What’s in a name? From Kindle to Kiln

(Full version of a Guardian Letters excerpt, Mon 17 Sept)

In the London arts scene this past fortnight there has been much spotlight on name changes and the identities of cultural institutions. I am Sam Frankie Fox, Co-artistic director of Kiln Ensemble, and I am writing to share my experiences of rebranding; making and breaking the mould.

I’m one of four women that, in 2005, established a company called Kindle Theatre. We have been working professionally for thirteen years and have created twenty six original productions. I have usually led on the musical aspects of our live performances, and have performed alongside some brilliant, multi-talented collaborators. We’ve mostly made work in a collision of artforms. Always playful. Always passionate.

We began by cutting our teeth in the abandoned factories of the Midlands, making ensemble-driven, site-responsive work for anyone and everyone that would listen. As it developed, the work started travelling out of post-industrial buildings, and soon appeared at festivals across Europe. We were included in the British Council Showcase, Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2015 and were regularly project-funded by the Arts Councils of England and Wales. As our work became recognised nationally and internationally, particularly with our most widely performed and lauded piece The Furies, we hit upon a challenge regarding identity.

In 2014 we underwent a re-branding process, with the realisation that we could not compete with the branding power of Amazon’s e-reader Kindle. This was an expensive and drawn-out process. However, after months of discussion and brainstorming we found a neat solution. A name we could grow into. A strong name full of fire and energy. We began with creative kindling and would mature our work in a Kiln.

Fast-forward to April 2018 and I’m on the phone with Artistic Director Indhu Rubasingham questioning why her company has, without contacting us prior to the public announcement, changed their name from the Tricycle Theatre to Kiln Theatre.

I felt furious and confused and I was speaking to her in a haze. I began to experience a slow creeping sensation; a bit like when you have just woken up and are slowly realising that your home has been burgled in the middle of the night. The whole conversation felt like a recited, well-rehearsed script. Indhu had had months to prepare for the announcement and seemed well-equipped to answer any manner of difficult questions. She was under fire from many different angles regarding the name change from Tricycle Theatre to Kiln Theatre, and I was the least of her worries. She told me that yes they knew we were also called Kiln but in her eyes there was no conflict of interest because the names (Kiln Theatre and Kiln Ensemble) were distinctly different. No apology was offered or any explanation of why we had not been consulted.

It was pretty bad timing for us. We had recently made the painful decision to close our company and continue working as individual artists under our own names, but were yet to carry out any formal actions to close. For some time we had been making more individually-driven work and the ‘ensemble’ part of our name was making less and less sense. So we’d decided to make a positive and productive change. The ideas and training had been fired in our Kiln and the work would go forward through us as individual collaborating practitioners.

You may think it strange to be obsessing over a company name when that company is planning to close in formal and legal terms anyway. But the work isn’t dead. We are active busy artists and simply want to be able to reference our work properly and distinctly. The new Kiln Theatre is a regularly-funded organisation based in London and it tours productions nationally, with much greater reach and visibility than we have ever had. We will have to accept that as an online archive our work will be harder to find on a google search. But if people look hard enough they will find us. You’re here reading this, aren’t you?!

What is in a name?

When you start a company from scratch and give it a name it fully brings it to life. When you nurture it and grow it it starts to really mean something; it takes on its own identity. It begins to mean something to others too, not just to you. And it may be churlish, but that’s why I don’t want to share it. I want to protect the name because I truly think it should and will live on. Even the change of name from Kindle to Kiln means something to us.

There are so many details I could go into about the debates we’ve had as a company around trademarking, the generous advice given to us by our board and intellectual property experts. I have learnt (and could bore you with) a lot of new legal terminology regarding ‘reputation’ (a legal term meaning brand or reach; essentially the financial benefits of a brand), but the fact remains that Kiln Theatre have rebranded and opened and are now building a new identity of their own. We have to come to terms with that. In the meantime, we’re searching for ways to protect the legacy of our twenty six productions.

Later this month we will host a ritual walk for the company’s members and collaborators. We will meet at the clock-tower where we conceived the idea to start a theatre company and we will then walk a seven mile route out into the countryside and look back on that site fondly. We’ll eat together and share stories and raise a toast or two. We’ll be toasting Kindle and Kiln in all its forms and we’ll also be looking out to the fields beyond wondering what new artistic endeavours await us.

To finish, I’ll return to the sensation of waking up to realise your home has been burgled. Here’s an analogy that for me best describes that feeling.

It’s the feeling like the one when you wake up on a morning to find your home has been burgled. You don’t realise straight away, but as you begin to go about your daily rituals you slowly realise your house isn’t in order. Things have been moved around. There’s a draught and something doesn’t feel quite right. You later realise that the intruders must have let themselves in through the open window that you’d left ajar to let some fresh air circulate. You feel a bit naïve for being so trusting.

Some days after the incident you decide to go out to a party and you notice someone wearing a beautiful, if slightly unusual, coat. Moving closer, you notice there is something familiar about the cut, the colour, the stains; it looks lived in. And then you realise; you had a coat like that once! You remember re-sewing the buttons and re-patching the holes. As you stand staring you both know the coat is yours but there’s no way of proving it. You tell everyone, you explain yourself, but there’s nothing to be done, and the coat looks different on them anyway. Time to find a new coat.

KILN

Our productions are collaborative, with a focus on the ensemble. We reinvent narrative through a collision of art forms, from music-theatre to food design, plundering epic stories and filtering them through personal experience. Our performances have taken place in a range of spaces from the back of a van to decommissioned factories, a gothic church to traditional theatre spaces.

KILN is an Associate Company of Birmingham Repertory Theatre. For more info, please visit the about us page.

Follow us on Twitter: @KILNensemble

Friend us on Facebook: KILN Birmingham

KILN used to be called Kindle Theatre.

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