Top tips for producing a live literature show

Julia Bird, founder and Director of Jaybird Live Literature, shares some of her best insider advice for putting on a live literature show

Jaybird Live Literature is well known for its adaptations of published poetry in theatrical settings – although not too theatrical; as Julia describes it, Jaybird’s purpose is to combine poetry with the “microrazmatazz possibilities” of theatre, rather than riding roughshod over written and spoken word. Some of Jaybird’s shows include You Are Here, What Are They Whispering?, and, most recently, Daljit Nagra’s The Retold Ramayana and Clare Pollard’s Ovid’s Heroines, all of which have toured across the UK.

YPN caught up with Julia to find out some of her top tips for producing a live literature show.

Clare Pollard in rehearsal for Ovid’s Heroines at The Poor School. Image: Jaybird Live

What’s the big idea?

The first and most obvious place to start – what is the show that you want to put on?

  • If you’re a poet yourself, are you going to work with your own writing? Or the work of another poet?
  • What is it you’re going to ‘add’ to the poems to create a new experience for your audience?
  • How will your show be different from any other?

It’s clearly going to be more than a poetry reading, but at the same time, it’s important to retain space around the original poetry; to make sure that the writing is still speaking for itself.

Finding the theme

When thinking about the theme of your show, remember that there are two audiences for your show: the people you’re selling tickets to, and the venue that is hosting your show.

For a venue to be interested in putting on your show, they will want to know that either:

A. They will make money from it

B. Your show will speak to, and perhaps further, their own artistic objectives and ideas

You should think carefully about your project’s needs and which venue might be able to fulfill them. If you have lots of different ideas for you show, or if there are lots of people involved in putting it together, work on shaping all those individual creative ideas into one theme – love, power and identity, for example, are themes that everyone can identify with, and are easy for a venue to understand.

 I Gaze From My Kitchen Like An Astronaut at the Bike Shed Theatre. Image: Jaybird Live Literature

Let’s get practical: budgeting and funding

Whatever scale you’re working at, putting on a live literature show is expensive, and funding isn’t always readily available. It’s always worth looking into potential grant funding (for example, Arts Council England’s Grants for the Arts programme), as well as any funding programmes that your local council might be running.

Any time that is volunteered, plus any resources that are contributed, all count as income in kind, so be sure to include these as part of your overall budget.


To produce a live literature show, as well as all the obvious costs,  remember that you will also need  to spend money on:

  • Marketing
  • A touring technician
  • Insurance

If dealing with all this stuff is new to you – don’t panic! And don’t let it put you off. If you need to hire a lighting technician, for example, have a look at some job specifications for this role that other organisations have produced, and adapt their terminology.

If lots of things are new to you, make that very clear to the people you’re working with, and don’t hesitate to ask them to explain things – as many times as you need – to make sure you understand what they’ll be doing, and how it will feed into the overall show.

Producing the show

At a basic level, you’ll need to make sure you have some key people in place:

  • A writer
  • A director
  • A producer or another co-producer

Before hiring anyone else, have it clear in your mind exactly which role you’re going to fill – and stick to it!

Image: Jaybird Live Literature

Finding and pitching to a venue

  • Resources such as Write Out Loud, The Poetry Kit and The Poetry Library are useful for finding venues which might be a good match for your show
  • Take a look at your peers – where are they working and performing?
  • The British Performing Arts Yearbook (which some libraries should carry) is a helpful        directory of all British venues

The pitch

  • Be very clear about the who, what and why of your prospective audience
  • Write to the right person! Expect to be ignored if you haven’t done your basic research on the venue and its staff
  • Theatres are often inundated – be inventive and determined, and use something that is designed to catch attention
  • ‘Poetry’ can still be an alarming word for lots of audiences – don’t assume that the venue will immediately ‘get’ what you’re trying to do with your show. Ensure that you are communicating the essential value of the show to the venue – and by all means wax lyrically about its intricate details to poetry lovers!

The practical things that a venue will want from you include:

  • A contract – you can produce your own, or use the venue’s
  • Technical specifications – you need to make sure that your show is within the physical      and technical limits of the space
  • Risk assessment – show that you’ve properly considered everything that could go wrong,    and explain how you’re going to do your best to make sure that it doesn’t!

This feature is based on Julia Bird’s live session at the Southbank Centre on 27th January 2016, which was delivered to an audience of live literature enthusiasts and young producers.

With thanks to Julia Bird at Jaybird Live Literature

Published February, 2016

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