At the heart of New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood is a question: how do we ensure that it’s not a selfish endeavour, something that only helps Fuel tour better, failing to impact on theatre more widely? The company and I want to experiment through the three-year programme, and learn – but also share our thinking and discoveries with others. This blog represents one attempt at documenting activities: it’s haphazard, sure, but at least offers some kind of case study that might be useful in the future. (Two clear lessons from the blog are: it’s hard to maintain a coherent narrative around work that happens sporadically; and it’s really hard to persuade people to write about theatre, even on a blog that attempts to be informal and conversational like this one.)
I love writing, but I can’t rely on reaching people online, or via twitter, and through my work with Dialogue I’ve become interested in what can be achieved through small-scale discussion and face-to-face conversation. That’s why I approached Battersea Arts Centre to start working with them on their equivalent to NTiYN, the Collaborative Touring Network. How better to share Fuel’s practice than by talking out loud to other people about it? CTN and NTiYN overlap in Margate, but otherwise reach slightly different places, presenting exciting opportunities to create links between towns and across regions.
Already, working with CTN has been the catalyst for a new phase in NtiYN’s development and my role in it: it’s encouraged me to start talking to Pam Hardiman, Programme Manager at the Theatre Royal Margate, and Jessica Jordan-Wrench of Tom Thumb, about setting up a local theatre-going group, a community of people who meet regularly to have a drink and a chat and see a show together. We’ll see Fuel work, and CTN work, but also other touring work from Paines Plough, the house network and Tara Arts. Pam, Jess and I hope to advertise the group in the local paper, in shop windows and on cafe noticeboards, so the invitation reaches people who aren’t already going to the theatre. Maybe they just don’t know what’s on offer, or maybe they do but feel they don’t have anyone to go with, or maybe the tickets are prohibitively expensive. As a group, we’ll negotiate a concessionary rate, which will allow us to see stuff we might not normally watch, and have a pint or a glass of wine before and after. Chances are we won’t like everything we see – but we’ll still have a good night out, because we’ll be meeting each other.
Even though the Margate theatre group doesn’t exist yet, I’m already taking the idea to other towns and regions thanks to joining up with CTN. And it proved very useful in a fraught but valuable discussion I had on Saturday in Darlington, at a workshop/discussion on theatre criticism. It was arranged by Jabberwocky Market, a brilliant festival that started only a year ago with the support of BAC. I was there to host a theatre club following the evening performance of Ballad of the Burning Star, the kind of activity I’ve been doing with Fuel; the writing workshop was something extra I asked to do, because I’m interested in supporting local critical communities.
The workshop didn’t go to plan: several people signed up, then didn’t attend, so it ended up being improvised with four people who were cajoled into coming on the spur of the moment. (Improbable Theatre Company have a maxim: whoever comes are the right people. It often proves a useful thing to remember.) We began by talking about where criticism is at, how it’s done in newspapers, and what it might mean for a more diverse group of people to blog about theatre. One woman, who works as an editor and spends day after day rewriting poor prose, was suspicious: can a blogger’s taste be trusted? And if there’s no one to edit their work, what guarantee is there that it’s readable? Another woman, a theatre-maker called Hannah Bruce, was anxious about the readership question: if she started blogging, who would she be writing for? Other theatre-makers? People who might come and see her work? Stewart Pringle, who was in Darlington to review Jabberwocky Market for Exeunt, talked about his experience starting out, of wanting to write reviews in the “proper” way, and how much he appreciated the freedom and inventiveness of blogs. I talked about the role audiences can play as advocates – and how much theatre needs them, if it’s not going to lose all its funding and die.
And then there was fierce, articulate, brilliant Val. She listened to me and Stewart, getting more and more riled, then announced that we were arty-farty types using too many long words, exactly the kind of people who make theatre seem elitist, putting off normal people like the ones she works with in an office, who might like theatre, if only they took a chance on seeing it. It was difficult, and unsettling, not because she was criticising or taking issue with what I was saying – not everyone is going to agree with me – but because I had thought we were saying the same thing.
Val is volunteering as an audience ambassador for Darlington, and wants more people to go to the theatre because it’s live – unlike a film, it’s a bit different every time you see it – and because it’s exciting. But she feels like she’s hitting against a brick wall of her local community’s lack of interest, their assumption that theatre isn’t for them. She doesn’t think blogs, or criticism are the answer: she’d seen a touring production of Regeneration, and loved it; it’s had four- and five-star reviews from several major newspapers, and still she can’t persuade her office co-workers to come. As far as she’s concerned, people like me, with our passion for weird theatre in intimate spaces, are part of the problem: we make theatre sound like hard work.
It felt as though we were at loggerheads, but Val and I had a wonderful moment of coming together when I told her about the plan for the theatre group in Margate. Her entire demeanour changed: this was something she could make happen. She started having her own ideas for what the group could do: she could approach the theatre to ask about the possibility of them meeting the actors afterwards, or getting a tour of the stage. Its community aspect appealed to her, too, the idea that the commitment would be to the group, not to the theatre. Essentially, what she’d be inviting people to wouldn’t be a play, but a Good Night Out.
Her outburst – specifically the epithet arty-farty – made Stewart and I think much more carefully about our language for the rest of the conversation: I certainly didn’t use the word “advocate” again. Val made me realise that there are still gaps between what I’m aiming to do and what I’m actually doing (at a basic level, when was the last time I told the parents in the playground of my children’s school, “Oh, go see this show at our local theatre, I’ve seen it and it’s amazing”?); there are still gaps between what I think I’m saying and the words I’m actually using. Later that evening, a small group stayed behind at the end of Ballad of the Burning Star to have a book-group-style discussion on it; as ever, when you get people talking about what they think of a show, rather than just asking questions of the people who made it, the responses to it were fascinating: one man felt it was left-wing and anti-Israel, another man felt it wasn’t a political but an emotional piece, and we talked quite a lot about its power dynamics between men and women, victims and aggressors, and different nationalities. Val sat through the whole discussion, arms folded, not saying a word. I didn’t get to say goodbye to her, but hope that, in sharing some of what I’m doing with NTiYN with her, she feels inspired to take action on the ideas she likes – and just ignores the rest.