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.
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.
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.
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.
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!