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.

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Giving of ourselves

fuel l and b big

An introduction by Maddy Costa: Megan Vaughan is my favourite writer on theatre; whenever I run writing workshops, I always take something by her with me, as an indication to aspiring writers of what they can reach towards. Sometimes I think my sense of affinity with her might come from a similarity in background: we both came to writing about theatre via music, and fanzines, and carry the irreverent reverence that music inspires with us at all times.

I invited Megan to write for this blog thinking she might focus on how important it is for contemporary theatre to tour and be made outside the UK’s big cities: she grew up in Cheshire, so knows much better than me (a born Londoner) what it is to feel that the excitements of art are out of reach. But, she told me, she couldn’t find a way to do so without feeling like a dick. Instead, she’s written in a more subtle way about audiences, how we approach what we know, and how we approach what we don’t. Useful thinking when applied to a company like Fuel, whose tagline promises “fresh work for adventurous people”.

By Megan Vaughan

I went to a gig last week. An Actual Music Concert, like the young’uns do. On a school night as well. He didn’t even start until half nine. It was great. Mark Eitzel in a church, just him and his guitar and a bunch of songs that he sang to us. Such simple, effective plotting. Nothing tricksy or pretentious. He’d clearly taken a lot from the alternative theatre scene, because even when he spoke to us between songs he was just playing himself. Some people might call this a particularly extreme approach to the Method, total immersion in a character for, well, for a whole lifetime, but there was also something beautifully simple about his portrayal of the self-deprecating singer-songwriter. At the heart of this one-man show was an autobiographical truth.

The design of the staging felt natural and unobtrusive too (I understand a collaborative team of community artists had been working together on the production since its location, St Pancras Church, was first established as a site of worship in the fourth century) and yet made a significant contribution to the emotional resonance of Eitzel’s performance. I can only hope that the right people got to see this work, and it is appropriately recognised come awards season.

It’s the audience that I want to talk about here though. I’d forgotten about audiences at gigs. Eight or nine years ago I was at five gigs a week. More than that even. It’s amazing what you forget.

I was just so… aware of them. Not because they were badly behaved. Far from it. This was an entirely respectful crowd, quiet and attentive, barely a mobile phone in sight. It was a generous crowd too. When Eitzel chatted to us between songs, retuned and rifled through lyric sheets, everyone clapped and laughed and gave all the signals – imperceptible when isolated but significant when multiplied – that they were having a good time. There was a collective wish to encourage. Even when he apologised for missing a note or acknowledged that a recent review had called him “indulgent” or explained that a certain song was written when he was young and drunk and a full-time wanker or even just cracked a joke that wasn’t really that funny, we wanted him to know that we still liked him. Sitting in a room full of Mark Eitzel fans, only half-knowing the one “indulgent” song, I was suddenly really aware that everyone around me had his back. We think you’re great, they said, with their strange exaggerated behaviour, and we want you to know it.

Theatre audiences are such arseholes sometimes, aren’t we? I know I am. I’m a right dick. Sitting there in the dark in our smug clothes and our smug conversations levelling our singular, interrogating, smug gaze. Sitting there like “go on then, impress me”.

There’s even that line in This Is How We Die by Christopher Brett Bailey. It’s at the jissum bit, where he repeats the word over and over: “I said it many many times and she didn’t really laugh either.” In the text he has brackets around the “either”, like he’s holding a door for us, giving us the chance to give something of ourselves; to relax, to enjoy a rude word for its simple linguistic naughtiness, but also to get behind him, and to support him in the labour of his performance. Just by laughing. Just by fucking laughing, you po-faced fucks.

I’m being harsh. Should take some of my own medicine probably. I mean, some of my best friends are theatre audiences. Of course many people laugh at the jissum scene of This Is How We Die. I’ve probably seen him say that “either” more often than not, but let’s not pretend it isn’t a crowd-pleasing section of the text. And we wouldn’t be at the theatre in the first place if we didn’t believe it could offer us enjoyment and enrichment. Fair dos. This piece was never meant to be about laughing. It actually comes from some wishy-washy thoughts I’ve been having, following Reformation 9 by Luther and Bockelson, about the way audiences perform.

Luther and Bockelson are not real. Andy Field has made them up. I would not ordinarily have told you that (spoilers!) but it looks like the pair have been retired. They lived for but a few short shows, first at The Yard this spring, as part of their NOW festival of new work, and then for one night last month at Forest Fringe in Edinburgh. Except they didn’t live at all, because Reformation 9 was just Andy repeatedly reading us their fabricated manifesto while we explored the freedoms it had granted us. On our seats had been placed envelopes, and in them, all sorts of shit: plastic farmyard animals, sparklers, hazard tape, AV cables, drumsticks, a photocopied excerpt of Waiting For Godot, all the pieces from which to build a scale model of the Brandenburg Gate. Toys, basically. Toys to facilitate creative play. And boy did we play.

There is lots of interactive theatre in the world and there are lots of people around to tell you how empowering that is for an audience who can enjoy some autonomy for a change. But so much of that work is so guided, so structured. Take my hand, follow me, sit here, say this. In Reformation 9 it felt like we could do whatever we wanted, get as involved as we wanted, tape up the fire exit and run round with naked flames if we wanted. When Andy left the room between cycles, we’d co-ordinate ourselves to be as disruptive as possible: block his route to the microphone, shout over him, cut up his clothes, tear up the manifesto, replace it with the Evening Standard’s review of The Twits. Ultimately we exhausted ourselves and took our seats again, quietly listening. There was to be no great revolution that night, but we were cool with that. Here was a show where the most supportive thing we could do for the artist was go totally fucking off-the-hook mental. I loved it. I adored it. It was all my Christmases come at once. It was a double-yolked egg, an all-chocolate Kit-Kat. If I was a moth, then it was my flame. If I was a pig, it was my pool of shit.

When I became hyper-aware of Mark Eitzel’s audience last week, looking on like proud soccer moms at the side of the pitch, straight away it made me think of my Reformation 9 experience. I’d heard that Andy’s performance at Forest Fringe hadn’t been received so well, that the venue had had greater operational restrictions than the Yard, and that there had been too many people there to allow everyone to find their own path through the work. The energy in the room was somehow shifted. I tried to imagine how the Eitzel gig would have been altered if the people around me were all in the middle of an exhausting festival marathon, jacked up on energy drinks and star ratings. Distracted, exhausted, pissed. I tried to imagine how different it would be if, instead of Eitzel’s crowd willing him on while forgiving him his wobbles, they were sitting back like… “Go on then, impress me”.

What if generosity of spirit isn’t the neutral state here? What if cynicism is our default? What do we do about that? Since when has any of this been the audience member’s responsibility? I’ve bought a ticket, travelled across town, given up two hours of my time, and now you’re telling me it’s my job to make myself have a good time as well? I’m sorry, what?

On Saturday afternoon I went to see The Win Bin at the Old Red Lion in London. I had been attracted by the premise (a Hunger Games-style contest for the last paid job in the arts) plus a couple of decent reviews, but there were only a handful of us there. It was a funny show, without the satirical bite that I really wanted, but the two performers were excellent, each taking on multiple roles with razor-sharp timing. And I found myself performing for them; in the front row, smiling broadly, laughing extra loud. Wanting them to know I was on their side.

This is great. You’re doing great.

Megan Vaughan is a blogger from Cheshire, now based in London. She blogs at synonymsforchurlish.tumblr.com and tweets as @churlishmeg.

Being local, being chatty, being excellent

by Maddy Costa

For the final planned post in this small run of pieces about relationships between theatre (buildings) and audiences, I want to take a moment to look back on some writing on the theme that’s been published elsewhere. Ever since Stella Duffy posted it on the Fun Palaces blog at the start of June, I’ve been thinking about her call to redefine “excellence” in the arts. She questions the idea that art is “excellent” in and of itself: for one thing, by whose taste is this innate quality being judged? You only have to look at the UK’s pool of theatre critics – which has begun changing in terms of age, but is still mostly white and middle-class – to see in microcosm a problem of homogeneity among the decision-makers, money-handlers, praise-givers and gate-keepers of art. Turning her attention to audiences, Duffy asks if art can really be deemed excellent, if large numbers of people feel intimidated by it, feel that it’s not inviting them or that they have no connection with it. Rejecting elitism, she calls for a new consideration of excellence: of participation and engagement, not just for a few people, but for many.

On the Guardian blog later in June, Lyn Gardner argued for a similar change in the value system: from theatre as a product presented to communities to theatre as a social activity that all sorts of people come together to make. Reporting from the Devoted & Disgruntled/In Battalions open discussion on how theatre might better liaise with a Tory government, Gardner pointed out that the key to increased support for arts funding lies in conversation with the general public – “including those many millions who think the arts is not for them”. More theatres should have participation programmes like that at the Young Vic in London, so beautifully described by Lily Einhorn in her guest post which began this series; and those that do have them should get better about making their activities public.

Also on the Guardian blog, at the beginning of July, Sarah Brigham detailed the many ways in which artist development and audience development at Derby Theatre, where she is artistic director, aren’t separate activities but interrelated. Both are fed by a focus on the local community: giving opportunities including “residencies, scratch nights, masterclasses and business support” to emergent artists and companies, which in turn encourages them to pay attention to the main-house programme that might previously have seemed irrelevant to them. There’s a lot in this thinking that aligns with the approach of Annabel Turpin at ARC in Stockton, discussed in the interview with her earlier this week.

Returning to the beginning of June, I was very struck by extracts from a speech delivered by Sarah Frankcom, artistic director of the Royal Exchange, Manchester, at a Sleepover event at her theatre designed to inspire new conversations between the building and its audiences. Frankcom already has a number of informal chats with different audience members, but said: “As lovely and affecting as these encounters are, they are random and hidden and really just a collection of anecdotes. I am hungry for a more grown-up dialogue, a space where I can understand more about what you think theatre is about and what this building in the heart of Manchester is for.” In his review of the Sleepover, critic Andrew Haydon (who has recently moved to Manchester) noted with admiration: “There was something particularly special about the relationship that the Royal Exchange seemed to have with its audience and the care and respect with which it treated them.” Clearly, Frankcom is already doing something right. And I know I’m biased, but I’m really heartened by the inclusion, in the theatre’s upcoming Flare festival programme, of “Talk Back” events: discussion sessions in which artists and audiences gather to talk about the previous night’s performance. They sound just like the theatre clubs I host. As far as I can tell, Talk Back isn’t integral to the Royal Exchange programme yet – but if Frankcom wants more “grown-up dialogue” to happen at her theatre, that seems to me as good a way to have it as any.

I began by saying this was the final planned post in this series: actually, I’d love to carry it on – if only I knew who with. As Lily Einhorn pointed out on twitter earlier this week, work like hers at the Young Vic is “probably going on in pockets across the UK. It all tends to be so secret.” I’d like to find ways to make it less hidden: so if you’re at a venue and focused on community collaboration and conversation, please get in touch with me via maddy[at]welcometodialogue[dot]com. Thanks!

An invitation into another world

A quick introduction from Maddy Costa: Over the course of this week, I’m going to be running a selection of pieces on this blog thinking about relationships between theatre (particularly buildings) and audiences, trying to build up a picture of some best, or at least brilliant, practice. The first is a guest post by Lily Einhorn, who manages the Two Boroughs project at the Young Vic in London and also works freelance as a creative practitioner and evaluator. Lily’s one of the people I admire most in this industry, for a lot of reasons, but particularly for coming up with the idea for Theatre Club, the informal post-show discussions that work like book groups, which I’ve also been hosting as part of NTiYN. Her work is focused on creating a sense of community within and around the Young Vic: here’s how and why she does it.

by Lily Einhorn

I work in a theatre. Each day I arrive at the entrance, walk through the doors and into the foyer. I have a quick chat with the welcome team sitting behind the box office counter, get my red fob out of my bag and tap myself through the door marked ‘backstage’. I belong there.

This sense of belonging carries me through into other theatres. When I visit them I know how they work. I know which areas are public and which aren’t. I know when the bars are just for the audience. I know when they aren’t. Theatres are familiar to me. They smell a certain way. They have certain people busying through in show blacks. I know I can ignore the first call to sit in my seat if I want to linger. I know I need to put my drink in a plastic cup if I want to take it into the auditorium.

Recently I was given some tickets to the ROH and suddenly I found myself in unfamiliar territory. Where I didn’t know. I didn’t know I had to show my ticket to a security guard who would look at me askance as I entered. I didn’t know my husband – a theatre director – would be the only man not in a suit. I didn’t know when I was allowed to clap. I didn’t know I wouldn’t see a single black person in the audience. Knowledge is power. I do know that. And I felt its absence. The creeping embarrassment of making an accidental faux pas. My own middle class, white, educated to MA level otherness. And all I could wonder was what my participants at the Young Vic would make of this beautiful, bewildering place with its money and its hats and its ‘bravos’.

At the Young Vic I work in the Taking Part department where we have three strands of work: Schools and Colleges, Participation (young people) and Two Boroughs. With my colleague, Kirsten Adam, I run this last strand, working with individuals and community groups from across our two home boroughs, our office sitting on either side of the dividing line. We run week-long workshops and evening workshops, sessions on stage on our sets to explore the jobs and cogs backstage, Theatre Club, tours of the building, and large scale community shows working with dedicated community groups with professional creative and production teams. But the basis for all this work, all this making, is watching. We are privileged in Taking Part to give away 10% of the Young Vic’s tickets to the local community. For free. Thousands of tickets per year. To sold out shows, to A View from the Bridge with its returns queue that snaked around the building from the wee small hours, to A Streetcar Named Desire with its alien-investigating star. Such is the commitment to our participants from the theatre that we book in our tickets before the shows go on sale. We cannot invite anyone into our theatre if we are not asking them to watch the shows. We can’t ask people to take a risk on something if they have to pay for it. And we cannot collaborate on a show if no one has ever seen one.

The tickets are the basis for everything we do. Of course they are. They are an invitation into another world, another time, another story. For us the ticket is the start of a relationship. We do not just leave them at box office: we are there, handing them out, welcoming our neighbours in, smiling and hugging and shaking hands and laughing and sometimes fretting over time-keeping. I have heard time and time again that people do not value something if it is free. To my mind this is as redundant an argument as product versus process. Friendship is free. Laughter and time are free. And no one argues with that. The value in the ticket is defined by the manner in which it is given: the value is in the invitation. In the care we take to remind people to come, to call people without email, to make sure everyone’s access requirements are met. In remembering, whenever we can, people’s names. And in making sure that our participants have that powerful knowledge that makes them feel at ease, at home. In reassuring against a dress code. In inviting community groups together, in pointing out where the toilets are and telling them if there’s no interval and they might need to pee first. The important stuff.

Because these members of our audience are important. Not just because it is right that they are there. Morally, politically, right that everyone should have equal access to the arts, but because they enrich the building and the work itself. Theatre can’t exist in a vacuum, without an audience: this is a simple fact about the art form. But if that audience are all the same age, ethnicity, socio-economic status, have the same career path or experiences, the auditorium is less vibrant, the show is less dynamic, the conversation between the seats and the stage is less unpredictable. And we all lose as a result.

Sometimes the relationship starts the other way around. Making first. If we are working on a community show and decide to engage particular community groups we often end up working with people who have had no experience of the arts at all. They come, speculatively, to outreach workshops and gradually involve themselves in the project. When we work like this we tend to take the sessions out to them, to their spaces, before bringing them into the theatre towards the end for rehearsals and tech sessions. By the time they walk through into our foyer they know us and they know why they are here. After the project has finished they often return to become regular theatre-goers. Rather than feeling like the paying customers’ poor second cousins, our participants have a unique sense of ownership over the building. They’ve been backstage, they’ve sat in the greenroom. It is their theatre.

But more than that, they have a sense of what theatre can do, how powerful it can be, and what effect involvement in it can have on their lives. Recently I finished working with an extraordinary group of female carers. We made a show in response to our main house show Happy Days – one woman unable to escape – and looked at what escape might mean to these women, what freedom was, how movement and dance expressed the unexpressed. The show, Turning a Little Further, had a professional production and creative team including director Laura Keefe, movement director Coral Messam and lyricist Francesca Beard. It was designed by Fly Davis. And it was joyful. Tearfully, painfully, breathlessly, heartbreakingly joyful. Not just the sessions – with the laughter and the stories and the biscuits – but the fact it was theatre. That we made a piece of communicative art together. That we strove to make the art as full of craft and skill and expertise as any other piece of art in the building. One of the carers said afterwards, ‘You came crashing into our lives for five months and you showed us all that we are real, our lives are real.’

Putting their voices on stage, filling the space with their bodies, changed the space of the theatre. It will forever be a space where those stories were told, where an unpaid female carer stood on a stage and proclaimed, ‘I shouted so loudly I lost my voice. I’m still learning to speak again.’ It will forever be a place that put ‘real’ women on to the stage and in re-creating their thoughts and feelings, validated them. Made them more real.

That is what theatre can do, if it is allowed. Our Two Boroughs project allows it to happen. Again and again, with people from drug and alcohol rehabilitation programmes, with sex workers, with elders. And it gives people a sense of belonging to a wider theatrical community that flourishes because it is so diverse. No one should walk into any theatre not knowing. We try to make sure that our participants know that.

Sparking desire

by Maddy Costa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The currency of friendliness

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

by Emma Geraghty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The what happens after

by Maddy Costa

This story begins in Newcastle, in the middle of March. As part of my ongoing quest to encourage more people not just to write about theatre but to do so in different and exciting ways, I was running a workshop with the Cuckoo Young Writers, and by chance met Ruth, newly commissioned by the Clod Ensemble to act as a local engagement specialist for their touring production The Red Chair. Ruth was feeling frustrated: she had come up with a fun social media campaign, and made contact with some interesting local groups, but so far it hadn’t translated into many conversations, let alone ticket sales. She felt she wasn’t getting anywhere.

I’m always open about the fact that I have no actual experience in outreach or engagement work, I’ve never worked in a theatre, and have no specific theatre training. However, instinctively I’m pretty certain that to think about outreach or engagement in terms of ticket sales is going about things the wrong way. This isn’t a criticism of Ruth, by the way: it’s a general observation. A fundamental belief that if you’re going to make the effort to talk to people, it’s got to be with a view to more than getting them to part with their cash.

Ruth told me about the groups she’d approached, particularly associations for blind and visually impaired people: The Red Chair, she felt, relies so much more on language, sound and hearing than on sight that she wanted to encourage these groups to come along, and use that as the beginning of a more general conversation about access to theatre. Which all sounded like the right kind of work, if only she could feel less disheartened. Four days later, she sent me an email, telling me about a conversation she’d had with the chair of the Newcastle Disability Forum: although no one was free to see The Red Chair, Ruth was organising an alternative theatre trip for them – and they had a long discussion about the good and bad of audio-description, which Ruth expected to continue. She concluded:

‘The longer-term outcomes seem to be where the heart of this is and I am starting to shift my head about that … I want to get as many people who may enjoy the show to see it … but actually what happens after that is key.’

The middle of this story takes place in Gloucester a few days later. I was there for the Strike a Light festival, which has grown up as part of the Collaborative Touring Network, a strategic touring project funded by Battersea Arts Centre. I hadn’t been to Strike a Light before, but it was instantly obvious how this spring festival was building on the previous autumn one (and on the two festivals before that). There was quantitative data for this – a clear increase in ticket sales – but what interested me were the ways I, as an outsider, noticed it in the atmosphere. In the way people stayed behind after a work-in-progress performance and talked about how it compared with another, earlier version of the same show. In the number of people who came out on a Sunday evening for another work-in-progress performance: students, theatre-makers, locals. Last year, there was an argument at the bar about making work as a person of colour in the region; this year there was a programmed discussion on the subject, more than 20 people debating passionately with each other – people who hadn’t met before, but could go on to work together. It was like seeing a community come into bud.

There are six CTN festivals, all of them in areas where there isn’t much theatre going on, all of them blossoming. Lyn Gardner wrote a Guardian blog about another one, run by Doorstep Arts in Torbay, which she described as: “a terrific celebration of the transformative power of arts engagement”, praising it for “growing a future model of arts engagement that could flourish all over the country”. That model is simple: galvanising and supporting communities to build the infrastructures they need to present touring work and inspire local makers.

This story now has a twist: on a Saturday in mid-April I went to Preston for the last weekend of the Derelict festival, a brilliant week-long programme of performances and fun. It ended with a discussion – my favourite kind of discussion, in which people of all different ages and backgrounds, from students to artistic directors and chief executives via producers, practising artists and academics, gather on equal terms. We began talking about the need for stronger infrastructure in Preston, to make it more possible to present and encourage people to attend theatre/performance/art, and one person suggested that it was important for the people of Preston to make this alone, and not allow others to build it for them. “Others” including Fuel – Preston’s Continental being one of the six NTiYN venues. I found this resistance really interesting: are organisations like Fuel and BAC riding roughshod over locals, who could quite happily build an arts community themselves? I don’t think so – but then, I’m always the Londoner in these situations, the outsider.

It was fascinating to encounter that oppositional perspective, and while not agreeing with it, I want to hold it in my thoughts. What makes me disagree is knowing how much autonomy people like Emma Jane in Gloucester and the Doorstep Arts team in Torbay have in shaping their festivals for their own communities. What begins as a potentially cynical opportunity for BAC to access new and hard-to-reach audiences is transformed by a genuine desire to support, on the one hand, local grassroots activity and, on the other, the entire theatre ecology. Similarly, when I see Fuel organise mentoring for a programmer in Preston (for instance), it’s not just to get more of their own work on: it’s so that programmer can learn new approaches to building a stronger, bolder venue, which could become a hub for locals and touring artists alike.

This story ends in Colchester on the last Friday in April, at an event curated by Jordana Golbourn, the local engagement specialist for the Lakeside. Since starting work with NTiYN a couple of years ago, Golbourn has sought to reach beyond the Lakeside’s campus community and forge links with people across Colchester and in nearby areas like Jaywick and Wyvenhoe. Inspired by Fuel’s Phenomenal People, she organised a social for local women, with me as host, to take place in the Lakeside’s cafe. It was another one of those perfect circles: the university’s head of Humanities and other top academics sitting at the same table with students, artists and theatre-makers, plus the mother and daughter who run an activist event called Colchester Soup. You could hear the electricity crackling across the table as women discovered like-minded souls, people with whom they might collaborate or from whom they could learn. In one short hour, the university feminist society had several new members; we learned about one woman’s art therapy practice, another’s work as a clown doctor and a third’s intention to build retreats for artists in Jaywick; pledged to support the university’s brilliant scheme for scholarships for young women and marvelled at how Colchester Soup directs funds to people with community-benefiting ideas. Somewhere in the mix we invited everyone present to come to the Phenomenal People show: I hope they come, but I hope much more that this was the first of many events, the beginning of a proper network, in which women can find mentors, share experience, build together.

The Colchester social might end this particular blog story, but it’s also a beginning and a continuation. Sometimes, like Ruth, I get disheartened on NTiYN trips, that it’s still so hard getting people to come and see shows. But time and again I remind myself: that’s not what it’s about. It’s about cultural shifts and making connections across communities; not individual shows but the way neighbourhoods function; not theatre as a product but theatre at the beating heart of society.