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.

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