Small ways to make things better

In a climate of cuts to public subsidy, and demand that the arts justify their existence economically, it’s really easy to view the audience engagement programme Fuel are testing with NTiYN as a straightforward exercise in putting bums on seats. Things are going well when auditoriums are busy, less so when audiences are sparse. But – even before the commissioning phase begins, in which Fuel artists create new work for and with the collaborating towns and cities – NTiYN is about much more than that. Tucked in the comments on a previous post of mine here is a lovely story from Lorna Rees, local engagement specialist in Poole, about two teenage boys whom she coaxed in to the Lighthouse to see Inua Ellams’ The 14th Tale. They would never have come to see it of their own accord, but they came, and they loved it – and when Inua is next in town, they might even go back. What they saw on stage was a story they could recognise – one that illuminated their own stories, and the world they are growing up in. This, surely, is the key argument for the arts – not whether those boys buy a drink in a local shop or sandwiches from the nearby Subway.

I was in Poole last week for Will Adamsdale’s new show, The Victorian in the Wall, and to attend Lorna’s post-show Theatre Salon. This event was an experiment, building on the Theatre Clubs I’ve been hosting in London with Dialogue at BAC, and with the Two Boroughs Project at the Young Vic, but also trying to incorporate elements of the traditional post-show Q&A. It could have been an uncomfortable disaster: instead, everything about it was delightful. In the gallery at the Lighthouse, currently showing an exhibition of prints by local artists, Lorna had set up a treats table, with wine, olives, flapjacks and tiny Tunnocks-style teacakes. Chairs were gathered around the table for the Q&A, and this circular arrangement took away the stilted formality that might have infected the conversation if we’d stayed in the raked theatre space, making it feel more open and light. After 20 minutes or so, the Q&A ended but the cast stayed in the room and mingled: the atmosphere was more like a party than anything else.

Did we talk about theatre? Yes, and where people live, and the effort they make to come to the Lighthouse, and how they love engaging with art because they don’t feel creative themselves, and the singing that their children do in choirs, and their bemusement that friends would rather spend £15 buying beer in a pub than seeing a story on stage. In a quiet moment, I marvelled at this space Lorna had created, where it didn’t matter what your involvement was with theatre: as long as you had some feeling for it, you had a place in the conversation.

It made me think back to a discussion I co-hosted (with Dialogue) at BAC last autumn, thinking about the relationships between theatre-makers, critics and audiences. We talked quite a lot about the discomfort of press nights, how false and tense they feel, and David Jubb, artistic director at BAC, said something that I’ve wanted to hold on to ever since: it feels so peculiar to him that his theatre should make such a fuss over critics, giving them free wine, the best seats, wanting to be sure they’re having a good time – when the people he really wants to make a fuss over are his audiences, particularly the loyal punters who love BAC and love the adventures it takes them on. In setting up her Salon, giving her audiences a drink and a bite to eat, initiating a friendly conversation with the makers of the work, then gently opening that conversation up to take in the Lighthouse, other work, life itself, Lorna did exactly the thing David Jubb was talking about: made her audiences feel special. One couple I spoke to, aged (at a guess) in their early 50s, told me they never usually stayed for post-show events, because they always assumed the talk would go over their heads. This, though, they had been glad to attend.

So these are the thoughts I’ll be taking with me to Stockton next week, on my first visit to ARC. I’m a little apprehensive, because Stockton is a mystery to me: I know it through local blogs, through the picture of it painted by Louise Blackwell elsewhere on this blog, and, more recently, through the impassioned writing of Daniel Bye, someone I know a little bit and admire a lot, who wrote a terrific blog post in the days following the death of Margaret Thatcher about her deleterious effect on Stockton-on-Tees – indeed, everywhere-on-Tees:

I feel tremendous pride in and love for my home region. The trouble is, I always find it that little bit harder to maintain this when I’m actually here. That business park is nothing to inspire pride and Stockton’s once thriving Georgian High Street is now a mix of charity shops, pound shops and betting shops. Some of the most beautiful Georgian buildings were knocked down in 1971 for a shopping centre, to widespread public fury. This street, where the friction match was invented, within sight of the terminus of the first-ever passenger railway journey, is dying. Not much more than five minutes out of town is a housing estate suspended mid-demolition, with a few scattered houses obstinately surviving the project’s having run out of money. Meeting people to gather material for this project I find an enormous amount of inspiring history, but keep running up against a lack of hope in the present.

From what Daniel says about that project (Story Hunt, at ARC on June 26) elsewhere on his blog, I get the impression it might offer a quiet reminder to its audience-participants that politics, history, the things that change or characterise a community, aren’t just imposed on people: they are made by people, by us, and we all can contribute to the change we want to see. There is something of that spirit in Uninvited Guests’ Make Better Please, the show I’m going to Stockton to see again and discuss with audiences. Make Better Please starts with the audience in groups, reading and talking about the day’s news: this becomes the material for a ritual that gradually transforms into an exorcism. It ends with a flare of hope, an invitation to think about the little (and sometimes big) acts of generosity that make life better, friendlier, more caring. I loved it when I first saw it at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds a year ago: it felt furious and thrillingly alive; above all, it felt inspiring to me – it made me want to go out and look for ways to create change, to contribute to my community. I hope audiences in Stockton feel the same.