Creative entrepreneur's journey

Creative director and theatrical production designer Sarah Burren.
ROCKPOOL 'band' picture (part of 'journey to the deep')
Silly Sausage theatrical kids show
Lucky the Seagull, hero of Rockpool (part of 'journey to the deep')
Sarah Burren was the conceptual brains behind the 5 meter tall marionette known as'Junior' - the giant puppet, Merlot-operated (Merlot is a specialised small crane) alongside 10 puppeteers who toured alongside Rugby World Cup events.
Making clothes for Junior
Making clothes for Junior
Creative entrepreneur Sarah Burren talks about the five year journey to bring her 'edu-tainment' project Journey to the Deep to the world.


Inspired by Cirque du Soleil and large-scale creative experiences, Sarah Burren wants her fusion of interactive theatre and education to go global. She tells Ande Schurr about the five year journey, and attempts to secure funds from local government and corporations, to bring her 'edu-tainment' project Journey to the Deep to the world.  

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The entrepreneur per se is a special kind of person. Their greatest asset is the ability to not just make an idea, any idea, happen, but to make it profitable. The creative entrepreneur deals with a much tougher market. Instead of widgets or retails stores, they deal in film, theatre, art, education and public performances. In other words, they seek to give the public an experience rather than a product.

Experiences can also be highly profitable. Just look at Cirque du Soleil, the inspiration behind Sarah's current project Journey to the Deep. From small beginnings in Quebec, Canada, the two owners secured $1 million of government funding and began what we now know as the surreal circus company, without animals. In 2011 they turned over around $1 billion.

Sarah has been working on this 'edu-tainment' project for the last five years. She has secured in-house publication support from the Department of Conservation (DOC), received $120,000 from the Auckland Regional Services trust (ARST) and pitched to the largest corporation of its kind in New Zealand, the Seafood Industry Council (SeaFIC), which turned over $1.3 billion in 2009.

This last strategy, the pitch to SeaFIC, is particularly educational for all creatives seeking funding because Sarah played the 'social conscience' card. Any large corporation wants to be seen in a positive light by the public. So they will invest in initiatives or charities that have no explicit commercial gain yet win them gold stars in the eyes of the public. The Bank of New Zealand has the Save the Kiwi program, Mercury Energy supports the Starship Hospital, 2degrees are partners with the Tots to Teens initiative and so on. When public funding is limited, the creative entrepreneur must consider the corporate sector. 

Sarah is a creative director and theatrical production designer with tremendous enthusiasm. To name just two recent projects, she orchestrated the return of the 100 year old Victoria Theatre to Devonport as a working theatre after it faced being turned into apartments and was the conceptual brains behind the 5 meter tall marionette known as 'Junior' - the giant puppet who toured alongside Rugby World Cup events.

What is Journey to the Deep?

It's a flagship environmental project that is connecting people to the sea. It's a fun edutainment where people take on the role of a different species. It's very much a marine conservation entertainment done through narrative story telling, puppetry characters, and incredibly immersive and tactile. Each person who goes through the whole experience finds himself or herself wanting to take a call to action towards doing something with marine conservation. It has an education wrap-around that is of vital importance to underpin the creative.

Why has it taken you five years, and where are you now?

It's taken five years because it has been waiting for a global audience. The world market has caught up to the fact that marine conservation is on people's lips now. It wasn't back then. Five years ago it was "marine conservation, who cares?" A lot of people still have that attitude, but we have more legislation and international groups who are fighting towards saving coral reefs, for example, and not just species driven. Another reason it's taking this long is that the project was stretched out too far and then we hit the recession in 2008. It was a $2.5 - 3 million project, which was way too big. It needed to go from fort Takapuna (where the first production was held) to the next step. Which is what it's doing now as a much smaller version of the international scale one.

If it takes you another 5 years of hard slog will you still do it?

Yes. Definitely. You can't just give up. I'm sure I've driven people mad with this project but I'm not doing this for popularity votes. I'm really focused. This project can be instrumental in making a massive difference towards building awareness for marine conservation using a theatrical form with an immersive quality. I think it can really be created, all over the world, like a Cirque du Soleil, but an underwater one so I'm not going to give up on it.

What's your connection to Cirque du Soleil?

I knew some of the original people who started Cirque du Soleil when I lived in Canada working on Phantom. They secured government funding from Quebec, approx. a million dollars towards their first big top show and tour. It was absolutely amazing watching that idea grow from humble street performers. They had a big top that only seated about 350 people and it was over some train tracks in Toronto. You had to walk off the beaten track to get to it. It was a tiny little Circus but it was beautifully done - with no animals which is the first thing I loved. Of course everyone is going "a circus without animals"? I'm going "hell yes!" That's brave! Good on them. I watched and always saw what they would do on a big scale. No one thought they would make it. In fact I bought the (then) videocassette and info back on them (Cirque) when I returned to NZ at the end of 1994 and pitched them to a ‘high profile’ promoter at the viaduct. He said, “ We don’t do circus in NZ!!!! I am sure he’s eaten those words many times.

However you can't be a follower. You have to lead by example. I'm inspired by what Cirque du Soleil does. To be able to come up with an idea and take it to the next level is a real challenge. You have to be passionate about it and collaborate with people who are like-minded; otherwise you couldn't possibly do it.

Who would want to fund Journey to the Deep? Is there a commercial benefit?

We received $120,000 from the ARST fund (Auckland Regional Services Trust) which got Journey to the Deep to its next level. Among the criteria is the requirement that the project be non-commercial. That was a good amount of money to really inject into the project, build our test pieces and show people. We put on two different test nights, and brought along captions of the industry and targeted people who we thought would put funds into it; those who would see long-term benefit to associate their brand towards marine and marine education. We got right to top-level management of SeaFIC, The NZ Seafood Industry Council.

What were you hoping to achieve by inviting SeaFIC, the NZ Seafood Industry Council, to your test nights?

The whole of the fishing industry knows about this project at top level. It would have been the perfect tie-up for them to promote their sustainable fishing methods. We pitched it to all the board members but one. They considered it for a few months and finally replied “it is too conservation-focused”. If they were that good and sure about their sustainable fishing practice, why didn't they come to the party? It leaves a question mark. We were very prepared to come to the party and work through levels of compromise.

How did you pitch your idea to the executives of SeaFIC?

There were three of us. Every board member but one was present. We had an amazing information memorandum written by Cranleigh Merchant Bankers (Corporate Advisory Firm). Fiona Luhrs, ex Tourism Industry Association New Zealand, wrote the value propositions; the value of what it would be for NZ Fisheries. The value to them with this show would be - things like 'stand up tall, have your shoulders proud, you can change people's attitude, you have a really bad reputation and this show will help you achieve your strategy of getting into the hearts and minds of New Zealanders'. They really want to be seen to be doing good. We have one of the most plentiful and abundant fishing coasts in the world and we need to look after it. Sean Murray then spoke directly to the numbers. Then I spoke to the creative and we showed them a fly-through (see YouTube video below) to help them visualize it.

Why do you feel personally about marine conversation?

I grew up in Fiji, started scuba diving at nine. It's never left me. It's absolutely magical down there. It's like an underwater experience of a lifetime. It opens up your whole creative imagination to what it's like down there. It's spooky and eerie yet peaceful and beautiful. It's endless, bottomless.

I was going to be a marine biologist when I left school. Then someone said I had to count how many scallops there are in a square meter  - that's what you'll be doing all day - and I thought that sounded incredibly boring! So then I went into a whole different area. I had a shell collection and knew all their botanical (Latin) names. I was Miss Science at school. I thought I'd be doing what Jacque Cousteau did. I can remember, when we grew up in Wellington before Fiji, we were always looking in rock pools and they were plentiful. They had these squiggly, moving, interesting beings in them. Just the fascination of rock pools when you're small. Then going into scuba diving and being able to swim with fish and eels and water snakes, tiger sharks. But the corals and scuba diving around the areas we lived in Fiji were absolutely beautiful. The reef was just unspoiled, the colors were beyond anything.

How do you go about approaching people for funding?

First of all there is the understanding of what the money is for. Why is someone going to invest. Why is someone going to sponsor. Why is someone going to be interested in any particular project. That has to be the first thing. So there is alignment. With Journey of the Deep, it's very difficult because it has not been done or seen before. It's blue-sky thinking. So to be able to get that over the line, you've got to have great people to help you do that. I've had incredible business mentors, consultants and creative industries professionals who have a good understanding of the strategic structure and how to get to the right people.

With Junior, the 5 meter tall marionette, I was in an agency at the right time. So I delivered the concept to a Public Relations agency and then someone in the meeting took it to the next level and got the money over the line. That was a wonderful synergy because it was to do with arts and culture around Auckland.

Every single project is quite different. Journey to the Deep is one I've been developing for 5 years. I've had numerous rejections from people not quite getting it so I've self-funded it and I've done that by working as a production designer and art director for commercials, short films or theatre. That gave me the money needed to spend time on the next phase of the project. The Department of Conversation have seed-funded small components of development. They are building an online educational wrap around that will be accessible to each student and the public at large. So they are utilising their in-house resources to help us.

You can't go around with your heart on your sleeve. You have to keep the project fresh and honest to its form, even if it seems like you're going backwards. I just keep thinking 'brick by brick'.

What frustrates you the most about developing large-scale creative projects?

The time it takes. Sometimes it's beyond painstaking. You have to have the time necessary for the proper development but nothing has ever gone fast enough for me. I think the brick by brick approach is what I do well, but my head is soaring over there. It's being able to keep on that track with a project that hasn't been done yet.

What does being Green mean to you?

It means having a social consciousness about how our actions can impact the future generations. A friend asked me “why would the worst perpetrator of unsustainable marine practices put funds into this?” My answer was "it could work for them". The Seafood Council really wants to be seen to be doing good. And we do have one of the best sustainable/quota systems in the world, except no one knows about it. We are not a Greenpeace show, with protesting and or splatting blood on fur on the catwalk. All that extreme point of view does is piss people off because it makes them feel guilty and judged.

Have you had one partner, personal or professional, who you credit with keeping you motivated?

I have a fantastic partner in my life who's very support and is as entrepreneurial as I am. He understands how difficult things are. He gets it. He's not involved in my business at all, he just guides and measures. I know his feedback will not be glossed over, it will be slam-dunk!

It's really difficult to do big things here in New Zealand, in every single way, but I don't want to live anywhere else. I did all that for 15 years in the 80s and 90s. It's not because the people I associate with are closed, it's just such a tiny market. 

When you have an idea you can't do anything by yourself. It's not about ‘I’; it's about a team of people who collaborate. For me, this team of people you meet along the way is the most rewarding part of the journey. Lots of those become life-long partnership or friends, since you're working towards a similar goal. It's being able to clearly describe the idea that you have and for people to understand what you're trying to do, and then come on board with that idea. I've self-funded most projects. I've had inheritances go towards development. It's having a belief that you can support and communicate with all those coming on board, that you can have a great big moving juggernaut.

What makes you jump out of bed in the morning?

It's a desire to create and do thing, to conceptualise and be able to put them into a tangible form. Any creative person is project driven. I grew up with parents who always did stuff. They came up with ideas and they delivered them. Whether it was a garden or a rock pool, (my father designed and built our first family house at the weekends, while he was managing his architectural practice on Wakefield street!) they followed through; otherwise you're left with disappointments.

Have you suffered any setbacks that have helped you seize the day?

The first was losing a parent at 18. Losing my father was profoundly instrumental in choices that I've made and being able to want to actually complete things. Live is so short. If you lose a family member who's close it kicks you into a different propulsion, it moves you and changes you up a gear. I lost a nephew who was 2 as well. Personal tragedy propels you into big choices.

Without personal tragedy, is it still possible to move up a gear?

I think a sense of what an individual wants to do in their lives has got to come from an innate desire to want to clearly and succinctly carry that through. Otherwise it's a jumble.

Life is really short! People have antiques that are thousands of years old and we have an 85-year life expectancy if we're lucky. My father was absolutely instrumental in propelling me to go "This is it now. It's now."  It's all about learning from the past, planning for the future and living in the present. If you live in the present you remember everything. It's intense learning and intense focus on what is happening now. It's what people lack in getting their projects to the next level. Do one thing really well.

What should creative people watch out for when developing their ideas?

Apathy, laziness, lack of chronological order of how to get from A to B. Stickability.

So many times I see people with fantastic ideas. A couple of months' later when I ask how their idea is going, they say "oh, we got lots of rejections" or "it was too hard" and I'm going "but you've only just started it!!" After 20 years with it still in the bottom draw then maybe you can give up on that idea. What you have to lose is the desire for instant gratification.

I believe you have to carve your own way in the world. That is done by hard work, passion, perseverance and attracting people who want to collaborate. You can't be an island.

It's been incredibly tough. When you meet people from DOC or talk to people from the public about what they want to do with marine conservation I absolutely know with impunity that I'm doing the right thing with this project. All the people on-board are doing it for these same reasons. They really want to see this having a massive impact out of little tiny NZ to a global entity. We can then say 'this idea came out of NZ, it was delivered in NZ first, and we took it to the market place". I want this show to be on in five different places around the world at the same time. There is money out there and there are people who would come behind this.

What Cirque du Soleil did was completely change the face of circus. They took their vision into a kind of spectacular forum of beautiful visual everything with high levels of artistry right through the team. The core group is still going. They now have an interactive multimedia show called Aqua, which came to the Auckland Museum for a limited time in 2011.

Any final words?

Creative industry teaches you to be very resourceful. Many people work on commercials purely because of the money.  I want to work on things that have much more satisfaction than just money. I can't be just money driven. If you have the right radar and energy, then I believe things will happen, and financial success can follow, bank rolling the next projects

Journey to the Deep is about being able to use the power of theatre to get a huge audience reach towards marine conservation awareness.

Sarah’s Website: Little Green Man Productions

Written by

Ande Schurr

8 May 2012

Ande Schurr is a professional and experienced sound recordist with a passion for the film and TV industry. His columns on The Big Idea focus on 'How Freelancers Succeed'.

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