Arran Howie of Tortoise In A Nutshell Theatre Company

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Arran in The Last Miner by Tortoise In A Nutshell photo by Amy Downes

Tortoise In A Nutshell is a visual theatre company. We don’t restrict ourselves to the description ‘puppeteers’, as we also use all kinds of visual theatre including puppetry, live sound mixing, live film; where we film and project the show onto a screen during the performance – plus innovative ways of moving on stage. Our mission is creating unique visual theatre to inspire and ignite the imaginations of new audiences.

Originally we founded the company as part of a module at Uni. Ross MacKay, Alex Bird and myself were studying Drama and Theatre Arts at Queen Margaret University, and the module was called something like ‘creating a theatre company’. It included things like ‘making a tour plan’ but the degree as a whole was more about exploring different creative, dramatic things, not business studies.

It was all about playing around and generating cool projects we wanted to do, not sustaining three of us financially at that point so we all had our own work projects on the go. Between us we’ve done a bit of everything; I used to work in a pub and an after-school club, Alex did some temping and Ross sold whiskey.

As we progressed we worked within the arts but for other organisations. I worked as a youth theatre leader, alongside doing project work for other theatre companies. Ross was assistant-directing other productions and Alex did a lot of administrative and performance work for other companies. These other jobs really helped us to develop additional skills to be able to make our own company be successful both in terms of business and creatively. For ages we squeezed the company into any spare time we had.

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We came up with the name because I had a tortoise. There’s no deeper meaning, it just has a ring to it. Recently, we rebranded everything and we got rid of the pictorial Tortoise In A Nutshell logo and make it slicker and with hopefully wider appeal, but the name is the name.

It’s only been in the last couple of years that we have managed to professionalise the operation. In 2010 we had our first break with an Ideas Tap Edinburgh Award for our production The Last Miner. We’d garnered some early recognition within the industry and we wanted to keep the momentum going. 

We’re unusual in that we’re like a co-operative and share a lot of the roles. For our model it’s essential we are all close friends and we are all very close. We are like a mini family who argue a lot but always work best together. Alex and I are both co-company managers and Ross is artistic director, although those roles are fluid. Normally someone heads up an aspect but it passes back and forth between us. We are at our greatest when we work as a team and the strength of our team is defined by when we pull together and not what we are individually good at.

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The Lost Things by Tortoise In A Nutshell photo by Eoin Carey

Alex does a lot of the finance stuff, Ross looks for cool artists to collaborate with – he’ll pitch to us and we’ll say yes or no. I do a lot of the marketing. About once a month I come up with a marketing plan split into web, blog, and social, which includes Facebook and Twitter for the public and Flickr, which is a great tool to reach promoters.

For a long time we only worked on one production at a time, but as the company has grown, we’ve started working on multiple projects at once. For instance, we are about to start rehearsals for our brand new international co-production, but in August we will be starting development for the show that we will be doing after that. It means the three of us plus other artists will come up with the ideas and themes to produce at another time, then we’ll work on it again later this year, then pick it up again at the beginning of 2016. Meanwhile the show that we start performing this September started life a year and a half ago.

 

We’re best known for our play Feral, in co-production with Cumbernauld Theatre, that we performed at Edinburgh Fringe in 2013. Reviews said things like;

Tortoise in a Nutshell’s exquisite Feral puts you right up next to the performers  . . . It’s clear that the ‘how’ is as important as the ‘what’ in this slow-burning but powerful show.” 

We toured it in Mexico and other countries. We’re not doing it now but it’s in our repertoire if someone wants to book it we’ll do a little tour. A group called Fuel, who promote theatre in local areas got in touch. They wanted us to adapt it to make it relevant to two local communities; Margate and Poole, so we did two new versions and showed them there. The play is about a seaside town so it was a good fit.

We’ve had an office for a year and a half, above the Traverse Theatre. Before that we had a shed at the bottom of Ross’s garden where we kept sets and made puppets, as well as working from home. Now we have the office to work in plus a shipping container for storage. There’s also a rehearsal space below our office which we use as part of our tenancy agreement. It’s really hard to find affordable space in Edinburgh, so we were lucky to find out about it through our involvement with the Traverse; they liked our work and hooked us up.

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Feral by Tortoise In A Nutshell photo by Amy Downes

We make money from funding. At the moment we are project-funded; as opposed to having a three year grant from Creative Scotland, for example – we have to apply to for funding for each individual project. Last year The Lost Things was commissioned by Imaginate, a Scottish children’s festival, who gave us funding to create the show. Then we took it on tour which we organise ourselves and that makes money.

In general, our biggest cost is people. We like to build a really good team to work on productions and projects and we always work to ensure we are paying all of the correct rates based on ITC. As we have developed as a company we have started working with other people to make sure we’re always pushing ourselves. We’ve worked with lighting and sound designers, production team and recently, a playwright. We all have creative input into these areas, however, so everyone will comment on music we like and how we want the piece to visually look and explore techniques and ideas as a group rather than individually. Our costs fluctuate depending on the time of year and what we are doing. General running costs like the office and storage space cost us every month, regardless of whether we are bringing in any cash. 

The challenges we face, (we all laughed a lot responding to this question), all come down to money. Money is always the hurdle to overcome. When we created Grit for the 2012 fringe we didn’t have any proper funding in place. We felt we had to build on the success of The Last Miner the year before and that we needed to produce another piece but it was very risky for us. We put our own money into creating the piece, worked for free day and night and undertook multiple roles within the production. We were lucky that we had a fantastic response to the piece and began selling out at the festival. This was really a make or break situation for us and we came out on top, helped by the kindness of a lot of friends. 

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Feral by Tortoise In A Nutshell photo by Amy Downes

More recently we have had the difficult transition of realising we have to be successful administratively to be successful creatively. They are not separate entities, but very much two sides of the same coin. This has been very challenging as it has resulted in a lot of research and self-teaching methods for creating a viable business model. It has also meant dipping our toes into areas which aren’t really our interest and attempting to become experts. We are constantly evolving the way in which we work and this involves a lot of balancing acts. To anyone reading this who wants advice, I’d say; Keep trying! We try and fail A LOT.

We are proud to have won a few awards over the years;

Feral: A Scotsman Fringe first award in 2013  

Feral: nominated for a Total Theatre award

Grit: Nominated for an Arches Brick Award and Total Theatre Award

The Last Miner: Nominated for an Arches Brick Award, won an Ideas Tap Edinburgh award. Nominated for Grunschnabel award for emerging artists at the Figura Festival, Switzerland.  

Awards are always nice as recognition of the piece but they are not essential. They make a difference in people noticing you, greater visibility and presence, which is essential for a producing company. It helps bring in new audiences as they’re a form of ‘proof’ you are worth watching. Although social media and audience sharing bring people in, word of mouth and reviews can also help a lot. 

Reviews are very important for raising our profile to audience, promoters and funders. We have got some really great reviews which are great currency when it comes to showcasing ourselves to potential funding bodies and also to venues we wish to tour to. 

As well as the work itself, the extra highlight for me is getting to travel exciting places. To date we’ve held performances across 78 cities in 7 different countries, which means getting to meet loads of new people from different communities. Plus eating lots of amazing different food!

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