ON VENUES, THEATRE and AUDIENCES OLD AND NEW

New Picture (6)

I’m Lorna Rees. I’m the ‘New Theatre In Your Neighbourhood Engagement Specialist for Poole’ (cor, that’s a title and a half isn’t it?). It’s been a truly fascinating and rather personal journey thinking about theatre in Poole and the surrounding area. I say surrounding area because I do think that context is very important too – I live just outside of Poole, but we’re all in the ‘cultural county’ of Dorset and much of the main population centres are in Bournemouth and Poole – a conurbation which is geographically barely separable.

I’ve been working and thinking about theatre development in Dorset for the past seven years for a brilliant organisation called Activate Performing Arts http://activateperformingarts.org.uk/ , an arts council NPO* which I’ve just left so that I can pursue other ventures (these other ventures mainly involve me doing more work as an artist myself). I moved back to Dorset from London, where I studied, lived and worked for eight years. And there, I’ve said it. I always, in a slightly defensive way, mention that I lived and worked in London for years because somehow I believe that gives me status, that I somehow ‘get’ theatre in a way that perhaps people living and working and making and watching theatre in Dorset or ‘the regions’** all their lives somehow wouldn’t get. This is dreadful snobbery and complete rubbish. Yet I still wear my London ‘stint’ like a badge of pride. This is a weird thing to unpick – we defer to London, Bristol, Edinburgh – maybe Manchester – as if they are the epicentre of the theatrical universe when what they really have is a critical mass of people, a city and a community of interest.

Poole Welcome Centre

The ‘e’ may have dropped off the name, but there is a ‘Welcome Centre’ in Poole and they loved hearing about the shows FUEL are producing.

There are some brilliant companies working here in Bournemouth, Poole and Dorset – some like The Paper Cinema, Angel Exit and Shanty Theatre also have a foot in London too. We also boast some amazing events like Dorset’s Inside Out Festival, Bournemouth Arts by the Sea Festival and several music festivals which feature theatre including Camp Bestival and Larmer Tree. Yet we do undeniably have a more limited arts scene, there is less ‘cultural offer’, there are fewer audiences for new work because we don’t have so many people living here, and – arguably – there are less risk takers willing to pay for work in the audience.

But the money and the acclaim are disproportionately in London’s favour and there is rather a dreadful patronising attitude – of which I too am rather guilty – towards ‘the regions’ and ‘regional theatre’. When the ‘arts class’ could perhaps celebrate the fact that we host the largest arts centre outside of London,  a performing arts venue in Poole we are rather inclined to question why Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat is in the mix as opposed to say something more….artistic, or… well, new? We (I include myself in this) may groan that Annie is on – but this is all about taste isn’t it? And it’s about commercial vs. subsidised and it’s about our perception of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ culture.  For those of us who have studied theatre we can bang on about Peter Brook and dead(ly) theatre etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum, but that doesn’t really invalidate my ‘non-theatre’ friends’ enjoyment of a commercial production of The Gruffalo which has been doing the rounds for years but is in fact really quite enjoyable. It is a terribly tricky thing to run a venue – to make sure the film programme is really interesting, that the studio isn’t the only place programming new work, that the roof isn’t falling down because someone stole the lead, that you are still making enough money to pay the box office staff, who are probably the most important people in the building because they sell the shows you programme. Deep breath, NEW THEATRE CAN BE A BIT HARD TO SELL CAN’T IT?

My first theatre ever was Panto at the Harlow Playhouse – I might sniff at that now, but really, I thought it was quite incredible. I sneakily have a huge respect for Pantomime – it has mass appeal. It is also quite often ‘not to my taste’, but I know better than to just dismiss stuff… I can see the value in getting audiences in to something they feel safe and comfortable with. I also completely understand the desire to make rather a lot of money for the venue so you can subsidise the rest of the programme for the year…  I also have to admit that my first professional appearance in a show was in Joseph And his aforementioned Technicolour Dreamcoat at Lighthouse, and I loved it.

And these performances are not mutually exclusive – we live in a mixed economy. I don’t think I need or have to replace the Josephs and the pantos with Gecko. They do live in harmony, just as the West End theatre can live in a ‘happy’ tension with the subsidised theatre sector (sidebar to this: many of my friends see no such divisions, they are just as happy to have me take them to something beautiful and small by Travelling Light in the studio just as they are happy to take me to the Peppa Pig stage show).

But, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t want to see more new work, more work which has just been minted in a crucible of ideas and passion – theatre which awakens something inside you in Poole. I’d like to see more of the best quality work coming to Lighthouse (it’s a good start that Inua Ellams is coming along!) and I’d love for there to be more of a conversation between audiences and artists. In my experience there is actually a huge desire for new and exciting work to come to the studio and to the main house – I firmly believe that there’s an audience for the type of work FUEL produces and that often the shows I attend in the studio are pretty full.

Well, we could bang on about high art and low art all day – and I’m not really here to do that… what I’m really interested in though is how to harness the theatre fans, the folk who would happily fork out money to go and see the new Almodovar film but not to see a new piece of live performance. I want to get ‘em in young, get people forming a habit for theatre because they know that there will be something new and exciting and different in live performance.

Be(A)st of Talor Mac

Also – there is brilliant stuff on at Lighthouse. I first saw Taylor Mac at Lighthouse. I first saw Kneehigh, Gecko, Lindsay Kemp – yes, LINDSAY KEMP! Jasmin Vardimon and Black Fish have just performed there. FUEL will be bringing two pieces there this season, in the future it looks like Platform Four is bringing something exciting next season…. there is a mixed economy here.  Of course I would wish that there was more of this offer – something every night! Realistically you also have to be careful about saturating your market, and after all, the venue still needs to break even, still needs to be a viable business.

But perhaps there are ways of making the audience for some of the new work grow – of encouraging them to be Theatre Adventurers, to be more intrepid, to explore the world of new work. I have to hold my hands up here and let you know that I love Fuel’s assertion that “essentially we make experimental work that people like”. This has been the driving force of my career – as an artist myself I always want to experiment: as a producer and programmer I want to challenge and entice an audience with excellent work, but I always want people to like it!

Some of the best work I have seen in recent years is work which Fuel has produced. I saw Melanie Wilson’s gorgeous Iris Brunette in Edinburgh a few years ago; it’s a piece which has really stayed with me. I’d cite Clod Ensemble’s Under Glass as being one of my top five favourite pieces of all time, I’ve seen Electric Hotel a few times – most recently when it was programmed as part of the Bournemouth Arts by the Sea Festival (where it received an incredible audience reception) and further back I’ve seen Gecko’s fantastic The Race a few times too. Fuel produces the type of work that I can enthuse about, and it’s certainly the type of work I want other people to see.

Chris Tapner

This is Chris. He’s already written a brilliant blog for us by the way (see the post from the 8th April entitled Political Stage/Theatre Stage). He has already spoken for himself, but it’s worth noting that as well as being a grand writer Chris also works on the box office. We had a rather lovely conversation about theatre audiences and Lighthouse and we both remain convinced that there is an educated audience out there in Poole for really excellent, high quality, innovative work.

Michele O'Brien

This is Michele. She is a fantastic practitioner and performer. We had a cuppa and talked about theatre. She knows a TON about Poole and she also runs the fantastic Granny Cousin’s Ghost Walk of Poole’s old town. Michele is a brilliant advocate for the arts in Poole and is a resident artist at Lighthouse already.

I’ve also been tasked with speaking to LOTS of students about coming along to the shows – specifically a tricky bunch to get into Lighthouse – and I’ve been recruiting student ambassadors to work with their peers to talk about the place and to get them to come…. We’ve already met a bunch of brilliant contemporary theatre students from Bournemouth University. I’m also working with Paula Hammond at Lighthouse on thinking about ways to have conversations with audiences.

Goodness, I’ve written rather a lot for what was going to be a short blog piece – but vive la new theatre, there is a market for new and exciting work here – we have already seen that’s true.

* NPO, for jargon busters is a National Portfolio Organisation, which essentially means you are one of the 696 arts organisations in the country to get regular funding from the Arts Council for a fixed term – usually three years.

**gosh what a pejorative phrase ‘the regions’ is!

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A model for learning

by Maddy Costa
When I grow up, I want to be as wise, humane, thoughtful and attentive as Francois Matarasso. I read the essays on his website Regular Marvels a few days ago and kicked myself for not doing so sooner: similarly wise and thoughtful friends (artists/writers/thinkers Rajni Shah and Mary Paterson) have been singing his praises for months. Each Regular Marvel is a community project exploring a facet of humanity’s relationship with art: Where We Dream spends time with an amateur-dramatics society; Winter Fires celebrates older artists; Bread and Salt contemplates migrant experience. But it was A Wider Horizon, on the importance of art to our understanding of each other and ourselves, and to our general well-being, that made my blood go fizzy. Here’s an excerpt from its introductory enquiry, Who Likes Art?:

Culture can be described as how we do what we have to do. We have to eat, but what we eat, how we prepare it and how we share it — all that’s culture. It’s what makes Sunday lunch, and it’s why Sunday lunch in France is not the same as Sunday lunch in England.

Art could be described as how we do all the things we don’t have to do. How we sing, dance, play, tell stories, make things up, share dreams, frighten ourselves, arrange objects, make pictures, imagine and all the rest. But don’t make the mistake of thinking those things aren’t important because we’re not obliged to do them. On the contrary, they’re so important precisely because we’re not obliged to do them. They’re important because we choose to do them, we want to do them, we wouldn’t feel ourselves if we couldn’t do them.

Art is wrapped up in everything we choose to do in our never-ending search to fulfil ourselves as human beings, to express our love, to speak our desires and our terrors, to create an identity, to build community, to make sense of life. Who likes art? Everyone likes art. We just don’t all like the same art.

Ever since I was tiny, I’ve been immersed in art: in the music my parents listened to, and that I used to forge my own identity; in the paintings I encountered and made in my teens; in theatre, which stole my heart in my 20s; in writing, which somehow in my 30s became as essential to me as breathing. But I make no distinction between craft and art: from my mother I inherited an aptitude for dress-making, from my aunt a love of knitting, and with all the women in my family I share a love of dancing and creative cooking. Art, in all its aspects, is my life. Matarasso revels in the multiplicity and necessity of art, too, and reading him reminded me of something beautiful that Chris Goode, a theatre-maker to whom I dedicate a lot of thinking time, wrote a couple of years ago:

It’s funny: almost everybody, right?, at some point or another in their lives, has written a poem. A teenage ‘nobody understands me’ poem or a funny little ‘roses are red’ poem in a Valentine’s card or whatever. Almost everybody does a bit of making, whether it’s cooking or gardening or knitting or DIY or whatever — and it’s not just target-driven activity, it’s not just about needing a cake or a scarf, it’s about having something to do that makes you feel like a participant in a wider project of being a civilised and creative individual in a society that overwhelmingly wants you to see yourself only as a consumer. But how many people will ever make a bit of theatre?

Part of what New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood is about is reaching out to the people who feel no connection with theatre in their lives. It’s not just that they won’t participate in it, or don’t dream of writing it or acting in it: they don’t even go to see it. Or if they do, it’s once or twice a year, the pantomime with the kids, or a big glossy West End show as a birthday treat. I sound like I’m disparaging pantomime and big glossy West End shows: I’m not. It’s just that watching and thinking about theatre is the best way I have – better by far than novels or cinema – of contemplating everything that is difficult, incomprehensible, overwhelming and wonderful in life, and in a childish way I wish everyone felt the same.

That’s what made encountering Matarasso’s work last week so particularly exhilarating: I read it at precisely the moment when I’m embarking on a new phase of work in this project, in which I visit the participating towns to talk to people about why they don’t go to the theatre, what it is that puts them off, what their expectations and assumptions and prejudices are. I’ve never done anything like this before and I’m apprehensive and really excited. Can I persuade anyone to change their mind, to come and see a Fuel show? What will I do if they do come, only to feel all their prejudices confirmed? Or if they come, really enjoy themselves, but file the experience away as a good night out, not to be repeated any time soon? There could be some knotty conversations ahead; what a relief to have Matarasso, graceful and patient, as my quiet companion and guide.

Political Stage / Theatre Stage: Where does reality end and entertainment begin?

By Chris Tapner, Poole 

Maggie the musical

Margaret Thatcher died today. A curious Monday morning soon after Easter.

The reactions are coming through thick and fast, either distinctly joyous or sincerely sober.

In a matter of hours it seems to have become an event in its own right. Where were you when you found out? It’s something we all knew would happen and now it suddenly has, leaving a bitter taste in some mouths, and a sweet one in others. It’s at once a very real thing, but also infinitely theatrical.

Currently referenced in two productions on the West End stage, meeting Helen Mirren’s Queen in ‘The Audience’, and being musically lampooned by dancing miners in ‘Billy Elliot The Musical’.

There are certain actors who will have a lot resting on their shoulders tonight.

Thatcher on the ‘political stage’ is fast emerging as the perfect tool for examining the relevance of the ‘theatrical stage’ in today’s society. In a culture of fast DVD entertainment and desensitisation to death, how do we react when it actually happens?

Where is the line between pantomime villain and actual villain drawn?

The town of Poole where I live and work is a Conservative area, and I can see the loss of the Baroness being felt to a great extent. At the local arts centre in 2004 we hosted a satirical revue called ‘Margaret Thatcher The Musical’, a raucous piece of vaudeville that culminated in a giant effigy of Maggie advancing on the audience singing her heart out.

The bar after the event was heaving with excitement at what had just been witnessed.

People thrashing out post show ideas, unsure whether what they had seen was offensive or genius, but either way certain that for an hour and forty minutes they had been part of something exhilarating.

leaflet

It gets me thinking about where arts in my area has come since that production, and where it is going next. The Spring season has been sparse in quantity, but high on quality. We’ve hosted children’s productions, vintage revivals, and a fascinating one man show 14th Tale by Inua Ellams from Fuel Theatre.

Interest in the piece was initially slow as the flyer was too ambiguous. People in the community were asked why they wouldn’t want to book for the show, the majority claimed that ‘it’s not my thing’. How do people know it’s not their thing if they are not prepared to see it? Curiosity eventually grew and attracted a large and diverse crowd.

Audiences in my area are clever, but somewhat underestimated. Opinions get lost. There is a strange mix of obligation, wanting to be entertained, and frustration at having to go through the process of booking. Customers being involved in the administration of their own enjoyment seems to stifle the heart of the artwork, and makes me wonder whether more improvised performances would be the best tonic for theatre in my neighbourhood.

At school I remember learning some of Samuel Beckett’s stream of consciousness monologues. I’d love to read them publicly in unexpected places and see what kind of effect if any that they had.

For those people unsure of what they want to see, maybe theatre makers should do purposefully pointless theatrical exercises. How about setting a production of ‘Abigail’s Party’ in the modern day? It would certainly lose some of its original kudos but maybe gain a new level of as yet undiscovered value.

I feel the way forward is for people to talk as much as they can about what they’ve seen, be it good or bad, audiences and theatre makers can keep theatre alive in a community simply by word of mouth, the greatest marketing tool.

Theatre in Poole often feels secondary to events happening in the capital city, ‘always the bridesmaid but never the bride’. Unlike ‘The Iron Lady’ Poole has shown the capacity to be turned, but similar to her, has shown it is not the dowdy spinster that it initially appears to be.

Chris is a writer who lives and works in Poole

Artists and audiences: a two way street

by Catherine Love
“It depends on the nature of the work and your long term aims.” Inua Ellams’ response to my question about engaging with audiences, asked after the first of his two performances of The 14th Tale at the Continental in Preston, all of a sudden prompts me to think about what we’re doing from a slightly different angle. For all the talking that has gone on elsewhere, this is the first time I’ve had a proper conversation about New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood with one of the artists involved. I realise, with a sharp prick of guilt, that in thinking so much about audiences I’ve been thinking less about the work.

Other than taking it to more people, what does a deeper engagement with the audience do for a piece like The 14th Tale? It’s a show that’s now been going for a number of years, playing at venues including the National Theatre and touring all around the country. While it charts Inua’s own journey from Nigeria to London by way of Dublin, the piece is less about place than about people; about Inua’s cheeky, mischief-making younger self, a trouble-maker from a long line of trouble-makers. At its heart this is a sharing of stories, a theatrical form with deep and wide-stretching roots, and a form that invites us to think about our own stories, our own memories and anecdotes. In every place it visits, every community it encounters, those stories will be different.

My conversation with Inua follows a disappointing turn out at the Continental, dampening an encouragingly positive reaction from those who did attend. Christina puts it nicely when she describes the night’s audience as “small but perfectly formed”. Sadly aware of the depleted audience, and with the aims of this particular project in mind, I ask Inua if he finds the current touring structure frustrating. In part, I suppose I’m asking because I know I would be frustrated. But Inua seems surprised by the question. “I don’t know anything else,” he shrugs. For him, the focus is on the work, and touring simply provides a vehicle for it to reach and connect with more people.

This conversation is followed by others the following Thursday, as a number of Fuel’s artists are brought together for FuelFest at the Bristol Old Vic. After the first ever performance of Victorian in the Wall, which will be visiting Malvern, Colchester and Poole during its tour as part of New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood, company member Chris Branch chats to me briefly about his experiences of touring. He sees touring as an ideal way of developing a show over its life, particularly in the case of devised and ever-evolving work such as The Victorian in the Wall. The dynamic can be tested with different audiences, gauging different reactions in different places and feeding that wealth of audience response into the piece as they go. It sounds – to reluctantly use a word that the show itself would probably ridicule – sort of organic.

I’m brought back to these thoughts a few days later, at a post-show discussion as part of Sprint Festival at Camden People’s Theatre. Following a work-in-progress showing of Made In China’s new show Gym Party, a line-up of programmers and producers are discussing a new initiative that has seen four different festivals – Sprint, Sampled, Mayfest and Pulse – collaborate in order to commission the piece. The driving idea behind this joint commission is that it will allow the work to mature over the four festivals, all spaced out across spring and summer, providing opportunities for increasingly developed work-in-progress showings in front of a range of audiences.

While this is a very different proposition to New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood – it’s festival based, it’s supporting just the one show, and the focus is on the artists rather than the audience – it offers a striking model for developing work in partnership with audiences around the country. Although much of New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood is about forming more meaningful connections with audiences, connections – like conversations – go both ways. The positive impact that these deepening encounters might have on the theatre involved during its lifetime and constant evolution must surely be part of any improved model for touring, creating an improved structure for both audiences and artists.