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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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!

ARC and the art of audience development: two interviews with Annabel Turpin

by Maddy Costa

When I think of the people I’ve met through NTiYN who’ve most inspired me and transformed how I think about relationships between people who make, watch and write about theatre, Annabel Turpin always comes top of the list. Which is difficult, because she’s also the person who’s had the most troubled relationship with NTiYN, resulting in her making the decision last month to withdraw from the research project. (Clarification: Annabel had talked to Fuel previously about withdrawing from the project; by the time the decision was made for ARC to leave, the decision was mutual and Fuel had reassigned that portion of funding to other NTiYN venues.) Annabel is the chief executive of ARC in Stockton-on-Tees, a multi-purpose arts centre that seemed a perfect partner for NTiYN, because of the low attendance for its theatre programme. And yet the venue and the research project have consistently been in friction, and as NTiYN moves into its final phase, it feels important to address why that is, and what this model of audience development might learn from ARC.

What follows draws on two interviews with Annabel, one in March 2014, a little over a year into the research project, the second in May 2015. Unless it’s relevant, I’ll dart between the two without specifying the date: some big shifts did happen at ARC over that 14 months – not least the introduction of the Pay What You Decide ticketing system for all theatre and dance shows – but Annabel’s frustration with NTiYN remained consistent.

The primary problem for Annabel was the local engagement specialist model, whereby a local artist or arts enthusiast is employed to meet community groups and other local people and talk to them about an upcoming show. This is the part of NTiYN that has been most successful elsewhere, and to Annabel that makes sense: “I think it’s really right for venues that aren’t doing that. But it felt to us that the local engagement specialist was doing what we would be doing anyway. She kept wanting to talk to people that we were already talking to, and I don’t think she had networks that we didn’t already have.” The LES’s focus on Fuel shows also disrupted rather than complemented ARC’s longer-term strategies. “You can’t just burst in and tell people about a show happening next week: it’s an ongoing dialogue, and we have to think carefully about all the messages we’re sending them. So the local engagement specialist was getting in the way.”

Not only that, but for a venue dedicated to “connecting incoming artists with local people”, Annabel often felt that Fuel themselves were getting in the way: “We’re dealing with Fuel, who are dealing with the artists. We’re having to liaise with a third party, so everything takes longer.” When we speak in May 2015, she points to specific examples of problems related to The Spalding Suite, and the programme of workshops connected to it, that arose through faulty communication between venue and producers. She’s particularly exasperated that the workshops weren’t as effective as they might have been – while aware that, without the additional resources of NTiYN, ARC wouldn’t have been able to afford workshops around that production at all.

Asked for useful outcomes of the connection with NTiYN, Annabel returns to the day, just as the project was beginning, when Fuel as a team came to Stockton, to meet local people and talk about why they wanted to present work there. “That felt really positive, and probably the best bit of the project so far,” she said in 2014. Similarly, she was very happy with the opportunity NTiYN created, through Fuel’s production Phenomenal People, for local artist Kathryn Beaumont to spend time with groups of women from the former mining communities of County Durham – people the venue had long been trying to forge a relationship with. “We were particularly interested in targeting that area: it hasn’t resulted in audiences and probably never would, but some lovely artistic work came out of it, and useful learning for Kathryn in engaging with remote communities.”

It’s this dedication not to ticket sales but engagement and interaction that make me so admire Annabel and her approach to audience relationships. At its most idealistic (which is the place I sit), NTiYN isn’t just an exercise in shifting tickets either: it’s an attempt to build meaningful connections between Fuel and the communities they sporadically visit. Annabel isn’t arrogant about ARC’s mismatch with NTiYN: “I don’t want to say we’re doing it all already, because no one can ever be doing enough and no one can ever be doing it well enough, and we were as keen to learn as anyone.” But the fact that she feels “we haven’t learned from NTiYN” makes me want to communicate exactly what ARC is doing, and the methods it has in place from which Fuel, and others, might learn. For the sake of concision, I’ll list them:

1: “Our whole thing is about trying to find opportunities for audiences to meet artists.”

“By meet, I don’t necessarily mean in person,” she clarifies. “Meet, encounter, interact with artists, before the point where we say: now commit your time to sitting in a dark room watching them.” That encounter might be with a letter written by Andy Field to the people of Stockton, beautifully printed and strung like lanterns on a washing line in ARC’s foyer; it might be Tangled Feet visiting the head of communications at North Tees hospital, who then introduced them to other NHS staff; it could be an interview with an artist conducted via Skype and screened in ARC’s cinema. Quite often it’s ad-hoc performances in the town centre, the library or a school canteen, and artists being ushered over to the pub next door to take part in the open-mic night. “We send them in there to make friends, to talk to people,” says Annabel. “That’s our method of marketing, is to talk to people – and artists can do it much better than we can.”

This meeting of artists and audiences performs two prime functions. It humanises the people behind the work, creating a sense of connection. “We’re still working on this, but I’m really keen that we get images of artists in Stockton, in places people are familiar,” Annabel said in 2014. “Familiarity is a word we use a lot when we talk about bringing artists and audiences together: it’s about their not being complete strangers.”

It also creates familiarity with different concepts of theatre: all the stuff that ARC programmes that isn’t what Annabel describes as a “straight play”. “We’re really recognising that we’re asking people to come and see or get involved in work and they don’t know what it looks like,” she said in 2014. Hence the pop-up performances across town, living breathing trailers that put something of the work on show. “It’s about confidence,” Annabel says. “The main reason people in Stockton don’t go to the theatre is they’re not confident to come. It’s about people feeling confident about saying: I know what that person looks like, I know what that’s about.”

2: “Our audience development needs to happen alongside the artist development.”

Since many of those meetings rely on artists being resident in the building, ARC increasingly avoids booking finished touring work, preferring to be involved at the development stage, better still in the commissioning process. “That’s not about telling artists what to do or make. It’s about making artists more audience-focused.” Partly that’s achieved by inviting artists to conduct research in the local community, as in Tangled Feet’s interactions with NHS staff: although Annabel is concerned that this “transaction” should be one of “value exchange”. “Whether those people see the show or not, they should feel that someone cares about their story, and should feel like they’ve had an experience. It’s reciprocal.”

A key audience group Annabel is keen to develop consists of other, local, artists. By getting incoming artists to run “professional development workshops” as part of ARCADE, the venue’s programme for emergent writers and makers, she ensures that the two kinds of development happen symbiotically.

3: “We’re trying to make all staff local engagement specialists.”

For every show that goes on sale, Annabel sits down not only with her programme communicator and marketing people but box office staff and anyone else from the organisation who is keen, and discusses: “who we think might be interested in it, who we’re going to talk to, and who is best placed to have that conversation”. It’s the same work assigned by Fuel to the local engagement specialist – but at ARC, all venue staff are invited to be involved.

Also, when an artist or company arrive at ARC for a week of development work, Annabel sits all staff down with them at the beginning of the week, for a conversation. “I ask the artist about their work, and what they’re trying to do, so all the staff understand and feel empowered to have a conversation with them.” Before those welcomes were introduced, very few of the staff would speak to the artists. “Now the whole organisation understands what artists do, and with that comes a confidence in how to talk about the work.”

Annabel wants her staff to be confident not just in talking, but “listening to our audiences”. “I’m not saying you should trap every audience member after the show and have a conversation with them. But it’s amazing what people say if you ask them. And people feeling like their viewpoint and their interpretation is valid means they’ll come back.”

4: “The vocabulary we use is not just about words.”

Glossy flyers are such a staple of theatre marketing that it’s hard to imagine a production surviving without them. Yet Annabel wonders what kind of messages they’re communicating about theatre. “This is going to sound very patronising, but it’s a little bit like: are you buying from Waitrose or Aldi? If you’re buying from Aldi, there’s no point sending you something that’s packaged like Waitrose, because that will send out a signal that it’s too expensive for you. This isn’t about dumbing down: it’s about being sympathetic to what people might have been exposed to culturally. It’s about the images, the font, the material, the whole way we sell it. You can’t be snobby about that.

“We’ve pulled away from printing lots of high-glass expensive flyers – we love them, but it sends the wrong message. I want people to have the opportunity to choose, and I’m not giving you that opportunity if you’re looking at a flyer and thinking ‘That’ll be too expensive’ or ‘I won’t understand it’. Not having the opportunity to decide: that’s what we’re battling with.”

5: “Pay What You Decide.”

The most radical decision Annabel has taken to give people that “opportunity to decide” has been to make all theatre and dance performances at ARC pay what you decide, “taking the risk out” of coming to see a show. She’s cagey about results, but will say that early signs suggest a tangible positive effect in earnings and audience numbers. “It’s not the be all and end all: we still need to show people what work looks like, and invite them to come. But Pay What You Decide is a really lovely way of inviting people.” (NEWS FLASH! Annabel has now written a brilliant piece for the Guardian blog detailing how successful PWYD has been.)

With so many mechanisms in place to attract people into the building, I wonder how Annabel rationalises the fact that audiences for ARC’s theatre programme, although growing, are still quite small. Her answer is simple: to value quality of experience over quantity of people. “Is someone going to go home and the show be a fleeting memory, or are they going to be thinking about the things posed in the show, and telling other people about it? Making memories is really important. I don’t want to see bus-loads of kids shipped in and out and not remember what they see. And when someone sees things on stage that they can connect with, that resonate with you and reflect your world in the broadest sense, that’s fantastic.”

Is there anything she feels ARC isn’t doing yet, or still isn’t getting right? “I don’t think we’re capturing enough evidence and shouting about it,” she says. This isn’t just a matter of raising ARC’s profile: it means other theatres don’t have the opportunity to learn from their successes and failures. She points to the work done by director Javaad Alipoor in advance of a touring show called My Brother’s Country, programmed at ARC in February 2015. “Javaad did the most amazing audience development work: he came twice in advance, went out and made friends, if he saw signs in Farsi he’d go in for a chat, he found an Iranian group who meet in a church and got invited to one of their house parties. The show was about Islam and homosexuality, which is quite a hard sell, and we had 80 people over two nights. Javaad really went out there and talked to people, and that’s why the show was successful.”

Ever since, Annabel has been planning to write a case study to share with other artists ARC works with, but she just hasn’t found the time. “So that’s what we want to do more of: analysing what really works and trying to capture it.” And until she gets around to it, I’m perfectly happy to do it for her.

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.

Join the dots

At the end of January I tagged along with Fuel co-directors Louise Blackwell and Kate McGrath on a trip to Manchester, where they were speaking at a conference organised by another London-based touring company, Paines Plough. The conference was titled The Future of Small-Scale Touring and I’m pretty sure it’s the first event of its kind I’ve been to; if not, then I’ve blocked all memory of the others, no doubt because, as I (re)discovered at this one, I’m fundamentally unsuited to all-day conferences that consist of panels of people delivering a relay of speeches from an authoritative position on a stage, followed by brief, fractious Q&A sessions and barely interrupted by 30-minute coffee breaks (35 minutes for lunch). That’s quite a severe representation of the day; for a fuller and more sympathetic account, Lyn Gardner’s two blogs responding to the event, one suggesting a fairer system of arts funding, the other wondering why people in the theatre industry don’t talk to audiences more, are terrific. And there’s a very useful round-up on A Younger Theatre.

At the end of January 2013, I attended a very different theatre conference, Devoted and Disgruntled, at which participants mutually propose topics of conversation on the day then take part in the sessions that most interest and inspire them, and joined in a lively debate on touring. Again, there’s an excellent account of that discussion on the D&D website by a producer of small-scale tours called Gloria Lindh, who thrillingly disrupted the Paines Plough event when, in a pique of irritation, she asked whether small-scale touring under the present system – the same touring system that has operated in the UK for decades – benefits anyone at all, or whether everyone should just stop.

I’ve thought about that D&D session often over the past year, because New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood works to resolve or at least address many of the problems it raised: the need for more face-to-face communication between makers, producers, venues and audiences; the need to engage with a community, rather than rock up for a night then disappear; the need to work not just in theatres but outside them, engaging with places that might, for some in the community, hold more meaning than the local arts centre. At other times I’ve thought about that session because some really sparky ideas came up in it – to do with screening trailers for upcoming theatre shows, either in the foyer spaces or on a pull-down screen in the auditorium; or setting up a support act system, like you get at a music gig, with, for instance, a young local theatre company presenting 15 minutes of their work (maybe as a scratch) before the main show starts – ideas which I’m yet to see anyone attempt.

Onslaught of speakers aside, part of my frustration with the Paines Plough event was based in the feeling that different sections of the theatre industry keep repeating the same conversation, but not joining forces in a way that might effect change. Listening to Matt Fenton, the brilliant director of Contact Manchester, note the overlap between The Future of Small-Scale Touring and Getting It Out There, a symposium held in Lancaster in May 2012 on, yes, “the future of touring for contemporary theatre and Live Art”, I heard that frustration articulated from the stage.

But change is slow and incremental, and isn’t helped by people like me griping with impatience. What feels exciting about NTiYN is the extent to which it is operating within an industry pushing, separately but together, towards the same shifts in practice. I’ve written on this blog before about Bryony Kimmings’ contribution to the collection of texts documenting Getting It Out There, in which she talks winningly of how she spends time in the pub in the places where she tours, knowing that this personal contact with people has the potential to encourage non-habitual theatre-goers to see her work; and of the debate entitled I’ll Show You Mine which she instigated, and which is bringing together disparate independent producers to rethink the relationship between theatre buildings and the people they programme. Through NTiYN (and my own project, Dialogue), I’ve made contact with the house network, which is dedicated to connecting isolated theatre directors and programmers across southern England with each other and with their local communities, and I’m striking up a relationship with the Collaborative Touring Network, the new approach to feeding the national theatre ecology cooked up by Battersea Arts Centre. Also through NTiYN, I’ve become much more aware of the awe-inspiring work of Annabel Turpin at ARC in Stockton-on-Tees: at both the 2013 D&D session and the Paines Plough conference, theatre-makers talked gratefully of her “meet the programmer” events, which break down the walls between artists and venues; and I’ve talked on this blog and to pretty much anyone who will listen to me about the sundry thoughtful ways in which she conspires to get the people who visit her building but not necessarily her theatre auditorium talking to the artists she programmes, encouraging the conversation that can first animate interest in the work and then enrich an engagement with it.

Sadly, within the context of the Future of Small-Scale Touring conference, NTiYN somewhat came across as a project Fuel are able to do because they are a National Portfolio Organisation, funded by Arts Council England and the Strategic Touring programme, of benefit to Fuel alone. It’s important to see beyond that. All the speakers with whom I felt the strongest connection at the Paines Plough conference reflected, whether subtly or directly, on one crucial point: the future of touring, of theatre, relies not simply on getting people’s bums on seats, but on developing proper, reciprocal relationships with their brains. On inviting people to talk about what they see, to participate at some point in the process of making work, maybe even – as Matt Fenton is admirably trying to do at Contact – get involved in venue programming decisions. On recognising that a lot of theatre happens in the same ways that it’s happened for a century and more, ways that aren’t always but can be outdated, distancing, paternalistic and elitist – and that need replacing with new models of activity that are more thoughtful, personal and transparent. On understanding that people who are enticed to take a risk on Fuel’s work – and then (my favourite part of NTiYN) talk about what they saw, how it made them feel, what it did or didn’t mean to them – might later be willing to take a risk on Paines Plough’s work, on Little Mighty’s work, on Action Hero‘s work, on non zero one‘s work, and so on and so on and so on.

It’s telling that the only specifically designated NTiYN show in Fuel’s January to April season, Daniel Bye’s Story Hunt, is one rooted in conversation with the local community (and that the redoubtable Annabel Turpin co-commissioned and produced its original incarnation). As NTiYN moves into its next phase, following up on the Artists’ Missions whose stories fill another page of this blog, and commissioning work that responds to specific localities and communities, that strand of its activity will become more and more prominent. But NTiYN is bigger than a research project, bigger than a set of shows. Increasingly, it is the way Fuel wants to operate as a company. And by having me tagging along, in a blurry place at once peripheral and integrated, they have someone always at hand who’s keen to join the dots, within the industry and among audiences alike.