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DT:TV Case Studies

The Hoi Polloi Story (AmbITion case study 2009)

Hoi Polloi, based in Cambridge but possibly to be found at a theatre or computer screen in your local town or anywhere in the world, like to think of their approach as unique, or at least, a strong part of the Hoi Polloi character and identity. Hoi Polloi as a company create new work, mostly for the theatre though increasingly in other fields, such as video. Their work comes from a devised background, improvised in one way or another, and it seeks to stretch people’s imaginations and make them laugh. As their mission statement says “Hoipolloi is committed to creating new work for the theatre and beyond the live stage that imaginatively engages its audience and makes them laugh. It is these two things, imagination and laughter, that drive the company”.

Administrative Director Louise Coles agrees. “That’s what everything we do comes from. It’s all about imaginary worlds, or going into your imagination. Generally, just making people laugh in one way or another – be that in darker ways or sometimes in lighter, happier more obvious ways”.

Hoi Polloi engaged with the Arts Council’s AmbITion programme in a straight forward way. “We needed to develop our long term digital capabilities and increase our capacity to use high quality projection in a creative way. So the money was in effect money for purchase of capital equipment and some software and also the training that went along with that”.

Even so, with their extensive use of web tools, including a web prescence that already had some rich content, they feel they were not so far behind before, and futhermore have ambitions to take their work to many more people through exploiting the digital realm.

Louise Coles says “We want to create e-work that pushes boundaries and that is very different from other people. We want to be seen as leaders. But tying it into AmbITion, wanting to be seen as a leader of the way in which we use technology in shows and outside of shows as well. We want people to look at what we are doing and be excited by it and want to copy us and interact with us.

We’re striving for there to be a continuing dialogue and for that dialogue to happen in the theatre in a very real way, and then using the digital stuff outside of the theatre in real life so that people can continue to engage in those conversations and create comments on Facebook walls or send tweets to Twitter.

People can have a personal connection, and identify with the work, rather than it being obvious. It’s quite important that everyone can at some point relate to it if you like”.

Hoi Polloi’s “next big idea” – the ultimate expression of their ambitions – involves developing their own video capacity. “The company will have an arm that isn’t just a theatre arm but is looking to develop into new media. That’s a kind of new development. So in that way, technology in the bigger sense is integral to the company”.

Online development

The company started off their digital development by making changes to their website. Marketing and Touring Manager Simon Bedford explains, “The main changes are to the homepage; the design fundamentally is the same, so the style of it hasn’t changed. What we have added to the home page is a YouTube embedded video. The blog that used to sit only on Blogger is now feed through there too, and the top photo now feeds into the site so we can have new photo content on the site all the time. The Twitter feed also feeds onto the front page.

There are links to the latest stage production, which are now more prominent, and there are six social media network links at the bottom and they are on every page of the website, so you can directly link to Facebook and share stuff very quickly. We are also linked to iTunes so that you can download podcasts, flickr to view our photos, to the blog on Blogger, to Twitter, and to YouTube for our videos”.

Hoi Polloi have started doing a few podcasts so far, and they are a mixture of actual content and marketing. “At the moment they are just testing, because I haven’t had enough time to concentrate on making them work as efficiently as they could do. We have just about enough skill and knowledge in house to handle it. We want to make more content that tell stories, and not just a minute to minute account. We want to create fresh content”.

Hoi Polloi are very enthusiastic however about video, and Simon and lead acting star ‘Hugh Hughes’ are regular video-bloggers, with both of them using mobile phones or the built-in ‘iSight’ camera on Apple MacBooks to post a few dozen videos so far to YouTube, and more often than not embed them in the site. Their videos tell the story of the organisation’s activity, and Hugh’s videos build up his character, his identity and his narrative in front of a growing number of fans. There are also a smaller number of more finessed ‘sampler’ videos designed to give a taste of various stage prodcutions. One way the team have got these videos out there is through social networking, which they feel is an increasingly good investment of time. “It’s great that those areas exist for people to comment on stuff without us being completely in control. They can freely write their opinions. The social media follows my own personal media journey, so it’s probably not quite as strategic as it could be. I think they are great tools for companies like ours that are all about dialogue, and conversation and connecting. It is a platform for openness”.

The organisation’s Facebook and Twitter pages have each got a few hundred followers so far. In fact Simon wishes he had a bit more time to spend on Twitter, just to keep up, “I don’t really have much time to sit on Twitter and just respond to other peoples’ stuff. I always check the replies people have sent to us, and try and reply. I did tweet what we were doing in Australia, trying to make a mixture of opinions and ideas, but I put Twitter into the homepage so I can tweet about the new things that are coming out. Because I can run it from my iPhone, and it feeds straight into the homepage, I can update the website in ten seconds”.

Despite Simon’s native competence with new media, he is sanguine about its abilitity to attract new audience members. “I think it potentially can be a great way to build audience numbers, but I have no proof so far that it does. I do think we could employ somebody who just spends their time doing digital and social networking, and I think that would be worth it. I know that in Sydney audience members were tweeting about having seen the show, which shows the importance of word of mouth. It was nice to see that in action. It is important for us to engage in what our audiences are engaging in. Our experiences have been broadbly positive though. If we take the website as an example, the amount that people spend on the website has increased vastly since we put the new site in, particularly the blog aspect of the site, which has existed for well over a year now. Yet until we changed the website it was probably read by 2 or 3 people a day whereas now, it’s at least 20-25”.

Office systems

Part of Hoi Polloi’s focus has been on the nuts and bolts of sorting out their office systems. “Before AmbITion Hoi Polloi had different computers that weren’t connected to eachother, we were all running different operating systems with different bits of software; it kind of worked but it was really not ideal. Now we have a whole new set of computers, the Macs talk to the PCs, we’ve all got the specs and the software we need, and it all gets backed up safely and regularly”.

‘The next big thing’

Hoi Polloi’s achievements to date are modest however compared to their vision. Pushed primarily by their Director and founder Shôn Dale-Jones, they have an ambitious plan to expand on the technology within the company and break into producing their own video of productions, even, effectively into making their own TV or film.

The ‘360 project’ – named after a particular show- is designed to bring in new media producers who might decide they want to create new TV work or films, or even radio.

The exactly business model of this new venture is still forming, but the hope is clear. As Shôn Dale-Jones says, “We want to try and start engaging with those people. At the moment we are on the cusp of seeing where it could go. There could be some kind sitcom, or Hoi Polloi Film! They’re big ambitions, but we have started. We have put some organisation and money toward engaging someone to develop our aspirations in that side of the company in particular. However, it’s a bit of an unknown at the moment. We don’t know how it will take off, or where it will go.

It seems to make sense though; it’s a creative stimulus for the company, renewing our aspirations, it could be a financial incentive in terms of going more commercial with work. It’s creative. It seems to be an organic development from our stage shows.

We have been dabbling now with developing film stuff as part of an Escalator leadership scheme so there is that level, where we have been learning about camera work and the art of film.

But at its heart, the aspiration is simple: a new sitcom wouldn’t be that hard, we have the actors and the ideas, all we need is a camera, and if you put it on YouTube, you could get it out to millions of people.

That process is just starting, pushing buttons with various TV connections, trying to get things rolling. I think our work does have a mass appeal; it’s not elitist, it’s entertaining. And that is what we want to carry through.

“The sitcom is very tangible. The plans that are becoming less inspirational and more concrete are very ambitious, that is, in 7 years from now, Hoi Polloi will be a company that will develop work for the theatre as it’s always done, as well as for radio and TV, and film distribution. The way that works as a business model is being discussed at present. How is it possible to have a company that makes such a variety or work under the same roof? We have to analyze that and see how that might work as a model. A lot of the work will come from the core team that exists at the moment. So the artistic and creative journey is quite simple to map out. It is now understanding how you would actually work that as a business.

“In terms of audience development, again, that is relatively simple by saying that we would take our theatre audience to our radio, TV and film work and vice-versa.

I think when you consider it in Britain only, and consider how individuals have worked, it’s easy to see how actors can go from film to theatre to TV. So all we are saying is we want to do the same”.

The stunning thing about the simplicity and boldness of Hoi Polloi’s vision is that 10 years ago, it would have been unthinkable for a small arts organisation to develop such pretensions to produce their own TV; TV was such an exclusive industry. But now, with the web able to take distribution out to unlimited and infinte numbers of people, and the plummeting costs of technology allowing desktop access to video editing tools and affordable camera and sound equipment, making TV does not seem such an unrealistic idea. In the first instance however, Hoi Polloi are interested in getting established TV producers to ‘come to them’. They realise however if that if nobody bites, they have the option to go it alone.

“The creative question is interesting when it comes to financial terms, because it depends who will give you the money to make what programmes. At the moment we are happy to pitch idea at main TV stations, but if we feel like our artistic integrity and ideas are challenged, and they demand too much compromise, then we know that there are options”.

If TV can’t come to Hoi Polloi, Hoi Polloi will go to TV

“We are realizing now how cheap it is to make a video. We are still trying to cost this project out, but if you are going for something low budget, you can make something cheap. Hopefully, the return would be greater, because if you decide to distribute it yourself, the financial income is unknown, but there is great potential”.

One condundrum with internet distribution is reimbursement for the work put in. After all, while the opportunity to get things out on the internet is greater then ever before, people don’t expect to pay for it.

“One way of understanding the development is by thinking about it over 5 years. You will have some loss leaders, that can’t make the transition that quickly. But if the quality is high enough, then it may be possible. We know where we want to be in 5 years time, but we know we have to go down a certain line and transition, and yes it will be investment, but that is what we will have to do.

We know we will lose money, but the hope is it will come back. So that basic model is something that we have always done. And we are very lucky that that money has been invested by the Arts Council”.
After becoming established, it is possible a regular Hoi Polloi TV output could attract advertising, for example.

“At the end of the day, a theatre show is only ever about how many people watch it, in whatever context. If you understand how to make something that people will watch, everything else will fall into place. You can prove it to whoever you want to prove it to. The only job we have is to say, we are going to make this, and get loads of people to watch it. You just make something, you figure out how much t costs to make, and then figure how to get an audience for it. It is simple at the end of the day!”

Hoi Polloi’s ambitions to take their work out from a popular audience partly stem from Shôn Dale-Jones’s democratic instincts. “The biggest creative challenge for us is going from a live medium to a recorded medium. We try and avoid the term theatre for what we do. People put those words around us, and that is going to be a big branding exercise. Theatre and TV hold different statuses in the minds of the public. People consider theatre a high-end art form. We don’t, we consider it a place where people can have fun together and share some feelings together. In 5 years time this could be the biggest thing we’ve ever done, but it is about audiences. Let’s democratise the theatre. I would love for people to come to our shows, who have never thought about coming to the theatre before. How wonderful would it be, to have those new audiences?”

Shôn is exploring as well the possibility of a “loss leader” on the internet making money through stimulating increased theatre-boookings.

“You see it happening a lot in film and comedy. If people have seen something on the web or on TV, as soon as it goes live, it sells a lot. On the musical theatre scene you get the phenomenon of first the film and then the musical. People have always been doing it. These are not revolutionary ideas. And I am not pessimistic about it; all we are saying is that we are going to make the same story accessible to a bigger audience”.

In some ways, Shôn wishes arts organisations had already been bolder in this area. “What we’re saying is simple; there’s audio – there’s radio – and there’s screen, which is either TV or a film, or now, your computer screen. We’re trying to make it simpler for ourselves and say what do you mean, are you going to make something for the radio or do you mean you’re going to make something for the camera? It’s as simple as that. And of course you then have all the distribution costs, but I think that, yes, it’s ‘digital’ but it’s not like it’s new-fangled technology. Again there’s a little bit of fuss around digital investment. The BBC don’t view putting things on TV as some kind of digital innovation, but it is for an arts world organisation. We made the joke of saying we’re working in multimedia – we’re using a tape recorder and an overhead projector. But you give it this term ‘multimedia’ and you start this great comedy. It’s like, ‘What are you trying to hide behind by saying you’re doing a mixed media presentation?’ I mean who cares what the hell you call it?

“I do think, in terms of this company, we’d love to build a really good editing suite and get better cameras and sound equipment so that we can make higher-end digital content. That’s quite a literal use of money, and I’m sure there are lots of questions about how you would increase your level of contact with the audience.

It just comes down to the production values. You could make it on a £250 camera, or you could spend hundreds of thousands of pounds. That then becomes a question of aesthetics and how money can affect that.

If you take something like The League of Gentleman which is a really well produced piece of TV – and that cost thousands and thousands of pounds versus, I don’t know, an amateur YouTube video. It comes down to a question about the aesthetics. If you want your product to look a certain way, you’ll spend a certain amount of money and that goes around in theatre and TV.

Therefore, we could make you a show that costs £50 and go into the second hand shop for the constumes and light it in a certain way using 20 lanterns, and it will set you an aesthetic. If you say, ‘Don’t worry, you can spend all the money you like’, you can go and get the most amazing set and buy thousands of lights and it will look a certain way. So actually I think when you start talking about money and the production of TV, theatre and film it does affect the aesthetic. But if you say to yourself I’m going to make a film and I’ve only got a £100, you’ll make a film that costs you £100. You can make it but it will affect the way it looks.

“If you were to stock take there, and say this is what this kit costs, that’s not a difficult exercise. The real investment is in people’s time. If someone said to me, ‘Shôn here’s a camera, you’ve got one year to go and make a 30 minute short film’, I am convinced that we really would come back to you in 1 year with a really good 20 minute short film. But it’s about saying, OK, but who is going to fund that? And I think that’s where sometimes with the Arts Council or with some of these projects – it’s that kind of question at which point do they begin to understand that they have to invest in the people – that means time really.

Shôn has already gone on a BBC directing course in order to invest in the organisation’s skillset. “It’s a whole new scheme, which was called Escalator leadership which cost £5,000. But what I’m saying is, that is a rarity, to actually go away and do something like that for a week in the busy schedule that we have. The idea is about investment. Do you want this company to keep churning out the shows that they do, or do you want them to be a really exciting, forward thinking, creative company that can do all kinds of really interesting work. If the answer is yes, then do you actually understand how much time it will take for us to do that?”

Two worlds

“Mainly there is a need to upskill ourselves because of the huge rate difference between the TV industry and the arts industry, but other barriers too, just like ‘our industry doesn’t work with your industry’. I think we’ve all realised that we are out of our comfort zones sitting at a meeting with a TV company, because there are loads of things that you don’t know. I know a lot about the theatre business but nothing about the TV business, but it doesn’t stop me from going in there and asking. I think you need start interacting and it comes down to a culture thing; estate agents know estate agents and bankers know bankers and theatre people know theatre people. With theatre and TV the agendas are all so different, which brings up another barrier. What I’m saying is, we don’t tend to go into each others industries and talk to each other”.

Shôn feels the gap between the TV and arts industries parallels a wider gap in society between things that are “commercial” and things that are “artistic”.

“It’s a frustrating one. The trouble with the Arts Council, is that whenever something becomes popular, they take their money out. Because they think it’s popular, they’ll go and put their money into something that isn’t, because it’s more interesting.

“What we want to do, is we want to put genuinely artistic and creative content on the internet and explain to you what it is and how a theatre production is made and how it’s put together. That’s something that the TV world doesn’t generally do. What you’re talking about there is how people are educated towards appreciating the arts. It’s about a general aesthetic education that happens. But for us it’s about something that we say we want to make truly popular, I mean you could say that’s what Shakespeare did. The Globe was a truly popular theatre where thousands of Londoners would watch a piece of theatre whilst sipping on a beer. That’s popular theatre. So then people will say ‘do you want to make money’, I say no. I just want loads of people to come to the show, but that obviously translates into high ticket yield and money, but that’s not the motive. It’s a simple argument, but we’ve bandied these terms around for our own purpose. So if you say that’s way too commercial an idea for us, I don’t know what you begin to do with that. And then we look down our noses at the fact that musicals are really successful.

“Only the big boys have had that sort of money so far to reach a mass audience but what’s happening with digital development is that we can reach people through broadcast. We’re starting to take on their attributes and from them – popularity.

The fact is, the agenda is different. As an example, opera is a difficult art form to sell and is perceived to be for a certain person. You have to ask yourself do you really want to make opera popular or do you just want to make it better for the people who already watch it.

If you just simply love the opera and are not that concerned about who does or doesn’t come to it, then I’m not that sure that digital development will help at all. If the culture of your organisation isn’t really committed to popularising something – because that seems like the biggest attribute that we can get from this new digital world, then there’s no point in engaging in digital development, because at the heart of your company you’re not interested in being popular anyway.

But what we’re talking about is developing our company for the digital age in order to get to that mass market. You just need to develop that so you get yourself out there like broadcast companies do.

We want to get Hoi Polli out there. We want to show our work off”.