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.

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Rambles in a new landscape

by Maddy Costa

I’ve been quiet on this blog of late while I’ve been focusing on a new project: working with LIFT to create a 60-page magazine introducing their 2014 programme. Half of it contains the kind of information you’d expect from a season brochure – brief descriptions of the work plus venue and ticket details – but the other half is like an issue of G2 dedicated to theatre, full of interviews with people bringing their work to LIFT, prose and poetry inspired by the programme, unusual presentations of the ideas behind some of the work, and more.

LIFT’s artistic director, Mark Ball, recently posted a blog on their website that, between the lines, communicates the impetus behind the magazine-format brochure: a never-sated desire to develop new audiences, to encourage people to take a risk on adventurous theatre and performance work, then talk about it and forge a relationship with it. “My career has been built around a belief that radical, innovative performance practices can reach beyond a small and often professional interest group to appeal to large and diverse audiences,” he writes. People who “are curious, [who] desire and demand involvement, conversation and participation”. It’s the same ethos that drives New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood.

Mark wrote his blog in response to a piece by Lyn Gardner on the Guardian’s website, which argues how important it is for theatre festivals and companies to speak not only to a dedicated audience but a wider demographic. Quoting Mark, she makes the point that a healthy cultural democracy is one in which everyone, not just the few, have access to live performance. The best aspect of NTiYN for me is the opportunity it gives me to have conversations with people who aren’t regular theatre-goers about Fuel’s work. Their experience of it undoubtedly enhances mine. Getting more people to come to the theatre isn’t just about boosting the economy: it’s about nourishing the ecology, ensuring that the many, not just the few, get to be seen and heard.

A comment at the end of Lyn’s piece led me to Kneehigh‘s website, and to an aspect of their audience development work that I somehow hadn’t registered before: the Rambles Programme, in which people are invited to take part in workshops at Kneehigh’s magical home, an isolated barn surrounded by sea and cows, and go on walks with regular Kneehigh collaborators. Not for the first time, I found myself wishing I lived in Cornwall, just to be part of the fun.

Maybe the house network are feeling jealous, too: based in the South-East, it’s now reaching out across the South-West. The house model is a brilliant one: it creates and feeds relationships between theatres that currently operate in isolation, assists these groups to take the risk on less conventional work, and encourages audience development. The wider this network reaches, surely the better for theatres and their neighbours alike. The South-West already has a terrific network in Theatre Bristol, which I particularly love because its writers-in-residence programme is creating a fantastic new space for people to experiment with how theatre is written and talked about – not just by critics, but audiences, too. The entire theatre landscape feels richer for its existence.

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.