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Everyone Theatre: An Interview with Miriam O’Keeffe

Everyone Theatre is a series of interviews with leading theatre practitioners in London. It’s their chance to make the case for getting into theatre, on either side of the curtain.

Miriam O'Keefe is the Director of the BBC Performing Arts Fund

Miriam O’Keefe is the Director of the BBC Performing Arts Fund

Sticking with our theme of interviewing a whole host of different people, this week we are delighted to publish an interview with Miriam O’Keeffe, the Director of the BBC Performing Arts Fund. This year, the Fund has launched a series of schemes with a focus on theatre, and they are currently accepting applications for their Theatre Fellowships programme – for more information on this check out their guest blog here. In this wonderful episode, Miriam talks to us about the fantastic work that the fund does to engage and support emerging artists, and she gives out some advice on how to get your hands on up to £10,000 of grant funding.

Listen to the podcast using the player below, subscript to the series on iTunes, or read through the transcript below. Please feel free to leave comments at the bottom of the page!

Everything Theatre: Hello and welcome to the sixth episode of Everyone Theatre. Today we are speaking to Miriam O’Keeffe, who is the Director of the BBC Performing Arts Fund. She will be speaking to us about this charity and about how it can benefit people trying to get involved in theatre. Thanks for joining us! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and the Performing Arts Fund?

Miriam O’Keeffe: I have been working at the BBC for over 15 years. Originally, I started in productions – working on TV shows – and about 10 years ago the Fund was set up. We were originally called the Fame Academy Bursary: we got our money from when people phone voted on Fame Academy. We primarily gave funding to musicians; one of our first winners was Adele, for whom we bought her first home recording equipment.

Over the years, we started to get funding from the Andrew Lloyd Webber shows like How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? and I’d Do Anything. Then, a couple of years ago, we started getting money from dance programs as well, so we decided to become broader than just the Fame Academy Bursary. Thus we became the BBC Performing Arts Fund.

I’ve been with the Fund from the very start, initially working with musicians, and since then have done a lot of work in musical theatre, which is quite something for someone who has probably only seen three musicals in her life! These days, we have broadened the scope even further, so we fund Music one year, Theatre the next and then Dance the following year.

ET: And where does the funding for your charity come from?

MOK: We get our money from phone voting on shows like The Voice, so when the live shows start in June we will get 10p for every phone call. So by watching and voting, viewers are actually helping fund the next generation of practitioners. It’s great when people find out that from watching and voting on shows like these, the money goes to community groups in their area or individuals that they might know.

“by watching and voting on The Voice, viewers are actually helping fund the next generation of practitioners”

ET: That’s amazing! I must say I had no idea that the money from phone voting on such talent show programmes was re-invested into emerging artists. And how exactly does it work? How does the fund benefit people trying to get into Dance, Theatre or Music?

MOK: We run two different schemes every year. The first is for community groups. This year, because we are focusing on theatre, it could be anything like your local drama group or youth theatre. Groups trying to bring theatre to the community can apply for funding, up to £5,000. They can use that money to commission new work, for training and development, to host a master-class with somebody or bring in an expert to help improve their skills.

The second scheme is the Fellowship scheme, which opened on 13th May 2013. This is where organisations can apply for funding to host an emerging theatre practitioner for a year – so this could be a producer, a programmer, a writer, a director… anyone who is creative and working in theatre. The organisation could be a company, a venue or a festival – we don’t specify. We ask organisations to come forward with an idea of what they could offer an emerging practitioner, and we would then support them during the year. So, for instance if a venue has identified that they don’t get a certain community into their theatre, the Fellowship could be about audience development with a young programmer. Or it could be about commissioning writers with a different background that they might not usually work with.

ET: I suppose the idea is that the Fellowship allows organisations to take risks?

MOK: Well, one of the key things we look for when we are awarding the funding is for organisations and individuals to be ambitious – they really need to be stretching themselves. I mean, projects have to be realistic, but we’d look for proposals that are trying something new: growing their audience perhaps, or their profile. So yes, artistically taking risks.

If a small theatre came to us saying they wanted to run a new writers’ programme and they wanted to get a young producer in to organise that, then to us that is very interesting – because it is something new, which they have never done before. On the other hand if this was a festival which was more or less the same every year, and they just need an extra pair of hands… well, that’s not really what our funding is about.

“one of the key things we look for when we are awarding the funding is for organisations and individuals to be ambitious – they really need to be stretching themselves”

ET: Now, as you know, it can be quite difficult to get involved in Dance, Theatre or Music as a practitioner. What would you say are the top obstacles that people need to surpass in order to get into the industry?

MOK: One of the biggest barriers to people getting involved is people not having the right contacts, networks or relationships. So much of what happens is not through job advertisements which people can just apply for. It’s done in a much softer way – it’s about being visible, and talking to people. So confidence is a huge barrier. They may be fantastic actors, musicians or dancers, but being able to sell themselves is one of the hardest things. Having the confidence to give their elevator pitch if they meet someone who can boost their career is a key step in convincing people to invest in you, work with you or bring you in to give you your big break.

“Having the confidence to give their elevator pitch if they meet someone who can boost their career is a key step in convincing people to invest in you, work with you or bring you in to give you your big break”

ET: There can be a conception that Theatre is a business where you need to know the right people in order to make it. I suppose your fund allows people to bypass that: if they don’t have the right connections, the fellowship will give them the opportunity to make them.

MOK: Yes, when we did some research about where the money we give out could be most beneficial, we discovered that it was at the start of your career. You would have finished your training, drama school, conservatoire or even just school, and you’re suddenly out in the world on your own without a support structure. It’s very easy to spend all hours working just to pay the rent, which leaves no time to be creative. This causes a lot of people to think: “Well, that was a lovely dream, but now I need to get a proper job…”.

We looked at different ways that we could intervene at that stage. We felt, and our evidence suggested, that we could help by connecting people with an organisation that would give them that support, advice and mentoring, as well as opportunities to be creative and platforms to show their work. We felt that would be most useful.

The next stage is where you have a profile, and people know you, and you are in a position where you don’t need to do unpaid work or favours. What we are trying to do is bridge that gap, and get our fellows to the stage where they can get paid for what they do.

“when we did some research about where the money we give out could be most beneficial, we discovered that it was at the start of your career”

ET: We like to ask people what advice they would give to young practitioners or groups trying to make it in the industry. Apart from your fund’s work, what would be your words of wisdom?

MOK: My advice if you’re starting out is to have a really clear vision of what you want to do, what you represent, what your work is about and what your artistic vision is. This is central to who you are, what you offer and what makes you unique. There will be times when it will be tempting to do other things and veer away from that, but I think having a sense of who you are and what you stand for is a really key thing, because if you then have the talent to back that up, you are almost guaranteed to be successful.

“have a really clear vision of what you want to do, what you represent, what your work is about and what your artistic vision is”

ET: A more anecdotal question now, I suppose. You’ve been administering this charity for a while now, in one form or another. You must have come across some fairly memorable cases of people getting funding from you. What would you say is the most interesting use of this award you have come across?

MOK: We once funded a youth drama group to commission a new musical called Cheerleader Apocalypse. It was a huge musical by a writer called Andy Evans, who wrote on Torchwood, and seemed to involve every young person within a 50 mile radius. It was hugely successful, in an area where there is very little arts provision. Every teenager in the town wanted to take part. It was followed by the very successful zombie musical Chomp!, and it spawned a whole generation of horror musicals. That was one of the more unusual projects which were accomplished with the help of our grant!

ET: Fantastic! Actually, one of the points we look for in these interviews is ways that people already in the industry can help get the community involved. I suppose that taking on a project like the one you just described really resonates with young people, and is a great way of creating the next generation of theatre goers. Would you agree?

MOK: Absolutely – it was successful because they made it cool. The kids had so much control over the production, it was their decision what it would be about. That makes a huge difference – it’s not like they are being told “We are doing the Little Shop of Horrors” for the umpteenth time.

We did another project in London, with a drama group called Cardboard Citizens whose members had all experienced homelessness. They wrote their own musical, which was a Dubstep musical about their experiences which was extremely moving. It was an amazing way of getting people who had been put in very difficult and challenging circumstances to express what they had gone through. It was using theatre in a very different way to get them to open up about their experiences. It was a collaboration with a young musician called Arun Ghosh. The musical was a performed many times, and even at the BBC radio station in London for us, with 300 different guests. It was a challenging but really successful project.

ET: And where can people go to find out more about the fellowships and what you do?

MOK: If you want to find out more about what we do, how to apply for funding or what schemes are open, go to our website http://www.bbc.co.uk/performingartsfund and we are on twitter and facebook as well. You can also sign up to our newsletter to find out when our schemes open.

ET: Well thanks so much for speaking to us today Miriam. And good luck with the first round of applications.

About Everything Theatre

Everything Theatre
Founded in 2011, Everything Theatre started life as a pokey blog run by two theatre enthusiasts and – thanks to the Entry Pass Scheme for 16-25 year olds – regular National Theatre goers. Today, we are run by part-time volunteers from a wide array of backgrounds. Among our various contributors are people who work in theatre, but also people who work in law, medicine, events, marketing and even psychiatry! We are all united by our love for the London theatre scene.