27 years ago, in 1997, I co-founded Unlimited Theatre with five very dear friends.
We were all graduates from the Workshop Theatre at the University of Leeds who had been inspired by incredible artists who’d come before us and set up their own companies – Forced Entertainment, Impact, Graeae, DV8 and The People Show as just a handful of examples. At the time, there was a whole new generation of companies forming that we counted as our contemporaries – Third Angel, SHUNT, Stans Cafe, Frantic Assembly, Improbable to, again, name just a few. Right now companies like Upswing, RashDash, Middle Child, Unfolding Theatre and Barrel Organ are holding ground but struggling as the opportunities for groups of artists to work together over extended periods of time become increasingly rare and much harder to access or sustain.
Whether you’ve heard of them or not, these are companies that have and continue to tour extensively in the UK and overseas and have fundamentally contributed to and influenced the contemporary UK theatre scene. Many of their members will also work as freelancers on theatre and film productions with much ‘bigger’ and more ‘mainstream’ companies. We should celebrate, value, protect and nurture not only them, but also the new and emerging companies of artists that we need to follow them – those companies of artists that are in the earliest stages of their development and will go on to become the literal future of UK theatre.
For 27 years, Unlimited Theatre has been part of that scene – making and touring new work for live performance that has been co-produced with or toured into most of the UK’s theatre venues. As ‘Sci-Art’ specialists we’ve collaborated and co-produced with many of the UK’s major scientific institutions including the Royal Observatory, the Science Museum, the Met Office and the UK Space Agency. We’ve toured across the world to international festivals and venues in the Republic of Ireland, Germany, Zimbabwe, The Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Ukraine, Singapore, South Africa, the USA and even into space.
And now, in 2023, after all those years of making shows and events that have delighted, horrified, confused, dismayed, exhilarated and inspired audiences across the world, we have finally decided to call it a day. Turns out, everything actually does have a limit.
But this is a happy ending – one that we have chosen. And one that contains (we hope) an exciting legacy for both Unlimited and those future companies of artists. Using the cash reserves that we have carefully built over many years and thanks to a donation from a generous benefactor who doesn’t want to be named, we are moving from a producing model to a grant-making model with our unAwards.
In 2024-25 Unlimited Theatre will make grants of at least £55,000 to companies of artists making new work, with the intention of this being an ongoing scheme. Applications for the first round opens in January 2024 and there are three categories in this first round, each inspired by a pivotal moment or experience in our own history.
- ‘Starting Out’ – two awards of up to £2500 for early career artists to buy equipment that will significantly contribute to the development of their business or creative practice.
- ‘unLab’ – two awards of up to £5000 for early/mid career artists to ‘retreat’ and begin to imagine their next project.
- ‘unLock’ – one award of up to £10,000 for mid career artists to enhance/support an ambitious project that is ready for final production.
These new unAwards will be be easy to apply for and with minimal reporting so artists can focus their time and energy on making art, rather than making applications. We hope this will be a meaningful contribution to supporting the next generation of theatre makers and, in our ‘retirement’, leave a lasting legacy that enables new creatives and audiences to embark on their own journeys.
It’s been an incredible journey that we’ve been on to this point. We’re looking forward to supporting and following the next generation of artists as they continue to help make the world a better, more inclusive, more inspiring place.