Yorkshire Theatre Newsletter: All Aboard!

Liz Ryan Talks To Mikron Theate Company's Pete Toon About Their Upcoming Tour

“I’m one of the few producers in the country that has got an Inland Waterways Helmsman’s Certificate,” says Pete Toon of Mikron Theatre Company. “I also book toilets and check the van’s got tyres.

“Then people ring up and ask to speak to ‘the marketing department’ and I’m that as well.”

Every theatre production is an exercise in careful logistics. For Mikron Theatre, which almost every summer since 1972 has toured Britain’s canals by narrowboat, there are additional factors involved. In a typical year they will play to 16-17,000 people at 130 (mostly non-standard) venues and Pete will deal with 85 local authorities.

“My role is basically strategy,” he explains. “And I co-coordinate the office and the admin side with Marianne (McNamara) our artistic director and Rachel (Root) who’s our general manager. And because we’re so small, we bring in freelancers. We work with about 45-50 freelancers a year. My job is co-ordinating anything non-artistic, and then Marianne takes on the artistic side.”

Last year’s tour was scuppered early by Board members with the foresight to recognise a rapidly escalating Covid situation. Pete sighs heavily at the memory.

“We were one of the first people to announce that we were closing, and literally we had angry phone calls from supporters, saying ‘But you’ve got to tour!’  And by 23rd March we were all shut down, weren’t we?

“So, we didn’t tour. We made sure all our freelancers were looked after. We couldn’t buy actors out of full contracts… we don’t have that kind of money. But we did make sure that they were okay. We made sure that we kept a lot of our other freelancers either going on retainers through that period or… you know, paid them for the work that they’d already done. I don’t think anyone felt that they were out of pocket.

“And then we realised that we had a huge £48,000 shortfall in our budget because we weren’t touring. We couldn’t not pay rent. And we couldn’t be furloughed ‘cos it wasn’t a thing and… It was like… ugh.

“So, we launched an appeal. The shortfall was £48,337.49 and we advertised that figure with the 49p on. We gave ourselves six months to do that and we’ve done it in just over two weeks. And we’re still getting donations now.

“We’ve been humbled. It teaches us that there’s something bigger in Mikron than just us. We’ve not taken any of this support for granted and I think the only reason I’m sitting talking to you now and you’re talking to me to write an article is because we had over 700 people donate money in the last 18 months and that’s still going.

“Also, the Arts Council were really good. We wouldn’t be here without them. They worked really hard last year to keep an entire sector afloat, both lobbying but also making sure that they didn’t just cut our grant ‘cos we weren’t delivering against our KPIs (key performance indicators). That’s important for small companies like us.”

I ask him to explain what is unique about Mikron. It turns out it isn’t the narrowboat as such – they don’t even use their beloved Tyseley for winter performances. It’s more to do with the style of the shows, which are presented by a small team of actors without lighting, sound amplification or any other technological lift.

“It means we don’t need a venue. Or electricity. We can just turn up anywhere. And every Mikron theatre performance is relaxed! You can come with your dog to most places… especially this year when the show’s about dogs. You can bring your toddler. You can breast feed. You can have a family member that’s got mental health issues. Or you can come in a wheelchair. We BSL interpret two shows up north and two down south.”

Like the larger and better-known operation in Holbeck, Mikron have spent the past year running a food bank.

“We had an office and a van and we basically followed the Slung Low model. We couldn’t have sat just twiddling our thumbs, home-schooling our kids, doing nothing. We had to do something. But we’re theatre people, we’re not experienced in social care.”

Yet, as he points out, the underlying skillset of theatre production is logistics – and carting food about in your locality is much easier than organising a theatre tour.

“We worked with the Real Junk Food Project in Wakefield and there was one week when we brought back bags of popcorn, they were about five foot tall, you know like you get in the cinema, because all the cinemas were shut. We were bagging popcorn as a treat for weeks!”

As I speak with Pete via Zoom he apologises for the occasion crash and bang overhead. A cast is rehearsing one of this year’s two productions: A Dog’s Tale, written by Poppy Hollman, about the history of Crufts and Amanda Whittington’s Atalanta Forever which tells the story of women’s football. I ask Pete if they’ve had to make any accommodations for the pandemic.

“Normally people just turn up and they give us a donation afterwards. This year we’ve had to flip that on its head. People are having to book a ticket online and then pay what they will.”

Persuading the loyal Mikron audience that they must book first for a reduced number of seats and shows has been both “anti-marketing” and a “headmash”. Especially when the subject-matter of both shows is bringing in additional crowds of dog-lovers and football enthusiasts.

“I want to fill every venue in a week. But what we had to do is make sure that our donors and the Friends from the last year that kept us going had advance booking. And then we needed our mailing list to have advance booking.”

What’s going to happen if one of you gets Covid?

“We have done literally everything we can to prevent that happening. We have a one-way system in place in rehearsals, we’re not allowed near the cast unless we’re masked, we’re tested twice a week, we’re requesting that they have as little contact as possible within reason with friends and family.

“We’ve provided PPE for our members of staff when we’re out on the road until they start the show, we’ve had to find different accommodation because normally we would put people in theatre digs with other people. We’ve hired a much more expensive rehearsal room with two windows open all the time. And as for cuddling… we shouldn’t even be discussing that! Marianne went on a course which was part of the London Theatre Network to do all this work, effectively.

“And we’ve purposefully stopped in the second week of September. That sounds negative but to cancel venues, refund them and all that, is just no fun for anyone. But we’re already looking for next year, and we know that next year so long as things are calm, it’s our 50th year, it’ll hopefully be the first normal year that we’ve had as a nation for nearly two and a half years.”

Have you decided on the subject matter of next year’s plays?

“We know that one show next year is about the weather. Because it’s a British obsession, isn’t it? At the minute, we think it’s called Red Sky At Night. And that’s a real Mikron classic. We delve a bit into the history, and we also have a current timeline of weather presenters and their world. It’s fun, and informative. That’s another thing with Mikron, it’s laughs and learning, you know.

“And then the other show, because of Covid and time, we’re having to bring a show back. It’ll be a recent show, maybe the one about the WI.”

Pete started with the company as an actor before taking on other responsibilities and ending up as the Producer. I ask him how he embarked on this highly unusual career path.

“I first auditioned for Mikron because an agent knew I was working as a temp with a trip boat company in York. I was working in a very similar world at the time of the audition and I thought: “Oh, theatre and boats, I’ll give it a go, kind of thing.” I’d never heard of Mikron. And that’s literally it. And then I came and fell in love with it.

“And I fought… When I first took over at Mikron there was a real drive for it not to be business-like. And one of the things I’ve learned over the years is no matter whether you’re in a small charity or you’re running Oxfam, you have to start with the business otherwise you’ll run out of money.

“Secondly, you have to make sure that everyone you work with is on message. We have a briefing with our actors about the values of the company. A lot of actors simply forget – I won’t go down this route but – those people who come and watch Mikron are paying your rent or they’re paying your mortgage.

“And we’re focused on Mikron being this really… precious thing – actually. I’ve never used that word. But it is. It’s special. And this last year taught us that more than anything. Raising £50,000 in under three weeks is special. For the size of our company, it’s mind blowing. You know, people do that with things that are important, don’t they?”

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