Applying to Arts Council England's Grants for the Arts Programme an unofficial guide for theatre makers By Simon Day
Table of Contents Foreword: when you share stuff, everyone gets better...................................................iii Introduction......................................................................................................................iv 1. Always begin with the art..............................................................................................1 2. Do the work before you write the application..............................................................1 3. Work on your aims........................................................................................................2 4. Start your budget now...................................................................................................4 5. Don’t take anything for granted....................................................................................5 6. Read the guidance notes...............................................................................................7 7. Ask yourself lots of questions........................................................................................8 8. Remember what you’re really being asked...................................................................9 9. Don’t forget your audience.........................................................................................11 10. Find the right partners...............................................................................................12 Conclusion.......................................................................................................................14 About Theatre Bristol......................................................................................................15
Applying to Art Council England's Grants for the Arts Programme: an unofficial guide for theatre makers by Simon Day is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. i
Foreword: when you share stuff, everyone gets better Arts Council England’s Grants for the Arts scheme is often the first port of call for independent theatre makers. It should be. It’s no small thing that we have an open access funding scheme that anyone who wants to make art in England can apply to. As Simon says in his introduction, there’s no such thing as a formula for success; but advising well over a hundred artists and producers a year has helped us uncover a fair few pointers that can help you write your application without losing a grip on the heart of your project. At Theatre Bristol, we believe that when you share stuff, everyone gets better. This guide is Simon sharing the advice he finds himself offering most frequently. If you find it useful, please let us know. If you think others might find it useful, please share it. Tanuja Amarasuriya Co-Executive Producer, Theatre Bristol
Introduction This guide has been written for people who are thinking of applying to Arts Council England's (ACE) Grants for the Arts funding programme (GFA) for the first time, or for those who may have applied unsuccessfully in the past. It is not intended as a substitute for ACE's own guidelines, but to complement them. Instead of offering a set of rules, or a step-by-step 'how to write a funding application' manual, I have simply tried to collate the most common advice I have found myself sharing with other theatre makers since I first successfully applied myself over ten years ago. There is no secret formula, no one way of doing it; I often read plenty of successful applications very different to my own. Everyone has a style. By sharing the ideas that have kept cropping up in my own experience, I hope to help you develop your own successful approach. If you can, do try and have a conversation with one of ACE's representatives about your work. It's also a good idea to get feedback on your application from a fellow artist who has applied successfully before. Be wary of simply reading anotherâ€™s proposal in isolation though as this can send people off in the wrong direction, contributing to the unhelpful idea that there are things you should say, rather than a process of developing a good project and proposal for yourself. And that is what these notes are here to help with, so it's over to you... Simon Day Producer (Artist Support), Theatre Bristol
1. Always begin with the art Many questions I am asked about applying for funding begin with the word "should": should I do a workshop? Should I rehearse for four weeks? Should I do a scratch, pay for a Stage Manager, say that I'll talk to this venue or that person? The bad news is that I probably have no idea. I don't know, should you? The good news is that you already have the answer because it's your project. Do you want to run a workshop? How long do you need to rehearse for? If you find yourself beginning a funding application based on what you think ACE want to hear, stop and start again. You should always begin with your idea, with your work, with the art. Yes, there may be some compromises somewhere down the line, some give, some tweaks and adjustments in the writing perhaps, but always start from a place where you're building a proposal from your vision: what do you want to do, and what do you need to make that happen in the best possible way? Quick tip: write a one-page proposal for yourself, for your project, before you even look at the application form. What do you want to do and why?
2. Do the work before you write the application I want to challenge the common misconception that the actual act of applying, of filling in the form and writing the proposal, is somehow â€˜the workâ€™. This is where most people go wrong in my opinion. Try and shift your thinking. OK, it's never going to be the most fun day or so you've spent, but what if writing the funding application was the easy bit?
A good proposal will be a result of the work you've already done. A funding application is simply a planning document, it is a reflection of the thinking that's already happened, that lays out what it is you're going to do and why. If you're finding it hard to write then, assuming it's eligible (and remember it's not a given that GFA is the right way to fund your project), it's probably because you haven't put enough work into the planning yet. Writing it all down is simply the last thing you will do in a longer process of dreaming it up, thinking it through, and doing the planning. Quick tip: put your hoped for submission date in the diary way ahead, along with blocks of time to work on the planning and the writing.
3. Work on your aims In my experience, most poor funding applications start from the 'what?' and forget about the 'why?'. Artistic processes savour the moment of inspiration (I want to make a show about dinosaurs/tax-evasion/me!) and the ‘what?’ is incredibly important of course. A really good funding application though requires you to base this in a strong sense of the ‘why?’ as well, to think bigger than the artistic product itself, placing it in a wider context. Clearly defined reasons for doing what you're doing are key to helping you plan the activity that supports the creative work. They will also ensure your written proposal itself is purposeful and effective within what can be challenging word limits. I urge every artist I work with on a funding application to spend as much time as necessary to refine clear, distinct aims that they are passionate about. The 2
successful ones tend to have heeded the advice, honing a small number of aims that serve as stars to steer by in the choppy waters of planning a project and writing up their proposal. Defining and writing your aims Aims are simple statements of intent. Each a sentence which sums up what it is you want to achieve. Allow yourself to be ambitious and inspired, this is your chance to talk vision, not nuts and bolts. There are three questions I find incredibly helpful when I'm trying to thrash out what the aims of any given project might be: what does success look like, where are you now and where do you want to get to, and how does this particular project help you on this journey? If you can answer these three clearly then you'll have what you need to write strong aims. There are no hard and fast rules but most projects under ÂŁ15k can probably be summed up with between one and three aims. There will always be exceptions of course, but if you really can't sum up the activity within those constraints, at least ask yourself, might you be trying to do too many things at once? Using your aims Your clear, concise and meaningful aims will help you make decisions about what you are going to actually do. You say one of your aims is to achieve a national profile; great, now how are you going to go about doing that? An aim of yours is to collaboratively develop a completely new fusion of forms; sounds fantastic, now 3
how will you achieve that? Proposals without clear aims often just read as lists of seemingly unconnected ideas, rather than focused and deliberate outlines of activity. Returning to our opening thought, aims are also helpful for those pesky "should I...?" questions. Should you do a workshop? Well, by doing so, does it help you achieve one of your aims? If so, great. If not, then why on earth are you doing a workshop? Clear aims are also vital to help navigate the small but important Evaluation section of the form, which can often stump first timers and throw up a host of half baked (probably useless) commitments. If we see Evaluation as a way of measuring progress against specific set aims, it's a lot easier to come up with straightforward, meaningful activity. Taking the national profile example above for instance: clarity here could lead us to usefully commit to collating national press coverage; identifying key people who have attended our shows in new areas; take note of mailing list data etc. If we see our proposal as a story, our aims introduce the narrative and afford us that story's structure throughout. If all the information you provide (the details of your activity, the choices you make in building your team or taking bookings for example) can be seen to directly relate to achieving a stated aim, then you'll have a strong application. Quick tip: re-read your aims each time you sit down to do a session on your planning or proposal writing.
4. Start your budget now The sooner you start your budget, the easier it will be, and the stronger your application at the end of it. Even if you don't know anything near exact figures, start anyway. Write a line in your budget for everything you can think of and in the next column, have a guess and highlight or label it so you know. Your job as you go along is to source accurate information for each highligted figure, and amend it accordingly. I would always advise your first budget to be written as if money were no object. To be terrified by the numbers is usually a good starting point, and a much better one than beginning from a place where the work is already compromised. From here you can look at raising the money and/or reining in the scale of the project, but it is rarely wise to simply try and shave off costs whilst aiming to achieve the same results (that way commonly lies either burn-out, or bad work, or both). A strong budget tells as clear a story as the writing, and they should evolve alongside each other. Your reader should be able to understand spending as it relates to achieving your aims. A common mistake is to ask for money to support significant spending where such a connection isn't immediately obvious (developing a website being one common example). Identify the biggest areas of spend in your budget, and be sure you have given yourself proportionate space and focus in your writing to justify these amounts, explaining how such spending directly allows you to work towards your stated aims. Quick tip: build and edit your budget in a spreadsheet with the same section headings and categories as in the online portal. Transferring the finalised info across
should be the last thing you do before you submit, as editing within the online form can be a fiddly and frustrating experience.
5. Donâ€™t take anything for granted If I'm familiar with a theatre makerâ€™s work, if I know where they're coming from, what they've done before, where they're heading, how the idea has come about and who they're working with, if I like their stuff and I trust them because I know them and if I had fifteen grand to give away, chances are I would happily hand over the cash. But so many good ideas don't get funded because the artist writes almost as though the ACE assessor is one of their mates. They're not faceless, they're not robots, but they probably don't know you and might not have heard of, let alone visited, every venue you're playing, so.... Back-up your claims Your work is intrinsically valuable to you, but you do need to give reliable indications of its artistic quality as judged by audiences, peers, press and industry. Anyone can say that their own work is brilliant. Put simply, you need some more convincing evidence, some other people to say so too. Don't be shy, start filling your locker today (and as you go along) from every available source and deploy its contents wisely in your proposal. A quote from a national broadsheet might appear at first glance sexier than an audience comment or the testimony of a community leader, but don't underestimate the value of a good mix of evidence as relevant to your proposed project. Be obvious 6
The first bit of feedback I often give on a proposal is, "I've read it, but I don't know what it is you're actually going to do!" You can be nuanced, complex, lyrical and passionate in your writing but unless you state very clearly what the actual, concrete things are that will actually happen, you're wasting your energy. Build the walls of your house first, then fill it with pretty things. If you're going to perform a show in a venue, say so, and say it early. If you're going to run a series of workshops about a particular topic, say so, and say it early. If you're going to.... you get the idea. Be specific This really follows on from the previous points. When you're specific you bolster your claims and clarify your information. So, saying someone is a "hugely experienced and talented performer" is, for instance, pretty meaningless. What specific information can you provide (e.g. recent stand out companies or shows they've been involved in, awards won, venues who support their work etc.) as evidence of this claim? As for clarity, remember that a number can speak louder than a word. How many workshops and how many venues? Writing "7" is much better than saying "several", and infinitely preferably to "some". Wherever you can slap a number on something, do it. Where you have to talk in general terms about some things (often the case for proposals as they invariably talk about the future, which can be a pretty uncertain place), I've found that you can still give specific parameters to the general, which lend it greater credence. Let me give you an example: let's say you're talking about future touring, and you say something along the lines of, "we will invite venues to see the show". We can see that's a pretty vague and empty statement, but we don't 7
really want a full list at this stage as your word count is too precious, right? But if you give a target number of venues and a couple of variables that have helped you define your targets (e.g. capacity, geographical area) together with an indicative handful of choices, you can talk generally but with a specificity that shows the reader you're not just pissing in the wind. Quick tip: give your proposal to someone who isn't familiar with your work and your plan, ask them to read it through quickly just once, and then ask them to tell you what you're going to do. Pay attention to where and when they're 'wrong'.
6. Read the guidance notes They are very clear, and they are your friends. Don't just stop at the basic How to Apply guide either (especially not if youâ€™re applying for over ÂŁ15k) as even a cursory dig online will reward you with a selection of guidance sheets relating to specific types of application and activity. An extremely useful bit of information for any approach is the breakdown of how applications are assessed and scored. Love it or loathe it, your application will be marked, and finding out how is a simple and empowering step that anyone can take. The guidance notes share the clear prompts that ACE's own assessors use to grade your proposal, so there's nothing to stop you from using the same ones yourself as a tool to redraft and hone your planning and writing. Quick tip: you'll learn from the notes that the main criteria carry equal weighting, but many applications start well before tailing off. Try beginning every other GFA writing session from the final section and working backwards, making sure you give the end as much attention as the beginning. 8
7. Ask yourself lots of questions Showing that you can manage your project without the wheels falling off is key to a successful application, and relies on excellent planning. So what makes for a well planned project? For me, it's all about certainty and uncertainty: a well planned project is one where lots of questions have been asked before the activity, and where most have been answered (I'll come back to that point). Once you've got your aims sorted, try sitting yourself down with a big mug or glass of whatever's your poison, and write down under one heading everything you know about making your project happen: if you're certain it has four performers, get it down; if you know the show is 65 minutes long, that it fits in the back of a transit, that such and such Arts Centre have programmed it on 24th September, get it down. Next, under another heading, write everything you don't know. Be picky. Be creative. Be ruthless. Interrogate it: where are you going to store all that set? Don't I need a licence to use that gun in the show? Where will everybody sleep? How will we get from Carlisle to Truro? Who needs a DBS check and how do we go about getting one? Where can I buy a horse? How many venues are we going to? Where are they? How many flyers should I have? And so on and so on. This simple process gives you a snapshot of the project as it stands. It provides a clear indication of where you're at with the planning, with your list of uncertainties essentially showing you what you still need to do, i.e. to shift as many bits of information as possible from the ‘don’t know’ column across to the ‘know’ column. It will also help you understand what things are OK not to know, those questions that will be answered by doing the project. This can be very helpful to grasp when 9
you’re writing a proposal about something that hasn’t happened yet. You don't have to know everything, and a rigorous and well-phrased question can help you deal with uncertainty confidently and positively, strengthening your application rather than appearing as a weakness or a gap. This is particularly true for some Research and Development projects (R&D), where you may be talking about content as yet unformed, relationships uninitiated and markets untested or still to be properly defined. Could one of your aims be in fact to answer a question? Quick tip: get someone else to grill you about your project, and make a note of all the questions that stump you.
8. Remember what you’re really being asked Even though the guidance notes are written in laudably plain English, it's sometimes easy to forget that the system is designed to accept applications for a staggering array of possible projects, from an R&D process to a full national tour, a workshop programme in a community to the purchase of equipment for a building, and for any activity needing from just £5k up to £100k. The language of the guidance notes has to try and cover a lot of bases, so it's understandable that we all fall into the trap sometimes of thinking that funding-speak is an actual language we somehow have to talk back in. It pays to remind ourselves every now and again what the main criteria might be asking of us, and it's reassuring to remember that it's not exactly rocket science. I have my own 'translation' of the main criteria: Artistic Quality = Is this actually going to be any good? 10
Public Engagement = Does anybody care? Managing the Activity = Are they going to be able to pull this off? Finance = Can we trust them with the money? They're pretty fair questions, right? I find it a helpful shift to remind myself of this as I'm working on an applicaton. Assuming the idea's interesting, the proposal is essentially an exercise in reassuring the ACE assessor that the choice of funding you is a sound one. So every sentence you write should be brought to bear on addressing the question, and everything in your locker should be considered as potential evidence to make the case. What answers do you already have to these questions? And crucially, what steps can you take in your planning to come up with some more? This is a particularly helpful prompt for first time applicants or emerging artists, where the lack of a track record that could address the assessment questions can present a challenge. Let's say you're inexperienced in financial or project management. It is my contention that an application which admits as much, but asks for more money to address this gap (through training, outsourcing or mentoring for instance) or seeks such support in-kind, is stronger than one that makes a vague claims such as "I've handled budgets for my drama society at university", or "I organised a cake sale once". Rather than ignoring them, identify and then address gaps in the skills and knowledge that the application is asking you to demonstrate. Quick tip: read your proposal aloud to yourself and pay attention to anything with the whiff of bullshit. If you're trying to use your own version of funding-speak (or just plain lying), chances are it's because you're actually trying to cover up a gap in planning or knowledge.
9. Donâ€™t forget your audience GFAs are available for projects that "engage people in England in arts activities". There's no getting away from the importance of this; you must think of your audience (i.e. the people watching and/or participating). Does your proposed activity directly engage a significant number of people in a significant way? If not, is part of your proposed work designed to build a future reality where that will be true? If the answer for both these questions is "no" then you should probably stop right now and either start again, or find an alternative source of funding for this particular idea. The Public Engagement question can cause problems for R&D projects, and/or for emerging artists/companies presenting work over limited runs and modest tours, where the relative lack of public engagement in the short term (within the life of the funded activity) can represent a fault line in an otherwise solid application. In such instances, it is even more important to see (and to plan) your activity as more than just the artistic work itself. Instead, you should look to address the context within which that work is developed and hopes to continue. In other words, look to make the most of any opportunities to engage the public during the development of the work (where they can genuinely help serve the process of course) and make a clear case for the likely future engagement once the work is finished. Concrete recommendations and examples are difficult to make where each case is going to be different, but I would suggest that, were one of your aims explicitly about addressing this, the sound planning that would follow on may lead to a stronger application from a Public Engagement angle. You cannot write your way into future engagement, you must plan your way towards it, methodically and
strategically. Elements arising from a clear aim created around this concern might include (and this is purely an indicative list rather than a tick sheet) the judicious use of sharings to the right people at the right moments; dedicated contact with a carefully selected pool of potential future partners; great documentation; developing a high quality marketing pack in parallel etc. Quick tip: think of the theatre makers and companies whose shows you love to watch, then of all the other ways in which you follow their work, learn about them, keep in touch etc.
10. Find the right partners Getting the right partner/s on board can turn a good application into a great one. The right organisation in your corner will weigh in your favour when answering those alternative questions I phrased in section 8. Is it actually going to be any good? Well, that festival's working with them and they know their onions. Does anybody care? Well, that venue has a good track record of working with that type of audience, so that's a good sign. Are they going to be able to pull this off? Can we trust them with the money? Well, if all these dependable folk think so, then we're inclined to agree with them. You see? Strong partners show that other established, trusted bodies (that know you better) have faith in you and your work, which to a funder, shows that you're the business. Identifying them Again, it all comes down to your planning. Finding a partner is first about identifying those organisations who have an interest in helping you achieve your aims, and who 13
have something of what you need to help you achieve them. So unless you know what you're trying to achieve and what resources you need to achieve it, you won't get very far (resources may include but aren't limited to space, equipment, money, contacts, expertise etc). And once you know what you want, then it's time to do your research. Who's actually out there? What are the aims of these organisations (or the individuals within those organisations)? And what do they actually have that they can give? What you're looking for is a match, so they have both the means and the motivation to work with you. Herein lies a crucial mental jump that emerging theatre makers can make to really find those great partners, so tattoo this onto your arm: "they need you too". They have things they want to achieve too, right? May be working with you is a way they can achieve them (at its simplest, this means that a venue of course needs you to make the work to share with their audience). It's not about begging, it's about collaborating. Quick tip: Saying â€œwhat can you offer?â€? isn't very helpful. Asking for what you need is much more likely to get you somewhere, especially if you have some indication that they might (in principal at least) be in a position to provide it.
Conclusion That's your lot. I hope you've found this guide helpful, and feel ready to take on the challenge of applying to the GFA programme. I'd like to say a big thank you to all the artists I've worked with who've been open to Theatre Bristol's help on their own bids, contributing to the writing of this guide by allowing me to work out how to frame the advice. I can't guarantee that you'll get your funding, but I can be sure that if you take it on board, your project will be in better shape to get the backing you need to make it happen some day. Here's to hitting that submit button with confidence. Good Luck!
About Theatre Bristol Theatre Bristol is a collective of producers. We believe that anything is possible. We follow our curiosity, individually and collectively, to work for the benefit of artists* to make great art. We do this in lots of different ways, in partnership with many different people and organisations. We offer bespoke advice and support to artists and producers; we commission and produce new work; we run events (networking, inspiration, action planning); we host a user-generated website; we research new ways of working and we develop national and international exchange opportunities. Find out more about Theatre Bristol and how you can work with us here. Theatre Bristol is an Arts Council England National Portfolio organisation and Bristol City Council Key Arts Provider. * Artists = writers, circus artists, puppeteers, dancers, live art artists, producers, directors, designers, technicians, funders, stage managers, musicians, composers, thinkers, administrators, bookkeepers, fundraisers, critics, enthusiasts, supportersâ€Ś everyone whoâ€™s interested is welcome.
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Published on Feb 26, 2015
An unofficial guide for theatre makers who are thinking of applying to Arts Council England's (ACE) Grants for the Arts funding programme (G...