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.

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