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.

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Good nights out

At the heart of New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood is a question: how do we ensure that it’s not a selfish endeavour, something that only helps Fuel tour better, failing to impact on theatre more widely? The company and I want to experiment through the three-year programme, and learn – but also share our thinking and discoveries with others. This blog represents one attempt at documenting activities: it’s haphazard, sure, but at least offers some kind of case study that might be useful in the future. (Two clear lessons from the blog are: it’s hard to maintain a coherent narrative around work that happens sporadically; and it’s really hard to persuade people to write about theatre, even on a blog that attempts to be informal and conversational like this one.)

I love writing, but I can’t rely on reaching people online, or via twitter, and through my work with Dialogue I’ve become interested in what can be achieved through small-scale discussion and face-to-face conversation. That’s why I approached Battersea Arts Centre to start working with them on their equivalent to NTiYN, the Collaborative Touring Network. How better to share Fuel’s practice than by talking out loud to other people about it? CTN and NTiYN overlap in Margate, but otherwise reach slightly different places, presenting exciting opportunities to create links between towns and across regions.

Already, working with CTN has been the catalyst for a new phase in NtiYN’s development and my role in it: it’s encouraged me to start talking to Pam Hardiman, Programme Manager at the Theatre Royal Margate, and Jessica Jordan-Wrench of Tom Thumb, about setting up a local theatre-going group, a community of people who meet regularly to have a drink and a chat and see a show together. We’ll see Fuel work, and CTN work, but also other touring work from Paines Plough, the house network and Tara Arts. Pam, Jess and I hope to advertise the group in the local paper, in shop windows and on cafe noticeboards, so the invitation reaches people who aren’t already going to the theatre. Maybe they just don’t know what’s on offer, or maybe they do but feel they don’t have anyone to go with, or maybe the tickets are prohibitively expensive. As a group, we’ll negotiate a concessionary rate, which will allow us to see stuff we might not normally watch, and have a pint or a glass of wine before and after. Chances are we won’t like everything we see – but we’ll still have a good night out, because we’ll be meeting each other.

Even though the Margate theatre group doesn’t exist yet, I’m already taking the idea to other towns and regions thanks to joining up with CTN. And it proved very useful in a fraught but valuable discussion I had on Saturday in Darlington, at a workshop/discussion on theatre criticism. It was arranged by Jabberwocky Market, a brilliant festival that started only a year ago with the support of BAC. I was there to host a theatre club following the evening performance of Ballad of the Burning Star, the kind of activity I’ve been doing with Fuel; the writing workshop was something extra I asked to do, because I’m interested in supporting local critical communities.

The workshop didn’t go to plan: several people signed up, then didn’t attend, so it ended up being improvised with four people who were cajoled into coming on the spur of the moment. (Improbable Theatre Company have a maxim: whoever comes are the right people. It often proves a useful thing to remember.) We began by talking about where criticism is at, how it’s done in newspapers, and what it might mean for a more diverse group of people to blog about theatre. One woman, who works as an editor and spends day after day rewriting poor prose, was suspicious: can a blogger’s taste be trusted? And if there’s no one to edit their work, what guarantee is there that it’s readable? Another woman, a theatre-maker called Hannah Bruce, was anxious about the readership question: if she started blogging, who would she be writing for? Other theatre-makers? People who might come and see her work? Stewart Pringle, who was in Darlington to review Jabberwocky Market for Exeunt, talked about his experience starting out, of wanting to write reviews in the “proper” way, and how much he appreciated the freedom and inventiveness of blogs. I talked about the role audiences can play as advocates – and how much theatre needs them, if it’s not going to lose all its funding and die.

And then there was fierce, articulate, brilliant Val. She listened to me and Stewart, getting more and more riled, then announced that we were arty-farty types using too many long words, exactly the kind of people who make theatre seem elitist, putting off normal people like the ones she works with in an office, who might like theatre, if only they took a chance on seeing it. It was difficult, and unsettling, not because she was criticising or taking issue with what I was saying – not everyone is going to agree with me – but because I had thought we were saying the same thing.

Val is volunteering as an audience ambassador for Darlington, and wants more people to go to the theatre because it’s live – unlike a film, it’s a bit different every time you see it – and because it’s exciting. But she feels like she’s hitting against a brick wall of her local community’s lack of interest, their assumption that theatre isn’t for them. She doesn’t think blogs, or criticism are the answer: she’d seen a touring production of Regeneration, and loved it; it’s had four- and five-star reviews from several major newspapers, and still she can’t persuade her office co-workers to come. As far as she’s concerned, people like me, with our passion for weird theatre in intimate spaces, are part of the problem: we make theatre sound like hard work.

It felt as though we were at loggerheads, but Val and I had a wonderful moment of coming together when I told her about the plan for the theatre group in Margate. Her entire demeanour changed: this was something she could make happen. She started having her own ideas for what the group could do: she could approach the theatre to ask about the possibility of them meeting the actors afterwards, or getting a tour of the stage. Its community aspect appealed to her, too, the idea that the commitment would be to the group, not to the theatre. Essentially, what she’d be inviting people to wouldn’t be a play, but a Good Night Out.

Her outburst – specifically the epithet arty-farty – made Stewart and I think much more carefully about our language for the rest of the conversation: I certainly didn’t use the word “advocate” again. Val made me realise that there are still gaps between what I’m aiming to do and what I’m actually doing (at a basic level, when was the last time I told the parents in the playground of my children’s school, “Oh, go see this show at our local theatre, I’ve seen it and it’s amazing”?); there are still gaps between what I think I’m saying and the words I’m actually using. Later that evening, a small group stayed behind at the end of Ballad of the Burning Star to have a book-group-style discussion on it; as ever, when you get people talking about what they think of a show, rather than just asking questions of the people who made it, the responses to it were fascinating: one man felt it was left-wing and anti-Israel, another man felt it wasn’t a political but an emotional piece, and we talked quite a lot about its power dynamics between men and women, victims and aggressors, and different nationalities. Val sat through the whole discussion, arms folded, not saying a word. I didn’t get to say goodbye to her, but hope that, in sharing some of what I’m doing with NTiYN with her, she feels inspired to take action on the ideas she likes – and just ignores the rest.

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.

It’s not just us…

by Maddy Costa

The NTiYN blog, like everything else in this project, started in January as an experiment – but as its practice stretches and grows in the real world, so do ideas for how it should be reflected online. This Elsewhere section is the newest development: a space for connecting with other people who are also trying to forge stronger, more meaningful relationships with audiences. The theatre industry can look invidiously competitive sometimes, companies and buildings competing for a too-small allocation of public cash. But increasingly people are recognising the need to work together, with generosity and in a spirit of fairness, to secure theatre’s place within communities and everyday cultural life. Hence initiatives such as house, the group of producers and programmers based in the South East, developing more collaborative models for touring, or the Collaborative Touring Network established by Battersea Arts Centre to share work more creatively between London and the rest of the country.

This Elsewhere section will be used to signpost interesting blogs or events happening beyond the NTiYN project, stuff we find inspiring, provocative and exciting, that chimes with the project – or challenges it. For instance, a Guardian blog by Lyn Gardner, published last month, on the need to develop audiences alongside the stuff that they’re watching; the accompanying comments are worth reading too, not least the suggestion from Chris Goode that advocates opening up rehearsal rooms to enhance an audience’s relationship with the work. We also loved this piece published on the Guardian’s Culture Professionals Network, by John Walton of theatre company Fol Espoir, about an alternative approach to the post-show discussion: they present it as a menu of DVD-style extras, from which audiences can choose the material that appeals to them most. In The Stage, Catherine Love has written an interesting piece about a variety of other approaches to post- and pre-show discussions. As writer-in-residence at house, Catherine will be contributing regularly to the organisation’s blog – another online space to watch.

Those are the pieces we’ve picked up on so far: all contribute to the conversation Fuel are opening up with NTiYN. A conversation happening all over the country, that is slowly achieving much-needed change.