Edinburgh Venue Directors

The Venue Directors: JD Henshaw from Sweet Venues

Published on Monday 2 July 2018

We’re talking to people who perform or work at the Edinburgh Festival each year to get their perspectives on what performing or producing at the world’s biggest cultural event involves. This includes the people who run the numerous venues that pop up each year at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Our first venue director is JD Henshaw who runs Sweet Venues. He started performing at the Fringe in 2003, before getting into venue management seven years later by acquiring the existing Sweet Venues name from its previous owner.

His company now runs year-round spaces in Brighton, has a partnership with Dundee Rep and produces theatre across the country, though for a month each year the spotlight still falls on Sweet Venues in Edinburgh.

TW: How did you first get involved in the Fringe?
JH: Initially I went to the Fringe as an audience member over a number of years. Then in 2003, my production years kicked off. Initially I was performing, writing and directing with Dundee University’s Lip Theatre Company.

Then, after that drew to a close, myself and a group of like-minded creatives decided we wanted to keep on going, and so we created DBS Productions, which lead to a lot more Edinburgh Fringes, UK tours and general theatre shenanigans.

Of course, the longer you do the Fringe, the more involved you get with it. As time went on, I began having thoughts about what I wanted my Edinburgh venue experience to be like, as a performer and a producer. Those thoughts became discussions with other artists, and – inevitably – that led to my wondering why I wasn’t seeing those ideas reflected in the reality of bringing my work to Edinburgh in August.

TW: Sweet Venues already existed as a brand at the Fringe before this point. How did you come to be running Sweet Venues?
JH: The original company that used that name ceased trading in 2009. I had performed at Sweet Venues for a number of years and had a real affinity with the team at the Apex City hotel that they used and its location in the Grassmarket. So, having set up my own business with the aim of running a Fringe venue, I decided to arrange to bring back that name and set about building this thing that was needing to pour out of my head!

And that was it. In 2010 I had two rooms in Apex City, a venue name that admittedly had some baggage attached to it, and some bits of equipment I’d bought from the original Sweet company. Everything after that was a lot of hard graft and a lot of rolling with the punches of setting up a new business, as well as enjoying the privilege of working with some amazing performers and a team who believed in what I was doing.

Our Sweet Venues operation is run to meet that original ambition of creating a performer-led space with professional and friendly delivery for all our artists, as well as ensuring a great experience for our team and our audiences too. We’ve kept our scale to a level at which we’ve always felt we could deliver that experience to the very best of our ability.

Our decision to finally go ‘multi-site’ in 2017 – so that we had theatres in two buildings during August – was due to the fact that we simply had more performers we wanted to work with asking to join us than we had capacity to accommodate. As I said, we’re performer-led as an organisation and it’s those demands that drive our business forward.

TW: What does being an Edinburgh Fringe venue director involve?
JH: Everything you could possibly imagine! Outside of August, there’s a lot of work to be done to get us along the road to the Festival. From meeting performers to measuring spaces, from helping international artists with their travel arrangements to making sure there’s enough blackboard paint. There’s a lot – and I mean a lot – of moving parts in bringing a venue to Edinburgh.

Being a venue director also means a lot of travelling for meetings and site visits, and a lot of late nights to make sure you’ve got things the way you want them, and so you can catch up with all your companies no matter where they are in the world. Ultimately, though, it means being flexible and open to ideas, so you can get say ‘yes’ to as much as possible in bringing work to Edinburgh.

TW: What spaces do you run and what is involved in setting them up each year?
JH: Our current offering at the Edinburgh Fringe consists of hotel conversions at Sweet Grassmarket – which we’ve run since 2012 – and Sweet Novotel – which is new for 2018.

We turn these hotel conference spaces into black box theatres. Being based in a hotel obviously brings with it lots of opportunities and some constraints. You can’t start knocking lumps out of their walls to hang things up! We build our own box offices and changing rooms and, of course, bring in a lot of branding and poster-boards so we have that all important Fringe vibe. The only thing we don’t do is run our own bars, as our fantastic host hotels have that very much nailed and why would we mess with perfection?

Ultimately, it’s all hands on deck to bring everything together once we are on site and you can’t help but get that warm fuzzy feeling when you stand back and see this amazing theatre that has sprung up over the course of just a few days.

TW: How do you select the shows that appear at your venue?
JH: Our programme at Sweet is fully curated and that curation takes different forms. We have long-standing relationships with some of our performers, which results in an incredibly strong creative bond and a desire to keep making work together. Other productions in our programme are the shows that sweep you off your feet from the moment you hear about them, let alone see them.

In keeping with the open access nature of the festival, we have an online application form so that any production can approach us, and we then browse all the submissions to see if we are a suitable fit for them. Once that application has been through our initial short-listing process, we’ll work with the production to find the best times and dates.

Of course, sometimes, no matter how much you want a show, or how right you think it will be for the venue, it doesn’t always work out. Though if we don’t think that a production is going to make any headway in the time slots we have left available, we always try to make helpful suggestions for alternative venues.

If I had one tip for performers making applications, it would be to always consider how you make that first approach. Never underestimate the power of that good feeling you get from a great meeting or phone call, or a well-written and genuine email.

TW: How big is your Edinburgh team and how do you recruit them?
JH: We typically operate with a team of around thirty during Edinburgh Fringe, though that includes members from our Brighton and Dundee operations. We’re exceptionally lucky in the fact that we have a high percentage of people who return to work with us year on year, and they – in turn – help bring in new members through personal recommendations.

Of course, it is an open access festival and that principle applies to the amazing people working behind the scenes as well. We get regular applications from our website and emails hoping we’ve got opportunities available. We always consider these and try to bring in fresh faces and perspectives to the team when we can. We’ve all got to be kept on our toes!

TW: What are your top tips for companies performing at the Fringe for the first time – from a production point of view?
JH: Bring the show you want to bring. If you have to break the show to make it fit, then it’s not the right piece of work to take into Edinburgh. After that, be honest – with both yourself and your cast and crew – no matter how many or few are involved in the production. And I realise this may involve long conversations with a mirror for some!

Next, know why you want to be at Edinburgh Fringe with this specific show. Are you bringing the work to Edinburgh to really hone it for the future? Or are you already set to take the next step and so what your show needs is for a bit of industry to view it alongside new audiences? Or is this simply a bucket-list moment and performing at the Fringe is entirely for you? All are good reasons. But if you say “I want everything”, you are going to struggle. Once you know what it is you want to achieve, you’ll be well on your way to having not just a great show, but a great Fringe.

My final tips are more practical. Don’t spend money you can’t afford to lose. Remember that sleep may not seem big or clever during August, but it will actually help you make a better show – and make you nicer to be around! Eat properly and drink lots of water. Oh, and those venues that you’ve decided to work with? Talk to them. They know stuff and have been doing it for a while, and they genuinely want you to have the best time and all the success that is possible. Sometimes a cup of tea and a phone call earlier in the year will save you money, time, and sanity in August.

TW: What are your top tips for companies performing at the Fringe for the first time – from a marketing point of view?
JH: Know your show. If you can’t explain it, then … well … we can’t understand it! If we can’t understand it, then no matter what allure you think you’ve got, you’ll never be able to sell it to ticket buyers.

When you’re planning how to talk to people about the show, figure out two things. First, the one line hook. Tell me something that makes me want to know more about the show. Though remember, that does actually have to be about the show itself, and not just some non-sequitur that may make someone look for a moment, but then they’ll wander off less impressed than they should have been.

Second, have the next two sentences ready so you can tell someone who liked the hook more about the show. Being able to have a quick and friendly conversation with potential audience members or industry people which really nails the core ides of the show will always win out against long rambling attempts to explain every single idea the production may seek to explore.

Make sure a portion of your budget includes some money for marketing. How you spend that can take many forms, and, as always, how much you spend should be tempered by what you can afford to lose.

There will always be another clever marketing thing you could do if you just had a little bit more money. But don’t fall into a trap of chasing the next big idea when instead you could be focusing on using what money you have on a more tried and tested approach. A well thought out campaign will always help your show. A scattershot approach of ill-formed concepts will, at best, waste money, and, at worst, damage your reputation.

TW: How has the Edinburgh Fringe changed over the years that you have been running Sweet?
JH: It has gotten a lot bigger. And it has gotten a lot more competitive. When I started out performing at Edinburgh Fringe in 2003 there were 1541 shows. In 2017, there were 3398. That’s a pretty big shift in terms of numbers. Alongside that, a lot of things have gotten more expensive, such as theatre licensing costs and accommodation. So it is a considerable financial commitment just to turn up.

I know that performing at the Edinburgh Fringe is more challenging than we would like it to be. I also understand why that is. But it is still so great to be part of the Fringe, to find yourself making and enjoying such great creative work, while building new and sometimes unexpected creative relationships.

But as a community, we do need to face the challenges ahead together, especially as the financial barriers increase further for artists and venues alike. Ultimately, we’re part of an artistic movement that has surged forward before through collaboration, and it’s that collaboration that we need to build on in order to find ways to tackle the modern problems facing our festival.

TW: You have a year-round base in Brighton and therefore also run venues at the Brighton Fringe. How do the Edinburgh and Brighton Fringes compare?
JH: As you’d expect, there are similarities and there are differences. There’s a far smaller number of shows at the Brighton Fringe – around 1000 – but it runs for a week longer, which makes for quite the marathon as a venue!

Where Edinburgh thrives on its long runs for individual shows, Brighton tends towards shorter engagements. So that a longer run at the Brighton Fringe is a show that runs for about a week. For some shows, the shorter runs and there being less competition makes Brighton attractive. For others, doing the full three weeks in Edinburgh really puts a show through its paces and leaves it fighting fit for whatever future the artist hopes for it.

In the end though, the two fringe festivals share one great similarity – they both enable a huge hub of talented creative people to gather together for a month of mayhem and brilliance, making each city come to life in a completely new way. What better way to spend four weeks of your year? Well, spend eight weeks doing it by working at both Edinburgh and Brighton’s festivals!

TW: What do you do the rest of the year?
JH: This! Sweet operates all year-round with permanent venues in Brighton, co-production deals with Dundee Rep and touring work across the country with our sister company Sweet Productions. We also founded and operate several festivals, including Brighton HorrorFest in October, and we generally like to be busy helping artists and shows get their work up and out into the world.

If you’d asked me back in my university theatre days if this would be my full-time career, I’d probably have looked at you with a lot of confusion, but it’s the life I found through performing at the Edinburgh Fringe all those years ago. I’m incredibly fortunate to have become part of the international fringe community and to work with artists every day of my life.

TW: And finally, what advice would you have for anyone who aspires to run a venue at the Fringe?
JH: Firstly, go for it! But as for some actual advice – well, don’t spend money you can’t afford to lose. Remember that sleep may not seem big or clever during… oh, wait, I’ve said all this before, haven’t I?

In many respects, a lot of that advice applies as much to running venues as it does to performing at the Fringe. But, obviously, there’s a lot more to the former as well. There’s a lot of legalese to get your head around, there’s a lot of responsibility to take on – for your performers, for your team, for your audience – and that’s not even all the people you have to worry about, remember what your home and family look like because you won’t be seeing them as often as you would like!

The venue market at the Edinburgh Fringe is incredibly competitive and it’s easy to get it wrong. If you’ve got an idea though – a beautiful, nagging, won’t-leave-you-alone idea of how to make something special and new – then you should go for it. Figure out how to achieve your ambition and overcome all the inevitable hurdles, because the Fringe always benefits from new ideas and new approaches.

I got into running venues for exactly that reason, because I had an idea of how I thought a venue should be run. A different approach. I hope I keep evolving that idea, and embracing new approaches, for a long time to come. But for Sweet – and for every venue at the Fringe – your new ideas can only help us all to make an ever better environment for performance and art at the Edinburgh Festival for its next seventy years.



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