Rod Dungate speaks with Joe Harmston Chief Executive of an innovative new-writing company THE IDEAS FOUNDRY. What’s innovative about it? ‘It’s a business’ says Harmston.‘The trouble in the theatre is everybody is so old-fashioned,’ Joe Harmston informs me with his characteristic vigour. He may well think so. Harmston has a string of directorial credits behind him (including directing Harold Pinter in one of Pinter’s plays) and is now one of the main driving forces behind THE IDEAS FOUNDRY. THE IDEAS FOUNDRY aims to mount new work for theatre . . . so? ‘We’re giving strong attention to the business side,’ Harmston says. ‘We’re an exciting company, there isn’t another like us in the UK.’
Harmston explains that the company builds up a portfolio of plays (plays and musicals). The only criterion for inclusion is that they have to be good. ‘People keep saying to us ‘How can you operate when you don’t have an artistic policy?’ We do have an artistic policy plays have to be good.’ This releases the company from the straitjacket of tick boxes imposed in the subsidised sector by major funders.
The principle is the deceptively simple. ‘What we had to do was realise that there is value in our portfolio.’ The portfolio he speaks of is a group of plays, some of them are virtually ready for production, others still very much in development. Investors in THE IDEAS FOUNDRY invest in the portfolio not in individual plays.
Clearly a producing company aims to make profits, but then there are further levels. Plays are made into films (sometimes), merchandising yes, obviously T shirts but what about downloadable ring tones from musicals? Moreover, if a play is a hit transferring to the West End then going on tour, an additional commission to the same writer increases the value of the portfolio.
Harmston continues ever enthused by his theme; ‘The businessmen we talk to are very canny people. Their view is that we know our business, what they want to know is how we’re going to use their money to make them more money.’ Do I hear the word EXPLOITATION in the air? The IDEAS FOUNDRY makes an agreement with its writers to link the writer into the company. The company then develops their work and aims to make partnerships with producing theatres (yes, they give them money) to mount the play. The company then promotes the work to explore further productions, productions in different mediums and other marketing opportunities. If the play succeeds, the writer makes money (the company hold it as a guiding principle to treat writers fairly), the partnering theatre receives help and makes money, THE IDEAS FOUNDRY makes money. This money is further invested in the company and eventually a return is made to the investors, with profits. Not too difficult to see then, this is theatre as a business not as a charity.
The IDEAS FOUNDRY aims to mount three musicals and five plays a year. I put it to Harmston that that’s a lot of money. Has he done it? ‘We’re well on the way . . . But we never say no to anyone who wants to invest.’
Harmston and his colleagues have spent much of the time since April raising the capital. But as we spoke (September) I’m assured ‘We’re now going to start doing things.’
I asked about the sort of plays THE IDEAS FOUNDRY is looking for. ‘We want plays that have energy. We read too many plays that don’t work theatrically. Too many writers don’t seem to understand that the energy in plays comes from people wrestling with problems. We’re not fixed on any particular style in our portfolio we have musicals and straight plays. They range from the light comedy to the iconoclastic. The play must work well in its own terms but essentially I don’t care what those terms are.’ Harmston firmly establishes, though, that THE IDEAS FOUNDRY wouldn’t take on plays that promote unacceptable ideas.
Writers wishing to submit plays should first of all visit the website (www.theideasfoundry.co.uk) for details. They’ll be asked to submit details of the play; if THE IDEAS FOUNDRY like the sound of it they’ll be invited to submit the play with a small fee to cover reading costs (25 gbp at this time.) But for that the writer will receive two written reports.
In any one year the company aims to take in about a hundred ideas or scripts for development. This sounds like a lot, but as Harmston points out, ‘The key is numbers bloody hard work for us, but it’s the key to ensure quality at the end.’ Of all the work they initially start developing Harmston assumes three quarters won’t make it the full distance. Harmston’s image is of the company as a funnel; and they’ll be fussy about what goes in at the top and even more fussy about what comes out. As the company matures, the aim is to have some twenty-five plays and musicals in the late stages of development.
It’s worthwhile also noting that ideas are welcome from across the world THE IDEAS FOUNDRY is already working on a French musical: the aim is to produce that initially in France. (IDEAS FOUNDRY Chair is Robert Cogo-Fawcett, Managing Director of Clear Channel Europe.)
THE IDEAS FOUNDRY is certainly an exciting idea. When Harmston initially floated it many people said he’d never do it. But the entrepreneurial IDEAS FOUNDRY team is well on the way to proving those people wrong. Has the team indeed created a rare ‘win-win’ situation? Time will tell, but the company’s ability to bring on major investors from the ultra-tough world of business investment is the clearest proof that its principles are sound. Add to this the company’s energy and will-power and we might see an innovative, new force entering our artistic ring.