Image: The PILOT Nights team is (from left to right) Rochi Rampal, Pippa Frith, Jo Gleave and Amahra Spence.

Running for seventeen years, PILOT Nights is the region’s flagship work-in-progress and scratch platform. The regular event provides a space where theatre-makers can develop their practice and try out new ideas in an informal and supportive atmosphere. We spoke to Jo Gleave (part of PILOT Nights’ core team) about the opportunities provided by PILOT Nights.

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Tell us about the main opportunities that PILOT Nights can offer theatre-makers in the region.

PILOT Nights offers theatre-makers a platform to present work-in-progress pieces in front of a supportive and lively audience who then provide feedback on the work. We offer around three or four events per year and these are held at theatres across the Midlands. Venues over the years have included Birmingham REP, Birmingham Hippodrome, RSC, Arena Theatre in Wolverhampton, Midlands Arts Centre, Belgrade Theatre in Coventry and Stan’s Cafe’s old AE Harris space. As well as having the opportunity to present work, artists receive a small monetary contribution, travel expenses, accommodation (if travelling from outside the West Midlands), rehearsal space and professional film and photo documentation of their piece.

A lot of artists take part in scratch events during the early stages of their career. What benefits could artists find in scratching work when they’re more established, too?

I think it’s similar really. It’s always useful to connect with audiences and other artists you may not have met. Even well established artists have a point in their work where they aren’t sure about something, or want to try out something different, and a scratch platform such as PILOT Nights provides a supportive opportunity to do that.

For all theatre, there’s an exchange, a moment between audience and artwork, where the show finds out what it really is. Theatre needs a live audience to find its heart. It’s also really useful in linking with a venue you may not already have connections with. Much of the work at PILOT Nights has connected artists and venues, and some of the work has gone on to be programmed at partner theatres.

Who makes up the current PILOT Nights team, and how do you share responsibility between you?

I’m part of the PILOT Nights team along with Amahra Spence, Pippa Frith and Rochi Rampal.

We share out the work between the four of us. We cross over a lot and share the organising of each event, reading applications, development, relationship building and funding applications. It’s a very collaborative way of working. Rochi and I tend to look after the email account, so it’s likely you’ll hear from one of us if you are emailing PILOT Nights. Amahra leads on the marketing and social media and Pippa manages the finances and fundraising.

Why is it so important for each PILOT Nights event to be co-piloted?

For each PILOT Nights event the core team are joined by co-curators called Co-Pilots.

It has always been important that PILOT Nights is artist-led. The core team has always been a mix of makers and producers, and the Co-Pilot model helps us strengthen that. It’s important that the core team aren’t always the ones curating the night and picking the artists and pieces involved. It keeps each event fresh and the Co-Pilots can each put their mark on the night. It also widens our networks and reaches artists who we wouldn’t have usually reached with our own networks. It also helps us to keep adapting and developing PILOT Nights using feedback from the Co-Pilots and the new ideas that they contribute for the night.

Why do you think PILOT Nights has had such longevity?

I think it’s a mix of things. It seems that even though there are more and more opportunities to scratch work, PILOT Nights remains a trusted and well regarded place to do that. Because it is artist-led we’ve tried to remain focused on what is useful for the artist in this situation. In that way PILOT Nights has adapted and developed over the years in response to changes in the sector. We’re not afraid to keep revaluating the night and asking “is this still useful, and if not, can we make it more useful?”

How has the initial mission of PILOT Nights changed over the years? Have there been particular needs you’ve responded to?

Even though many things have remained throughout PILOT Nights’ 17 years, there have been developments. I can only talk about it since I joined in 2013 when Pippa and I ran the night with Thomas Wildish and Jo Newman. We introduced PILOT Sites, a PILOT Night for artists working in outdoor or sited settings. There had been times where artists had applied to PILOT Nights and we couldn’t accommodate some of their ideas in a studio theatre so this was a new addition to fill that gap. It was also in response to surveys and meetings we had with artists about the direction that PILOT Nights should go. We try and have one PILOT Sites event each year.

We try to be strategic in our selection of Co-Pilots, ensuring a diverse range of artists new to Co-Piloting and making a statement of intent through our selection. We’ve continued this during our current cycle and are really noticing applications from a wider range of artists.

In 2018 we had the opportunity to recruit two new core team members. In doing this we were able to look at PILOT Nights afresh and evaluate what works and what doesn’t.

All of our events are now BSL interpreted and the artists get to work with the BSL interpreters beforehand and on the day to think about ways that it can be integrated into their work during development stage. We are continuing to look at how we can improve the accessibility of the event and the application process. This includes accepting video and voice note applications.

We have also begun to develop our PILOT National Partners strand. We have a number of national partner venues who send a programmer or producer to the night and then commit to providing artists with feedback on their work. This was a way to formalise relationships that were already starting to happen organically. It’s at the very beginning so we’re excited to see where it may lead.

We also have our PILOT Associates who are past core team members. They remain advocates for the nights and share information through their networks.

We’re a small team of freelancers who do not work full time on PILOT Nights. We try and see what is achievable in the time we have and what will make the most impact and be of most use for the artists taking part.

What three pieces of advice would you give a new theatre-maker who doesn’t know how to start getting their work in front of audiences?

1) Attend a PILOT Night, or another work-in-progress night. There are loads of brilliant ones happening across the Midlands now. It’s a great way to see what sort of work is being presented, get a feel for the night and chat to people afterwards.

2) Submit an application. Even if you don’t manage to get a spot at PILOT Nights, just writing the application is a useful process in trying to articulate your ideas. We also accept video applications and voice recordings if people prefer.

3) Ask other artists. Talk to other artists that you admire and get their advice. Get in touch with them and ask for a cup of tea – the worst they can do is say no (and they probably won’t!)

When people are scratching work, how would you advise them to solicit the most useful feedback from the audience?

That’s really a personal thing. We do suggest they might want to structure questions to ask the audience so they can have these in mind when they are watching. This helps to avoid single line responses such as “I liked it!”. However, sometimes artists prefer not to lead the audience and just get their immediate responses to what they have seen. It sometimes depends on where along the line of development the piece is or what specifically the artist wants to get out of it.

Many theatre-makers face lots of rejection in their first few years of making work. Do you have any tips on how to deal with this?

I think it’s about not being too hard on yourself (easier said than done!). Even though it feels very personal, it’s often not about you. It’s a competitive field to get into. If you can, surround yourself with supportive, positive people who may be going through a similar thing. It’s always easier when you don’t feel alone in it.

That said, don’t fall into the trap of comparing your trajectory to another theatre-maker. That’s never helpful. There’s not one way to do things and often you’ll get an opportunity out of the most unlikely place that you hadn’t thought of.

Try and take a break too. Our work and personal lives tend to have a habit of overlapping a bit too much. It’s good to have some things that are totally separate to theatre that you enjoy and can provide some time away from work if you need a break.