Thinking big by thinking small

by Maddy Costa and Ruth Mitchell

A few weeks ago, I – Maddy here – travelled to Malvern for an event I called Meet the Neighbourhood: basically a chat in a pub with people who make and see and support theatre work in the local area. The pub was quite out of the way (at least, it felt that way to a non-driver) and the group who came was small but passionate. Michelle Pogmore, who is one of Fuel’s Local Engagement Specialists for Malvern, is a theatre-maker herself, and talked about her desire to galvanise her local community, not least to see more work; she also talked about how difficult it is for emergent or mid-career local makers to form a relationship with a big, commercial venue like Malvern Theatres – which, for me very personally, is my least favourite kind of venue, not at all intimate and strangely inflexible. I completely understand – and often share – Michelle’s desire for validation and support from those at (what looks like) the top of the hierarchy. But Bridget Floyer, the producer for NTiYN, who also produces the Campsite – theatre in tents! – while sympathetic, also argued that Michelle shouldn’t wait for permission, but focus on creating the grassroots scene she really wants to live in. Bridget told us about Ruth Mitchell, and Outpost, and a new collective blossoming in Plymouth, who used to hanker for space in the (similarly massive) Theatre Royal, but have now taken a DIY approach, and started programming their own and other people’s work in found venues. I still cherish the way Michelle took hope and inspiration from the knowledge that other people are successfully doing what she dreams of. A few days later, I contacted Ruth and asked her to write a bit about Outpost, to share that story more widely.

Incidentally, speaking of DIY, there’s a completely brilliant book of that name edited by Robert Daniels of a company called Bootworks, which collects a series of essays and approaches to making theatre outside of hierarchical structures and is my own source of immense hope and inspiration.

Over to Ruth:

It makes me sound ancient but I have been living in the South West of England since the dawn of the new millennium. I didn’t move to Plymouth by choice but because of my partner’s work, and I moved here thinking that life and work would carry on in a similar fashion to how it had in the 1990s. It was therefore a huge shock to find that for freelance theatre practitioners or, more precisely, mid-career theatre practitioners, they had to leave the city in order to find work. There were no opportunities for practitioners, such as myself, to have a freelance career in Plymouth.

So how could an independent theatre scene grow and thrive if people were constantly moving away to find work? In the almost 15 years since I moved here there is a generation of theatre artists missing because there weren’t the opportunities and support for them, a case of leave the area or leave the profession. Every year there are 1,000 graduates in the arts coming out of Plymouth but with little or no opportunity for them to stay, they move away.

From 2008 to 2011, in order to make work in my hometown and also give other practitioners the chance to stay put, I co-produced large scale Arts Council and Heritage Lottery funded site specific theatre events called Hidden City. Though with local funding becoming more and more stretched, it seemed that large-scale work would not be sustainable in the long term and the way to go forward in Plymouth was to maybe scale down and make smaller steps.

Adrian Vinken, the chief executive of the Theatre Royal Plymouth, said in Arts Professional earlier this year that the funding imbalance between London and the regions has resulted in “a continuous brain drain where talented new artists get a professional introduction in the regions, but are then obliged to head to London, like Dick Whittington, to gain access to the scale of budgets and creative opportunities that are simply unaffordable to regional companies”. The flip side to that coin is that young people, having finished their training in London, are heading back home because they simply can’t afford to live in London while looking for work in a notoriously difficult business.

Earlier this year a meeting was announced on Twitter and within 24 hours there were around 20 people crowded into a Plymouth pub interested in creating an independent theatre scene. Some had come back home to the south west after training, some were training here in Plymouth and some already making work but not getting the opportunity to show it in their home town. What we had in common was a need to make work in the city, now.

Something that has grown out of that meeting is a collective of freelance practitioners who have been getting together regularly since March to try and move that independent theatre scene forward and we invited Ed Rapley down from Residence in Bristol to talk us through the initial stages of getting a collective together. Between us we span three generations and are eclectic in our practice but we are all passionate about being a community of artists who can share, collaborate and support each other’s work; this will not only feed each other artistically, it will hopefully create more opportunities for DIY performance work.

Then in June 2014, 11 different companies from Plymouth took work up to the Exeter Ignite festival, this didn’t go unnoticed by Tom Nicholas, director of one of the companies, New Model Theatre. Tom had been hosting monthly scratch nights since the end of 2013 using space at the Theatre Royal and the Barbican Theatre, alternating between the two theatres each month. A lot of the work initially shown at these Beta scratch nights had grown and made its way into Exeter Ignite.

This also came to the attention of the Theatre Royal Plymouth who, on the back of Beta, asked Tom to curate a season of work from those Plymouth-based companies who had made a splash at the Exeter festival. That season became Forge, a six-week showing of work by independent theatre makers, which took place within a new theatre space, the Lab at the Theatre Royal; a space made possible with an Arts Council Capital grant for investment in theatre buildings. Tom, along with the performers, realised then that independent makers didn’t have to compete alongside the work happening in the NPO organisations, and the audiences showed that. He went ahead to create a pop up theatre space within Plymouth and Outpost was born. Along with producer Dan Baker, he programmed three respected touring productions alongside two commissioned pieces by emerging companies, plus his own play Parliament Town, which is all about the city it is performing in.

Outpost took place within the Town Bakery in the Royal William Yard, a naval victualling yard that has been given a face lift by Urban Splash and which boasts penthouse flats and an abundance of eateries and wine bars; what is now obvious is that it needs a performance space as well, one that doesn’t just pop up.

An interesting outcome of the Outpost programming was the percentage of work performed was pretty much split between companies from Plymouth and Exeter, which illustrates another relationship that is growing, one between the Plymouth theatre scene and the Exeter independent theatre scene. So much so that at the beginning of 2015 From Devon with Love, a festival that has played the Bike Shed in Exeter for the past two years, will also play at the Barbican Theatre in Plymouth. This festival is about celebrating work that is born and bred in Devon and it now spans the county, two venues and two cities. There is also talk about other festivals within the year being split between the two cities, and there are conversations being had about creating ways to transport the theatre makers from one city to the other to support one another, as the rail links are sadly lacking in the evening after 9.30pm.

It’s obvious that if we want to grow an audience for an independent DIY theatre scene then we have to lead by example and support one another. By sharing our work and advocating for one another we start to spread the word and by watching each other and learning from each other we should create a quality of work that audiences will want. Some regular funded organisations have started to take notice by giving space for the work to be shown and this year Plymouth University built a brand new state of the art performance space (The House) in the centre of town. One of the emerging companies from the Plymouth theatre scene, Blasted Fiction, will be the first resident company in the House and when students and audiences see a valid and strong alternative to other offerings, then graduates may stay to make work here and a Plymouth theatre scene may have well and truly arrived.

P.S
We use the hashtag plymouththeatrescene on twitter
P.P.S
The collective will be called Pseudonym (it’s only taken seven months to find a name) and our web site will be up by the end of the year.

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