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10 minutes with… comedian Michael Cleggett

Business

Michael Cleggett understands the challenges involved with trying to sustain a career in the arts in South Australia.

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One-half of comedy duo Gravity Boots, Cleggett has performed at the Edinburgh Fringe twice but has also had to take on a day job to keep his performing career afloat. This year the 27-year-old has started an MBA at the University of Adelaide to help him manage the off-stage side of the performing business, a move he hopes will pay dividends for Gravity Boots and beyond.

How did Gravity Boots form?

I did an undergraduate degree in Creative Arts/Drama at Flinders University. It’s a fully-fledged acting school up there and although it’s a bachelor degree it’s over four years so there’s automatic honours.

In our spare time at university, a classmate, James Lloyd Smith, and I started doing comedy together and we started writing some sketches and from there the uni let us put on a show in 2010 of our own sketches and songs.

A couple of comedy producers who had just moved over from the UK asked us if we wanted to do a show in the (Adelaide) Fringe so in our fourth year at uni we wrote that and performed at the 2011 Fringe and people responded well to that.

You performed at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012, how was that experience?

That was really hard the first year. We were at Guild the Balloon, which is one of the four major comedy venues at Edinburgh. We got slammed in a couple of reviews, we had trouble with numbers and we had to flyer for three or four hours a day.

That was a real testing point for us as a group but at the end of the festival we were approached by the English comedian Paul Foot who saw the show and he offered to direct our next show and kind of mentor us.

We resolved to go back to the festival the next year. Paul came over (to Adelaide) in January 2013 and mentored us for two weeks and taught us all kinds of stuff about editing our work and driving harder for better results. We wrote a new show with him and took that over and during that time we ended our relationship with our managers and started to self-manage. I sort of took the lead on that and it flowed into the MBA. We went to Edinburgh again and it was hard again but the reviews got better, audience numbers got better and we didn’t actually lose any money.

Where is Gravity Boots at now?

At the end of that second Edinburgh Fringe festival we were at a bit of a crossroad with the live stuff. Our stuff is very niche, it’s surreal humour, it’s very offbeat and it’s not for everyone. In any given place we might only appeal to 5 or 7 per cent of people who go to comedy shows so if we were to try and build an audience from that we would have to filter through a huge amount of people and every time only take about 5-7 per cent of those people on to become true fans. We started thinking about other ways to get out there and build an audience without having to outlay huge amounts of money and perform 30-show seasons. So we started thinking about doing some film content. Online content has become the pathway now after working on a pilot. So we’ve just started filming ourselves making sketches and publishing them on YouTube to see if we can build the fan base and find new audiences. The aim is to get a web series with a broadcaster and to build enough of a presence so that when we do go and do a live show we can sell it out and you can charge a decent ticket price.

How hard is it being a performer in Adelaide?

Very hard is the short answer. But it’s as hard as you want it to be and it depends what your expectations are. When you get out of drama school – and this happens to a lot of people – you suffer the biggest case of being crestfallen that you ever experience in life because everyone who gets into drama school thinks they are going to be a huge star. So when I got out and when my classmate got out and we entered the world of acting we soon realised there was lot of stuff in it that was out of our control and there are certain things that you have to do that you might not want to do like move city or hit the pavement and be at the mercy of casting directors and agents. James and I are not very good at being thrown to the wolves like that, we really do like to have a certain amount of control and input.

Why did you enrol in the MBA at the University of Adelaide?

I was looking at doing some post-grad study about a year ago so I first did a graduate certificate in business law because I wanted to learn a bit more about contracts, intellectual property and stuff like that. I then started having a look at the MBA and it just felt like a very active institution. You could sort of sense there was a lot of energy and a lot of expectation and I thought it looked like something that could give me skills that could be very helpful, not only to promote a career in the arts but also beyond that – if there’s other opportunities like moving into an arts organisation later on in life. So I organised a meeting with the Director of the MBA and I explained my situation and he said ‘Yeah, I think that really is something that we’d like in the MBA’. He really emphasised that how the Adelaide MBA works is there’s no online, everything is in class contact hours and they keep small classes – there’s nothing over 30 people in a class because the philosophy is that a certain amount of learning comes from text books and the assignments but another part of it is the people in the course. Based on my first classes they go for a real eclectic mix of people – we’ve got a mix of IT people, bankers, health professionals, a geologist and me. They want a whole bunch of people who think differently all working on the same problem, same issues and seeing what we can learn from each other.

That’s been great, I’ve learned a lot more about all kinds of stuff.

What do you hope to get out of it? 

My plan going in was that it was either going to be a fall back plan if the arts doesn’t work out, or will help me with my business to manage us through good situations and bad situations, especially if we start working with bigger organisations, or it will help me get work with an arts organisation. The skills I’m learning in the MBA are completely applicable to any arts organisation – I could see that straight away from the first class.

Being a performer is not the image that typically comes to mind when you hear the words MBA student, has that been a problem or has it worked in your favour?

I’d say it’s worked in my favour. I thought it would be a big problem and I was hugely nervous when I began the course – my expectation was that I would open my mouth a couple of times and people would say ‘What are you doing in here, this is for business people’ but it’s been the exact opposite. We’re not dealing with situations that are strictly business situations, we’re dealing with people situations – you’re dealing with organisations full of people and that’s what an arts group is, it’s an organisation of people trying to achieve something exactly the same as a mining company or a supermarket. So coming in after working in a tight-knit group that works with limited funding and creates all its own products is completely applicable to everything we’ve been doing and people have been really appreciative of having that sort of perspective coming in to things. If you come from a large corporation, you’ve got certain KPIs and expectations on you but at the same time you’re working with quite a big safety net because you’ve got all these resources around you that you can use. In a small arts organisation you don’t, you have to think creatively and you have to solve all your problems with what you’ve got and you have to be able to pivot at any given time depending on what’s going on around you. Being able to bring that experience alongside the experience of the person from the large corporation has been a really nice meeting of minds.

Solstice Media has partnered with the University of Adelaide to profile MBA graduates.

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