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.

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From the community, for the community

by Humira Imtiaz

I moved to Middlesbrough eight years ago and it took me a while to set down roots, so Stockton is a recently discovered destination for me. But it’s also become a favoured destination due to my relationship with Stockton ARC Centre. It’s led me to pursue creative writing and become a member of ARCADE, their network for performance artists, which allows me to see many performances for free. Being able to watch as much performance art and theatre as I have over the past year is helping my writing exponentially.

With this membership I have become a regular visitor of Stockton and discovered that this ‘lovely’ town is host for a variety of performances and holds its own cultural art festival, Stockton International Riverside Festival (SIRF), annually. The performances I have been to see range from surreal to breathtakingly awesome – of course you always see one which disappoints, but if it inspires you to do/find better and allows for intense discussions with friends, any performance can be enjoyable to an extent. Going to the theatre or odd social club to see a performance has helped me become part of a community, befriending people whom I may never have met due to never stepping out of my comfort zone.

My personal tastes have also been challenged and I feel like I have discovered a part of myself. At times I have been surprised at what I have enjoyed, and what I like in performance pieces. There is something pure and personal in these intimate performances, which can be cherished by the audience. I really think we as a community need more performance art in our lives, to help aid in building friendships and discovering different experiences.

Performances within large cities get a level of promotion from the national newspapers, such as the Guardian or Independent – but this is not how I am able to get the information I crave about what is happening locally within the community, particularly Stockton and Middlesbrough. We need to showcase the amazing work that is happening to more extensive audiences. Art is for all and not those who seek it and we need to encourage the public, who think performance art is a little too different for their tastes, to be a part of the audience and discover these unique performances and experience the magic of their local community – especially Stockton where they have such amazing facilities. We need to encourage the public to have an input in what they wish to see within the public sphere of art and performance, not only local to them but nationally.

This is why I wanted to join the North East Artist Development Network’s Reviewers’ scheme (have a quick look at this lovely website full of reviews!). One of the big positive aspects of this scheme is how it encourages the local community to take part in the performance process, even if that’s just letting others know what is out there. Plus, from a personal perspective, the scheme let’s me see what other performances are out there, beyond Stockton. So far I’ve seen one performance piece in Newcastle, but I am sure there will be more to come soon!

But my friends and I are also trying to raise awareness about performance within the Teesside area. Our vision is to have a platform where all artists can freely promote their work, performance, exhibitions, etc. This is a shameless plug, but: Arts Events Teesside has been set up on Facebook to share dates and times of events for the public, and a few critical thoughts on performances we have attended. We are hoping to encourage the community to join in on what is available right on their doorstep, whether is it big events such as SIRF or some small performance down at the local pub. Once I myself had a small taste of watching performance pieces, I began looking for ways to keep actively going to more events but at times I have found it difficult to find information on what was on within my locality and beyond. I really feel that by joining up with others in the community, we can share what is within our area and show others the talent of Teesside.