Theatre companies as social enterprises

Theatre companies as social enterprises
The Guardian, by Wayne Ingram

If more of us become social enterprises, arts organisations could become less fragmented and less reliant on public funding

Social enterprise is thriving and rapidly expanding, and the creative sector is one of the fastest growing in the UK – it contributes 6% of GDP and employs over 2 million people. So when my colleagues and I formed Tap the Table Theatre it made logical sense for us to form as a social enterprise and in many ways it has allowed us to step into a rather unique position.

For us, the best thing about being a social enterprise theatre company is that our desire for social change is pushed to the forefront of what we do. Most theatre companies are looking to create social change – they make work that reflects society and try to communicate messages they hope will make a difference. But for many theatre companies it’s all about putting on a show, and social change is often a by-product. What we do differently is make social change the sole driving force behind what we do.

By doing this it means we are dealing with issues in a more open way. One of the issues we’re dealing with currently is youth unemployment and we’ve been creating workshops and development programmes to help tackle that issue. This means that other organisations outside of the arts – businesses, county councils and universities – are showing a keen interest in our projects and looking to back what we do both financially and in other ways as well.

It means that we don’t have to rely on charitable donations or public funding in the way that charities and other arts companies do. In fact, we have found that a significant number of organisations are looking to solve issues that we are also looking to solve. The solution to many of these issues has been for the organisations to provide some sort of performing arts programme, but they often struggle because they don’t have the facilities to provide it. This is where a theatre company like ours can bravely step in.

Another thing we strive to do as a social enterprise is to support actors who are in or considering training – we look to provide work and give them opportunities to get themselves "out there" in a more prominent way. We also provide online coverage for shows they’ve done during training so that it not only boosts their web presence (which is more and more important these days) but improves our own. The great thing about being a social enterprise is that by making a social impact, it makes others more aware of us – it increases our audience, market share and in turn our profits as well.

Not everything is so rosy, however, and we have found problems with outreach. We are still a young company and we’ve not even officially existed for 12 months yet. It is of course a challenge that every young company faces, wondering where the sales are coming from and working out how to get people to buy from them. As an artistic company, social enterprise can really tackle that issue in that it gives the organisation a stronger voice. We’re not just putting on a show to entertain; we’re doing it because we and society as a whole are passionate about the subject matter. We are doing it to make a difference – our audience isn’t just looking to be entertained; they’re interested in issues close to the heart of society and, like us, they want to solve them.

Social enterprise, particularly in the arts industry, really has the power to create strong brand identity, which these days is vital as business becomes a more central theme in the long term sustainability and survival of the arts. Although the challenges of growing audiences and market share is a tough one (shared by all arts organisations) I think that social enterprises could have a stronger advantage through branding against companies that don’t embrace its potential and tackle issues close to their communities and society as a whole.

Being a social enterprise really gives the opportunity to create a sustainable creative businesses. When it comes down to it, the projects that keep our company moving along are those most heavily centred on making a social impact. These are the projects that garner interest from the larger organisations and it is these contracts which allow the company to grow to a larger extent. If more artistic companies create a business model around social enterprise, the creative sector could become less fragmented and far less reliant on public funding.