Looking back, looking forward

by Maddy Costa

With New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood approaching its second birthday, it’s about time that this blog attempted some kind of progress report, surveying the aims of the project and its place in the wider theatre landscape. Catherine Love wrote the last one, all the way back in July 2013, and there’s been nothing of the sort since. I’ve had good intentions: in March 2014 I conducted interviews with Fuel’s co-directors, Kate McGrath and Louise Blackwell, and with Annabel Turpin, chief executive of ARC in Stockton, but both of those recordings are yet to be transcribed, let alone edited into publishable text. Poor show me.

What follows is more-or-less an account of a productive and heartfelt meeting held last month, bringing together the entire Fuel team to look at what is working well with NTiYN, what’s been less successful, what we want to develop further in the project’s final year, and how we might share all this information with other touring companies. The key point, agreed by everyone, is that NTiYN is no longer a “project”: it’s how Fuel wants to work with all venues and with all shows. What that means in practice is:

1: Touring shouldn’t be a series of business transactions in which human relationships fall to the wayside. At its very best, NTiYN has given Fuel the resources to develop personal connections with venue programmers, directors and communication staff, to devise show-specific marketing with them, and build from that to commissioning work for specific communities. At its absolute worst, NTiYN hasn’t succeeded in doing any of these things, a disconnect persists between venue staff and Fuel’s producers – and the effect is demonstrated in the box office, with small numbers of people coming to see the work. Relationships don’t develop overnight and this is an ongoing process, but the important thing about NTiYN is that it foregrounds the desire to work in a way that isn’t one-size-fits-all but to think about what works for each venue and each show on an individual basis.

2: Touring thrives when there are local people in each community who can advocate for theatre, and encourage people to come and see it. Within the context of NTiYN, those community figures are Local Engagement Specialists, who are paid by Fuel to do specific, targeted outreach work for each show. They haven’t always succeeded in boosting box office, but again, it’s an ongoing process – and one that should be additional to engagement work carried out by the venue, not a replacement for it or in competition with it.

Positive stories of LES activities abound: in Malvern, the two LES have been inspired by their engagement with Fuel to start up a new theatre site on Facebook, advocate for other people’s touring shows, and curate their own scratch nights. In Colchester, the LES has forged new relationships with school groups and other local theatres, and is beginning a Student Ambassadors scheme, which will benefit all of the work coming to the Lakeside theatre. In Preston, the LES is tying together her work with Fuel with her own freelance producing work to create a network of interest in adventurous performance. The emphasis is always on boosting engagement with theatre, not just with Fuel.

Meanwhile, Fuel has already begun using the local engagement specialist model elsewhere: when the Uninvited Guests show Love Letters toured rural Scotland this autumn, audiences were significantly boosted by the presence of people in each local community doing informal outreach work. This isn’t rocket science: people are always going to be more inclined to see a show if someone they know and trust tells them that it’s worth seeing. Word of mouth is the most powerful marketing tool theatre has – and in the LES model, word of mouth is given the respect and consideration it deserves.

2a: Again, common sense recognises that it’s a lot easier to talk about a show you’ve seen than one you haven’t. Where possible, Fuel have arranged for Local Engagements Specialists and venue marketing staff to to see touring shows in advance. Instead of relying on the artists’ and Fuel’s marketing copy to describe a show, LES and marketing staff can translate their own experience of it into a language that suits the individual or group they’re seeking to engage. Not everyone speaks theatre: for many people, even the most apparently simple and direct marketing copy can appear impenetrably abstruse. I think of this as the Megan Vaughan argument: on her blog Synonyms for Churlish, Megan writes entertaining, inventive and honest theatre reviews that invariably make me want to see what she’s seen – and she does this by prioritising feeling over thinking. But it’s hard to describe an emotional effect until you’ve seen a show yourself.

3: Touring can be about more than just putting on a show. This is the bit where I get to be shamelessly self-trumpety, but everyone at Fuel is a gratifyingly big fan of the post-show Theatre Clubs I host for them, which invite audiences to stick around for a drink and a chat about what they’ve just seen. It’s a flexible model: in some places (and particularly when I run them) the Theatre Clubs are for audiences only, without any of the show’s makers present; in other places, they take the form of an informal Meet the Makers conversation, like the traditional post-show Q&A but in the more relaxed environment of the venue’s cafe or bar. I’m more interested in the former, book-group format, because I believe it gives audiences a chance to interpret the show for each other, to absorb views that might contradict their own, and through that reach a richer understanding of what they’ve seen – all without asking the theatre-makers to “explain” it for them.

There’s been some debate about how to find the resources for Theatre Clubs to continue after NTiYN as a time-based “project” ends, but my feeling is that as long as there’s someone in the local community who’s interested in talking about theatre, and as long as there’s a spare pound for a packet of chocolate digestives, that’s all that’s needed to get a conversation started.

Those, then, are the headlines from the NTiYN interim report. We have a year left on the project in which we hope to build on what we’ve learned so far, try out new experiments and really bed this learning into Fuel’s general practice. We’re especially interested in building on a success story of Margate, where Fuel has been the catalyst for new closer relationships between different cultural institutions (the Theatre Royal and Turner Contemporary in particular): it feels really important that the theatre(s) in a community aren’t isolated but are in conversation with other organisations and art venues. Much as I love taking part in them, I’m hoping to hand the hosting of Theatre Clubs over to local engagement specialists and think about how I can contribute to the forming of neighbourhood groups around theatre, how I can help encourage local critical communities by inspiring more people to write about theatre, and how I can build on learning from the past, by doing a bit of proper research into the ways other people have created Good Nights Out (and yes, a re-read of John McGrath’s book of that title might well be a starting point). I’ll be doing more regular progress reports over the next year, because again, it feels important to share everything that’s happening within NTiYN across the theatre industry, because this project isn’t about selling a few more tickets for Fuel’s work – it’s about building sustainable local audiences for touring work, for the benefit of everyone.

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