Edinburgh Fringe production duo Hartshorn and Hook chat to Tom Martin.
Bounding over to my table, Louis Hartshorn apologises for the late start – “we’re just finishing up a production meeting!” He then rushes back to his team and, after a few minutes of energetic chatting and nodding, he brings over the other half of his producing team, Brian Hook. It occurs to me that they both look impossibly young. Brian welcomes me to the festival, remarking on his hectic day: “Total chaos in the most enjoyable way”. We all grin.
The story surrounding the formation of the Hartshorn-Hook production company is already Fringe legend, but Brian insists that it wasn’t quite so romantic: “Mad. It was definitely mad. When Understairs Arts collapsed just before the Fringe started back in 2007, they left over fifty shows with no venue, and just six days’ notice. Louis and I took on co-producing, assistant producing duties, and basically gave everyone the chance to perform…except me! I came up expecting to act and flyer, and ended up stuck in an office with Louis – we didn’t see the sun for all of August”.
Louis continues: “We found that we were passionate about the same things, and the next step seemed obvious. Within three weeks of meeting each other we had formed a limited company. From that point on, we were working out of a bedroom with three desks and three computers – I was getting out of bed just before the staff arrived!”
Hartshorn-Hook is now a ‘commercial entertainment production management company’, and the two are keen to talk about their position in the precarious world of theatre finance. “We try to make it really clear: we receive no grants”, Louis insists. “Taxpayers’ money funds an opera that only 4,000 people attend, while our unfunded shows have people queuing for tickets to see them again and again. This proves that theatre is able to support itself financially – you just need to have the right model, and our model is based on producing shows that the public really want”.
Brian is adamant about the festival’s economic possibilities: “If you’re taking a show to the Fringe, the first thing everyone says is ‘you won’t make any money’. And that’s absolutely absurd – we make money. The Fringe is an astronomical opportunity for investment, and high-return investment at that”.
But of course, it’s not all about the cash. “We use the revenue from our bigger live music performances to bankroll smaller, less exposed shows – shows that we feel can win awards and deserve to be seen, especially here, on what some might call the ‘ultimate’ stage”. This year Hartshorn-Hook are supporting ‘The Crying Cherry’, a physical theatre piece that sold out at last year’s Prague Fringe and received the Dioraphte Amsterdam award in 2008. It’s a far cry from their ‘Live!’ music shows, or their production of ‘Fame!’ at C Plaza.
The year ahead looks bright for Hartshorn-Hook, as they transfer the Woody Guthrie musical ‘Woody Sez’ to the Arts Theatre in the West End for January 2011. Brian puts their ethos in simple terms: “When we’re deciding what to do next, whether it’s looking for an existing show to programme or coming up with a new project, we always come back to what ‘feels right.’”
Louis instantly agrees: “There has to be that emotional, personal connection – things that make us laugh and make us cry. And above all, it’s about providing the public with entertainment, hospitality and performance, and introducing them to shows they’ll love.” With the spectre of arts cuts looming, this is a heartening approach: Passionate, practical and proven, just like these two producers.