Flying Penguin Productions endure and build capacity in a COVID-world

Flying Penguin Productions is a critically acclaimed and multi award winning SA theatre company that enjoys a reputation as one of the state’s most significant and sustained independent companies.

Flying Penguin Productions endure and build capacity in a COVID-world

Against all odds in a COVID-world, Flying Penguin Productions successfully staged a show, Sea Wall, in Adelaide. A MATCH Lab recipient, we spoke to Artistic Director David Mealor about the challenges the organisation faced and the success of his campaign.

You were in the 2019/20 round of MATCH Lab and successfully ran an ACF campaign, exceeding your fundraising target. Tell us about your strategy and experience leading up to crafting such a successful crowdfunding campaign. 

The campaign went really well in every respect, and after such a long haul it was nice to be back on stage again, and we feel really lucky and privileged. With the COVID crisis and the cancellations we had to make, the spin off positive was that we had a lot of time to plan our next steps. The support, guidance and information that we picked up through MATCH LAB workshops were really helpful. We then had the time we had to consider our approach, meaning that when our campaign got under way we were really prepared. We pitched an ambitious season of work, expressing the aspiration of the company when we could return to the stage. With everything that has been going on, this seemed to strike a chord with people. We were surprised and pleased to not only reach our target but to go slightly over it!

COVID-19 put a spanner in the works for many arts organisations. How did you go about navigating the uncertainty? 

In a strange way there wasn’t that much uncertainty for us. COVID meant a complete shut-down of all our plans, as was happening with pretty much everyone else. It was obvious our season of live performance just wasn’t possible, and I wasn’t interested in presenting the work online. Our presenting partners, donors, artists understood this and were all incredibly supportive and flexible as we basically cancelled everything and re-scheduled it for the following year. It seems strange now that the year has passed, and we are into the season and 2021.

How did you go about communicating your changing situation to your donors?

Everyone knew what was coming and we were very upfront with our donors. It wasn’t just the theatre that was affected. Every facet of life was changed or shut down last year, so much of the conversation was already done for us. We realised we needed to make decisions quickly, to postpone everything for 12 months. Yet at the same time we were confident that the shows would go on – as soon as things had started to normalise a bit. We have been really fortunate in Adelaide and it seemed likely from 2/3 of the way through last year that the performing arts would be back on in Adelaide in 2021. This has proved to be the case so far. Our donors have all been incredibly supportive of what we have been trying to do and they have never wavered from this position.

How did you facilitate relationships with donors to achieve such a high level of support?

The major component of our support came from a few major donors, drawn and developed from the large and diverse network of existing supporters of the company. We had planned an exciting season of productions that offered significant opportunities for artists and audiences to engage in world’s best repertoire; incredible plays that were new to Adelaide audiences that presented significant opportunities to develop the company and its associated artists. The real challenge was getting the first major donor on board. Once they had agreed to support what we were planning, things seemed to become instantly more possible, and seemed to snowball. We worked hard to provide everyone with as much information as we could, to meet with them in person and to follow up with them rigorously.

Sea Wall is a breathtaking modern tragedy that explores eternal themes such as death and cataclysmic events. Do you feel that your audience could connect with the story more given what’s happening around the world with the pandemic?

What people really connected with was the need to connect and be with each other. Of course, this is at the centre of what the theatre is – a coming together to witness things collectively. This has never seemed more important than after the year we have had where we have all been apart. I feel that last year has reminded us of how fragile, uncertain and uncontrollable life is, or can be, and I think those forces are at the core of tragic theatre. The play seemed a timely response to that.

What was your biggest takeaway from your matched funding campaign?

Be prepared! We had this drummed into us at the meetings and preparatory sessions and it is absolutely imperative. With all the ramifications of COVID, being ahead with our plans enabled us to change direction quickly, understanding the implications and plan ahead to a time when we could reschedule our productions.

What advice would you give artists interested in applying for MATCH Lab or fundraising through the ACF?

Get involved. It is a fantastic program. Everyone I came into contact with from MATCH Lab and the ACF have been incredibly helpful, supportive and fun. The program is really well set up, is clear and incremental. There is a bit of work involved, but doing the work really helps solidify things and focusses aims and strategies in a positive way. The idea of funds being matched – doubling your resource pool – is a really appealing initiative to donors and to our company. I can’t speak highly enough of the program. It made a real and genuine difference to how, and how well, we have been able to plan and achieve our program of work.