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.