Reaching out, further and further

This month marks the end of NTiYN as a research project, and the beginning of this work as a practice for life. Over on the Fuel website is a page of useful stuff that we’re hoping to share with as many people as possible: an evaluation booklet which discusses the ways in which the project was successful and not so much; the essay of historical precedences that I keep banging on about (sorry! It’s full of others’ good thinking and I’d love people to read it); and handbooks related to the two chief discoveries of the project, with suggestions for how to run theatre clubs and how to work with local engagement specialists.

The Theatre Club handbook I’m super proud of (and no, I didn’t write it!): ever since Lily Einhorn invited me to start hosting one as part of the participation project at the Young Vic in London, it’s been a mystery to me why every theatre in the country doesn’t offer one as part of its events programme. All it involves is opening up a space for audiences to talk about theatre shows without the people who made them present: it doesn’t have to replace the Q&A, in fact it’s best when the two are complementary. But it invites people to speak and be heard who often feel excluded from what looks like a theatre clique, through worry that they don’t have the right language or haven’t understood something. At Theatre Club, it’s brilliant when people don’t understand something, because often that’s when individual interpretations based on particular experiences begin to emerge. The best part of being involved in NTiYN for me has been watching people start up theatre clubs of their own, and through that forging social groups that get people going to the theatre more, in buildings they might not have visited before, and to see work they might not have taken a chance on, especially if they were likely to be attending alone. It’s through such groups that theatre can become less an occasional outing and more the fabric of life.

The people who have been instrumental in inspiring those groups to begin are the Local Engagement Specialists: people who live and work in the vicinity of the theatres to which Fuel tour, who form a point of connection between Fuel/the theatre-makers, the venue and the local communities. During the course of the research project those have been paid positions; Fuel have made the decision to use what they’ve learned to shape a volunteers network, but a necessary question was raised at the NTiYN closing event in Preston last month by Charlotte Bennett, producer with RashDash who runs a similar volunteer ambassador scheme, about the ethics of asking people to do that work for free. As an aside, that closing event was fascinating in the way that it brought people from all sections of the theatre industry – from the artistic director of the Royal Exchange, Manchester to independent producers, makers, actors, students, and the enthusiastic audience members who are Fuel’s new volunteers – into a room for a shared conversation in which a genuine attempt was made to scrub away hierarchies so that all opinions were equally valid. As mentioned on the home page, I came to NTiYN via Dialogue, an organisation (although that’s not quite the right word for it – it’s more a philosophy) that aims to inspire new relationships between people who make, watch and write about theatre. As you can tell from the name, dialogue is at the heart of what we do and think about, and this was a beautiful instance of how a theatre conference could be more egalitarian and creative in its structure. (And, yet another aside, there’s a lovely review of the event here by Olivia Corbin-Phillip, one of the new Colchester volunteers.)

I want to end by talking more about the Local Engagement Specialists, but rather than pull extracts from the handbook, I’d rather let them speak for themselves. Earlier this year I spoke to Jordana Golbourn (Colchester) about her experiences within NTiYN, how it had gone well and what might have been improved. As the only Local Engagement Specialist who stayed with NTiYN for the entire three years, she has a sense of overview that all the others lack. I’d argue that her staying power is in part down to the fact that outreach is the bedrock of everything she does: a freelance theatre-maker who runs projects at the Almeida and Make Believe Arts in London, among other venues, she works particularly with young people, using theatre as a tool to explore the issues relating to their lives. She’s also one of those people who talks so much sense and kindness that she ought to be in charge of everything.

Jordana already had a relationship with the Lakeside in Colchester when she became the Local Engagement Specialist there – and that proved as much a frustration as a benefit. “In the very initial stages of the project, I think they saw the relationship less as a collaborative thing, and more: ‘Jordana’s got this one.’ That was partly to do with how stretched they are as a venue – it’s just three people – so it was a relief to them to be able to have somebody who could work on some projects, and they trusted the model to make things happen.”

What that meant, however, was that: “I didn’t feel like I was doing anything in terms of outreach. I was just another marketing head for the show.” It felt like an opportunity was being squandered: “One of the biggest things [in theatre] is trying to get people out of the rut that they’re already working in. We’re really stretched, so to think of doing things in a different way is a job in itself.” In no way was this a problem unique to the Lakeside, and Jordana says: “It speaks volumes for where we are in theatre at the moment that people have not really grasped NTiYN as an opportunity to learn and reflect on their practice, and be part of something widely, across the country, but instead grasped at it as a bit more money for a bit of extra help.”

Her commitment to the project meant that she was able to trace the shift in approach at the Lakeside, the effect of the realisation that “actually collaborating with it works better”. Partly this happened because she became more assertive about the role she was willing to play: “I was really clear in the later stage that I’m not going to do marketing, I’m not going to take over your twitter handle: that’s your responsibility.” What she saw was that NTiYN “has made a real difference. When we first started, there was a lot of blanket marketing: everything went to everybody. They are now thinking show by show, and about who can we contact for each particular show.”

Communication problems with the venue were exacerbated by communication problems with Fuel. One of those was mechanical: email, it transpires, is a rubbish tool for planning outreach projects across multiple interested parties (to which we chant in chorus: WHO KNEW?). When Jordana says, “I’ve got a lot of love for google docs now,” she laughs at herself but is also sincere. “It lays out all the activity that we wanted to do and all the contacts and it’s really clear who’s doing what. Before using google docs, you’d have an initial meeting and everyone would go off and no one had a clear idea of what anyone was going to be doing.”

But the question of responsibility, and autonomy, isn’t just functional: it’s also emotional, and that proved harder to answer. Even in the final year of NTiYN, Jordana didn’t feel entirely clear what voice she was using as a Local Engagement Specialist. “Who are we speaking on behalf of, when we’re in that role? Am I supposed to be talking on behalf of the venue, or am I employed by Fuel? Do I feel like I have the same ownership over the work as the project managers at Fuel? Do I have enough weight to say: I’m Jordana, I’m a local theatre worker and enthusiast, and these are things I think are really brilliant and I think you should come? Is it OK to change depending on who you’re talking to? Because actually, different people might want different things: when contacting some of the schools I know really well, just being Jordana works, but for other schools that I don’t know so well, to be able to say, ‘I’m from this theatre company and this is what we do’ gives a weight that you need. I still haven’t worked out whether or not that flexibility is useful.”

These are perennial problems faced by freelancers: outsiders who are invited to behave like insiders, but without the privileges that might entail. And yet, in the context of NTiYN, it resulted in moments when barriers were put up between the Local Engagement Specialists and the touring theatre-makers that were not helpful for people attempting to do outreach work on those shows. Jordana recalls a research trip to a dress rehearsal in which the Local Engagement Specialists “didn’t get introduced to the artist or the production team”, creating a sense of distance between themselves and the makers. On another occasion, she didn’t find out that a performer in a show she had been working on grew up near Colchester until his parents came along to the theatre club: “That’s something we should have known and could have tapped into.” Earlier this year I spoke to Annabel Turpin, chief executive of the ARC in Stockton, and she discussed similar issues around communication, sharing of information and access to the artists. This has been one of the biggest learning points for Fuel: the realisation that sometimes they do form an unconscious barrier between artists, venues and communities.

The issue as Jordana sees it is in an industry-wide failure to really consider the question of responsibility when it comes to outreach and engagement. She remembers seeing a tweet by Alan Lane of Slung Low, distributing a photograph of one of the community actors in a show he was directing, Camelot, “going around the local community with posters, posing in the barbershop, having conversations. I thought: why is it only in community and amateur theatre where artists take this massive responsibility for promoting their work? Why is it only in those circumstances that people feel that it’s a proud thing to go out and tell people about it?” If she had her way, outreach wouldn’t be “someone else’s responsibility” but a collective endeavour – and the culture would be so much stronger for it.

More writing now

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

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

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

By Olivia Corbin-Phillip

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into the light

It’s transition time for New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood, as Fuel enter the final period of the research project and shift to doing this work – of building stronger relationships with theatres and communities – as their daily practice. A big step into that shift has now been taken, with the establishment of a network of volunteers in the five NTiYN towns, people who will act as ambassadors in their local communities, invigorating interest not only in Fuel’s shows but any intriguing touring productions in the upcoming autumn and spring programmes.

I have mixed feelings on the volunteer front: on the one hand, it’s great that this invitation to work in partnership with theatre-makers is so open and wide-reaching: the volunteers recruited over the past couple of months might be theatre fans, but very few of them are specialists or practitioners; instead they bring a variety of work backgrounds and an age range spanning at least three decades. On the other hand, they’re not paid, and that jangles.

And on the other hand again, there is in the fabric of the network a different economic structure, an exchange mechanism which values endeavour not with money but barter. As a matter of course that will include free tickets to see Fuel’s (and, it’s hoped, other companies’) shows; but to get the network going, it meant something bigger. It meant the volunteers being brought from all over the country to Edinburgh, to spend a weekend at the fringe festival with Fuel, seeing shows, sharing thoughts and generally having fun – with travel, accommodation, food and tickets covered.

I joined the group to host a few Theatre Clubs, and to lead a writing workshop, as a way of encouraging the volunteers to create their own discussions and blogs as part of their advocacy work. It’s always fascinating introducing Theatre Club to new people; it’s based on the book group, but not everyone appreciates the absence of the theatre-makers and the chance that affords to articulate perhaps unformed, contradictory or deeply personal responses to a show; often there will be someone who feels frustrated, so full is their head of questions that dig into why and how this work was made. I particularly noticed, with this volunteer group, how quick I can be in dismissing the idea that the theatre-maker(s) should be involved: I recognised the extent to which that reflects my experience of working alongside theatre, and resolved to experiment more with ways of including makers in the discussions.

The group took the time to sit down together after each of the three Fuel shows we saw – Potrait, I Am Not Myself These Days and Fiction – and compare reactions. Portrait inspired a lot of praise for its writer-performer, Racheal Ofori, and some thoughtful political conversation about race inequality and feminism. All of us were impressed with the way Ofori makes direct criticisms of the social structures of white privilege without coming across as hectoring or alienating; and with her reflections on female experience, the daily battle with expectations around body image, relationships and ambition. Tom Stuart’s adaptation and performance of the autobiography I Am Not Myself These Days left some in the group shaken by its often visceral portrayal of a young drag queen’s obsessive affair with a drug-addicted male prostitute, while others were too aware of the virtuosity of the writing and staging to feel that deeply moved. Fiction was just as divisive: some in the group loved not really knowing what this dream narrative was doing or saying, others desperately wanted to sit down with writer Glen Neath and director David Rosenberg and interrogate them about the work and their thinking; some people were exhilarated by sitting in the pitch black with voices whispering, cajoling and barking in their ears, others experienced a nauseous sense of claustrophobia and needed to gulp down some fresh air immediately afterwards.

The writing workshop was illuminating, too: we talked through a set of reviews, some published by “professional” critics in newspapers, some from online theatre publications, some from local press, some from individual blogs, essentially reviewing the reviews. I always find workshops like this fascinating, because again, my involvement in writing skews my opinions on it: I incline towards experiment, personal insight and poetry – exactly the stuff that others find indulgent, waffly and obscure. We got off to a difficult start with many in the group finding the set of reviews of the Uninvited Guests show This Last Tempest intimidating: so wordy and full of knowledge that the volunteers felt they could never hope to write anything like that. There was much more excitement about a review presented as a Whatsapp conversation, and another that used memes and gifs to respond to a show: this felt, particularly to the artists in the group, like a brilliant, conversational and accessible way into writing about theatre. Sure enough, a couple of days after the workshop, one of the volunteers – Helen Lee, based near Colchester – sent in the following to response to Fiction. At the risk of sounding like a soppy idiot, I couldn’t feel more proud that this was what the workshop inspired her to do.

fiction helen review

Update! Another new volunteer, Anna, has also written the following brief but tender reflection on one of the Edinburgh shows, this time I Am Not Myself These Days. And again, I’m ridiculously excited that this encounter with Fuel has encouraged her to start a blog and share these thoughts:

Last month I was swamped by fabulous theatre and fascinating discussions. It is hard to pinpoint exactly what I love about theatre but a big part of it is the transportation to other worlds, other ways of being and perspectives.

I Am Not Myself These Days showed me a world very different from my own, with the glamorous and fragile Aqua taking us on a tour through the world of a successful drag queen in New York, with all the booze, drugs and hogtied businessmen that that entails.

Despite how alien it was from my own experience, I was struck by the universality of love and relationships. The triangle of Josh (who works as Aqua at nights, whilst working in an office by day), Aqua and Jack (their partner) was shown to us in heartbreaking detail with all its messiness. As Josh navigates his, and Aqua’s, places in the world and in love, I was captivated and moved by their story, and laughed and cried (well, wept, if I’m honest) along with it.

I could see devastating similarities between Aqua’s spiral into despair and alcohol and that of friends, family and people I have worked with as a psychologist. At times I just wanted to give her a hug, and protect her from the world.

In our discussion group afterwards, it made us think about what we have to leave behind of ourselves in order to grow up, to be safe, to be happy. We talked about vulnerability and making mistakes, we talked about what mistakes shape us, and we wondered whether experiences that we don’t regret can even be counted as mistakes.

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 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.

Looking back, looking forward

by Maddy Costa

With New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood approaching its second birthday, it’s about time that this blog attempted some kind of progress report, surveying the aims of the project and its place in the wider theatre landscape. Catherine Love wrote the last one, all the way back in July 2013, and there’s been nothing of the sort since. I’ve had good intentions: in March 2014 I conducted interviews with Fuel’s co-directors, Kate McGrath and Louise Blackwell, and with Annabel Turpin, chief executive of ARC in Stockton, but both of those recordings are yet to be transcribed, let alone edited into publishable text. Poor show me.

What follows is more-or-less an account of a productive and heartfelt meeting held last month, bringing together the entire Fuel team to look at what is working well with NTiYN, what’s been less successful, what we want to develop further in the project’s final year, and how we might share all this information with other touring companies. The key point, agreed by everyone, is that NTiYN is no longer a “project”: it’s how Fuel wants to work with all venues and with all shows. What that means in practice is:

1: Touring shouldn’t be a series of business transactions in which human relationships fall to the wayside. At its very best, NTiYN has given Fuel the resources to develop personal connections with venue programmers, directors and communication staff, to devise show-specific marketing with them, and build from that to commissioning work for specific communities. At its absolute worst, NTiYN hasn’t succeeded in doing any of these things, a disconnect persists between venue staff and Fuel’s producers – and the effect is demonstrated in the box office, with small numbers of people coming to see the work. Relationships don’t develop overnight and this is an ongoing process, but the important thing about NTiYN is that it foregrounds the desire to work in a way that isn’t one-size-fits-all but to think about what works for each venue and each show on an individual basis.

2: Touring thrives when there are local people in each community who can advocate for theatre, and encourage people to come and see it. Within the context of NTiYN, those community figures are Local Engagement Specialists, who are paid by Fuel to do specific, targeted outreach work for each show. They haven’t always succeeded in boosting box office, but again, it’s an ongoing process – and one that should be additional to engagement work carried out by the venue, not a replacement for it or in competition with it.

Positive stories of LES activities abound: in Malvern, the two LES have been inspired by their engagement with Fuel to start up a new theatre site on Facebook, advocate for other people’s touring shows, and curate their own scratch nights. In Colchester, the LES has forged new relationships with school groups and other local theatres, and is beginning a Student Ambassadors scheme, which will benefit all of the work coming to the Lakeside theatre. In Preston, the LES is tying together her work with Fuel with her own freelance producing work to create a network of interest in adventurous performance. The emphasis is always on boosting engagement with theatre, not just with Fuel.

Meanwhile, Fuel has already begun using the local engagement specialist model elsewhere: when the Uninvited Guests show Love Letters toured rural Scotland this autumn, audiences were significantly boosted by the presence of people in each local community doing informal outreach work. This isn’t rocket science: people are always going to be more inclined to see a show if someone they know and trust tells them that it’s worth seeing. Word of mouth is the most powerful marketing tool theatre has – and in the LES model, word of mouth is given the respect and consideration it deserves.

2a: Again, common sense recognises that it’s a lot easier to talk about a show you’ve seen than one you haven’t. Where possible, Fuel have arranged for Local Engagements Specialists and venue marketing staff to to see touring shows in advance. Instead of relying on the artists’ and Fuel’s marketing copy to describe a show, LES and marketing staff can translate their own experience of it into a language that suits the individual or group they’re seeking to engage. Not everyone speaks theatre: for many people, even the most apparently simple and direct marketing copy can appear impenetrably abstruse. I think of this as the Megan Vaughan argument: on her blog Synonyms for Churlish, Megan writes entertaining, inventive and honest theatre reviews that invariably make me want to see what she’s seen – and she does this by prioritising feeling over thinking. But it’s hard to describe an emotional effect until you’ve seen a show yourself.

3: Touring can be about more than just putting on a show. This is the bit where I get to be shamelessly self-trumpety, but everyone at Fuel is a gratifyingly big fan of the post-show Theatre Clubs I host for them, which invite audiences to stick around for a drink and a chat about what they’ve just seen. It’s a flexible model: in some places (and particularly when I run them) the Theatre Clubs are for audiences only, without any of the show’s makers present; in other places, they take the form of an informal Meet the Makers conversation, like the traditional post-show Q&A but in the more relaxed environment of the venue’s cafe or bar. I’m more interested in the former, book-group format, because I believe it gives audiences a chance to interpret the show for each other, to absorb views that might contradict their own, and through that reach a richer understanding of what they’ve seen – all without asking the theatre-makers to “explain” it for them.

There’s been some debate about how to find the resources for Theatre Clubs to continue after NTiYN as a time-based “project” ends, but my feeling is that as long as there’s someone in the local community who’s interested in talking about theatre, and as long as there’s a spare pound for a packet of chocolate digestives, that’s all that’s needed to get a conversation started.

Those, then, are the headlines from the NTiYN interim report. We have a year left on the project in which we hope to build on what we’ve learned so far, try out new experiments and really bed this learning into Fuel’s general practice. We’re especially interested in building on a success story of Margate, where Fuel has been the catalyst for new closer relationships between different cultural institutions (the Theatre Royal and Turner Contemporary in particular): it feels really important that the theatre(s) in a community aren’t isolated but are in conversation with other organisations and art venues. Much as I love taking part in them, I’m hoping to hand the hosting of Theatre Clubs over to local engagement specialists and think about how I can contribute to the forming of neighbourhood groups around theatre, how I can help encourage local critical communities by inspiring more people to write about theatre, and how I can build on learning from the past, by doing a bit of proper research into the ways other people have created Good Nights Out (and yes, a re-read of John McGrath’s book of that title might well be a starting point). I’ll be doing more regular progress reports over the next year, because again, it feels important to share everything that’s happening within NTiYN across the theatre industry, because this project isn’t about selling a few more tickets for Fuel’s work – it’s about building sustainable local audiences for touring work, for the benefit of everyone.

Hunt & Darton find out about the people of Colchester through the medium of food

In the first phrase of New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood, Fuel invited artists to undertake reccy missions in each of the places we’re collaborating with. Earlier this year, Hunt & Darton – whose pop-up cafe is a delight of the live-art circuit – visited Colchester for a day. Here’s what happened:

image001

Notes:
It’s half term
Families and groups of young people
Shopping bags branded with high street logos such as JD sport, Burton and Topshop
Buggies and prams with excess kids hanging from either side.
Tartan shopping trolleys
Polo shirts donning a small logo
Rowdy kids grouped by gender
Builders and men that look like they have been carrying out some form of manual labour
A couple walking hand in hand with no excess baggage
Buses and lots of cars
1 big H&M
1 cinema
Several fast food chains
5 discount stores
1 Wetherspoons pub
5 outdoor market stalls.

image004

image005

image003

EQUIPMENT
100 questionnaires
4 pens
20 Tunnocks tea cakes
6 packs of Polo’s
50 Hunt & Darton Cafe badges
50 Business cards
2 coats (it was a cold day)
2 bottles of water
1 camera
1 shopping trolley

image007

CAN WE TALK TO YOU ABOUT FOOD?
What do you prefer tea or coffee, what do you like to pay for a tea, sweet or savoury, how often do you go out for lunch and where do you go, what do you like to spend on adults, on kids, do you like Coco Pops, what’s your favourite food joke, what do you think Live Art is and who do you prefer Hunt or Darton?

image008

image009

DO YOU PREFER TEA OR COFFEE?

image010

image014

image012

WE MET…
A lady who was visiting her daughter for the day
Two men in a van taking a lunch break
A group of 4 men from Denmark
A elderly man who likes Tunnocks tea cakes. He was 82
Two teenage boys, one wearing a hat that said DUDE
The mum who was really into food
2 Jehovah witnesses from the USA
A van driver who didn’t want to talk
The couple that looked down and said no thank you
A guy who worked in Lush and got his lunch from the pasty shop. He smelt good.
A group of girls with ice creams

A taxi driver who liked to drink at weekends
A couple from Norwich
A couple from Clacton
3 cool girls… too cool to stop
A sweet teenage couple
2 charity canvassers wearing purple hoodies
A family on their way to the cinema- they were running late
1 heavy-handed shopping centre security guard who moved us on

image031

image030

image029

image028

image027

image026

image025

image024

WHERE DO YOU GO
OUT FOR LUNCH?

Nandos
McDonalds
Café
KFC
Pizza Express
Pub
Art Café
Café Nero
Subway
Zizzi
Bakers
Pizza Hut
Cornish Kitchen
Starbucks
Happy days
Belle pasta
Chinese
NO! I’m A pensioner

image034

image035

TELL US YOUR FAVOURITE FOOD RELATED JOKE
What do you call a mischievous egg?
A practical yoker!

Why did the chicken cross the road?
To get away from KFC!

What did the cheese say to itself in the mirror?
Halloumi!

What cheese is not yours?
Nacho cheese!

My ex is on a diet. If you she her walking down the road, you can’t miss her.
What did the tomato say to the other tomato?
Don’t get squashed?

What did the big tomato say to the little tomato?
Ketchup!

There is a mouse in the cupboard?
It’s a computer mouse!

Sheep on a trampoline is a wooly jumper!

What is a vegetables favourite sport?
Carrotee!

WHO DO YOU PREFER HUNT OR DARTON?

image036

image037

image038