, something that anyone could do. The point: something as small as that can lead on to much more.

“We kept it through our final year at drama school. Gradually we got to doing some outside gigs at a pub.

“Now it’s here. It’s just built and built and built. It’s taken these three years to go through the transitional days of being an extracurricular drama school group, essentially, to being something that’s becoming a professional thing.”

Sustaining a company of actors

"We’ve picked people who know what we’re about. They aren’t in it for the money. They’re doing it because they love it and are passionate."

Three years is a long time for a venture like this. While it’s easy to get some people together and try something out, it takes more to keep that happening over a period of time.

Especially in an uncertain career like acting – inevitably actors will come and go, as jobs begin or end.

Having a strong and relatively constant leadership is one thing that’s really helped the Improsarios. Tanroh Ishida was in the same year at Guildhall as Tai, and one of the founding members.

“He’s got his own theatre company, but we work very much in tandem on this one. He acts as producer, I’m more of a director, but we do both and we’ll cover each other for rehearsals.

“He’s been doing it all through. You could say that’s one reason the group is very solid: we understand, we have very similar tastes about what we want. There’s a great deal of trust and there’s no kind of conflict about what would happen if one of us isn’t there.”

As some of the original crew moved on to new stages of their careers, gaps were left. Tai and Tanroh knew what they wanted to fill those gaps.

“It became a process of auditioning people. So we held a couple of auditions over the last year, and we got many of our current members through that.”

It took a while to work out a process for auditions. The longer one person is in a group, the bigger the gap they’ll leave. But it’s always possible to find someone to meet those needs. Perseverance is key to finding people who fit in with what you want to achieve.

“We know what we want in the group. We’ve got a process now. It’s become more and more important over time, as there’s a closer dynamic between the rest of us.

“We’re going to be auditioning more people soon, and it’s going to be hard for us, but we know what we want.”

Defining goals for your company

“I always wanted to improvise a play with a group of actors - to the standard of a rehearsed play.”

The Improsarios were created with a goal in mind. Though Tai hadn’t decided how to reach that goal when he began, the aim was clear.

“We want to improvise stuff that ends up being something you would have written. We’ve got kind of a double job: we’re writing at the same time as we’re improvising.

“Rather than having something secure to start with and then improvising, or being given the context and being fresh for a bit, we’re using that freshness to make it truthful. But you have to try and do it while trying to create the plot and characters around you, which is the hard part.”

This strategy could apply to the very process of creating a theatre group: know what you want to achieve, then work out how to do it.

3 tips for starting a theatre company

1. Be unique

Everybody has their own approach. Discovering yours is part of the challenge. Modelling your methods on someone else might get you started, but it won’t make you stand out.

For example, film-maker Mike Leigh is famous for his technique of using improvisation to create scripts. Why didn’t Tai just copy that?

“Most improvisation for theatre and film, you do it as a rehearsal process. You know, a Mike Leigh sort of thing. That’s a very specific thing that he does. Most people can’t do that. That’s his thing.

“We know what we want as a group. We sometimes have to figure out what we want specifically at certain times or find a better way of getting it. ”

2. Know when to work and play

"It does take time to know each other as friends and as colleagues, and that transfers to stage."

“The atmosphere of rehearsal rooms is paramount. You have to get the right balance between enjoying each other’s company and getting work done.

“If you slack off too much, it gets a bit ropey. If you’re too hard, particularly when you’re not getting paid, you get resentful. So it’s being just sort of gentle with it and building an ensemble.”

3. Take time to build the group

It takes time to build up working relationships in a group. What actually works for different people is the logistics of a rehearsal process.

“A lot of stuff you’re learning gradually over a period of time. It does take time to know each other as friends and as colleagues, and that transfers to stage.

“It’s probably a different thing for plays of limited periods, that maybe require friction and tension. If you’re in an improv company that’s not helpful, so you have to try and defuse things like that.”

Keeping actors involved in your company

Everyone involved should know what they’re getting themselves into. When you’re starting up a new company, you don’t need to have all the trappings to hand immediately.

But after a while, there will need to be something to keep people working with you. Perhaps it’s the attention you’re getting from performances. But eventually, money is going to be a factor.

“What’s great is that we’ve picked people who know what we’re about. They aren’t in it for the money. They’re completely doing it because they love it and are passionate about it. Which is great.

“The thing now is we’re very conscious that we want to give back what they’re putting in. If they give us their time we need to be able to offer something that will make them stay around long enough. If you’re doing something for free, then it can get made a lesser priority.”

Earning money from a theatre company

“We pull favours a lot! We work outside when we have to, and find unorthodox rehearsal rooms.”

In response to this, Tai is branching out for ways of funding the company.

“Through workshops and corporate days, we’re finding other ways of funding the performance. Private financing versus stuff that is for the public.

“We’re building it up. We’re at that stage where we’ve got the artistic stuff down, we’ve got the people we want, but to make it, we’re not a viable business as yet.”

Tai has a huge amount of faith in his actors and the work they’re doing.

"There’s no degree of judgement about whether you’re succeeding or failing, you know, they’re just there to provide support. It’s the ultimate generosity.

“If you can capture that in an improvisation and build the story round it, then there’s no reason why big things shouldn’t happen. It’s possible, it’s just difficult! But it was always my idea to keep it going as a professional company. So it’s happening.”

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