The Startup Interview: Bracket Productions

Soleil Westendorf and Prema Chablani (left to right), Co-Founders of Bracket Productions

Theatre companies are known for attracting talent from every corner of the globe and Bracket Productions, a new Edinburgh-based theatre company are no exception. Prema Chablani and Soleil Westendorf, two of the company’s four founders, have lived in Japan, Australia, Kuwait, Cyprus, France, Jersey and the UK and we’re only just getting started. We met late on a February afternoon at a crowded Starbucks near the University of Edinburgh’s central campus for a chat about entrepreneurship, how you least expect it, and their idea of combining theatre and multimedia.

There’s a knack to conducting interviews which, apparently, I have yet to pick up on. That is to find out what your subjects look like before arriving at a heaving Starbucks. Fortunately, Facebook stalking helps here and I find Prema and Soleil are here already, sat at a table near the tills. As I settle myself in, Soleil pops off to collect a cup of tea so Prema tells me about herself. She’s of Spanish and Indian descent but was born and raised in Japan before moving to Edinburgh to study English Literature three years ago. She attempts to fill me in on Soleil’s background but falters at the first hurdle: her degree.

Soleil returns, tea in hand, and fills me in. She’s half French and half Australian but has lived in five countries before her family settled in Jersey two years ago, around the same time that she moved to Edinburgh to study International Relations and Law. While Prema has a fair bit of experience in the world of theatre — she directed a number of school plays and recently produced a show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe — Soleil has none. Interesting then for a pair who have set up a theatre company together.

I dive right in with my questioning, both of them clearly intrigued as to what I’m going to throw in their direction. “What inspired you to become entrepreneurs?” I ask. “Well, I wanted to put on a show that combined multimedia, or cinema and theatre. I found Soleil via Facebook who also wanted to do this so we proposed it to a couple of theatre production companies who said it was too ambitious. So, after rejection, we said we could just do it ourselves. We’ll show them,” Prema tells me. It’s an interesting but not unsurprising answer. Many of the entrepreneurs I’ve had the privilege of meeting have told stories of how they took the ‘do-it-yourself’ route after rejections from established companies. What does surprise me, however, is their meeting on social media. This doesn’t strike the pair as unusual — they claim to have recruited their entire team that way.

“So how have you got on?” I ask the pair. “It was really confusing at first. We had absolutely no idea where to start or what to do,” Prema says, referring to the process of setting up their own company. “We sat in Potterrow [the student union] thinking that the most important thing to do would be to come up with a name and we came up with a lot of shit. Most of it sounded like it had to do with restaurant chains, strip clubs, hats and cars and we couldn’t design a logo for any of that.” They eventually gave up on the name searching, deciding instead to focus on their show, a production of Oscar Wilde’s classic, The Importance of Being Earnest, which they are set to perform next week, exactly 120 years after its premiere.

“Most of it [ideas for company name] sounded like it had to do with restaurant chains, strip clubs, hats and cars and we couldn’t design a logo for any of that.”
— Prema Chablani, Co-Founder of Bracket Productions

It has, by now, become quite apparent to me that Prema is the spokesperson for the company when Soleil chimes in, noting how auditions were the key moment where the company realised that the production would actually take place. “Understandably, people are wary and don’t want to get involved in something if they don’t feel it is going to work. So at the auditions where we saw loads of people come, we had that ‘It is actually happening’ moment,” she says with a broad smile.

I’m desperate to turn the conversation back to entrepreneurship itself and find out more about the individuals behind the production but feel that the group’s focus on multimedia warrants further discussion. “The whole background of the play has been pre-filmed,” Prema says. “We want to encourage anyone who puts on a production to use multimedia.” “Everyone loves to go to the cinema and everyone likes to go to the theatre but when you can combine the two atmospheres, you bring in a new kind of audience,” adds Soleil. “We want to add something to theatre.”

This emerging combination of theatre and technology appears to have served the company well — they’ve assembled a team of fifty students and professionals with a broad range of skills who have all added to the project in new and different ways. “We want as many people as possible to have the opportunity to say, this is my project,” finishes Prema.

“What is the biggest lesson you’ve learnt from entrepreneurship so far?” I ask the pair, swinging the conversation away from theatre and back to entrepreneurship. The answer I receive is delivered in a particularly dead-pan tone of voice: “Shit happens,” says Prema. “It can get really stressful, there’s a lot of stuff that goes wrong but we’ve overcome everything so far.” Soleil notes, however, that if you “step back from it,” you can overcome obstacles by looking at “where we need to be” and asking “how can we get there?”

Throughout our conversation so far, I’ve had a slight inkling that the pair might not count themselves as entrepreneurs but rather, as theatre producers and directors so I ask them. Prema responds first with a hesitantly-delivered “I would say yes.” It’s the first time that Prema has been less than confident with one of her answers. It is, however, Soleil’s answer which interests me most. “I don’t think I realised it before you asked that question,” she laughs. I fail to ask why she’s never contemplated it before but do ask if she’ll consider entrepreneurship after graduation. “Yeah. I think I have too many ideas or things that I want to do to take a regular job when I’m older,” Soleil responds before adding, “I want to see a problem and work towards fixing that.” Prema is of a similar view.

“I think I have too many ideas or things that I want to do to take a regular job when I’m older. I want to see a problem and work towards fixing that.”
— Soleil Westendorf, Co-Founder of Bracket Productions

Interested in the pair’s entrepreneurial education, I ask them what the best piece of advice they’ve been given was. “Don’t do it,” Soleil blurts out jokingly. Prema tells me that the best advice she’s received came from one of her three co-founders, Lindsay — who, along with Elle, isn’t present today — during a 4am crisis meeting. “He told me not to worry, we’ve dealt with this before and we’ll do it again,” she says, openly admitting that, of the four of them, she is the one who gets stressed most frequently. Although they may be as far removed from a tech startup as one can get, the team at Bracket Productions are clearly very close-knit and are used to working into the night — something the media reports as normality in today’s tech startups.

“And what is the best piece of advice you would give others considering starting their own business?” I ask. “Just go for it,” Soleil proclaims, performing a complete about turn on her answer to my previous question. “If she hadn’t responded to my Facebook post, I would have had a different assistant director thirty minutes later,” Prema notes.

In the first interview of this series, I asked Cavid Nadirov who inspired him the most to discover a deep family connection so I’m interested to ask Prema and Soleil the same question. “For me, it wasn’t a particular person but rather, a particular set of experiences that inspired me to want to go do my own thing,” Prema tells me with Soleil’s agreement.

I’m aware that Soleil has a late-afternoon tutorial to rush off to but I’m intrigued to explore their business model a little further. As an entrepreneur who’s dabbled in theatre before, I know how challenging the performing arts can find it to raise funds and turn a profit all to well. So, with the production aiming to raise £1,500 to support education programmes at UNICEF, I ask them what persuaded them that they could break even and make a profit for charity. “We walked in with the view that its going to make a lot of money,” Prema tells me with great confidence. “We knew it was going to work, it was not going to fail.” Soleil claims that the show’s popularity has also helped and she’s not wrong. They have, I’m informed, raised £1,500 online, generating a £500 profit for charity before accounting for their ticket sales which include a sellout opening performance with more than a week to go.

Bringing the interview to a close, I ask the obvious question for a theatre company based in Edinburgh: “has being in the city which plays host to the world’s largest arts festival inspired you more than performing elsewhere might have?” The influence aspect to my question is ignored — the pair are too keen to tell me that they already plan on putting on two productions at this year’s Fringe Festival. “What we want to do is step back from directing and let other people have the chance,” Prema tells me, referring to the four show proposals they’ve received. “We’ll be there for advice,” she says. Although I admire their vision of letting others take over, it strikes me as a little bizarre that the founders of a company should step back soon but maybe, just maybe, they have other big ideas they want to peruse in the near future.

We conclude our interview and, wrapped up warm, head for the exit. Two or three photographs later, the pair turn and head for their tutorials. I suspect they’ll be back in rehearsals just an hour or two from now.