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.

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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.

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.

New connections

A brief introduction from Maddy Costa: I’m now well into handover with NTiYN, visiting communities not to host conversations myself but support local volunteers in hosting their own Theatre Clubs. And because they’re run by people in and for a place and a community, these Theatre Clubs aren’t just post-show discussions: they’re actual social groups who will meet on a regular basis to see shows, chat and enjoy spending time together. It’s basically my dream come true. Anna Bodicoat is one of the three new volunteers based in Margate: I hope her post inspires people to contact her and join in.

By Anna Bodicoat

I love theatre that makes you think and feel deeply, the kind of theatre that might sometimes ask you to put a bit of work in. I know not everyone feels completely comfortable with this, and maybe sometimes discomfort is partly the point. I wonder how tolerable that discomfort feels, especially if you go to the theatre without a chance to talk about it afterwards.

I am lucky enough, in my work and in the things I do, to have lots of chances to share ideas, explore feelings, and work out what I think through conversation. In many interactions I have I can be tentative and test out ideas knowing that it is a safe thing to do, that I’m not going to be shouted down or told I am wrong.

Even so, I have loved the opportunities provided by Fuel and the NTIYN project, to be part of something that allows people to do that within a framework of exciting contemporary theatre. My first theatre club discussion was after This Is How We Die, a steamroller of a piece that left me in awe. Attending the discussion was as much a part of my experience as the show itself, and I want to shout about theatre club from the rooftops!

I want to tell people how great it is to be given the chance to talk about their ideas, to explore how theatre makes them feel and what it reminds them of.

I want to share what effect one such discussion had on me and the people who gathered in the upstairs bar at Theatre Royal Margate on October 2nd.

We picked Daniel Bye’s Going Viral for the first meet of Margate Theatre Club. The premise that piqued our interest and hinted that there may be a discussion to be drawn out of the play was: ‘An aeroplane flies from India to England. Everyone on board is weeping. Everyone except you. On the ground, the weeping spreads. Is it a strange new disease? An outbreak of hysteria? Or has the world become genuinely sad?’

We were led around the outside of the theatre and through the stage door to be seated on the stage behind the curtain, one of the first plays to be done like this at the Theatre Royal. This created a really intimate feel to the performance, added to by Daniel starting the play seated in the audience, offering nuts, and hand sanitiser and asking direct questions about our state of health! Throughout the play, he challenged the audience to look at each other, to imagine themselves inside the story. I noticed just how responsive we were as an audience, almost hyped up, performing ourselves, ‘acting’ as audience members. Maybe, in part, this was a response to what he put himself through, with scenes where he attempted to induce tears in himself, making us all wince and challenging us to feel for him.

One of the themes of our discussion was connection. We talked about the connection he was inviting us to make, with him and with each other. We wondered about our connection to the world and to people in need, particularly at present our connection to refugees. We thought about compassion and how we show it in a country famed for its ‘stiff upper lip’. I was taken by Daniel stating that the people that make Britain profitable apparently had immunity to the outbreak, saying something about the empathy deficit within the higher echelons of society and big business. We also talked about responsibility, and we thought together about what responsibility the main characters did, or didn’t, shoulder at a time of crisis.

Throughout the discussion I was struck by the bravery people had in sharing, how honest they were about what they thought, even if they may have been in a minority. Of particular note were a couple of people who did not see any metaphors in the piece, and we were able to talk about witnessing the play on completely different levels. A poignant moment for me was talking about grief and how the play explores it. We talked about private and public expressions of grief and sadness, and what is ‘permitted’ in today’s society. I was reminded of the experience in grief where you cannot believe the world still continues as normal, despite someone you love being dead. At a time like that, I want the whole world to be crying too, just like in Going Viral. I wondered whether the contagion of weeping people were carrying the sadness of the main character in a way that he couldn’t find a way to express.

Overall, the play and the theatre club confirmed my experience of the arts as a way of processing and exploring difficult emotions and topics. I think the space in the upper bar gave people a taste of what thoughtful and exciting theatre and discussion can be like. As long as people feel safe enough to express an opinion, and feel heard when they do, I think it is likely that they will use a discussion space to gain much more from a theatre piece, even if they come away with more questions than when they went in.

@Anna_Bod
@MargTheatreClub

Marketing? Or conversation?

An introduction by Maddy Costa: To be honest, this piece – the latest in the series of guest posts by brilliant people – doesn’t need much introduction, as its writer does an excellent job of doing that herself. Like Charlotte, I’m a massive fan of the company RashDash and think pretty much everything they do is excellent, and that includes their approach to marketing, otherwise known as Chatting To People (With Hot Chocolate). She’s right: that hot chocolate is very important.

By Charlotte Bennett

My Nana always said that nothing can beat a good conversation and I think this explains the headcount at her funeral earlier this year.

I am Charlotte Bennett and I am the producer for RashDash: a company who make new, radical feminist theatre which fuses movement, music and text. RashDash have a commitment to achieving a national footprint with our work. At the centre of our shows are big political ideas and by touring we make those ideas accessible to a UK-wide audience with an aim to increase the reach and impact of our political agenda.

But touring is difficult. As I am sure you have already gathered from this website. It is getting increasingly expensive to achieve, it is hard work and most importantly, it is a huge challenge to find and build audiences for new work on the touring circuit.

This is a blog about talking to people.

One of the first things at the top of my to do list on a morning is to tweet / facebook about the show I am producing (currently the UK tour of WE WANT YOU TO WATCH by RashDash and Alice Birch). And tragically, once I have sent my message out into the social media stratosphere, I feel a sense of achievement. Like the ticket sales are actually going to shoot right up in the next five minutes because I have told our followers information (that, let’s face it, they probably already knew from my previous tweets leading up to this one… ). I am not slating the power of social media in selling theatre shows – digital presence is a hugely successful marketing tool and should of course be part of every strategy. BUT. I also think that I am kidding myself that because I have 95 likes on my facebook post it means we will sell out tonight. This isn’t good for anybody. And call me old-fashioned, but I miss having actual conversations with people about the shows I am making and why I think they should see them. I think there is real power in that. And that, in a world where so many of our lives are being lived more and more online, this is in danger of dying out.

The problem with relying too heavily on an online presence is that you also never really know how you are coming across. Everyone has that friend on social media who in real life is a bloody great person to hang out with and on facebook sounds like a total dickwad. And you want to scream at them: WHY DO YOU HAVE THIS WEIRD ONLINE IDENTITY? And THAT ISN’T ANYTHING LIKE YOU ARE IN REAL LIFE AND ACTUALLY IN REAL LIFE YOU ARE SORT OF GREAT SO JUST STOP IT. I worry when I am updating RashDash’s social media that I am that person. And maybe I am. In some ways I would hope that my friends would tell me, but maybe it is a bit like when you have that friend at school who has developed a new odour and none of you can bring yourselves to do the ‘cruel to be kind’ thing. The truth is, it is hard to ever know how you are actually coming across unless you are in the flesh. Because you are not having an ACTUAL INTERACTION with somebody. They are not getting to know you and you are not getting to know them and I like to think that there is a reason why we are humans instead of computers.

So in 2013, I set up an advocacy scheme for RashDash called BECOME A RASHDASHER to ensure conversations were part of our core marketing strategy. The premise of the scheme is that a month ahead of a tour date I recruit four volunteers local to the area we are touring to, to work with me over one day to distribute additional marketing in their town/city. Crucially we don’t just spend the day dropping flyers on tables, but we split off and have conversations with different people in the local area. We target areas and places that we think might have potential audience members hiding within them, introduce them to the company and talk to them about whether this is going to be the kind of show they might like to try. We do this by walking up to people on the street, sitting with people in cafes and pubs and organising times to go into local schools/colleges/universities to tell students why we are bringing our show there.

I was interested to read Annabel Turpin’s great blog on this website (which you can find here) about the danger of treading on venue’s toes as a third party coming in to work with their communities to gather audiences. As a visiting company I am always aware that we need to think about how our marketing plans build on what is already there and avoid replicating what already exists. Become a RashDasher aims to do just that, by identifying places currently untargeted by the venue’s existing distribution list and by creating direct connections between the artists making the work and potential audience members through conversation. And so in preparation for our RashDasher day, I ask the venues to give me a list of the places that they have already targeted to then send to the RashDashers so they can come armed with a list of alternatives. I also speak to the RashDashers about the show on the phone, so they can begin to think of relevant good fits and get a sense of what they are selling. The volunteers we tend to attract are students or recent graduates and in return for their time they get a free hot chocolate (very important), a 1:1 mentorship session with RashDash on a topic of their choice and a free ticket to see the show.

The scheme has had a varied uptake of volunteers but for the places where it has taken off it has been positive. When we tour a show we typically work on guarantees and so this isn’t about increasing our financial gain – in fact it costs us money to run as, despite being an avid advance train booker, they still don’t come cheap (thank you privatisation). The reason why we do this is to build relationships with our touring audiences and invest in those relationships in some way before we bring our show to them. Become a RashDasher helps us do that by:

Creating INTERACTION: Firstly between the company and the venue when we jointly identify where we can additionally market the show. Secondly between the company and the RashDashers when we share knowledge and work together to promote the show and when we mentor them in return. Thirdly between the company/RashDashers and potential audiences throughout the RashDasher day and then hopefully and ultimately through performance attendance. Despite the commitment only being one day, we often find that the RashDashers continue advocating for the show beyond this, promoting the show locally leading up to our performance date.

Being ACTIVE: Whenever I am thinking about marketing a show, I always think back to what my sister used to say when she worked in theatre marketing and when I used to moan at her at the Edinburgh Festival after my show has been attended by only three people and a dog: ‘But why is nobody coming, it is a really good showwwwww.’ To which she would reply: ‘But really Charl, why should anyone give a shit?’

She is right. Why should they? Going to the places where we are taking our show, meeting the people who live and work there, spending time speaking with other local people who are our potential audiences and being able to have an actual conversation with them about the company and our work is important. Audiences can’t just be the tag-on thought at the end of a creative process, they are why the work exists. A show only lives and breathes when there is somebody there to see it. As theatre-makers we have a responsibility to think about who we are making our work for, why they should ‘give a shit’ and how we can reach them.

There is a long way to go in solving how a touring company finds and invests in its audiences in any meaningful way. But I do hope that Become a RashDasher contributes in some small way to how RashDash are working towards improving this and that it continues to evolve as a scheme driven by the ethos of ‘nothing can beat a good conversation’.

I am entirely convinced that part of the reason why my Nana lived independently to the ripe old age of 92 was because she lived life by this philosophy. And I strongly suspect that this was also the reason why, alongside her friends and family at her funeral were several friends she made on the 92 bus, a nurse who she met in the last week of her life and a man who decorated her bathroom three years ago.

She should have been a RashDasher.

A social club for theatre

Introduction from Maddy Costa: I met Danielle Rose at the Lighthouse in Poole, when she brought a group of people to see Tortoise in a Nutshell’s Feral, then stayed behind for the Theatre Club afterwards. Danielle works as an independent producer, and I really enjoyed listening to her talk about how the show had ignited her sense of community spirit. But more than that, I was impressed by her passion for creating opportunities for people to see art and theatre – particularly work that they might think isn’t for them. For a while now I’ve been talking, through NTiYN, about wanting to set up a series of social clubs, through which a motley group of people could go and see shows together, as a fun night out. When it turned out that Danielle has already created just such a group, I asked her to write a guest post about how and why she went about it.

By Danielle Rose

My first experience of buying a theatre ticket for myself, with my very own money earned from a Sunday shop job, was at Lighthouse, Poole’s Arts Centre. I think I only earned around £16 a week and a scheme called Access to Leisure (which reduced ticket prices by 75% for people from low-income families) meant that I could go to shows for less than a fiver.

Back then, I was too scared to step into a theatre alone, something I take for granted now, and would pay for one of my younger brothers to come too. Aged 16, I thought that people who went to the theatre were really posh. I was convinced that we’d get caught out somehow, that people would notice us and know that we didn’t really belong there. We’d get to theatre minutes before the show began so that we didn’t have to hang around too long before taking our seats. In and out we went, on as regular a basis as I could afford or convince my brother to come. Feeling the comfort of the house lights going down, we’d made it. In a darkened auditorium, we could be just about anyone. Sometimes in the interval people next to us wouldn’t be able to contain their surprise to see two young people coming to a show on their own and would start talking to us. I’d make small talk politely in my best voice, my brother sat silently next to me reading programme notes over the shoulder of the person in front.

Things are very different now. I’ve worked in the arts for almost 13 years and when I walk into venues I often know some of the people working there, the people on stage and many faces in the audience. Now the houselights going down cut conversations short. I’ll go to the theatre on my own because I know I won’t be alone when I get there.

I moved back to my hometown in 2013 for work, and didn’t anticipate how isolated that relocation would lead me to feel, even as someone now content in their own company. The number of people I still had a let’s-hang-out connection with after 10 years living away in Devon was few, and the people I felt I had any interests in common with were even fewer. I really liked my work colleagues, but I longed for the creative community I had come to feel a part of in Devon. I missed regularly meeting up with peers and friends who were actively engaging with cultural pursuits and being around people making things happen in the place I lived.

After a period of filling my evenings with coasting supermarket aisles, internet dating and attempts to start running, I realised that I needed to fill this gap in my life. And if I couldn’t find where all the creative types and innovators were hanging out, maybe I’d have to do a call-out!

I set up a Meetup group called Creative & Digital Professionals (Bournemouth & Poole). Meetup is a website and app which helps facilitate meeting “people in your local community who share your interests”. I’d hoped to meet just a handful of people to make living back in the area a little bit more bearable. It turned out that lots of other people were also looking for a similar thing – 15 people came to the first get-together and less than a year later there are now 350+ members. Small numbers of us, usually 15-20 new and familiar faces, come together a few times a month to swap mixtapes and go to local arts events. There’s a whole range of people who come, of all ages, from web developers, DJs and visual artists through to teachers, foreign language students and people who work in banking. When we’re out and about we tend to pick up new members too, as I’ll talk to anyone and the whole group is so approachable.

Remembering how intimidated I used to find walking into an arts venue, I try to make sure we gather for every meetup as a group first, sometimes in the venue bar itself, sometimes in a pub nearby. I feel really happy every time someone tells me that it’s the first time they’ve visited a venue or experienced anything like what we’ve gone to see. I love having conversations with people about work that they have only decided to give a go because the group would be there too. And of course it’s great to find other people who actively attend arts events already and who, like me, appreciate the experience of meeting others in the process.

One of our outings was to see Tortoise in a Nutshell’s Feral in Poole, produced by Fuel at Lighthouse. I think there was a group of about 15 of us in the end. I set it as a meetup as I hoped that the interdisciplinary nature of the show, fusing puppetry and live animation, would appeal to a wide range of people in the group. The artists had also involved local people in the research and development, and the show was to be set around the town we’re familiar with, which I suspected would make people curious about the end result. I circulated Fuel’s open call for short films to be shown before the main feature too and the film-makers in the group really got involved. Remaining as a unit, most of us stayed for the post-show conversation with Maddy Costa.

During that conversation, I said that one of the things that struck me about Feral was that a small number of the citizens in the parallel Poole presented to us, when faced with the destruction of their neighbourhood, took action. They wrote letters to the council, they protested, they cared. There was something very powerful about seeing the life of a town sped-up, witnessing the decay and potential for some salvation that can feel near invisible when lived out in real time. Having characters reflected back at us, who looked around at what was happening to their fracturing community and felt compelled to act, felt like a reminder that that is something we can all do – a call to arms, if you like, for active citizenship. It felt apt to watch Feral in the company of a hotchpotch group of people who now assemble: a group that’s been a personal reminder that if you feel something is missing, you can always ask if other people feel the same and make something new together.

Seeing differently

Every so often, something is published online that radiates such ill feeling I take the self-preserving decision to pretend it doesn’t exist. The Theatre Charter is such a thing. From what I can tell, it’s a po-faced and peculiarly joyless delineation of “theatre etiquette”, prescribing dos and particularly don’ts for people who “need” to be taught how to behave in a theatre. I know this from reading two terrific ripostes, which describe a much more generous and inclusive approach to thinking about theatre and audiences. The first is by Amber Massie-Blomfield, head of communications at the Albany theatre in London: theatre, she points out, is a live event, and as such ought to be prepared to embrace interruptions. “If the manner in which audiences are engaging with live experiences is changing so profoundly,” she asks, “isn’t it better for the future health of the art form to respond to and embrace that change, rather than attempting to regulate it?

The second is by Annabel Turpin, chief executive at ARC in Stockton-on-Tees, one of New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood’s partner venues. “Being forced to sever all connection to the outside world, sit in the dark for the duration of the event, not be allowed to leave, go to the toilet, eat, drink, take anything in or out of my bag and be expected to sit still sounds like some kind of mild torture to me,” she writes. “If that’s how I am expected to behave, I think I’ll give up going to the theatre.” She compares these rules, set out in the Theatre Charter, to the more laidback atmosphere of outdoor performances, where “there are no expectations of how to behave”. Each year, she sees the people of Stockton fill its streets for the work programmed by the Stockton International Riverside Festival – people who happily stand in all weather conditions, “not just watching, but photographing, filming, sharing and critiquing what they see”. Do these same people see work at the ARC? Probably not, she writes – because of what they think the rules are surrounding going to the theatre.

At the end of July I travelled to Margate for a NTiYN conversation, hosted by Turner Contemporary, Margate Theatre Royal and the Clod Ensemble, which invited local residents to talk about what might stop them seeing theatre and/or Fuel’s work. Much of what we talked about was the stuff contained in the Theatre Charter. One woman described how theatre just isn’t on her radar: she prefers the freer environment of gigs, where you can wander up to the bar, have a dance, and no one’s going to frown at you if you have a bit of a chat while you watch. We talked quite a lot about the restrictive architecture of the Theatre Royal, which has barely any social spaces: no foyer to speak of, no outside garden or congregating area, and only one tiny bar tucked at the top of the building. Where do people go when they want to take someone to the theatre for a treat, I wondered? The answer was anywhere but Margate: London most likely, or Canterbury, but not to the local.

Pam Hardiman – the Theatre Royal’s brilliantly irreverent Programme Manager – confessed that her favourite place to sit in her building is up in the gods, the cheap seats where people are more likely to pass each other sweets and respond vocally to what they’re seeing. It made me realise that people who make and write about theatre (myself included) talk a lot about the feeling of community generated in an auditorium, but don’t often acknowledge that it’s a funny kind of community that sits silently in the dark stifling every sound and pretending not to be there. No wonder it doesn’t sound believable to people more used to the community of gig-going.

Gratifyingly, the person least interested in theatre in this conversation said that she would be more likely to want to see a show having had a conversation about it beforehand. It was fascinating listening to Suzy Willson, co-artistic director of Clod Ensemble, talk about their show Red Ladies. Red Ladies notice things, she said. They open people’s eyes to their local environment – the things so close that they’re easy to ignore. I’d really enjoyed watching the show at the South Bank in London a few days earlier with the Theatre Royal team; a lot of it mystified me, but I’d had fun all the same. It’s easy to characterise work that doesn’t yield easily to understanding as “challenging” or “risky”, but Suzy presented it with a different language: that of seeing differently.

Why is any of this important? I could talk in a general way, but the conversation offered up a specific story that illustrates the reason perfectly. We were talking about how important it is for theatre to leave its buildings and come out to other community spaces – places where artists might feel a bit less comfortable, but their habitual users more comfortable. One woman, an older resident, recalled seeing a show a few years ago at the Tom Thumb theatre in Margate; it was the middle of winter, snowing outside, and there was a lot of grumbling when the audience were asked to leave the building and walk through the streets to an installation in a nearby bandstand. There they found a mermaid, singing – and that vision, said the woman, was so extraordinary that she will remember it for the rest of her life. (It just so happened that Jessica Jordan-Wrench, the mermaid in question, now runs the Tom Thumb, and was at the meeting to hear this – much to her flabbergasted delight.)

At the start of August, I travelled with NTiYN again, this time to Stockton for a theatre club on The Roof. It’s the first time I’ve really felt that the participants were frustrated with the book-group format: actually, some of them really did want to interrogate the director and choreographer about what the heck they were doing with that show. (I doubt whether the director in question, David Rosenberg, would have give them the straightforward answers they were looking for: he’s too contrary for that.) Admittedly, not everyone felt this way: one man marvelled at the rest of us struggling to decode the show’s computer-game levels and surreal interludes, saying that he was too content simply enjoying himself to worry about understanding. Having seen the 5.30pm performance, he left the discussion early to make it back to the venue in time for the 8pm.

The Roof was playing as part of the Stockton International Riverside Festival, and afterwards I hung around on the streets, watching performances, but also watching the audience. There were kids with their parents, clumps of teens, older people using walking aids, and everyone in between. One of the works involved peering through a shop window, below gigantic sculpted flowers that jutted from the upper storey; another, (i)land, featured an airy sprite and two men who looked like soldiers, one of whom was disabled and created a makeshift wheelchair as part of the show. When people got bored, they simply walked away: not – as the infuriating cliche suggests, never to bother with theatre again, but to find something else to watch. Despite an age recommendation of 12+ for The Roof, lots of people took their children to see it, and watching it in their company was delightful: they giggled at the monsters, marvelled at the weird rabbit heads, danced along to the music, and instantly identified the hero as someone they might encounter on their computer screens, brought to life. I love the idea of those kids talking about the show among their friends, remembering it as they get older as that weird thing they saw in their home town one summer. This is why theatre is important: it allows people to see something other than the every day. Slapping rules on how people watch and respond belies that basic value.