The show, as they say, must go on. City-based touring company Spike Theatre marks its 15th anniversary this year, and is planning a host of celebrations with the kind of determination and drive that would almost belie them being one of the unlucky organisations no longer backed by the Arts Council.
Although the news initially put the brakes on projects they were working on at the time, including a new show about the life of Kenny Everett, after giving things some thought co-directors Mark Smith and Adrian Turrell-Watts decided there was little for it but to go all out.
The main thing: A national tour of last year’s Edinburgh Fringe show The Games is now underway, and returns to the Unity Theatre on 23 and 24 March. A slapstick comedy three-hander presented as an ‘undiscovered’ Aristophanes comedy, it is hoped the growing Olympic fever will help to pique interest as it does the rounds.
This year they also plan to revive their dormant, critically-acclaimed improv comedy group Hoof, as well as tour their show Top of the World, inspired by Edmund Hillary’s ascent of Everest, once more in 2013. They are also hard at work devising a new Christmas show for Liverpool, and another new comedy (working title Sink or Swim, which seems somewhat appropriate).
Spike describes their work as ‘exploring and developing a bold style of storytelling using physical creativity’. They draw upon various disciplines including acrobatics, ensemble performance, animation, mime, and clowning.
“When we lost the Arts Council funding, we had to step back and see how we’d manage to continue to create work,” says artistic director Mark Smith. “We thought ‘let’s try and grow our way out of it’, rather than thinking ‘poor us’. If we’re going to go out, it might as well be a big fireball rather than a whimper.”
The biggest cost for Spike is making the shows in the first instance – The Games, starring Smith, Liam Tobin and Keddy Sutton, cost £25,000, “a big amount of money to find”.
So for economy’s sake, the company decided to look at what they could take out on tour again at venues that knew and understood their offer. “For the investment and time we have spent already, we thought why not come back to it and just get it out there,” Smith continues. “If we don’t continue to put ourselves out there nationally, we’ll get forgotten very quickly. We need to make sure we are in people’s minds all the time.”
With its Olympic theme, The Games carries the official London 2012 Inspire mark, the prestige of which has helped to promote the show, but brings no money or other support. Few theatre productions have secured the standard, making it a rather unique selling point of which Spike is proud.
The show is kept faithful to Aristophanes’s dramatic structure, and its attention to detail – and eye for the more unusual and comedic facts about the Ancient Olympics – has garnered the attention and interest of classics scholars (one of whom has written an introduction to the playtext). Devised by the company, it is jointly directed by Smith and Toby Park of Spymonkey, whose Oedipussy comes to the Playhouse at around the same time The Games is on in Liverpool.
Spike’s last support from the Arts Council came in at £32,000, which covered something in the area of three quarters of their annual running costs. But, they insist, nothing has really changed in the aftermath of the cuts. “If we were a bigger company getting money hand over fist, it would have been a bigger shock. It’s made us become slightly more entrepreneurial, makes us think in more imaginative ways, it’s actually fun,” says Smith.
On March 31, the ACE money runs out for good. Their big 15th anniversary ironically falls the day after. Spike is setting about raising a target of £15,000 in a variety of ways, such as promise auctions, in a bid to set up a decent working relationship between arts charities and businesses. It’s a challenge that, for now, they intend to enjoy.
There’s more at stake than the pursuit of an audience’s belly laughs – although at Spike, they never underestimate the importance of that. But the company’s survival has implications that reach further. It is a registered charity, and over the years has trained dozens of young professionals on and off stage, giving them their first step on the ladder and enabling them to move on to bigger companies and forge successful careers in the industry.
Smith says: “If we don’t practice that way of getting into the industry, you’ll find people will either drift down to London, or give up. I think we’re quite good at spotting talent and it’s important to maintain that ecology.”
The Games by Spike Theatre
23rd & 24th March and touring
Unity Theatre, Hope Place, Liverpool