Brewer ventures beyond the fringe: Sponsorship: little theatre groups may not be small beer as image makers

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The Independent Online
TAKE two theatre companies. One is planning to stage a play that has not yet been written; the other has signed up an award-winning actor for its production of Hamlet, which happens to be a GCSE set text this year.

It is not hard to imagine which will find it easier to attract sponsorship. It can be tough for small groups at the leading edge of the performing arts, and for venues with tight marketing budgets to find assistance. Moreover, the sector has been severely affected by funding cuts over the past few years.

But if a company is keen to associate its products with the innovative, the experimental and the talked-about, sponsoring productions that push back the frontiers of theatre and performance makes sound commercial sense.

Michelob's Pioneer Programme, launched this autumn, gives support to theatre companies and venues, while boosting its beer's brand image in the process. Audience members may drink beer, but quaffing designer-label beer is not just about quenching your thirst.

The programme is the first 'umbrella sponsorship' of its kind. It runs until next April, and will reach more than 39 venues ranging from Scotland to the south coast, and help promote about 150 individual performances.

The budget for the programme is more than pounds 100,000, including a maximum Business Sponsorship Incentive Scheme award of pounds 35,000 from the Association for Business Sponsorship in the Arts. It is just the kind of mutually beneficial partnership ABSA is keen to encourage.

The Independent Theatre Council played a key role in advising Michelob on which seven venues and seven productions to support. Venues selected for this year's programme include the Everyman, Liverpool, the Tron, Glasgow, the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, and the Tricycle, London, which each receive pounds 5,000 for promotion.

Companies picked include Phoenix Dance, the David Glass Ensemble, Tara - Britain's leading Asian touring company - and Gloria Theatre Company, performing The Picture of Dorian Gray by Neil Bartlett, based on Oscar Wilde's story. Each company gets pounds 7,000 to help with production costs and marketing.

Gloria cannot skimp on costs for this production. There are six actors, and seven musicians play a specially commissioned score live on stage.

Mavis Seaman, the company administrator, explains how the money helped the company open to heavy advance bookings at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. 'We spent pounds 3,500 on a four-week poster campaign on the Tube, starting two weeks before we opened. That would not have been possible without sponsorship.'

Michelob's help proved artistically handy when the budget did not look as if it would stretch to hiring a harp. 'We came very close to not having one', Ms Seaman says. 'But with the sponsorship we were able to.'

Actor Paul Shaw is also enthusiastic about the Pioneer Programme. In the play he is Sidney Mavor, a bank clerk from Croydon who, 20 years previously, was one of the male prostitutes at Wilde's trial. 'It is very good when a business sponsors something which is not seen as completely safe. We got the sponsorship before the play was even finished.'

The Pioneer Programme works by twinning companies to venues. The Contact Theatre, Manchester, is one of the venues at which Gloria will be staging The Picture of Dorian Gray, at the end of the month. The 300-seat theatre aims its productions - a mix of new plays and old - at young audiences.

Caroline Bailey, marketing manager at Contact, says the pounds 5,000 will help the company to gain a wider audience. Advertising will be stepped up nationally, and local mail shots to students and colleges have been increased.

During Gloria's five-night stint at the theatre, there will be a strong Michelob presence. The beer will be on sale at the bar alongside information boards explaining the role of the Pioneer Programme.

Michelob's hope must be that theatre-goers will drink in the message that there is nothing fuddy-duddy about this beer - and that, eventually, it will lead to an increase in market share in a highly competitive market.

Or, as Peter Jackson, marketing director at Anheuser- Busch European Trade, which owns the brand, puts it: 'We are confident that the Michelob Pioneer Programme will help us meet our commercial objectives whilst giving a significant and much-needed boost to the performing arts in the UK.'

(Photograph omitted)