Pick it up and pass it on

By Maddy Costa

There must be a part of my brain that refuses to believe that New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood, as a distinct research project with a designated funding period, has almost reached the end of its three-year lifespan, because the list of posts I want to write for this blog is getting longer, not shorter, and rather than write them I procrastinate, spinning out the time before I declare myself done. But in a sense, this work will never be done: it’s an ongoing challenge, because it’s not just about building new audiences but maintaining relationships, making the conversation with audiences dig deeper and feel richer. That isn’t the work of three years: it’s the vocation of a lifetime.

I’m writing this on the train home from a conference-meets-celebration marking the end of the three years, and while there are at least 18 things I want to write about it, for now I want to focus on a brief speech delivered during the afternoon discussion session by Sarah Frankcom, artistic director at the Royal Exchange, Manchester. Gratifyingly, Sarah began by saying that it was early posts on this blog that triggered a huge conversation at the Royal Exchange about the different ways in which the building and its people might engage with its audience, leading directly to its own 18-month research project, You, the Audience. What I love about You, the Audience so far – and it’s still within the first few months of existence – is how it has picked up the challenge of NTiYN and pushed it forwards, creating exciting new blueprints for relationship-building.

For instance, rather than employ a firm of audience analysts to create and assess questionnaires, they invited an artist – Chris Thorpe – to spend a day in the building asking audiences: “What is this theatre for?” The results, says Frankcom, were translated into a text and performance which is now forming the basis of a bigger piece of work – and, crucially, “told us more than a million marketing surveys ever could”.

Another beautiful development – I so love and envy this as an idea – is that the Royal Exchange now have a monthly Theatre Cafe, at which staff and audiences meet for tea and a chat about something relevant to the life of the building or the industry at large. So far, subjects have included political theatre, the programming of reimagined classics, and whether all performances should be relaxed. It reminds me of the central tenet of my own organisation, Dialogue: that there should be egalitarian spaces in which people who make theatre and people who watch it can share their thoughts and be heard.

For her presentation at the NTiYN event, Frankcom picked out five key statements that audience members have made during these various conversations: statements that, she suggested, “might at first glance seem unsurprising or even superficial, but contain real provocations for us as a theatre and an industry”. I’m going to print them verbatim, as she expressed them with a clarity and charge that I’m not going to better, and follow each with a brief response:

We want jacket potatoes.
What does a theatre restaurant menu say about the values of the organisation? What does it communicate about who the theatre thinks it’s there for? What is it about the ubiquitous jacket potato? The most democratic of meals – classy and classless – spanning the generations – entirely modern but timeless.

* I’ve written about this before on this blog, specifically in relation to gourmet biscuits that individually cost as much as a packet of chocolate digestives, and Conrad Murray from Beats & Elements talked about the same issue in an interview with the Guardian. It’s really not hard for theatres to demonstrate more social empathy, and it amazes me how this unconscious class snobbery persists.

I want a good night out (but I’m not stupid).
How do we navigate the path between entertainment and high art? How do we avoid patronising our audience without making them feel shut out – of an exclusive “club”, an in-joke? Can a good night out be full of challenge and the unexpected?

* To me, the answer to this is conversation: in advance, changing the way the show is marketed, questioning what words are used in the copy, checking what kind of assumptions those words communicate; and afterwards, opening up spaces in which audiences can reflect on what they’ve seen without fear of being judged.

You want to be part of something live. You want to connect.
In our world of virtual reality and increasing social isolation, theatre is more important than ever. How do we get better at communicating the message that theatre is about community: it’s a communal, live, shared event and this is why it matters?

* One idea that emerged at the NTiYN event was to do with a redistribution of marketing funds: far few flyers and blanket emails, much more personal approach and one-on-one or small group conversation. Yes, it’s more time-consuming – but it creates a vital sense of connection, even before people walk in the doors.

I want people like me on stage.
This is the audience making the creative case for diversity, recognising that a vibrant, relevant theatre represents in every way the community that it serves. Audiences clearly want to see themselves and their city reflected on stage while at the same time being transported to other worlds. Many of them also want to be on stage, not necessarily to become professionals but because they want the experience of being on the inside. How do we get better at ensuring diverse audiences are genuine collaborators at every stage of theatre-making?

* Doing research for an essay tracing historical precedents to NTiYN, I spoke to and heard of several BAME companies doing this as a matter of course: making work in communication with communities, and reflecting their stories on stage. The Theatre Clubs that I run started life at the Young Vic, where every main house show has a parallel production created by people from the local community. The models are out there – if only theatres would apply them.

Theatre is not ( ) for posh people.
The young person who wrote this, as part of our You, the Audience programme, was making a banner. They accidentally missed out the word “just”, but we agreed perhaps it didn’t matter. Despite all the work we have been doing in recent years, we still can’t underestimate the extent to which theatre – and perhaps [the big, shiny Royal Exchange] in particular – is still associated with privilege. We have to keep saying and demonstrating in everything we do: everyone is entitled to theatre – it belongs to you, the audience.

*I had a really interesting conversation, earlier in this project, on the subject of ticket prices. Too expensive and people won’t come because it will be out of their price range; too cheap and they won’t come because they won’t feel any confidence in the quality of the work. The sheen of privilege surrounding theatre comes in no small part from a more general tendency in our society to equate money and value: the same tendency that drives the economic argument for the value of art/theatre. This is such a big social struggle, and it won’t be solved all at once, but with patience, small conversations, projects like NTiYN and You, the Audience, that set out to talk and really listen.

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Getting to know The Preston Bill

fuel pb image

By Georgette Purdey

I have been working on Fuel’s New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood for 18 months and it feels to me like we have all been building towards The Preston Bill. It’s the moment the project has come together in a perfect storm: great show, great venue, great artist. It’s a marketing gal’s dream team!

Andy Smith has been planning this show for almost two years. A Lancashire lad, he was the perfect artist to write a piece in response to Preston. I had seen an open rehearsal of the show in Camden People’s Theatre in London a few months ago and really enjoyed it. Fast-forward to the final night in Preston and the show has come on leaps and bounds.

The New Continental is far from what you might think of a Prestonian boozer: it’ s swanky and welcoming, nestled on the corner of a beautiful park. It’s the perfect intimate venue for The Preston Bill and Fuel worked hard to make sure the audience had more than just a good night out.

Gathered in the pub about half the audience arrived early for Garry Cooke’s work, a photographic journey of life through the past 80 years. As we sat with our pints we laughed at the juxtaposition of images from people’s own photo albums sandwiched next to world events. It’s important to remember that Uncle Ted washing his new car was just as mission critical in his life as NASA landing a man on the moon!

We then moved into the theatre space, which was bare apart from a chair and a ukulele. Andy held the audience spellbound with his beautifully lyric piece The Preston Bill. The embodiment of an ‘everyman’, the story of a life, an ordinary life. Sometimes that life seemed small and pedestrian but it illuminated much bigger debates and trends in society. I am not from Preston, but that didn’t matter, to me Bill was my Granddad born in South London, living through the Blitz, National Service, the Printers’ strike. His mother’s fond bedtime words were my Dad singing Que Sera to me every night as a child. He had captured the beauty and the pathos in everyday life.

As I looked around I had a bit of a ‘Henry Higgins’ moment – the denouement of the last two years of NTiYN. The audience were engaged, experiencing new writing, with a local artist in a versatile pub theatre. This was it – we had cracked it!

I couldn’t help but think about my childhood theatre experiences sat in church halls watching the work of companies like Eastern Angles – this was great storytelling stripped back to its bare bones.

In ‘the snug’ after, the Theatre Club was a lively debate fuelled by local pride and a sense of loss for the Preston of old. Understandably the dialogue moved to politics and although it’s easy to see The Preston Bill as partisan, I think that misses the point. The Preston Bill experiences life under Thatcher, Blair, Cameron – he is a prism through which we see the past 80 years played out. Things change, gay rights make advancements, some things don’t change so much. Throughout the play women remain benevolent characters but bit-parts, in a reflection on the ongoing fight for women’s rights.

The Preston Bill goes on tour in spring and I am confident that in theatres all around the country it will move audiences with its lyric narrative and leave them pondering on the legacy of their own lives.

More writing now

Intro by Maddy Costa: One of the joys of working on NTiYN has been encountering other people not only keen to write about theatre but doing so in voices that are thoughtful, vivid and distinct. On a trip to Colchester last week for the second After Show Party – Colchester’s brilliantly named take on the Theatre Club – I met Olivia Corbin-Phillip, a drama student at University of Essex who keeps her own blog, stagenstyle, covering theatre, fashion, travel and more. Olivia’s blog is lovely: she writes with care about what she sees, taking the time to consider why she responds the way she does to each show, rooting her opinions in description of the text and staging and also her personal experience. Her voice is bubbly, conversational and enthusiastic, but earnest, too: when she feels less enamoured of a show, her tone is full of respect.

In a piece posted last month, she confessed that she finds reviewing tricky, noting: “how hard it is to write about a performance in a way that highlights both the positives and the negatives without sounding like you don’t really have any opinion at all”. She also argued that writing reviews doesn’t make her special or her opinions any more important than anyone else’s: “I would love for everyone to take the time out after visiting the theatre to write down their thoughts on everything from the acting to the issues raised.” Three cheers to that.

Below I’ve pasted her review of the Fuel show Portrait, a scintillating set of reflections on being young, female and black written and performed by Racheal Ofori. I’m looking forward to keeping up with Olivia’s theatre adventures in Colchester: she seems to me someone who’s in this reviewing lark for the long haul.

By Olivia Corbin-Phillip

While at the Edinburgh Fringe this year I must have been handed hundreds of flyers. One of these was most probably for Fuel Theatre’s latest production, but amid the craziness of the Fringe it wasn’t something I ever came across directly and so I missed my chance to see it. That was until I saw it advertised at our very own campus, at the Lakeside Theatre. I have never been so glad I dragged myself to the theatre (it was one of those days) than I was tonight.

Although I tend to enjoy one-person shows, I’m always anxious to watch them. I mean, what if something goes wrong or it’s really bad and there is nobody to save them and help them pick it back up again? It’s every actor’s worst nightmare and I can’t help but think that when I go to see a one-person show. However when the lights went up on the first character of the night I knew that wasn’t going to be a problem.

In a 60-minute whirlwind Ofori managed to cover a range of issues from nightclub politics to university fees by presenting a catalogue of characters to whom we can all relate and have probably all met at some point in our lives. That was what was so great about the show, we were reminded that there is far more to us than the media stereotypes, and even if we do happen to ‘tick a box’ we each have a voice and, more importantly, a story to tell. Ofori gave them that voice and they were heard loud and clear. Transitions to and from each character were slick and effortless, with a basic set and limited costume, the world of each new personality was brought to life with simple lighting alterations or props. I think one of the main things I brought from this production was how unnecessary all the extra stuff can be if the words you’re saying actually mean something and come from somewhere real. In this case, the script was so flawless that there didn’t need to be any extreme decoration or embellishment, all that was needed was for each character’s story to be heard.

I laughed uncontrollably for a large part of the show, I was definitely caught off guard with the range of humour and the sassy characters that drew on definite similarities with my 18-year-old self. I went from nodding my head in agreement with the endless words of wisdom that were spouting from the school girl’s mouth to shaking my head in disappointment at the unfortunate truth in the idea of spending my life paying off my student loan. We heard of a woman doing the ‘walk of shame’ without being shameful, and it was awesome! Portrait concentrated on the positive within each story and didn’t allow the narrative to be bogged down by unattainable ideals. Instead the director (Katie Hewitt) pushed the importance of where these characters would end up, and what they gained from each experience rather than what the statistics say would happen. What is to one person a statistic, to another it is a reality.

It’s an immense job to talk about issues of race, politics, gender and identity without sounding preachy but somehow Ofori managed to voice what I know most people my age are dying to say, perfectly:

“I’m fed up, I have a voice and I want to use it.”

take this longing

An introduction from Maddy Costa: This piece is unlike anything else that has been published on this blog, but then its writer, Simon Bowes, isn’t really like anyone else I know either. I first met him at a Devoted & Disgruntled event: taking place each year in January, it’s a big get-together for theatre-makers of all backgrounds, experiences and disciplines, in which we share concerns and thoughts and reinvigorate ourselves in conversation. At that particular D&D, Simon was talking about time, and in particular, the way in which his work and temperament pull away from the conventional expectations of time that govern the theatre industry – the expectation that work will take a certain period of time to make, that it will be performed for a certain span of time, that makers will follow a linear progression from one work to the next. What if he thought in decades, not years; what if each work wasn’t a single entity but a small part of a whole? That desire to trace his own path, work at his own pace, disavow convention, appealed to me; I decided then that he would be someone whose work I would follow for the rest of my life.

This piece came about after another conversation the two of us had, on email, about time. Something I’ve been thinking a lot about while working on NTiYN is that there are no quick fixes to the questions of audience engagement: this work requires long-term dedication, and a different sense of value. Getting 1000 people to come to the theatre looks impressive, but what’s the point if it’s once and never again? For me it’s better to accumulate audience members by ones and twos, take them on a slower journey, give them real attention, and build lasting relationships. But that can be difficult, emotionally: there are times when it feels as though nothing is changing, times when you’re forced to recognise that the work isn’t a job you can finish neatly and move on, times when all you feel is a pervading sense of failure. Simon is someone who recognises that emotional difficulty. And so I asked him to write for this blog about time. This is what he wrote.

Incidentally, there is a terrific and informal companion piece to this writing on Simon’s blog, triggered by him seeing a double bill of works about time by Deborah Pearson. Both make me really excited about the work Simon is beginning to make as part of a new collaboration, Ding & Sich.

By Simon Bowes

this is about enchantment. i once had to ask what the word meant and the man who i asked told me ( without making me feel small for not knowing ) : to put into song . it’s about dis – enchantment , and re – enchantment , too : singing , wanting to sing , not wanting to sing , and wanting to sing again

i.

s ,

i never told you – never told anyone – how i felt – how lost i felt – sitting in the audience of your perfor-mance . i never told you because i was sure that the fault , or the lack , was mine – that i was not yet ready to accept what it was that you had to give . i remember you stood tall , despondent , naked , asking the way when no-one could tell you the way . the performance , of course , concerned being lost . we are often lost in the theatre and sometimes we do not find our way back to where we were , some of the roads we arrived by – in the short time of the performance – quickly erode . but years have passed – years, years [1] – and often when i think of what i have hoped for – in going to the theatre – i think back to your show

ii.

many things that i see in the theatre i did not – and still do not – understand . it is not always – in fact it is rarely – a case of not understanding , until the artist makes their meaning explicit , or until somebody else paraphrases it , or until you draw a certain set of conclusions afterwards , or until you read an incisive review . sometimes what is said is something unsayable . sometimes what is said may be at once plain and like no speech in any tongue

iii.

a ,

beginning to work together at a certain – necessary – distance , over an indefinite period of time – learning what the circumstances are , i thought i would begin with a familiar story , one that i always keep coming back to :

the first was a hare . at two thousand meters on a mountain frontier … it was a lean hare with tufts on the tips of its ears of brown smoke . and although it was running slowly it was running for its life . sometimes that can happen [2]

iv.

s ,

on the night you asked asked me to join the company , i was singing in the bar . i started with a hymn , idumea , but i remember what it felt like to sing , feet stamping , reddening hands , keeping time against the fullness of my throat :

and am i born to die
to lay this body down
and must my trembling spirit fly
into a world unknown
[3]

v.

a night at the theatre may not give you what you expected , what you wanted , it might insist that your expectations, your wants, were unimportant , and sometimes you might be persuaded . it all takes discipline . i’ve learned that i don’t have enough of it and , chances are , neither do you . much of the theatre i’ve seen ( and , yes , everything that i’ve made myself , by one measure or another ) hasn’t had one tenth – sometimes a hundredth – of the discipline

vi.

s ,

like a nail that i repeatedly snag my clothing on , still a smoker , sometimes a maker :

a cigarette is a breathing space . it makes a parenthesis . the time of a cigarette is a parenthesis , and if it is shared you are both in that parenthesis . it’s like a proscenium arch for a dialogue [4]

vii.

the playwright and academic sarah grochala recently wrote about a critical mass of theatre that fails to impress , suggesting three elements that make a show stand out :

the first is an engaging narrative . the kind of narrative that keeps you on the edge of your seat because you’re genuinely not sure where it’s going to go next . i should add here that by narrative i mean something much broader than what people often mean when they talk about narrative

the second element is an engaging form . a form that illuminates the con-tent . that either fits the content like a glove or stands in a productively dis-cordant relationship to it , or a form that takes a form that you are familiar with and twists it in a new way

finally , i’m looking for craft and skill . i want to be inspired by the execution of the performance . i want to see a performance in which all the creatives involved are working at the top of their game and performing artistic miracles . this doesn’t necessarily mean that the production has to have ‘high’ production values in the conventional sense ( … ) plays or performances that fulfil these criteria have what i would call ‘thickness’ , a sense of depth . they take their audiences on satisfying mental and emotional journeys to somewhere they didn’t expect [5]

viii.

s ,

we’d come out of rehearsals – or , finally , after the show – and we’d lean up against a wall to smoke , but you’d never say anything . later i came to appreciate these moments of silence

ix.

i stopped performing , stopped writing , stopped going to the theatre , just about . to return as a member of the audience took its own kind of discipline . i write this from within what i hope is at least the middle of a fallow period – i had to declare that to myself first and i am not ashamed to declare it here . but this spring i started turning up again . the one theatre i go to the most had put together a very enviable sea-son – it showed some exceptional work , and on one occasion , work where the form was unlike anything i had seen before

x.

narrative ( however broadly we might apply the term ) , or the relation between content and form , or craft , or thickness all count. what also counts is a deepening acknowledgement that what a theatrical event asks of us – at once by invitation and demand – is openness , and vulnerability . even when all of the expectations are met and surpassed – in terms of form and craft – the theatre can be a place of rigorous uncertainty . in a recent interview between comedian and podcaster marc maron and the playwright annie baker , much of this is distilled :

baker : i feel like being in a play or putting on a play is like the most humiliating vulnerable thing to do and- maron : musicals ! baker : that’s – that is – but there is something like that’s also really when it works and you’re in the audience and these people are being so vulnerable- maron : right ! baker : and you can get like a high off of it- maron : well not just a high but it’s like it’s-it’s – vulnerability – and- and- in a space where it’s permitted and allowed to be connected with by an audience or others is sort of an elevation of the human spirit it’s sort of why we’re here in some weird way it’s a part of being human that gets very distant from a lot of people ( … ) baker : a play is an opportunity to be in a room with a lot of people and talk about important things or like things that matter to people- maron : but that’s – but that’s – baker : and get really vulnerable with each other [6]

xi.

much of my work so far has tried to explore theatre in relation to time , because i think that time spent at the theatre often doesn’t – and need’t – feel like time spent anywhere else . whether what unfolds in the theatre is a familiar story , or whether it feels that a new and distinct language is forming , time in the theatre can feel denser , or lighter , than anywhere else . at the theatre , we are – or ought perhaps to consider ourselves – in training – we are training ourselves to speak and listen and to look with ever more acute sensitivity . the time designated under the name ‘ performance ’ is only a rehearsal for the next one , and the next one , and the next one . sometimes what we learn in this most contrived of circumstances might apply elsewhere . we ought’nt perhaps to expect it to , but sometimes it does

xii.

the maron / baker interview continues :

baker : here’s all this worry in the theatre community about like is theatre dead ? y’kno- maron : always baker : -w and people have been talking about this stu- maron : yeah baker : -ff for like seventy years maron : right ! baker : uh so i just think it’s funny that people keep thinking that theatre’s dead and no-one’s gonna go see theatre anymore but i feel like people react to that by trying to make stuff that’s like mo-ore entertaining and mo-ore fast moving and like mo-ore glitzy and for me i feel like the thing theatre do-es– you can like slow time down and we can all be in the room together maron : just to tell you i did not feel that either play was long- baker : o-oh that’s grea- maron : at all i don’know why- must be w-why you’re good- baker ; -t [7]

we can use the theatre as a place to retrain our our gaze and our consciousness . individual and collective time can take flight , or come to a pause , with a certain sense of a reckoning .

xiii.

a ,

the gig was in the car park of an industrial estate , i’d’ve preferred a small room . it was my first perfor-mance in a year . i sang three songs , green and yeller , to the pines , passing away . audience horse-shoed around me , i sang for no-one other than you

xiv.

s ,

was it your last performance . i don’t know anymore what you do , for a living , or how you live . i do not know whether you intend ever to perform again . perhaps the theatre does not matter to you as much as once it did . perhaps you have lost all interest . sometimes that can happen . perhaps you are only in a fallow time . i just wanted to tell you i remember it – the title of your last performance – knowing the title is enough : nothing but the living and the longing [8]

xv.

a ,

it has been ten years since we first met , and i’m thinking now about the time it will take to make some-thing – anything – worthwhile . i’m thinking of a small room , not a theatre as such , a studio perhaps , but there certainly is a stage . when i think of myself – or of you – onstage , that person – i , or you – whether s/he leaps clear or flails , s/he runs as the hare runs

xvi.

nothing but the living and the longing
nothing but failure and heartache
nothing but grace but grace nothing but grace
nothing but the living and the longing
nothing but the pleasure and joy
nothing but luck but luck nothing but luck
nothing but the living and the longing
[9]

notes:

[1] years, years : deer park (2004)

[2] and our faces , my heart , brief as photos : berger, j (1984) p.4 , london, bloomsbury paperbacks

[3] idumea: words , charles wesley ( 1763 ) ; tune , ananias davisson ( 1816 )

[4] a radical returns : berger , j , in o’hagan, s ( 2005 )

[5] theatre of the unimpressed : groschala, s ( 2015 )

[6] wtf episode 645 – annie baker ( 2015 )

[7] ibid .

[8] nothing but the living and the longing : hauser (2009)

[9] ibid .

Portraits of a fiery evening

Intro by Maddy Costa: The second meeting of the new Margate Theatre Club took place last month and by all accounts it was a night of fireworks. The growing group met to see and talk about Rachael Ofori’s Portrait, a sharp and funny set of vignettes held together by the story of Candice, a quick-witted black teenager with an incisive view on gender and race politics. The brilliant volunteers who run the group managed to bring some first-timers to the Tom Thumb theatre, who stayed behind for the discussion, then wrote these energetic responses. Reading them, I’m consumed with disappointment at not being there myself. The group next meets on November 19 for KILN’s fascinating A Journey Round My Skull: a show that burrows into the brain in ways that should inspire another lively discussion.

By Kat Cutler-MacKenzie

I was inspired, horrified, engaged and even once insulted… but it was one of the best things I’ve done all year.

I knew about the Tom Thumb Theatre – it’s precisely 12 minutes and 14 seconds from my front door – but had I ever been in? Part of me was scared that I would be outnumbered by funky DFLs [Down From Londoners] and local hipsters, the only one who wasn’t ironically sporting a polar neck. I’m just not nonchalantly cool. The other part of me feared a desolate theatre; I imagined the local operatic society performing Cats (jazz hands and all), while myself and an overzealous usher were condemned to front row seats and skin-tight spandex.

However, to my relief the evening began like one might imagine a fairy-tale. The entrance was a secret passage way, lit with fairy lights and nestled just out of sight; enchantingly mysterious but unarguably Margate. There was a golden glow, auditory and visual, that radiated from within. I knew that the theatre club would be cosy if nothing else.

Portrait (Racheal Ofori) was accomplished and particularly poignant to a young woman of 18. It provided an abundance of issues for debate, and drew from us the politically correct to the politely condescending (thanks Racheal). In what was only the second gathering of Margate Theatre Club I couldn’t quite believe that so many people would stay behind to discuss the work.

We agreed, we disagreed. I didn’t want the discussion to end. We were arguing gender, race, class – how could it? Yes, of course, there were the few who “just thought the play was marvellous” and were “ever so proud” of a young black woman setting up in the world. But the majority were sharp – they were quick yet thoughtful and certainly weren’t afraid to challenge my ideas. Ace.

An unfortunate clash of perceptions did leave me feeling a little bruised and it took a day or two to rinse out the sour taste. But it was nothing a drink from the surprisingly well stocked bar couldn’t solve.

The evening ended like a fairy-tale too: I was elated, the clock was slowly nearing midnight and the next day it could all have been a dream. In fact, my companion did lose her shoe on the step and yes, Portrait by Racheal Ofori was something I thought could only ever be wished for.

By Thea Barrett

On a rather chilly Saturday evening, almost the entire audience of Rachael Ofori’s show Portrait stayed in the tiny theatre after the performance to discuss the brilliant piece they had just witnessed. The discussion covered many topics, including racism, sexism and class differences, encouraged by the group leaders who were both thoughtful and enthusiastic, lending themselves perfectly to help the discussion at hand evolve and go deeper into the topics that were displayed so brilliantly throughout the show.

The show itself was thought provoking, as well as surprisingly funny and something most wouldn’t have discovered if it weren’t for Fuel and Margate Theatre group. A one-woman show was territory I hadn’t ventured into before, and was inspired to see a young black woman present such difficult topics that many would have hid away from, while doing so in verse, so brilliantly.

The group managed to be original in its choice of play, supportive of local business in its choice of location and enjoyable in its entirety. I was pleasantly surprised when entering the theatre, not just by its quirky atmosphere and design, but by the completely packed audience. There was most definitely a buzz in the air as people – like myself – weren’t quite sure what to expect, which continued into the discussion after. This featured a fairly wide range of people, yet it managed to stay on topic and, despite disagreements, was as thought provoking and funny as the play.

I will openly admit I left the theatre angry at parts of the discussion I had just taken part in, frustrated at not getting in the last word – but also waiting for the next session to occur, another show to discuss, another argument to present. The discussion was passionate to say the least, the argument heated and the group divided, never the less there was one uniting factor: how brilliant everyone had found the entire experience. As I left, I found myself saying “see you next time” to my previous adversaries, all of us preparing for the next group.

Acts of giving

I’ve just done a bit of reorganising on this blog: not a redesign, because I’m technologically quite lazy and unexpectedly fond of its bubblegum pink; more a gentle rethink of how each post is categorised (goodbye argument, hello thinking – more friendly, no?). Apart from other usefulnesses, the exercise made me realise how little attention I’ve paid on here to a really important strand of New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood: the commissioning of new or adapted work specifically for one or more of NTiYN’s participating towns. It’s a story that has developed slowly and emerged piecemeal, through a series of really interesting and heartening events, each one demonstrating how vital this strand has been.

Some of those events have been responsive: Fuel encountered a work one place, and proposed producing it as part of NTiYN in another. Such was the case with Daniel Bye’s Story Hunt, which he made in association with ARC in Stockton-on-Tees: it begins with Dan spending a few days in a town, gathering stories of people’s lives and local events, and ends with a walking tour, in which Dan relates those stories back to the audience, weaving them with historical knowledge and an invigorating reminder that a town’s life and future depends on its people – and can be changed for the better by its people. Fuel loved the premise and programmed the work in Margate; I was at the Theatre Royal recently for a performance of a new show by Dan, Going Viral, and people in the audience afterwards said they had come because they had enjoyed Story Hunt and wanted to see more of him. Bingo!

Similarly, Fuel saw Tortoise in a Nutshell’s Feral – a live-animation puppet show set in a fading seaside town – in a concrete box at the Edinburgh festival, and instantly recognised that it would sit perfectly in two actual seaside towns, Margate and Poole. They invited the company to remake Feral specifically for those two places, giving them research and development time to redesign bits of the set and a few of the characters to reflect recognisable local landmarks and public individuals. In both instances, audience numbers far exceeded expectation – and, when I saw the show in Poole, it was gorgeously clear from instinctive vocal responses what a difference it made to everyone in the room that what they were seeing had been made with them in mind. In each place, locals were invited to make their own films to be screened before the performances, creating a lively conversation between different views of the areas, different art forms, different experiences.

It’s there in the title of The Preston Bill who that work was commissioned for. And the story of how it came to be made is itself emblematic. It began just over two years ago, with Andy Smith taking a tour of Preston as part of a series of Artists’ Missions – reconnaissance visits from a motley set of artists to the NTiYN towns, time spent getting a feel for the place, finding out about its identity, its people, its secret nooks and crannies, and thinking about a work that could be made in response.

Andy’s record of his day in Preston contains so many germs of The Preston Bill: the story of a man, in the industrial north, told with a left-leaning political slant; a man who has a very particular relationship to education and learning, who works for BAE – it’s fascinating to look back over the Mission text and images and, with hindsight, see in them clues to the contents of Andy’s play. I saw The Preston Bill in two places in the south while it was still in development: in Margate, where older men in the audience talked fascinatingly about the ways in which their lives did and didn’t intersect with Bill’s, and asked each other and Andy how they felt about the character, whether or not they sympathised with him; and in London, by which time Andy had introduced a big old “power in the unions” singalong that gave me goosebumps. Seeing it in Preston for the first time at the end of October, I was struck by the oddness of Andy’s opening lines: in this room, in this theatre, we can be both here and in the North, in a town called Preston. But we are in Preston!, the logical-realist bit of my brain cried. That statement felt so vibrant and magical in the south, simultaneously holding us in the room and transporting us elsewhere; in Preston, it felt obtrusive.

But that’s me quibbling. Other quibbles emerged in the post-show discussion: one man, for instance, took umbrage at Andy’s inauthentic pronunciation of Bracciano’s, name of a famous local cafe. But there was also pride: that this was a story of and from a town that should have stories told about it, that should be on the cultural map. And there was sadness: at the demise of industrial employment for working people in the area, the lack of apprenticeships, the diminishing of opportunity. I love that this single show was able to inspire such polarised discussion; that, in telling a seemingly simple story, it invites a complexity of response.

To accompany the Preston performances, Fuel also commissioned two local artists, Garry Cook and Toni-Dee Paul, to create their own short works. I caught Garry’s and it was a fascinating complement to Andy’s play: a series of photographs juxtaposing world events from the past 80 years with scenes of town/city and domestic life in Preston, slow-moving at first then erupting with rambunctious energy as Instagram took over. It made me think about how history is documented, represented and retold, what makes up a life, what impacts on a life – and how our lives today will be remembered 80 years from now.

The Preston Bill is the only finished work to have emerged from the Missions so far, but I don’t think that’s surprising: a one-man show which prides itself on having no set, no complicated lights, no touring requirements – literally, all Andy needs is his ukulele, and a chair which he finds in the venue – The Preston Bill is about as lo-fi as theatre gets, and even that took just over two years to be “finished”. Other works, by Sylvia Mercuriali (for Malvern) and Abigail Conway (for Poole) have, like so much in theatre, not come to fruition because of scheduling issues. I think more work will be born of NTiYN, and in the meantime, the Missions documents are entertaining, astute and often beautiful works of art in their own right. The artists – very few of whom already had a working relationship with Fuel – were invited to represent their visit on this blog as they chose, and they did so with text and images distinctive and characteristic in their focus and lens.

The one other work to emerge directly from the Missions wasn’t a commission: it was created by Slung Low five years ago and has been quietly popping up around the country ever since. The Knowledge Emporium is an alternative economy, a celebration of community, a sideshow and a compendium of stories in one. The premise is quite simple: Slung Low pitch up in a town in an air-stream caravan and spend a week inviting people to share their knowledge in exchange for sweets. At the end of the week, the performers read the knowledge back to the town in the time it takes to make a tortilla. Two years ago, Slung Low’s artistic director Alan Lane went on two Artists’ Missions: to bustling Colchester, which has four theatres of its own, and to nearby Jaywick, which is completely off the theatre touring radar. Fuel could have asked him to take the Emporium to Colchester: it certainly would have been easy; instead, they paved the way for a stint in Jaywick, which finally happened last month. Alan’s account of the week is one my favourite things I’ve ever published on this blog: it’s sad, and honest, and fierce, not least in its commitment to art that makes space for people’s voices to be heard. It’s one of the best things to come out of NTiYN, and it happened almost invisibly.

As part of the wrapping-up work on NTiYN, I’ve been interviewing other producers, theatre companies and artistic directors about their approaches to its questions around audience engagement; transcripts and a synthesising essay will be published here over the coming weeks. In one conversation, Vicky Featherstone talked about the vital role within the National Theatre of Scotland of community-specific programming, and how exciting she found the challenge of creating work that speaks directly to a social group or a building or a locale or an identity. And maybe it could be argued that all theatre aims to do this: but in that strand of NTS and this strand of NTiYN, that aim is foregrounded and explicit.

I’ve struggled from the beginning with the ways in which NTiYN can be interpreted cynically as a hyper-inflated marketing exercise; but at its best heart, its gestures are more generous than that. What I love about all the works I’ve gathered here is how giving they are: the lengths they go to give people, communities, a chance to see and hear themselves; the different ground they tread to do so.

The listeners: Slung Low’s Knowledge Emporium in Jaywick

by Alan Lane

By many measures Jaywick is Britain’s poorest town. A collection of bungalows south of Clacton, it is, regardless of whichever measure you use, an area of some deprivation. Old amusements stand burnt down, many of the streets aren’t really streets in any modern sense and there are few of the contemporary touches of affluence that one might expect. Which is my way of saying that the nearest Costa coffee was 3.4 miles away.

There’s also a defiant air about the place, an almost punch-drunk sense of independence. The last time I was in Jaywick [on one of two research visits to the area, which began Slung Low’s relationship with NTiYN], a confederate flag flew high in a yard above a pile of old boat engines and land rovers. The pile remains the same but now the flag is rainbow, an equally contentious statement in UKIP central.

This narrative, of a town lost and desperate, has been captured by a recent TV documentary. I didn’t see it but it’s the first thing I hear when I arrive and the constant snare drum through our week:

“Are you with the Tele? They can fuck off! They just showed the bullshit. Lying bastards they are, they told us they were doing one thing and then did another.”

There isn’t one person we meet that doesn’t mention it. The television company is hated. They got their easy narrative and scarpered.

I don’t know. I haven’t seen the show. But, beyond any morality, I do know that if you make a film about a community and you end up this hated by your subjects then it’s a pretty short-sighted view of community engagement and documentary making. A slash and burn approach. But maybe that’s the point. The betting is that these places will be burned in the not so distant future and there’s no real risk in being hated by the people who live in Jaywick. Maybe they’re right. Personally I think they should make the same team do a follow up doc in a year’s time but then there’s a reason why I’m not in charge of commissioning at Channel 5.

Whatever your opinion on emotionally manipulative, social vulture, class sneering poverty porn documentaries – and there have to be some folks who like these things because they’re always getting made – we can all agree that they got their narrative and buggered off.

And then, about a month after it aired, Slung Low arrived.

A silver airstream caravan parked up in the centre of the town. In bow ties and candy-striped waistcoats, four of us stood outside. If anyone approaches and asks what we are about then we explain that we are a sweet shop that accepts no money: we trade our sweets (a whole bag of your selection) for your knowledge which you enter – unobserved – in our Great Big Book of Everything That We Know.

Suspicion and open disdain always disappears in the face of actual sweets. Once it’s been ascertained that there is no catch and this is no cruel trick, most people get involved. Most came back day after day with new knowledge for more sweets. A deal is a deal.

That’s the easy part of the Knowledge Emporium. It’s easy because it’s simple and it works. Sweets for knowledge. Everyone loves sweets.

The rest of the week was harder in Jaywick. We struggled. Stood in a candy striped waistcoat, it’s not easy to hide. There was a man who stood in the car park in the town centre shouting, to no one specifically, that the police had come and taken his little son. Again. We ended up talking to him for a while that day – there was no one else about, the town abandoned during the day – but for all the talking I never found anything useful to say to him.

There was the man who came to explain to us that Iceland had sold him mouldy meat and he was going to take it back for a refund. It became clear as we stared at him in confusion that we were as close to authority figures (if your idea of an authority figure wears bowling shoes) that there was around and this rehearsal of his story an important boast of confidence before he got on the bus to argue his case with the supermarket (he got a refund and vouchers).

There was the unbelievably friendly older woman who kept returning day after day. Her pride in her new husband and his various achievements (endlessly told in winding anecdotes) sharpened by the sight of the actual man in front of us withering with Parkinson’s. That she had found someone new to tell all those old stories to had a clear, profound effect on her: a little, rare new audience for her memories. The two of them isolated by his disease, we were – only for a moment, but still – vital.

But it was tough. Not just emotionally draining. We expended a lot of energy combating the various and frequent attempts to steal Alfie the Airstream caravan, and there is a limit to how much aggression that even a neon candy-striped waistcoat can defuse. For all the light and shade we found, Jaywick is the hardest place we’ve ever taken the Knowledge Emporium.

At the end of a residency, we perform a reading of a town’s knowledge. We type up all the knowledge, placing each piece on a scrap of paper, which is then drawn at random from a box and read to an audience. The show is timed according to how long it takes for a member of the audience to cook a tortilla. In Jaywick the reading took place at a village fete thrown to mark the anniversary of one of the Martello Towers opening as a museum and art space. The reading was competing with a local community African drumming band, a very hard working acrobat show and a woman set up just behind the reading who was singing plaintive covers of the hits of the Cranberries. If art can ever be a competition then we lost with this one. The African drums overlay everything, the departing acrobat audience walked right through ours without a second glance and the mournful rendering of already mournful songs still echo in my ears: “LiiiiiiiinGARRRR”. This was not Slung Low’s finest moment.

But that’s OK. The realisation that the Emporium does its real work long before the reading is many years old. The vast majority of people who came to the caravan weren’t at the fete. That’s not a criticism of the fete, nor of the caravan. Wild horses wouldn’t have dragged some of those people to the fete. But regardless, the Emporium had done its work, and performed its important function by simply standing and listening. In a town so full of loneliness and the tangible sense that no is listening and no one cares, the simple act of standing and remaining available was the most useful thing we could have done.

And in standing and listening, what was overwhelming in nearly every conversation we had was how very proud people were of the Jaywick they live in. Not the “we don’t care if other folk hate us” of some towns (Leeds, I’m looking at you), nor the “We’re glorious” (side eyes Manchester), but: “It’s so wonderful here, the people are so kind, we don’t understand why everyone else can’t see it.” If we had read out every comment that talked about how wonderful the sense of community in Jaywick was, the reading would have been a week long.

Jaywick’s knowledge turned out to be made up primarily of how great it is to live there.
As we were reading out the knowledge, I found myself facing directly the area’s councillor who had turned up on a Saturday morning. If we only had one audience (and we weren’t far off at times), then this was the one that made it worth the effort.

Slung Low talks a lot publicly (and certainly within the press) about our large, explosive shows full of fire and politics and vainglory and noise. I cannot express the importance within that context that we give to still doing the Knowledge Emporium: which, if it goes well, doesn’t involve setting fire to anything. The simple usefulness of going to a place, offering a fair trade and listening.

It’s normally reliant on piggybacking on an existing structure: a street festival, a theatre with a progressive marketing budget, Christmas light switch on. Jaywick doesn’t have any of those. Without Fuel’s New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood, there is no way that the Emporium could have gone to Jaywick. As challenging a time as it was, there was a clear sense and understanding that the ground had been prepared for us. Relationships made by Fuel with key people in the community to ensure that there was room for us to stand, hold space and listen. You can’t rock up to a village and look to make any sort of positive impact without real relationships. And Fuel created those relationships and created the space for us to be able to place the Emporium.

Maybe that’s what the TV people were missing. Someone like Fuel, who had taken the time to make the relationships needed to REALLY see what Jaywick is like and who lives there.

Alan Lane is the artistic director of Slung Low.