Acts of giving

I’ve just done a bit of reorganising on this blog: not a redesign, because I’m technologically quite lazy and unexpectedly fond of its bubblegum pink; more a gentle rethink of how each post is categorised (goodbye argument, hello thinking – more friendly, no?). Apart from other usefulnesses, the exercise made me realise how little attention I’ve paid on here to a really important strand of New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood: the commissioning of new or adapted work specifically for one or more of NTiYN’s participating towns. It’s a story that has developed slowly and emerged piecemeal, through a series of really interesting and heartening events, each one demonstrating how vital this strand has been.

Some of those events have been responsive: Fuel encountered a work one place, and proposed producing it as part of NTiYN in another. Such was the case with Daniel Bye’s Story Hunt, which he made in association with ARC in Stockton-on-Tees: it begins with Dan spending a few days in a town, gathering stories of people’s lives and local events, and ends with a walking tour, in which Dan relates those stories back to the audience, weaving them with historical knowledge and an invigorating reminder that a town’s life and future depends on its people – and can be changed for the better by its people. Fuel loved the premise and programmed the work in Margate; I was at the Theatre Royal recently for a performance of a new show by Dan, Going Viral, and people in the audience afterwards said they had come because they had enjoyed Story Hunt and wanted to see more of him. Bingo!

Similarly, Fuel saw Tortoise in a Nutshell’s Feral – a live-animation puppet show set in a fading seaside town – in a concrete box at the Edinburgh festival, and instantly recognised that it would sit perfectly in two actual seaside towns, Margate and Poole. They invited the company to remake Feral specifically for those two places, giving them research and development time to redesign bits of the set and a few of the characters to reflect recognisable local landmarks and public individuals. In both instances, audience numbers far exceeded expectation – and, when I saw the show in Poole, it was gorgeously clear from instinctive vocal responses what a difference it made to everyone in the room that what they were seeing had been made with them in mind. In each place, locals were invited to make their own films to be screened before the performances, creating a lively conversation between different views of the areas, different art forms, different experiences.

It’s there in the title of The Preston Bill who that work was commissioned for. And the story of how it came to be made is itself emblematic. It began just over two years ago, with Andy Smith taking a tour of Preston as part of a series of Artists’ Missions – reconnaissance visits from a motley set of artists to the NTiYN towns, time spent getting a feel for the place, finding out about its identity, its people, its secret nooks and crannies, and thinking about a work that could be made in response.

Andy’s record of his day in Preston contains so many germs of The Preston Bill: the story of a man, in the industrial north, told with a left-leaning political slant; a man who has a very particular relationship to education and learning, who works for BAE – it’s fascinating to look back over the Mission text and images and, with hindsight, see in them clues to the contents of Andy’s play. I saw The Preston Bill in two places in the south while it was still in development: in Margate, where older men in the audience talked fascinatingly about the ways in which their lives did and didn’t intersect with Bill’s, and asked each other and Andy how they felt about the character, whether or not they sympathised with him; and in London, by which time Andy had introduced a big old “power in the unions” singalong that gave me goosebumps. Seeing it in Preston for the first time at the end of October, I was struck by the oddness of Andy’s opening lines: in this room, in this theatre, we can be both here and in the North, in a town called Preston. But we are in Preston!, the logical-realist bit of my brain cried. That statement felt so vibrant and magical in the south, simultaneously holding us in the room and transporting us elsewhere; in Preston, it felt obtrusive.

But that’s me quibbling. Other quibbles emerged in the post-show discussion: one man, for instance, took umbrage at Andy’s inauthentic pronunciation of Bracciano’s, name of a famous local cafe. But there was also pride: that this was a story of and from a town that should have stories told about it, that should be on the cultural map. And there was sadness: at the demise of industrial employment for working people in the area, the lack of apprenticeships, the diminishing of opportunity. I love that this single show was able to inspire such polarised discussion; that, in telling a seemingly simple story, it invites a complexity of response.

To accompany the Preston performances, Fuel also commissioned two local artists, Garry Cook and Toni-Dee Paul, to create their own short works. I caught Garry’s and it was a fascinating complement to Andy’s play: a series of photographs juxtaposing world events from the past 80 years with scenes of town/city and domestic life in Preston, slow-moving at first then erupting with rambunctious energy as Instagram took over. It made me think about how history is documented, represented and retold, what makes up a life, what impacts on a life – and how our lives today will be remembered 80 years from now.

The Preston Bill is the only finished work to have emerged from the Missions so far, but I don’t think that’s surprising: a one-man show which prides itself on having no set, no complicated lights, no touring requirements – literally, all Andy needs is his ukulele, and a chair which he finds in the venue – The Preston Bill is about as lo-fi as theatre gets, and even that took just over two years to be “finished”. Other works, by Sylvia Mercuriali (for Malvern) and Abigail Conway (for Poole) have, like so much in theatre, not come to fruition because of scheduling issues. I think more work will be born of NTiYN, and in the meantime, the Missions documents are entertaining, astute and often beautiful works of art in their own right. The artists – very few of whom already had a working relationship with Fuel – were invited to represent their visit on this blog as they chose, and they did so with text and images distinctive and characteristic in their focus and lens.

The one other work to emerge directly from the Missions wasn’t a commission: it was created by Slung Low five years ago and has been quietly popping up around the country ever since. The Knowledge Emporium is an alternative economy, a celebration of community, a sideshow and a compendium of stories in one. The premise is quite simple: Slung Low pitch up in a town in an air-stream caravan and spend a week inviting people to share their knowledge in exchange for sweets. At the end of the week, the performers read the knowledge back to the town in the time it takes to make a tortilla. Two years ago, Slung Low’s artistic director Alan Lane went on two Artists’ Missions: to bustling Colchester, which has four theatres of its own, and to nearby Jaywick, which is completely off the theatre touring radar. Fuel could have asked him to take the Emporium to Colchester: it certainly would have been easy; instead, they paved the way for a stint in Jaywick, which finally happened last month. Alan’s account of the week is one my favourite things I’ve ever published on this blog: it’s sad, and honest, and fierce, not least in its commitment to art that makes space for people’s voices to be heard. It’s one of the best things to come out of NTiYN, and it happened almost invisibly.

As part of the wrapping-up work on NTiYN, I’ve been interviewing other producers, theatre companies and artistic directors about their approaches to its questions around audience engagement; transcripts and a synthesising essay will be published here over the coming weeks. In one conversation, Vicky Featherstone talked about the vital role within the National Theatre of Scotland of community-specific programming, and how exciting she found the challenge of creating work that speaks directly to a social group or a building or a locale or an identity. And maybe it could be argued that all theatre aims to do this: but in that strand of NTS and this strand of NTiYN, that aim is foregrounded and explicit.

I’ve struggled from the beginning with the ways in which NTiYN can be interpreted cynically as a hyper-inflated marketing exercise; but at its best heart, its gestures are more generous than that. What I love about all the works I’ve gathered here is how giving they are: the lengths they go to give people, communities, a chance to see and hear themselves; the different ground they tread to do so.

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A social club for theatre

Introduction from Maddy Costa: I met Danielle Rose at the Lighthouse in Poole, when she brought a group of people to see Tortoise in a Nutshell’s Feral, then stayed behind for the Theatre Club afterwards. Danielle works as an independent producer, and I really enjoyed listening to her talk about how the show had ignited her sense of community spirit. But more than that, I was impressed by her passion for creating opportunities for people to see art and theatre – particularly work that they might think isn’t for them. For a while now I’ve been talking, through NTiYN, about wanting to set up a series of social clubs, through which a motley group of people could go and see shows together, as a fun night out. When it turned out that Danielle has already created just such a group, I asked her to write a guest post about how and why she went about it.

By Danielle Rose

My first experience of buying a theatre ticket for myself, with my very own money earned from a Sunday shop job, was at Lighthouse, Poole’s Arts Centre. I think I only earned around £16 a week and a scheme called Access to Leisure (which reduced ticket prices by 75% for people from low-income families) meant that I could go to shows for less than a fiver.

Back then, I was too scared to step into a theatre alone, something I take for granted now, and would pay for one of my younger brothers to come too. Aged 16, I thought that people who went to the theatre were really posh. I was convinced that we’d get caught out somehow, that people would notice us and know that we didn’t really belong there. We’d get to theatre minutes before the show began so that we didn’t have to hang around too long before taking our seats. In and out we went, on as regular a basis as I could afford or convince my brother to come. Feeling the comfort of the house lights going down, we’d made it. In a darkened auditorium, we could be just about anyone. Sometimes in the interval people next to us wouldn’t be able to contain their surprise to see two young people coming to a show on their own and would start talking to us. I’d make small talk politely in my best voice, my brother sat silently next to me reading programme notes over the shoulder of the person in front.

Things are very different now. I’ve worked in the arts for almost 13 years and when I walk into venues I often know some of the people working there, the people on stage and many faces in the audience. Now the houselights going down cut conversations short. I’ll go to the theatre on my own because I know I won’t be alone when I get there.

I moved back to my hometown in 2013 for work, and didn’t anticipate how isolated that relocation would lead me to feel, even as someone now content in their own company. The number of people I still had a let’s-hang-out connection with after 10 years living away in Devon was few, and the people I felt I had any interests in common with were even fewer. I really liked my work colleagues, but I longed for the creative community I had come to feel a part of in Devon. I missed regularly meeting up with peers and friends who were actively engaging with cultural pursuits and being around people making things happen in the place I lived.

After a period of filling my evenings with coasting supermarket aisles, internet dating and attempts to start running, I realised that I needed to fill this gap in my life. And if I couldn’t find where all the creative types and innovators were hanging out, maybe I’d have to do a call-out!

I set up a Meetup group called Creative & Digital Professionals (Bournemouth & Poole). Meetup is a website and app which helps facilitate meeting “people in your local community who share your interests”. I’d hoped to meet just a handful of people to make living back in the area a little bit more bearable. It turned out that lots of other people were also looking for a similar thing – 15 people came to the first get-together and less than a year later there are now 350+ members. Small numbers of us, usually 15-20 new and familiar faces, come together a few times a month to swap mixtapes and go to local arts events. There’s a whole range of people who come, of all ages, from web developers, DJs and visual artists through to teachers, foreign language students and people who work in banking. When we’re out and about we tend to pick up new members too, as I’ll talk to anyone and the whole group is so approachable.

Remembering how intimidated I used to find walking into an arts venue, I try to make sure we gather for every meetup as a group first, sometimes in the venue bar itself, sometimes in a pub nearby. I feel really happy every time someone tells me that it’s the first time they’ve visited a venue or experienced anything like what we’ve gone to see. I love having conversations with people about work that they have only decided to give a go because the group would be there too. And of course it’s great to find other people who actively attend arts events already and who, like me, appreciate the experience of meeting others in the process.

One of our outings was to see Tortoise in a Nutshell’s Feral in Poole, produced by Fuel at Lighthouse. I think there was a group of about 15 of us in the end. I set it as a meetup as I hoped that the interdisciplinary nature of the show, fusing puppetry and live animation, would appeal to a wide range of people in the group. The artists had also involved local people in the research and development, and the show was to be set around the town we’re familiar with, which I suspected would make people curious about the end result. I circulated Fuel’s open call for short films to be shown before the main feature too and the film-makers in the group really got involved. Remaining as a unit, most of us stayed for the post-show conversation with Maddy Costa.

During that conversation, I said that one of the things that struck me about Feral was that a small number of the citizens in the parallel Poole presented to us, when faced with the destruction of their neighbourhood, took action. They wrote letters to the council, they protested, they cared. There was something very powerful about seeing the life of a town sped-up, witnessing the decay and potential for some salvation that can feel near invisible when lived out in real time. Having characters reflected back at us, who looked around at what was happening to their fracturing community and felt compelled to act, felt like a reminder that that is something we can all do – a call to arms, if you like, for active citizenship. It felt apt to watch Feral in the company of a hotchpotch group of people who now assemble: a group that’s been a personal reminder that if you feel something is missing, you can always ask if other people feel the same and make something new together.

A good night out with Feral

A note from Maddy Costa: this review is by Lucas Murray, a visually impaired kid and keen photographer who first came across Feral in Poole when his family spotted posters for the show in the local shopping centre. Fuel had also arranged for Harry Webb, Poole’s local engagement specialist, to spend some time on the High St speaking to people about the show – which is how Lucas found out about the competition #mypoole, to make a one-minute film about the area. Lucas entered and was a brilliant finalist (you can see his film here). But he also got to have a very particular experience with the show, which is where he picks up the story. A longer version of this piece appears on Lucas’ blog, here.

By Lucas Murray

I emailed Fuel to ask for a touch tour which is when you get to go on stage before the show, and feel the set and meet the cast, because I would get a better idea of the story when I’m watching the show. They liked the idea of doing one because they had never done one before and they replied saying: “Can you come at 7.10?” We decided to dress up smart for the occasion so I wore shirt and tie and man’s perfume.

We were met by Hattie and Harry from Fuel who showed us into the studio to start the touch tour. I liked Jim the sound editor from Tortoise in a Nutshell (the theatre company) talking me through all the different sounds that are used in the show and the way he changed the pitch of his voice made me laugh! I got to feel the puppets which were made from a clay called Sculpey and when I was holding the Dawn puppet, I could move her head and pretend that she was writing something by moving the stick that was attached to her hand. The buildings were made from thick cardboard and the whole set was black and white. Lots of shops had their names changed so Lush was called Loosh, Bennets the ‘Bonnets’ Bakers was called Bonnets, the Dolphin Centre was called the Porpoise Centre. I liked learning how the different video cameras worked and how the guy used them to follow the puppets so that the pictures could be shown on the big screen. It was the first Touch tour they had ever done and I thought they were really good!

Then we went into the cinema where they were screening the finalists in the film competition. Mine was the very first film to be shown, and it felt really exciting to see it on a huge screen. After my film, the other people in the audience clapped and I felt proud. The show had really good sounds. I particularly liked the train crossing, the till, the paper ripping and the sirens. The story was about Poole park closing and a casino being built in its place. All the shops had closed and the people of Poole were very unhappy and then they were rioting. I was a bit upset that everything was destroyed. It was a very happy ending though as the Poole people started to make it look very nice again and worked together and the casino had completely closed down and all the shops had reopened. After the show, we got to come down on to the stage and take photos of the set.

[Here are some of Lucas’:]

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What we mean when we say ‘art for all’

by Dan Thompson
NTiYN local engagement specialist, Margate

Some time in the middle of the 20th century, the landscape shifted. Until the 1960s, town centres were dominated by picture palaces, newsreel theatres, music halls and provincial repertory theatres. There were good amateurs and bad professionals cheek by jowl. They were embedded in our towns like the letters running through a stick of rock. Culture, in every form, was something we made and consumed together.

But then theatres became professionalised, rarefied and standardised. Local rep companies out, subsidised touring in. The Carl Rosa Opera out, the Royal Opera House in. Art for all out, Great Art For Everyone (but mostly, for the well-off in London) in. Somewhere along the way theatre became exclusive, elitist and expensive.

But 25 years ago, I was lucky enough to stumble into theatre through the back door. I was a child from a council estate: theatre wasn’t something we really did, even though my dad was a schoolteacher. But my English teacher asked me to stand behind a followspot for the drama club. Weeks later, I was backstage at the Connaught Theatre in Worthing, as part of Stephen Holroyd’s Youth Technical Crew. Stephen was the theatre’s technical manager and with stage manager Ian Richardson, community liaison officer Flo Mitchell-Innes and the theatre’s director Martin Harris, he had brought together a band of technicians aged 13-18 to provide support for local youth companies and amateur productions. We did everything: flying to followspots, props to pyrotechnics to manning the prompt desk. We ran the group ourselves, after drawing up a constitution, and worked across the building. And we helped across the building, following the example of Martin ‘Plumber’ Harris who’d been caught by the local press fixing a sink.

It was a lucky time to be get inside a theatre. The Connaught had just become a touring house, independent from the council, and I got to see Theatre de Complicite with Simon McBurney and Kathryn Hunter, Trestle Theatre, Siobhan Davies Dance, David Glass Ensemble, Hull Truck, Alan Cumming as Hamlet, The Reduced Shakespeare Company and so much more. Night after night I’d sneak in at the back, take a house seat or sit on the tech balcony, and soak it all up. Twenty-five years later I am a professional artist, am working on my first one-man show, and my head still fizzes with the stuff the Connaught showed me.

And it really started to fizz again when I moved in next door to Margate’s Theatre Royal a couple of years ago. The place was dark the first month we lived in the town but then it came to life in the hands of programmer Pam Hardiman. It was like the Connaught, late-1980s/early 1990s, all over again. Longwave, Wingman, John Cooper Clarke, Follow The Herring, Daniel Bye’s Story Hunt, Red Ladies, 366 Days Of Kindness, Roundabout, Steven Berkoff. And The Reduced Shakespeare Company again.

So fired up, and frustrated by being part of a small audience at some great shows, I tried to help. I tweeted, I got leaflets and posters out for Pam, I took photos, I tweeted some more, talked my way backstage for better pics, told my friends, told total strangers in the street, and live-tweeted a whole panto. Eventually it reached the stage that other staff assumed I worked for Pam, and she suggested I talk to production company Fuel, who were bringing her some of the best shows as part of their New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood scheme.

They appointed me as one of two local engagement specialists, and set me to work to build a bigger audience for their next show, Feral In Margate. This show, by Tortoise in a Nutshell, builds a town in front of the audience, fills it with puppets, and projects the whole thing live on to a screen above the stage where the animators are working. It’s clever and interesting; it’s also a complex sell. It takes an honest look at the town it’s made for, features a fair bit of dirt and grit, and ends in riots. There’s redemption though, with the town coming together at the end to clean up and reclaim the streets, in an echo of 2011’s #riotcleanup movement.

The strength of my role with Fuel was that it was agile, flexible and loose enough to let me work locally, think quickly and adapt to what happened. I decided that as the Theatre Royal’s parent company already had a marketing team working quite well, I could focus not on getting the largest audience in, but the right one. I worked with the Theatre Royal to identify influencers, people who would help us to reach a wider audience, and to target them. People who’d tweet, who’d put a poster or a Facebook post up, who’d spread the word.

It was a mix of 75% social media, 25% hitting the town and chatting with people, and it was all about getting people talking. To boost it, sit underneath it all, and reinforce the sense of civic pride at the heart of Feral, we ran #mymargate, asking people to make a short film about their favourite place in the town. All the films would be screened before Feral.

I probably got 50% of the people I targeted in on Feral’s opening night, and they turned up early to see those films, too. They weren’t theatre-goers, and it was incredible to sit in an audience that felt so different. A popular artist who’s a long-term Margate resident who’d never set foot in the Theatre Royal. A shopkeeper who I’d persuaded in previously, who now regularly asks for my theatre tips. A Down-From-Londoner who runs a successful business just round the corner from the Theatre Royal, but had never visited. We reached a whole new crowd, changed their expectations of what a night at the theatre could be, and while most of them liked the show, they all enjoyed a good night out. For a few days work, it was a good result. It didn’t immediately show a financial return, but it’s a good step towards a bigger, wider and broader audience that can do that in the future.

Which is where my only frustration lies: the next Fuel show is in the autumn season. Back at the Connaught we were lucky to have Flo Mitchell-Innes in the building the whole time, keeping people fired up and supporting the work of the theatre’s deadpan and downbeat marketing boss Tony Hill. For the Theatre Royal to succeed it really needs that level of staffing, to keep the new friends we found interested, informed and onboard all year round. If we can do that, we’re on the way to making theatre something normal, not something special, once again. To having a town where there’s great art and everyone enjoys it regularly.

Our Town

by Georgette Purdey

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I was feeling quietly satisfied as I got out of the cab at the Theatre Royal in Margate. The cabbie had spent the entire journey from the station telling me about the show I was en route to see – she had heard Ross, the director, interviewed on local radio. This always bodes well when your job is to market the show.

Rather than just programme Tortoise in a Nutshell’s hit show Feral into the Theatre Royal, Fuel commissioned a new version – Feral in Margate – as part of New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood. This is a luxury few shows are afforded, but it made all the difference. The company spent a week in Margate conducting local-specific research and development, meeting with a variety of locals: councilors, schoolchildren and shopkeepers. And they reimagined their show as a result.

NTiYN’s mission is getting ‘new audiences’ into the theatre. It was obvious in the foyer that night that Feral in Margate had done just that. The theatre was open early to allow audiences to filter in and watch the entries to the #mymargate film competition – an invitation to locals to make something of their own, to accompany the performance. The 11 entries had been compiled into a show reel of people’s favorite Margate spaces: from the imposing Arlington House to some locals larking about in Fort Road Yard. I was sat behind some of the entrants who were giggling with pride seeing themselves up on the big screen.You can watch the entries here.

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Winner Martin Spier with his bespoke piece of set.

After a free drink at the bar courtesy of NTiYN the crowd was in the right frame of mind to see the show. It was a crowd quite unlike any other I have sat in in a theatre for a while. Gone were the usual ranks of silver-haired middle classes, replaced by an eclectic mix of families with older children, arty types and a man who said quite loudly mid-performance: ‘It’s been ages since I haven’t had a fag for this long.’ I had that wonderful sense that the crowd was unpredictable. Their reactions to seeing their own town made in miniature on the screen shifted from excited to saddened as the story unfolded, and for most ended with hope as the town rebuilt itself.

As the show closed the audience didn’t shuffle off into the cold; instead they all stayed and joined the cast on stage to look more closely at their town, their history, their streets laid out before them. The crazy cat ladies, the local councilors, the shopkeepers, were all there in a beautiful coming together of a community. In the performance the Council is pictured as an authoritarian body, distant from the ‘real life’ of the townsfolk. Up on stage at the end the local town councilor was happily joking that at least her miniature counterpart was a man – so she might not be recognised!

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Most residents liked it, some didn’t, but they were all on stage, examining the set and engaged in debate about their town. Not a chocolate-box, picket-fence toy town – but a real town with its old-school seaside charm rejoicing in a piece of work made just for Margate, being performed in its beautiful and historically significant theatre.

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The show is best summarized in the words of the audience:

‘This was brilliant! I didn’t know what to expect but knew it looked interesting. Totally captivating from start to finish. Funny, thought-provoking. Can’t praise highly enough.’

‘The attention to detail was astonishing! The whole concept and production was so inspiring. Many congratulations on such excellent work! Please do more!’