After several years in arts fundraising and sales, Sofie Mason set up OffWestEnd.com, a website that celebrates and supports the off-West End theatre world. Ahead of the "Offies" awards ceremony, she talks to Catherine Love about starting a website and how to make it in theatre...
What inspired you to found OffWestEnd.com?
It came out of two things. Firstly, a friend took me to lots of pub theatres and I just fell in love with them. And secondly, I started working with Theatre Royal Stratford East doing research into how off-West End theatres are funded. I realised that there are all these great theatres in London, but people just aren’t aware of them. I wanted to remove all the difficulties for people to find these theatres and raise money to help them.
How did you raise awareness of the website when you first started out?
There was the obstacle of getting all the theatres on the website, but in the process of those discussions I got to know the theatres and they promoted the site to their audiences. Then later I moved on to promotional partnerships with the Evening Standard, the Guardian and Time Out. My advice would be to always start with your closest consumers and then broaden out.
From what you’ve learned, what advice would you give to someone starting up a website?
I would advise anyone setting up a website to research the sites they like and ask for a lot of advice. Also, if you’re setting up a really interesting website, sometimes web designers will use it as a showcase for their portfolio and charge you much less than a normal commercial client.
If you don’t have any money, try to broker partnerships that don’t involve money but involve an exchange of things that are equally valuable. It’s about being lateral thinking about what matters most to somebody you want to help you and how you can give it to them in exchange for what you need.
Why are events such as the Off West End Awards important to the theatre community?
These off-West End theatres are the lifeblood of the mainstream. So the whole point of the awards is to get people who are household names to talk about their experiences off-West End while presenting awards to people who richly deserve them, because in the past there haven’t really been awards for these kinds of theatres. They don’t get considered for the Evening Standard Awards or the Olivier Awards, so these are the Oliviers of the off-West End.
Do you have any tips for people hoping to launch their career in off-West End theatre?
Because there’s so little money around, the only currency is goodwill, so always do people favours; if you help others, they will help you. Experiment, push the boundaries, fail if necessary and learn from your mistakes. If you play it safe you’ll never learn anything. If you want to succeed in this environment, my advice is to be absolutely fearless and never be shy of asking for help.
And never do a production with the idea that you want to transfer it to the West End. If you’re going to create something truly brilliant, you can’t be thinking about how you’re going to get it transferred. You have to start with the art itself and it will be a surprise. But also remember that if something doesn’t transfer, it doesn’t make it any less of a success. You need to hone your craft creating truly brilliant things rather than second guessing how you’re going to woo audiences.
The Offies are on Sunday 5 February. Visit OffWestEnd.com to find out more.
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Image by Laurie Lewis.