Elephants in the high street – Artist mission to Stockton by Oliver Lamford

As part of the New Theatre in your Neighbourhood project Fuel have been inviting artists to undertake missions to each of the places that we are working in. As part of their mission they will be contributing to this blog. We are delighted to present this mission blog post from Oliver Lamford. You can find out more about the New Theatre in your Neighbourhood project at http://www.fueltheatre.com/projects/new-theatre-in-your-neighbourhood

I spent a weekend directly asking people about Stockton, about theatre, and the place of the one in the other. Ask people about Stockton, and many will complain about the high street of pawn shops, pound shops, charity shops; others point to the demolition wastegrounds a couple of minutes from the centre; and some to the slow, rickety trains, like metal sheds on wheels. That said, there’s plenty of people who’ll defend the place. Pessimism is just one option in response to the place, and there are people working hard to do what they can for the area. One guy I met told me that he “feels so much negativity from people, I have to be militantly, relentlessly optimistic as a result.” That the town has its share of problems is undeniable, but so do many places. It’s easy for a town to get stigmatised, and for that impression of it to stick, and so perpetuate the sense of it as a depressed area.

The audience for new theatre in the town remains small. Theatre in Stockton is centred largely around the ARC, a venue that programs a range of new work, and they’re constantly trying new ways to engage and develop their audience, though it’s always going to be a slow process – you can’t build an audience from scratch over night. In a town with such a strong perception of being a depressed area, you can’t really separate the question of audience development away from that. The town and its audience are innately linked.

One thing that sets Stockton apart is that its issues are often more visible: plenty of towns and cities shift their problems over to the outskirts, whereas in Stockton the wealthier, more mobile communities have moved to live outside the town centre, in the leafier suburbs. The result is that much of the town centre feels abandoned, uncared for, derelict. Out of town and internet shopping has thinned out a lot of the high street. Without a central focal point, a place loses its sense of identity. The council have been making some movements towards renovations recently, but attitudes are always going to take time to catch up. Many people talk of there being a strong community, and I’m sure there is in places, but one response really stuck with me: I asked one woman about how much of a sense of community she feels there to be in the town, and whether she knew many people around where she lived with her family, on an estate near the town centre:
“I do know people. But I don’t talk to them. I keep to myself. There’s that many people getting stabbed, run over, or they’re drunk, or getting high. So I don’t bother with anyone. When the kids are back from their youth groups, we lock the door, and that’s it, watch the telly and shut the curtains. Keep to ourselves.”
“Yeah, best advice ever,” chipped in her daughter. “Keep to yourself, and you don’t get any trouble.”

Most discussions of theatre audience development involve trying to grow an audience for a particular strand of work, say for live art or more experimental work. But here the question is much wider: it becomes a question of building an audience for any theatre at all – perhaps, even, a question of building an audience for the town itself. If the perceptions of threatening behaviour and fear can be so high in some areas, how can you compete with the desire to lock the doors, pull the curtains, and switch on the telly? And yet, that challenge also highlights so strongly the importance of what theatre can offer, in actually bringing a group of people together in a room, to share an experience at one time and in one place.

With that aim in mind, where is that potential audience in Stockton? One sign of hope can be seen in the great little Greek restaurant called Kaminaki, just off the high st surrounded by a row of abandoned pubs, boarded-up shops and a carpet wholesaler: despite its neighbours, it seems to be thriving, booking out on a Saturday night, and bringing people into town. People will travel for quality, and perhaps the somewhat better off communities nearby could potentially be reeled in. But theatre needs to mix a range of audiences, and the more central communities equally deserve attention. The Stockton International Riverside Festival is a great outdoor street arts festival that brings large scale performance into the centre of town, and brings an audience in from across the North East. If you want to build an audience, taking work out into the street is an obvious step forwards, but an annual four day event can only make so much difference each year, and it seems that audiences here rarely travel into a theatre to see the same acts they’ve enjoyed outside. Comedy and music acts seems to bring decent audiences at ARC, and find ready crowds in the Georgian Theatre, a great rough and ready venue like an old blackened barn, with a whiff of cider and raw band energy. Acts might get a smaller audience there than in Newcastle, but they do get decent crowds in.

I heard an interesting story from Ree Collins, facilitator of Creative Factory at ARC. When she took over the group, several teenagers complained that they’d been doing endless workshops around teen pregnancy, alcohol abuse, youth violence. The girls explained that what they really wanted was to do a SHOW, to sing and to dance. They wanted something fun. They already knew there were a lot of issues around them, they could see them for themselves every day. Obviously there’s room for a whole range of work, and applied educational work can do great things, but there is sometimes a too easy temptation to think that, in a more depressed area, the work should necessarily address those issues directly. These teenagers have since been making a new devised piece, creating their own work, and hopefully beginning to develop into an audience for the future.

Talk to audiences here, and a few key elements keep coming up. They often describe themselves as liking craft, things made with skill and care. Several people spoke about wanting to see something special, something that nobody else could do. Among the people I spoke to, there seemed to be a real desire for an innovative escapism, for work that is enlivening and vital. Two people I spoke to gave great examples of the importance and need for unique, imaginative work:
– I asked one man for his most memorable experience of the arts, and he described travelling to an art gallery and seeing an original self-portrait by Van Gogh, ear bandaged, eyes blazing out of the canvas. He’d seen it printed in books many times, but now he was seeing the real and extraordinary object, right there, in front of him, with his own eyes. To find a direct connection with something so honest and entirely unique, was a very powerful experience for him.
– Another time, I asked a fourteen year-old girl for her three wishes for Stockton, and she said that she wanted the following:
1) more money to look after little kids, to entertain them, especially the toddlers,
2) more police on the streets to fight crime and make people safe,
3) elephants. Lots of elephants. A whole column of elephants to parade through the town.

ABOUT ME – Oliver Lamford
I’ve been an associate artist at ARC with Switchback Productions for the last couple of years, most recently directing The Easterly, a Place commission for the Festival of the North East to develop a show with a community choir on Saltburn pier.

Thanks to the various people I spoke to for their contributions, particularly including Andrew Berriman, Ree Collins, Julie Dove, Mark Tindle, Sarah Dobson, among others.

Stockton 1

Stockton 2

Stockton 3

Stockton 4

Stockton 5

Artist mission – Javier Marzan in Preston

As part of the New Theatre in your Neighbourhood project Fuel have been inviting artists to undertake missions to each of the places that we are working in. As part of their mission they will be contributing to the blog. We are delighted to present this mission blog post from Javier Marzan. You can find out more about the New Theatre in your Neighbourhood project a thttp://www.fueltheatre.com/projects/new-theatre-in-your-neighbourhood

I am on Piccadilly station waiting for the eight thirteen train that will take me to Preston.  Many times I passed through this city on my way to somewhere else, all I know  of Preston is platform number three, they are many  platforms on this huge red brick station, and many people that, just like me, seem to be passing through on their way to Manchester, London or  Edinburgh.  Today I will get off at Preston and step beyond the station, I am a man with a mission. The train is here.  I am sitting next to some students hard at work on their papers and a gentle old couple reading the news, the rain taping on the glass faster and harder as we speed along. Bolton, Chorley and here we are, Preston.

It is a rainy day, one of many I am sure, and the town seems to be illuminated by a huge fluorescent batten. My first meeting on this day curated for me by Chantal Oakes is at the Korova arts café just of the high street, five minutes walk  from the station.  Although I get a bit lost and have to ask for directions, everybody I ask knows where the church that gives the name of the street I am looking for is, but nobody knows where the street is or heard of café Korova . I walk up and down a bit and on this short stretch I pass by three churches, this is indeed a priest town. I also walk by Theatre street where there is not a single theatre or cinema any more, the name is just an echo of the past. At last following my nose and retracing my steps  I find the meeting point.

-Good morning, Chantal?


-Nice to meet you

– This is Sam Buist, have a coffee and a chat and I will see you later

Sam is the man who runs this arts café. Some tables and chairs and small bar area at the front, a chill out area behind  with sofa, coffee table and carpet; upstairs a tiny black box room is the venue.

Sam is an enterprising man who opened this venue a month ago and already has managed to bring an audience in, he also organizes the Tringe festival which is the Preston fringe. He is passionate and a bit of a fighter. We talk about the city and and it’s cultural offers. We talk about, how things seem to happen in pockets, the lack of interaction between the people in the arts, the lack of sharing between the amateur groups, the university and the independent writers and actors. There is a fear of dialogue, an overprotection of ideas that prevents growth.  We talk about the Preston Guild, a celebration that happens once every twenty years,  where all the trades parade through the city and hand their tools to the next generation. It is still going on even if the trades are not there any more but it is a direct link to the past. I am fascinated by this, and the fact that still is an event that happens only every twenty years says a lot about the people of Preston, they’re quiet unassuming and patient.  Sam agrees and says it is the people he would miss most if he was to leave this city, he says they are very  welcoming of strangers, perhaps becaus  of the docks and the arrival of people from all over in its history  prestonians are very accepting. And it is true, there are prestonian, Caribbean, Indian Chinese communities and very little tension amongst them. Maybe this is why, Sam thinks,  you don’t hear much of Preston on national news. People of Preston don’t like to brag or shout.

We have been chatting a while and now another Sam joins us,  Samantha Blackburn who works as a cultural developer for the city council.  Samantha lived in Canada for many years and now she is back here where she was born, she still has that American twang on her speech.  Sam and Sam agree on many points.  One of them is how people in the arts administrations are somehow afraid of the new, they are conservative with small c, not politically, as the polls show here people vote labour.  They agree in that there is a lack of spaces where to present work, there is not an arts centre as such, plenty of empty buildings but not the will to open their doors to an arts enterprise.  And if there is one thing Preston needs it is an arts centre ,where the theatre, the visual arts and etc.. can share, for is in a physical space where a dialogue amongst all this pocketed groups can flourish.  It is very telling when Samantha takes us to the museum that the only place available for local artist to show their work is on the walls by the stairs.  There are simply no outlets for the creative industry.

Samantha is keen to change attitudes from the inside but even within the council there is a lack of dialogue and the little money available for the arts is controlled by a financial department that decide what artistic project to fund  and, much to her frustration, without listening what the cultural developers have to say.

⁃  He is an accountant. He plays golf! Doesn’t even ask what we think! He wanted to spend £33,000  exhibiting a mock up of the terracotta army when we could do so much more!

There is the Preston guild, and the rolling the egg down the hill and the Mela and the Caribbean carnival and the Chinese new year which people love and get involved in.   And there is the Guild theatre, a shopping arcade entrance guides you to it, a theatre encased in seventies purpose build architecture where they program shows with acts that used to be on telly or had a success years ago in the commercial circuit which is run by the council and bleeds money, but they won’t program anything else.  I am sure that with a bit of imagination it could develop and educate an audience but it is a not very inviting space, it is a space that says: come watch the show and go!  If you want to talk about what you’ve seen do it somewhere else, and don’t hang around before the show either for I have not room for you and I am not going to offer you a coffee or a tea either. Purpose built, like much of Preston, like the wonderful brutal bus station that divides opinion.  The problem is that this places are not open to change, they  where built for a purpose and now that things have change and their use is not the same they stand there big and proud but not knowing what to do, like the strong  hands developed by many people here  who worked manufacturing cars or textiles or in the docks and are now folded  inside a pocket now the work is gone.

Sam and Sam, Chantal and me walk around the town, Millers arcade and its empty shops, the museum by the square, where we see what huge mills the town housed withtheir tall chimneys and today flat as a pancake, a ceremonial barrow and spade used to inaugurate the buildings now the only thing remaining of it.  It came and it went in no more than two generations, or four Preston guilds, as they say.

We make our way through from the guild theatre and, through a series of  doors and  a crossing tunnel bridge, into a  car park on top of the bus station and we have not been outside.

– Purpose build architecture. Chantal says .I don’t find it intimidating,this is the type of surrounding where I grew up.

I do find it a bit intimidating.

-woahh! This car park is huge! I say

-Yes there is talk of grounding the station but this car park is just too useful.  Chantal says.

We are off to “The Continental”, which is like the grown up well to do relative of Korova café.  This is the place where Fuel will present their work.  After a nice lunch we nose around the venue and have a good chat with Robin Talbot who runs and programs it.  It is a very flexible and roomy place well kit out for music.  As Robin says is in music where he can make a bigger return.  It is simpler than theatre to prepare the gig and can fit twice as many people as the sitting is not required.  Still this is the sort of space that is ideal for this city.  It feels a bit out of the way although is just a fifteen minute walk from the high street, and is the kind of place you will like to hang around. But again, it is a private enterprise with the need of making money; even so it runs an imaginative and novel program.   And the council still looses money on the Guild theatre.  Preston needs an arts centre, and people like Robin that help to run it .

Our plans to walk back through the park, Preston unlike the workers of the mills has good lungs, are negated by the rain . We will meet to see the show at the Korova.

For a couple of hours I walk around Town continuously slapped on the face by the rain. They are folding the stalls at the market. A great  Victorian covered space, no walls, ornate iron columns sporting a high roof.  It has been used as a makeshift cinema, and I think it is an ideal place to use as a venue for many types of work .

I see the permafrost of corporate outlets, betting shops, chain restaurants and pubs.

It is in the pubs and clubs where you can find a crossover audience, young and old drinking and having fun in the same venue. Like football brings generations together, so does beer. The arts has catching up to do .

Preston is a depressed town, or pressed more like it, pressed by the lack of money and lack of work, like many industrial places where the industry has gone there is a hole difficult to fill.

After changing my very wet socks I make my way to  Sam’s  tiny theatre to watch “In a land much like ours” by breathe out theatre.  It feels as I am part of the action sitting so near the actors ,who do a great job by the way. It is a drama ,a very linear narrative of a couple whose daughter is killed (it is Grimm up north).  Running alongside there is a parallel story, the fable of David and Goliath narrated by one of the three actors using a lego world in which after killing the giant David becomes one himself clumsily destroying the town he wanted to save ( it is Grimm up north)

The audience really liked it.  Having the fable of David cutting trough the main narrative gave the somehow pedestrian story another flavour.  Chatting to a couple of audience members afterwards, both in amateur dramatics, I find out that  it is precisely this David fable that had them both really confused and did not know what the meaning was. They quite frustrated about this .

The theatre offers in Preston are minimal and very mainstream giving very little space for the imagination of an audience to grow.

If was to make a piece of work in Preston I would try to make something that encouraged  the artists of the city to collaborate and share, and like in a night club will bring generations together.

image collage


Artist mission – audio postcard from Paper Cinema in Poole

As part of the New Theatre in your Neighbourhood project Fuel have been inviting artists to undertake missions to each of the places that we are working in. As part of their mission they will be contributing to the blog. We are delighted to present this audio postcard from Paper Cinema.  You can find out more about the New Theatre in your Neighbourhood project a http://www.fueltheatre.com/projects/new-theatre-in-your-neighbourhood

Audio postcard from Paper Cinema in Poole – best listened to with headphones.

Poole is a thriving town surrounded by parkland and industrial sites. There are parts of Poole that you won’t hear much but the chatter of sea birds and water gently lapping against moored boats. All sorts of transportation connect through the town, we heard buses, trains, pleasure boats and ferries underscoring the ever present seagulls.

In the harbour the sounds are of industry – cranes load boats with sand and gravel, we hear boat builders and the sound of the wind making the masts clink and moorings creak. Listen closely at 1min10 for high pitched whistles recorded underneath ‘Sea Music’ a large metal sculpture designed by Sir Anthony Caro, that interacts with the wind to produce sounds.

There’s also the familiar sounds of urban england as locals and visitors shuffle around the shopping centre, buskers strum on the high street and children play in the parks that are also home to geese and swans.

Huge thanks to Little Boat / Chris Reed.

Artist mission – Paper Cinema in Poole

As part of the New Theatre in your Neighbourhood project Fuel have been inviting artists to undertake missions to each of the places that we are working in. As part of their mission they will be contributing to the blog. We are delighted to present the first mission blog post from Paper Cinema. You can find out more about the New Theatre in your Neighbourhood project at http://www.fueltheatre.com/projects/new-theatre-in-your-neighbourhood

Poole by Paper Cinema

Poole is a beautiful place, it smells of holes bay, lush cosmetics,
fish, fibre glass, marine diesel and the freshness of the sea.

It’s hard to talk of Poole without talk of the harbour, that gives the
towns it’s being. Once in New Zealand, I handed over my passport
to the bureau de change clark ‘are you from poole !’ he exclaimed
then proceeded to tell me how wonderful my home town is for sailing,
it would seem to have friends all over the place.

It is the ‘second biggest harbour in the world’ locals will tell you while
quietly adding the suffix ( after sydney ) with 100 miles of raggedy
shoreline, inlets, islands, sandbars and deep water channels, it hides
boatyards, moorings mariners, Britain’s largest onshore oil field, caravan parks,
camping scouts, the nocturnal movements of the SBS, and swimming
deer – all held in by the long arm of sandbanks, a natural sand spit
now crammed full of million pound houses, supposed to be one
the most expensive pieces of real estate. In contrast to Poole itself
which has always been in bit run down, lived in, it is a working town.

It clanks to the sound of goods moving and clinks to the sound of yachts
on the swell – pigeons fight with seagulls for chips at the bus station
at the top end of town where 1970’s concrete rules, merging into the
Arndale shopping centre, multi story car parks and moment valley
outcrop that is the barclays building, from here the high street starts it’s
straight walk down to the quay. But almost as it begins, it is dissected by the
train track, stopping the new from the old, crossing barriers come down
cutting shoppers from their bustle to let diesel engines hammer through town,
some people stop to watch the people filled carriages or trucks of materials, others
take to the footbridge to get the patchwork of Poole, small shops, warehouses,
boat yards, public houses, churches, resident houses – a old town build around
centuries of traffic of trade – to and from the quayside, a muddle of commercial
buildings and access roads set to regulate, store, fix and ply this fare.

Articulated trucks drive in to met the cross-channel ferries at the docks, where gravel
and sand is off-loaded as sun-seeker boats are built next door, these icebergs of bling
dot the quay and sit across the old town, a visual reminder of Poole’s new industries –
they mix with the RNLI, Animal, LUSH HQ’s.

Poole pottery, the fisherman’s harbour and grain silo have been moved aside for
luxury flats and yachting mariner, maybe a little bit of sandbanks, another bit of bling
sits by the old town’s day to day, craft from all round the world, naval boats, squire riggers,
dredgers, pleasure boats, cargo ships – Poole is built by the sea and lives by the sea –
it’s people know that and celebrates it, they like to dress as pirates
– but then who doesn’t…

IMG_6741 IMG_6764 IMG_6760 IMG_6740 IMG_6738 IMG_6734 IMG_6730 IMG_6725 IMG_6715 IMG_6709 DSC_1173 DSC_1166 DSC_1165 DSC_1159 DSC_1156

What can we do about touring?

by Catherine Love

At the latest annual session of Devoted and Disgruntled, a forum for those working in theatre to air both passion and frustration, it was telling that one of the busiest groups was gathered around the question “what can we do about touring?” For those in attendance, the question was a familiar one, but the answers were not forthcoming.

As this example suggests, there is evidence of a widespread feeling of dissatisfaction – if not outright disillusionment – with the current model of touring theatre in the UK. The financial strain of taking a show on tour seems to be increasing, with companies shouldering more of the burden from venues, while relationships with the areas and audiences that the work visits are often shallow and fleeting. Something is not working.

This frustration provides the backdrop for Fuel’s New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood (NTiYN) project, an initiative that aims to begin answering just that question: what can we do about touring? The ambition behind the project is to forge better links between Fuel, the work it tours and the areas and communities it tours to. It is about a dialogue with venues and audiences, both new and existing.

Traditional touring models have been about people dropping into each place, performing and then moving on to the next place. What we’re trying to do is build a relationship with audiences and communities.”

Kate McGrath, co-director of Fuel

While the visiting artists might vary from year to year, the aim is to create Fuel as the link, building a relationship that establishes trust on the part of audiences and encourages them to experience new work. The project also involves work eventually being commissioned specifically for particular localities, cementing the link between the cultural event and the area in which it is taking place, with Fuel sitting at the nexus of these relationships. In the company’s own words: “we want to create a following for our work: one that is sustainable, growing and ever-changing”.

This report looks back at the initial six-month research phase of NTiYN, placing the initiative within the context of the current touring landscape in the UK and sharing its key findings. The hope is that through a combination of research, reflection and shared lessons, it might be possible to move closer towards answering that opening question.

Touring Theatre in the UK

During the discussion at Devoted and Disgruntled, a number of concerns and frustrations were expressed about the ways in which touring theatre in the UK currently works. Companies and artists are perceived to be taking a greater share of the risk than regional venues; fewer resources are available, meaning that the marketing of a show and its engagement with local audiences is limited; theatregoers are booking later, contributing towards a general aversion to risk; touring theatre companies are often denied access to audience data at each of the venues they visit. The challenges are manifold.

This paints a picture that is corroborated by the experiences of a number of touring companies, producers and venue managers. A major difficulty surrounds the simple imperative to attract audiences, which for many companies is absolutely vital to the ongoing viability of their work. As Jo Crowley, producer for theatre company 1927, observes, “there’s a constant frustration about lack of audiences here”. She compares the situation in the UK with the experience of touring internationally, where the company have been met with considerably larger audiences.

It is suggested that the root of the problem lies in successfully connecting work with the right audiences. Gavin Stride, director of Farnham Maltings and one of the key forces behind South East touring consortium House, emphasises the need to “better connect the ambitions of artists with the ambitions of audiences”. This is echoed by producer Ed Collier of China Plate, who states that “touring and making for us are always completely intertwined”, going on to describe how the organisation thinks carefully about audiences right from the start of the making process.

Connected to this question of audiences is the relationship with venues, who should be much better placed to provide local audience insight for touring companies and artists. While in some cases this collaborative exchange does take place, frustration with the overall lack of cooperation from venues is a recurring sentiment. Crowley argues that “there needs to be a better conversation […] about how we work better to collect the information we need and to nurture our audience collectively”, while an Independent Theatre Council (ITC) conference in February 2013 highlighted how difficult it is for touring companies to collect data and information on their audiences from different venues.

Another concern that keeps emerging is to do with the depth of engagement that visiting artists and companies are able to achieve. A phrase that is repeated with startling regularity is “parachuting in and out”, capturing the fleeting quality of many artists’ visits to different venues. Battersea Arts Centre’s (BAC) artistic director David Jubb claims that “there’s no real level of depth of engagement”, while Crowley suggests that the length of time a production is able to spend in an area makes a huge difference. “You can see a distinct difference when you’re in a town or city for a week,” she says.

For Fuel, a further area that they feel needs addressing is the experience of touring for the artists involved. The fleeting nature of visits to venues all around the country can be both frustrating and exhausting, while the financial strain means that many artists have to hold down additional jobs, restricting the time that they can spend making their work and meeting audiences. As well as developing audiences, Fuel feel that touring needs to be made more sustainable and artistically fulfilling for the artists they work with.

The final major area of concern is, unsurprisingly, financial. As both venues and companies face cuts in their public funding, touring artists are being confronted with challenges on all sides. Venues are now less able to take risks, increasingly opting for box office splits rather than paying guarantees, while the pot of funding available for individual touring projects is shrinking. The shared impression of those at Devoted and Disgruntled was that touring is simply more expensive than it used to be.

There is also the knock-on impact of financial difficulties faced by theatregoers, who as a result are booking tickets later and displaying a decreased appetite for risk. As Caroline Dyott of English Touring Theatre (ETT) notes, “there’s certainly an awareness that audiences are being pickier about what they book and booking later so that they can take less of a risk on something”. This all creates an environment in which touring work that is perceived to be experimental or risky presents an ever growing challenge.

ACE Strategic Touring Fund

One attempt to address the current shortcomings of touring, of which there are more than can be fully addressed within the constraints of this report, is Arts Council England’s (ACE) Strategic Touring Fund. This initiative, launched in 2011, is awarding funding of £45 million between 2012 and 2015 to arts organisations offering innovative touring and audience development solutions.

The programme’s stated aims include “people across England having improved access to great art visiting their local area”, “stronger relationships forged between those involved in artistic, audience and programme development” and “a wide range of high quality work on tour”. There is also a particular emphasis on work for young people and on areas, communities or demographic groups classed as having low cultural engagement.

To date, the Strategic Touring Fund has awarded a total of £16,463,673 across seven rounds of funding, with projects spanning a wide range of art forms, target audiences and regions of the country. Alongside NTiYN, the below projects offer a snapshot of how some of the other successful applicants are using this funding to address the difficulties involved in touring.

BAC’s Collaborative Touring Consortium is transporting the theatre’s Cook Up model of new work, food, conversation and debate to six areas of low cultural engagement. This touring programme is designed to work collaboratively with the six partner venues and to generate a genuine artistic exchange, engaging with local artists as well as bringing in work developed by BAC.

 ETT’s National Touring Group is linking together a consortium of major regional receiving theatres to offer those venues more agency over the work they present and to create a network for touring high quality, large scale drama, with the aim of developing audiences’ appetite for this work.

 China Plate’s Macbeth: Blood Will Have Blood has now completed the initial phase of touring an immersive schools version of Macbeth in partnership with educational organisation Contender Charlie. This project worked with a number of hub venues around the country and brought in students from the surrounding schools, thereby establishing long-term links between education and the arts in those areas. A second phase is currently being planned.

 Paines Plough’s Small-Scale Touring Network is working to establish a connected and collaborative network of around 25 venues across England, to which the company will take regular small-scale productions alongside undertaking audience development work. The hope is that more meaningful relationships will be formed between venues, touring companies and audiences.

 New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood

 “New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood is a pilot research project run by Fuel in order to find new ways of engaging with more and more diverse audiences through touring really exciting and innovative new work.”

Louise Blackwell, co-director of Fuel

The initial six-month phase of NTiYN, funded through ACE’s Strategic Touring Fund and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, has focused on establishing links with partner venues and developing audiences in these areas. The emphasis at this stage has been on research and exploration, with the aim of taking these findings forward into the project’s future life.

The five venues in question are The Lighthouse in Poole, The Continental in Preston, ARC in Stockton, the Lakeside Theatre in Colchester and the Malvern Theatres. Each of these venues received one or more of the five Fuel shows included in the initiative: Uninvited Guests’ Love Letters Straight From Your Heart and Make Better Please, Inua Ellams’ The 14th Tale, Will Adamsdale’s The Victorian in the Wall and Clod Ensemble’s Zero.

Alongside presenting these shows, each venue was also involved in research and audience development work carried out in partnership with a Local Engagement Specialist (LES) hired by Fuel for their knowledge of the local community. This model was designed to provide Fuel with additional networks and contacts in each of the different geographical locations, as well as supporting their desire to establish a deeper connection with the areas that they visit.

The audience development work undertaken at each of the venues by the LES spanned a wide range of activities, including workshops held by the visiting artists, engagement with local schools and universities, communication with existing arts and community networks, ticket offers and discounts, and the promotion of Fuel’s work at other arts events. Fuel has also been working with Maddy Costa of Dialogue, who ran Theatre Club events at a number of the venues. These informal post-show discussions are modelled on the format of the book club and offer an open space for anyone who has attended to share their thoughts with others.

While the key findings will draw in outcomes from all five venues, for the purposes of this report the focus has been narrowed down to two case studies: the Lighthouse in Poole and the Continental in Preston.

Case Study 1: Poole

The Lighthouse in Poole is a large arts centre, catering for a wide variety of audiences in the surrounding area. Its programme covers live music, comedy, dance, film and visual arts alongside theatre, with the building incorporating a cinema, a gallery, a large concert hall, a 669-seat theatre and a smaller studio space. It is a venue with a wide remit and competing demands on its resources, offering a necessarily diverse programme.

Fuel brought two NTiYN shows to The Lighthouse’s studio space: The 14th Tale and The Victorian in the Wall. Fuel supported these visiting productions through the work of LES Lorna Rees, who undertook a range of audience research and development activities. These included running workshops with the artists, targeting audiences at Bournemouth University with the help of newly recruited student ambassadors, forging connections with existing networks of local artists, and working closely with box office staff. While much of the work done by Fuel at The Lighthouse was successful, there were some programming challenges; the scheduling of the shows, for instance, coincided with a major outdoor arts event in the town and with the university holidays.

Fuel’s most notable successes, meanwhile, were achieved through a personal approach. Eschewing the tactic of offering free tickets in favour of adding value, Lorna explored ways of deepening audience engagement through her “Theatre Salon” model. This was successfully used for the first performance of The Victorian in the Wall, after which audience members were invited to stay behind for free drinks and nibbles and an informal Q&A with the show’s cast. This event was well attended and encouraged lively conversation with the cast, creating a much more relaxed environment than the usual rigid structure of the post-show talk. One couple said that they usually never stay for these talks as they worry it will go over their heads, but they enjoyed the Theatre Salon and displayed an interest in attending similar events in future.

Another small but particularly heartening triumph was persuading two teenage boys to attend The 14th Tale. Lorna approached the pair outside The Lighthouse just before the show, offering them free tickets and signing them up to the theatre’s student membership scheme. After seeing and enjoying the show, the two boys stayed behind to speak to Inua and to thank Lorna for the tickets. As Lorna commented in her feedback, “this is what this project does – it gives us permission, with our depth of knowledge, to make decisions and take risks and to maybe, just maybe, with two judiciously applied comps, convert two teenage boys to theatre-going”.

Case Study 2: Preston

The tiny theatre visited by Fuel in Preston makes a dramatic contrast with the expansive, multi-purpose mass of the Lighthouse in Poole. The venue is attached to the back of a pub – The Continental – a little outside the city centre. This space is programmed by They Eat Culture, a small organisation who are involved in organising cultural projects across Lancashire. The Continental itself serves a relatively broad purpose as an arts venue, hosting live music, comedy, spoken word and theatre. As the staff explained to Fuel, music and comedy tend to draw the biggest crowds, while theatre remains more of a challenge.

The only NTiYN show touring to this venue was The 14th Tale, which visited for two successive weekday nights. More difficulties were encountered in this area than in Poole, and despite the efforts of LES Chantal Oakes to bring in new audiences, attendance was relatively low. Once again, planning was an issue; Inua was unable to run a workshop in this area due to schedule clashes, while it has since been suggested that it would have been more sensible to programme one night rather than two. Other challenges included a lack of engagement between the arts scene in Preston and the University of Central Lancashire, stretched resources at They Eat Culture, some difficulties with the show’s marketing material, and the disappointing lack of interest in a theatre bus to provide transport for theatregoers.

There were, however, some successes. A relationship with local young people’s outreach organisation Soundskillz proved fruitful, with a group visit on the second night achieving good attendance. There are also a number of areas, such as the university, where definite potential has been identified, suggesting promising possibilities for the future life of the NTiYN project.

Key Findings – Building Conversations

The results of NTiYN’s attempts to engage new audiences in these first six months were largely successful, with the Audience Agency concluding that “NTiYN undoubtedly achieved significant new audiences”. According to the Audience Agency’s evaluation, at least 25% of those attending a NTiYN show were new to the venue they visited, while Fuel attracted at least 10% new audiences to every show on the tour. NTiYN was also shown to engage with some particularly hard to reach groups for the first time and the direct feedback from audiences was overwhelmingly positive.

I enjoyed the event very much! The venue is great and the effort to put ambitious performances on in Preston is much appreciated.

Audience member at The 14th Tale, The Continental

It was an amazing piece in an unusual setting. Not what I was expecting but a lovely surprise. Loved it!

Audience member at Love Letters Straight From Your Heart, Lakeside Theatre

 This was my first experience of this type of performance. I though the first few minutes came across as pretentious but was soon won over by the honesty and humour and emotion. The stories told weren’t outlandish or extraordinary but were told with grace and power.

Audience member at The 14th Tale, The Lighthouse 

Really enjoyed the show, a breath of fresh air for Malvern and just what is needed to attract a different audience.

Audience member at The Victorian in the Wall, Malvern Theatres

While these audience development results are encouraging, there were also several other outcomes from this six-month research project. As the case studies from Poole and Preston begin to suggest, there are a number of important lessons to be taken from this early phase of the scheme and carried forward as NTiYN continues to develop. While there are many different findings, these can broadly be divided into two key categories: collaboration and planning.

As already identified, one of the problems that the touring model often faces is the failure of companies, producers and venues to work together successfully. Where audience development initiatives have been most successful, there has been open and productive collaboration between Fuel, the venue and other local organisations. Equally, on the few occasions when these relations have broken down it has caused problems.

In terms of collaboration, the appointment of a suitable LES is vital, as they are able to play an essential role at the centre of the many relationships involved. The LES’s local knowledge has in many instances proved to be deeply valuable, while clear communication between the LES, the venue and the NTiYN project manager is key. One particularly successful model was that in Malvern, where an LES was paired with an employee at the venue. Malvern Theatres found this to be an extremely positive partnership, once again highlighting the value of collaboration.

The concept of providing additional support to a venue through the employment of a locally based LES was viewed very positively as a strong approach to reaching new communities and groups. The fact that this person came with their own contacts and skills and was ‘independent’ of the partner venue was also commented upon as very useful.

Audience Agency Evaluation Report

Planning, meanwhile, has emerged as a decisive factor in determining the likely success of audience development efforts. There have been a number of issues around timing, such as difficulty with scheduling workshops around artists’ other commitments and programming conflicts with other events in the area, which could in most cases be avoided with more comprehensive planning in the early stages of the project. Despite students being highlighted as a target demographic, several shows coincided with university holidays; elsewhere, there were frustrating missed opportunities, such as a comedy festival in Colchester that would have been an perfect fit with The Victorian in the Wall.

What these examples illustrate is the importance of a holistic planning process with greater lead times, working closely with programmers to eliminate any scheduling clashes and drawing up plans for audience engagement activity from the moment a project is given the green light. This is reflected in the feedback from the Audience Agency, who have recommended “taking a more informed approach to planning particularly around timescales”. However, it is unsurprising that there were some issues with planning given the considerable ambition of NTiYN and the exploratory nature of this research phase, and the intention is that these findings will inform the next stage of the project.

 A number of the NTiYN findings correspond with the experiences of other touring companies, producers and venues. Just as conversations around this first set of shows have revealed some of the potential problems with the ways in which work is being marketed to different audiences around the country, Gavin Stride emphasises the need to rethink how audiences are communicated with. He argues that more work needs to go into making companies understand that “what they might think makes their show sound esoteric and clever in their world isn’t necessarily the same language that needs to be used to get a show to an audience”. Through the research phase of NTiYN, Fuel are beginning to learn what marketing material is most likely to reach and engage audiences, with the video trailers for each of the shows proving to be particularly successful.

There is also a widely recognised need for “bespoke planning”, as David Jubb puts it, acknowledging and adapting to regional differences. This planning includes a course of action for engaging with both the receiving venue and other organisations in the area, encouraging greater collaboration. As well as more obvious ways of working together, such as sharing of audience data and getting the venue staff behind the work, this collaboration can stretch even further. Jo Crowley, for example, says that a “cross-marketing effort would be useful”, connecting arts networks across different genres to reach people who might have an interest in the work – a strategy that Fuel are beginning to develop through the strength of the LES model.

In terms of audience development, there are a number of strategies that keep reappearing in different guises. Returning to the same areas to build an audience, as Fuel intend to do, is important; Hanna Streeter, an associate producer with Paines Plough, has observed “dramatically” increased audiences in areas that the company has kept going back to. This in turn has a knock on effect for those venues’ programmes throughout the rest of the year. As Fuel and others have discovered, direct contact, conversations and word of mouth cannot be underestimated.

When we return to each of these places, we hope that people there will have made a connection and will maybe have been to see one of the shows and say ‘that’s by Fuel, I don’t know this new artist that they’re bringing, but I’m going to go because it’s a Fuel produced event’. And we hope that by having a deeper engagement with the people that live in these places that will be possible, not only for what we produce, but for the wider theatre landscape.

Louise Blackwell, co-director of Fuel

It is also important not to underestimate the gamble that companies are asking audiences to take on their work. As squeezed budgets makes the purchase of a theatre ticket a relatively significant financial decision, perhaps theatres need to find ways of minimising the perceived risk for audiences without making the work artistically conservative. This might mean remounting work that has already been successful elsewhere, as ETT are doing, or it might mean offering audiences added value with their ticket, like the Theatre Club and Theatre Salon events. And, as a number of different individuals stress, these initiatives should all be executed with the aim of building shared audiences for the future. As Caroline Dyott points out, creating a sustainable audience appetite for this work in the long term has to be the aim.

At the heart of all these tentative lessons is the need for collaboration and dialogue. That can be with and within venues, with local arts communities, with audiences, between different touring organisations around the company. Ultimately it is about people and about relationships. As well as the necessity to work together in order to make any given touring project work, the myriad issues that the UK touring model currently faced are perhaps best overcome through shared learning.

It all starts with conversation.



Interviews with:

  • David Jubb, artistic director of Battersea Arts Centre
  • Caroline Dyott, associate producer, English Touring Theatre
  • Ed Collier, co-director of China Plate
  • Gavin Stride, director of Farnham Maltings
  • Jo Crowley, producer, 1927
  • Hanna Streeter, assistant producer, Paines Plough

This report was commissioned by Fuel as part of the New Theatre in your Neighbourhood project.