Sparking desire

by Maddy Costa

It’s been a good couple of weeks for reflections on how more people might be encouraged to come to the theatre. Playwright David Eldridge revived his blog with a rumbustious argument for “a vigorous new theatre which can reach out to a wide audience”. He confesses to a growing anxiety that: “new theatre is becoming too inward-looking, focused disproportionately on formal experiment and innovation, and collapsing the boundaries between traditional theatre and play-making, and live art.” He believes most people are put off by that kind of work; most people “want to go the theatre when they think they’re going to have ‘a good night out’.” And, he states, theatre-makers can best give them that by: “making an audience laugh and cry and catching them in a drama, and telling story and exploring ideas through dramatic action”.

A few days later, Matt Trueman wrote a column for What’s On Stage, reflecting on David’s blog alongside a couple of surveys of audience numbers and demographics. While agreeing with David to a point, Matt argues: “Accessibility is more than a matter of plain comprehensibility.” Attention needs to be paid to the culture beyond the show itself: as Matt puts it, people come not only because they anticipate a good night out, but when they “have the resources and the desire to get out to see these shows”. It matters not only what the work itself is like but where it’s programmed, how much it costs, how people hear about it, and what residues remain.

These are all questions Fuel are addressing through New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood. In developing the local engagement specialist model they’ve been looking at how word-of-mouth and personal invitations encourage more people in to the theatre, employing people who live and work in each community to make contact with local groups who might feel a particular sense of connection to a show. They’ve been looking at how touring work might be tailored to reflect a specific community, giving additional R&D time to Tortoise in a Nutshell to remake their show Feral for Margate and Poole. With Phenomenal People, staged in a gallery space in Colchester, and The Red Chair, programmed into a community hall in Malvern, Fuel are beginning to look at how they might attract audiences by staging their work outside of theatre buildings (which they do as a matter of course in Preston, programming their work into a pub, the New Continental). And, through the Theatre Clubs that I host for them, they’ve been looking at how post-show conversations might give audiences a chance to digest what they’ve seen in a fun, informal, social way that encourages them to come back and see more.

These shifts in Fuel’s relationship with audiences are vital because a lot of the work they produce is experimental, innovative and collapses the boundaries between theatre and live art – that is, precisely the stuff that David represents as elitist and off-putting. But NTiYN refuses to see this work as inaccessible to a wider audience. It says it doesn’t matter if you’re a schoolchild or a retired schoolteacher, if you earn £5,000 a year or £50,000: whatever your background, this work could be for you. It says that this work, like more traditional theatre, has the capacity to make you laugh and cry and think, it just does so in different ways. Above all, it concerns itself not with a generalised “wider audience” but a series of communities, each one made up of individuals, each one with their own resources and desires.

Working on NTiYN has encouraged me to look past the big picture to a panoply of small ones. When Matt talks about theatre shows as “social interventions that should leave a mark”, I think about Kathryn Beaumont working with groups of women in the Stockton area: women who didn’t make it along to Phenomenal People so won’t show up in its audience figures, but had a heartful time together thanks to its existence. I think about the conversation I had with two teenagers at Phenomenal People in Colchester, explaining the UK political system to them. Two years after this happened, I still think about the two teenage lads in Poole who were given free tickets to see a show by Inua Ellams, and afterwards sought him out to shake his hand, they’d loved it so much. For both of them, it was the first time they’d set foot in a theatre. It matters to me that it might have been their last, but at the same time, it doesn’t matter at all.

Theatre-maker Hannah Nicklin had similar stories in mind when responding to Matt’s piece through a series of tweets. She reflected on her own work in “community-based storytelling participative theatre” – work she doesn’t even call “theatre” when talking about it with prospective or actual participants, because: “it’s an unuseful word”. This work doesn’t show up in the kind of audience surveys that Matt made reference to, because it’s usually free or “pay what you decide”, and its profile is even lower because it doesn’t get reviewed: as Hannah puts it, “I wouldn’t invite a critic to it as that’s not who it’s for”. (I always feel a bit sad when “critics” are considered a separate species of human.) This work happens off the radar – yet it’s vital to the UK theatre scene, being the very definition of a social intervention that leaves a positive mark.

In Hannah’s work, and in the touring model NTiYN is developing, theatre isn’t a product but a cultural interaction: an invitation to step out of the ordinary, to reflect on previous experience and encounter or imagine something new. And the thing Matt doesn’t really address in his column is the extent to which, at this moment in time in the UK, under this government, the value of such cultural interactions is being systematically eroded – and, along with it, the possibility that more people might have the resources or the desire to go to the theatre. At this moment in time in the UK, under this government, theatre isn’t seen as essential to education, to social debate, to a definition of citizenship, to the health of the human brain. It’s superfluous, unless it can be quantified and measured according to market values. This is what makes me anxious every time there’s talk of “wider audiences”, every time percentages are used in reference to people. I feel like the economic argument, and the terms of that debate, are winning.

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What we mean when we say ‘art for all’

by Dan Thompson
NTiYN local engagement specialist, Margate

Some time in the middle of the 20th century, the landscape shifted. Until the 1960s, town centres were dominated by picture palaces, newsreel theatres, music halls and provincial repertory theatres. There were good amateurs and bad professionals cheek by jowl. They were embedded in our towns like the letters running through a stick of rock. Culture, in every form, was something we made and consumed together.

But then theatres became professionalised, rarefied and standardised. Local rep companies out, subsidised touring in. The Carl Rosa Opera out, the Royal Opera House in. Art for all out, Great Art For Everyone (but mostly, for the well-off in London) in. Somewhere along the way theatre became exclusive, elitist and expensive.

But 25 years ago, I was lucky enough to stumble into theatre through the back door. I was a child from a council estate: theatre wasn’t something we really did, even though my dad was a schoolteacher. But my English teacher asked me to stand behind a followspot for the drama club. Weeks later, I was backstage at the Connaught Theatre in Worthing, as part of Stephen Holroyd’s Youth Technical Crew. Stephen was the theatre’s technical manager and with stage manager Ian Richardson, community liaison officer Flo Mitchell-Innes and the theatre’s director Martin Harris, he had brought together a band of technicians aged 13-18 to provide support for local youth companies and amateur productions. We did everything: flying to followspots, props to pyrotechnics to manning the prompt desk. We ran the group ourselves, after drawing up a constitution, and worked across the building. And we helped across the building, following the example of Martin ‘Plumber’ Harris who’d been caught by the local press fixing a sink.

It was a lucky time to be get inside a theatre. The Connaught had just become a touring house, independent from the council, and I got to see Theatre de Complicite with Simon McBurney and Kathryn Hunter, Trestle Theatre, Siobhan Davies Dance, David Glass Ensemble, Hull Truck, Alan Cumming as Hamlet, The Reduced Shakespeare Company and so much more. Night after night I’d sneak in at the back, take a house seat or sit on the tech balcony, and soak it all up. Twenty-five years later I am a professional artist, am working on my first one-man show, and my head still fizzes with the stuff the Connaught showed me.

And it really started to fizz again when I moved in next door to Margate’s Theatre Royal a couple of years ago. The place was dark the first month we lived in the town but then it came to life in the hands of programmer Pam Hardiman. It was like the Connaught, late-1980s/early 1990s, all over again. Longwave, Wingman, John Cooper Clarke, Follow The Herring, Daniel Bye’s Story Hunt, Red Ladies, 366 Days Of Kindness, Roundabout, Steven Berkoff. And The Reduced Shakespeare Company again.

So fired up, and frustrated by being part of a small audience at some great shows, I tried to help. I tweeted, I got leaflets and posters out for Pam, I took photos, I tweeted some more, talked my way backstage for better pics, told my friends, told total strangers in the street, and live-tweeted a whole panto. Eventually it reached the stage that other staff assumed I worked for Pam, and she suggested I talk to production company Fuel, who were bringing her some of the best shows as part of their New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood scheme.

They appointed me as one of two local engagement specialists, and set me to work to build a bigger audience for their next show, Feral In Margate. This show, by Tortoise in a Nutshell, builds a town in front of the audience, fills it with puppets, and projects the whole thing live on to a screen above the stage where the animators are working. It’s clever and interesting; it’s also a complex sell. It takes an honest look at the town it’s made for, features a fair bit of dirt and grit, and ends in riots. There’s redemption though, with the town coming together at the end to clean up and reclaim the streets, in an echo of 2011’s #riotcleanup movement.

The strength of my role with Fuel was that it was agile, flexible and loose enough to let me work locally, think quickly and adapt to what happened. I decided that as the Theatre Royal’s parent company already had a marketing team working quite well, I could focus not on getting the largest audience in, but the right one. I worked with the Theatre Royal to identify influencers, people who would help us to reach a wider audience, and to target them. People who’d tweet, who’d put a poster or a Facebook post up, who’d spread the word.

It was a mix of 75% social media, 25% hitting the town and chatting with people, and it was all about getting people talking. To boost it, sit underneath it all, and reinforce the sense of civic pride at the heart of Feral, we ran #mymargate, asking people to make a short film about their favourite place in the town. All the films would be screened before Feral.

I probably got 50% of the people I targeted in on Feral’s opening night, and they turned up early to see those films, too. They weren’t theatre-goers, and it was incredible to sit in an audience that felt so different. A popular artist who’s a long-term Margate resident who’d never set foot in the Theatre Royal. A shopkeeper who I’d persuaded in previously, who now regularly asks for my theatre tips. A Down-From-Londoner who runs a successful business just round the corner from the Theatre Royal, but had never visited. We reached a whole new crowd, changed their expectations of what a night at the theatre could be, and while most of them liked the show, they all enjoyed a good night out. For a few days work, it was a good result. It didn’t immediately show a financial return, but it’s a good step towards a bigger, wider and broader audience that can do that in the future.

Which is where my only frustration lies: the next Fuel show is in the autumn season. Back at the Connaught we were lucky to have Flo Mitchell-Innes in the building the whole time, keeping people fired up and supporting the work of the theatre’s deadpan and downbeat marketing boss Tony Hill. For the Theatre Royal to succeed it really needs that level of staffing, to keep the new friends we found interested, informed and onboard all year round. If we can do that, we’re on the way to making theatre something normal, not something special, once again. To having a town where there’s great art and everyone enjoys it regularly.

Same town, different stories

by Maddy Costa

In all the years I worked on newspapers (two with the Evening Standard, six at the Guardian, another eight of freelance time), I knew I wasn’t much of a journalist. My impulse wasn’t to sniff out stories, expose the truth, uncover lies; I wanted to draw people’s attention to things, but that meant pop music and theatre: not much in the way of “hard news” there. I still want to draw attention to theatre, but my sense of myself as a story-gatherer has changed. I want to draw attention to people under the radar, to stories unheard, people unseen. It’s why I’m getting so much joy out of working on NTiYN: it takes me to places too easily dismissed.

Stockton-on-Tees is one of those places. We all know this story: a former manufacturing town now slumped without purpose or hope. Its high street blighted with dust from sluggish building sites, discount stores and dereliction. It has an arts centre, sure, but that’s five doors down from the pub where a pint costs only a pound. Addiction, prostitution, unemployment, the lot. Except. Those aren’t the only things I see when I visit Stockton. And there are other ways this story might be told. I’ve written about this on this blog before: a sense that what separates this high street from my own apparently more chi-chi high street in London is snobbery and narrative. Just because the drinks are five, eight, ten times more expensive in my local cocktail bars, doesn’t make their buyers superior to anyone else getting drunk.

I’ve wanted to tell another story about Stockton for a long time now, a story about community, a neighbourhood coming together in shared space. I was there in August last year for the Stockton International Riverside Festival, on an NTiYN job, inviting people to chat after seeing The Roof. When I first reached the High Street I was astounded: I’d never seen it so full. People of all ages, gathered between the buildings sites, spending the whole day watching outdoor performances. There was something that involved huge plastic flowers protruding from the upper windows of a shop building; a march of Mexican puppets banging drums; a silent dance piece by two men dressed as soldiers, one in a wheelchair, and a woman in a floaty silk gown. I couldn’t imagine any of those people choosing to see that dance piece if it had been staged at the ARC.

Watching The Roof in this context was blissful: so much more fun than when I’d seen it in London. The show hadn’t changed but the afternoon sunlight (in London it hadn’t started until 9pm or so), the open space (in London it was overshadowed by imposing concrete buildings), the presence of young children (despite a 12+ age recommendation), changed the atmosphere for the better. A few people walked out – it was free, they weren’t beholden – but others were clearly entertained, and I enjoyed watching two boys in particular, both aged maybe eight or at most 10, grinning, singing along to the soundtrack and copying the computer-game hero’s dance moves. I could picture them going home and re-enacting his leaps across the simulated rooftop, from sofa to rug to armchair; turning to each other in a year, two years, and saying: “Remember that thing we saw with the guy and the rubber ducks and the monsters with broccoli heads? That was COOOOL.”

Theatre makes memories, makes fun, makes new stories. This is what I love about it. It also, given the chance, gives a community impetus. I went to SIRF around the same time as seeing a couple of shows in London that thought about this incisively. Mr Burns at the Almeida was set after some kind of energy apocalypse; survivors, strangers, gathered in makeshift shacks and consoled themselves by retelling the story of a particular episode of the Simpsons. Fast forward a few years and entire communities have formed, fuelled by amateur dramatics: there is an alternative economy in Simpsons scripts and people have found new meaning in their lives through re-enactments. Fast forward again and those re-enactments are full-scale rituals: there is a new energy charge in these lives now. Those communities survived through storytelling, thrived through storytelling. They found meaning and a way of articulating their own predicament through art.

Mr Burns anticipated the enduring value of pop culture; Idomeneus at the Gate breathed with the ancients. A Greek myth retold by German playwright Roland Schmimmelpfennig, Idomeneus is the story of a Cretan king who promises to sacrifice the first living being he encounters to the gods in return for a safe journey home from Troy; but in this version it becomes multiple stories, a chorus of narrator-characters rehearsing several possible versions of events, each one casting Idomeneus and themselves in a different light. The slipperiness of their storytelling becomes revealing, too, of how history is rewritten by successive generations, and how truth is malleable depending on the purpose to which it’s being put. If that makes it sound dry, it wasn’t: directed by Ellen McDougall, it was pacy and funny and made you gasp with its surprises. And because it was impossible to tell what the “real” story was, you in the audience watching had the opportunity to decide for yourself.

It’s in that invitation to “make” the story that theatre does so much basic democratic work. Another thing I was doing at the time of visiting SIRF was reading The View From Here, a vital paper by a group of artists based in New York who call themselves the Brooklyn Commune Project, which talks about the place art and artists have in the world and the relationships they have and might have with audiences. I reread it regularly, simply because it’s so inspiring, and communicates so brilliantly that art matters not because it generates so many millions of pounds for the economy, but because it builds in people the confidence to be socially engaged. One study it quotes emphasises that art is “a contributor to sense of place and sense of belonging, a vehicle for transfer of values and ideals, and a promoter of political dialogue”. Elsewhere it describes art, and particularly performing arts like theatre, as a “meeting place, a site for the formation of a shared communal identity as ‘the public’ … a microcosm of democratic society, where individual free expression meets public space”.

Is it far-fetched to read all of that into SIRF? Maybe. But I got a completely different sense of Stockton from going to that festival, joining that community, watching disability arts and theatre-through-headphones and flamboyant noisy street processions with them, sharing that community’s curiosity, feeling invigorated by their stamina. And I wondered: who’s telling this story? Who’s framing Stockton and its public this way?

I went back to Stockton earlier this week, again with NTiYN, to give a writing workshop at the ARC connected to The Spalding Suite. Approaching the High Street, I was surprised again: the building site was gone, replaced with wide pavements, clean shop fronts and a large curved fountain that at night shines with coloured lights, bubbling emerald, ruby and sapphire. I remembered the lovely cafe I’d been to last summer, open late into the evening and bubbling with conversation; I wandered into the shopping centre and found a too-enticing sewing stall, old-fashioned bakers, and a sense of character I’d always assumed wasn’t there. (Nothing to do with Stockton, everything to do with hatred of shopping centres.) With the building machinery packed up, the ARC is visible from the High Street; it doesn’t feel disconnected any more but a window on to the town.

I’m really excited by the possibilities of this. I’m excited by the thought that one day, the teenage boys milling around the fountain at 10pm, shouting intimidation at passers-by, might one day spend an evening sitting in the ARC, and that the show they see might be like The Spalding Suite: vivid, pulsing, full of basketball and beatboxing, fiery with the hopes of young men like them. I’m excited that the people drinking in the pound-a-pint pub might encounter Hannah Nicklin, someone who’ll encourage their stories to be heard. I’m idealistic, I know, but I think back to a blog post by Daniel Bye in which he mentions making Story Hunt in Stockton, encountering “an enormous amount of inspiring history, but … a lack of hope in the present” and dream up a future in which ARC becomes the site of regenerated civic hope. I want to keep telling the story of Stockton, because it feels important. People and places shouldn’t be abandoned or sneered at. Common humanity demands better than that.

The currency of friendliness

Quick introduction by Maddy Costa: This post was written by Emma Geraghty, a writer and singer-songwriter, who attended the Derelict festival in Preston as part of a writing team I led there. It’s not specifically relevant to NTiYN, except that the Conti in Preston is one of the project’s six venues, but it’s such a lovely piece of writing – specifically, in its rejection of commercially-driven narratives that declare one city ‘successful’ and another ‘failed’ – that I wanted to include it here, too.

by Emma Geraghty

Sunshine and high winds. Wherever you are feels like a holiday, but it’s Preston in the early evening, and I have time to kill. So I walk. Down the high street. People are dressed for the summer, an inherently British thing in this weather, and I pass shops and cafes and roadworks. It reminds me of Bolton, of Salford, of every city town in the North, the ones people overlook as they look over the country. Because they’re not Manchester or Birmingham or Newcastle. They are Primark and betting shops and homelessness and dodgy pubs and council estates. All of the things that city-sized cities have, but get brushed under a carpet of commercialisation and extra-wide high streets.

A seagull cries overhead.
“Oh my god love you are BEAUTIFUL.”
“Spare any change, pet?”
“God bless.”

I sit on a bench on a square, I’m not sure which one, partially blinded by the sun, rolling a cigarette. There’s a courthouse, the Dean’s Court House, and a man shutting down some funfair rides. He pulls large waterproof covers over the seats, drags concrete blocks to surround them, leaves, returns with a metal fence, leaves, returns with a metal fence, leaves, returns, repeats, until the rides are surrounded. The muscles stand out on his arms. I think he sees me watching, so I smile, and he smiles.

“Here, sweetheart, got a light?”
“Cheers darlin’, have a good day now.”

The light on the buildings, on the pavement, is wonderful. Photography lighting. A man walks past, singing loudly to himself in a foreign tongue and pointing at something. He’s Asian or Muslim or Middle Eastern or… He’s smiling. The man on the next bench shouts “Allah Allah Allah” at the singing man. He is English or British or white or… The singing man doesn’t notice. The man on the bench lapses into silence.

I stub out my cigarette and walk. Shops are shutting. People are getting ready for their Saturday night. Equator. I buy a coffee and a fruit juice and sit. And write.

Preston was voted into the top ten unhealthiest high streets in Britain, according to a BBC survey. Qualifying features were betting shops, pawnbrokers, and takeaways, among others. It’s all rubbish. It’s a small working-class high street. That’s all. The healthiest high streets were mostly in southern areas of affluence, and there’s the difference. Money. It always is, in one way or another.

One of the things I pride myself on, being from the North, is that we are friendly. We have friendly accents. Even when we swear, it doesn’t sound as bad. We use terms of endearment constantly and naturally. Mate, love, pet, duck, darling, sweetheart. This place is a conversation piece. You can talk to anyone. Just passing the time of day is enough. Just lending a lighter is enough. Just sharing a smile is enough.

I will finish my juice and roll a cigarette and pack up my pen, purse, notebook, phone, and leave. I will turn left, cross the road, go over the carpark, turn right, go into the building, and see something. Derelict. This place is anything but derelict.

Our Town

by Georgette Purdey

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I was feeling quietly satisfied as I got out of the cab at the Theatre Royal in Margate. The cabbie had spent the entire journey from the station telling me about the show I was en route to see – she had heard Ross, the director, interviewed on local radio. This always bodes well when your job is to market the show.

Rather than just programme Tortoise in a Nutshell’s hit show Feral into the Theatre Royal, Fuel commissioned a new version – Feral in Margate – as part of New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood. This is a luxury few shows are afforded, but it made all the difference. The company spent a week in Margate conducting local-specific research and development, meeting with a variety of locals: councilors, schoolchildren and shopkeepers. And they reimagined their show as a result.

NTiYN’s mission is getting ‘new audiences’ into the theatre. It was obvious in the foyer that night that Feral in Margate had done just that. The theatre was open early to allow audiences to filter in and watch the entries to the #mymargate film competition – an invitation to locals to make something of their own, to accompany the performance. The 11 entries had been compiled into a show reel of people’s favorite Margate spaces: from the imposing Arlington House to some locals larking about in Fort Road Yard. I was sat behind some of the entrants who were giggling with pride seeing themselves up on the big screen.You can watch the entries here.

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Winner Martin Spier with his bespoke piece of set.

After a free drink at the bar courtesy of NTiYN the crowd was in the right frame of mind to see the show. It was a crowd quite unlike any other I have sat in in a theatre for a while. Gone were the usual ranks of silver-haired middle classes, replaced by an eclectic mix of families with older children, arty types and a man who said quite loudly mid-performance: ‘It’s been ages since I haven’t had a fag for this long.’ I had that wonderful sense that the crowd was unpredictable. Their reactions to seeing their own town made in miniature on the screen shifted from excited to saddened as the story unfolded, and for most ended with hope as the town rebuilt itself.

As the show closed the audience didn’t shuffle off into the cold; instead they all stayed and joined the cast on stage to look more closely at their town, their history, their streets laid out before them. The crazy cat ladies, the local councilors, the shopkeepers, were all there in a beautiful coming together of a community. In the performance the Council is pictured as an authoritarian body, distant from the ‘real life’ of the townsfolk. Up on stage at the end the local town councilor was happily joking that at least her miniature counterpart was a man – so she might not be recognised!

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Most residents liked it, some didn’t, but they were all on stage, examining the set and engaged in debate about their town. Not a chocolate-box, picket-fence toy town – but a real town with its old-school seaside charm rejoicing in a piece of work made just for Margate, being performed in its beautiful and historically significant theatre.

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The show is best summarized in the words of the audience:

‘This was brilliant! I didn’t know what to expect but knew it looked interesting. Totally captivating from start to finish. Funny, thought-provoking. Can’t praise highly enough.’

‘The attention to detail was astonishing! The whole concept and production was so inspiring. Many congratulations on such excellent work! Please do more!’