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.

What can we do about touring?

by Catherine Love

At the latest annual session of Devoted and Disgruntled, a forum for those working in theatre to air both passion and frustration, it was telling that one of the busiest groups was gathered around the question “what can we do about touring?” For those in attendance, the question was a familiar one, but the answers were not forthcoming.

As this example suggests, there is evidence of a widespread feeling of dissatisfaction – if not outright disillusionment – with the current model of touring theatre in the UK. The financial strain of taking a show on tour seems to be increasing, with companies shouldering more of the burden from venues, while relationships with the areas and audiences that the work visits are often shallow and fleeting. Something is not working.

This frustration provides the backdrop for Fuel’s New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood (NTiYN) project, an initiative that aims to begin answering just that question: what can we do about touring? The ambition behind the project is to forge better links between Fuel, the work it tours and the areas and communities it tours to. It is about a dialogue with venues and audiences, both new and existing.

Traditional touring models have been about people dropping into each place, performing and then moving on to the next place. What we’re trying to do is build a relationship with audiences and communities.”

Kate McGrath, co-director of Fuel

While the visiting artists might vary from year to year, the aim is to create Fuel as the link, building a relationship that establishes trust on the part of audiences and encourages them to experience new work. The project also involves work eventually being commissioned specifically for particular localities, cementing the link between the cultural event and the area in which it is taking place, with Fuel sitting at the nexus of these relationships. In the company’s own words: “we want to create a following for our work: one that is sustainable, growing and ever-changing”.

This report looks back at the initial six-month research phase of NTiYN, placing the initiative within the context of the current touring landscape in the UK and sharing its key findings. The hope is that through a combination of research, reflection and shared lessons, it might be possible to move closer towards answering that opening question.

Touring Theatre in the UK

During the discussion at Devoted and Disgruntled, a number of concerns and frustrations were expressed about the ways in which touring theatre in the UK currently works. Companies and artists are perceived to be taking a greater share of the risk than regional venues; fewer resources are available, meaning that the marketing of a show and its engagement with local audiences is limited; theatregoers are booking later, contributing towards a general aversion to risk; touring theatre companies are often denied access to audience data at each of the venues they visit. The challenges are manifold.

This paints a picture that is corroborated by the experiences of a number of touring companies, producers and venue managers. A major difficulty surrounds the simple imperative to attract audiences, which for many companies is absolutely vital to the ongoing viability of their work. As Jo Crowley, producer for theatre company 1927, observes, “there’s a constant frustration about lack of audiences here”. She compares the situation in the UK with the experience of touring internationally, where the company have been met with considerably larger audiences.

It is suggested that the root of the problem lies in successfully connecting work with the right audiences. Gavin Stride, director of Farnham Maltings and one of the key forces behind South East touring consortium House, emphasises the need to “better connect the ambitions of artists with the ambitions of audiences”. This is echoed by producer Ed Collier of China Plate, who states that “touring and making for us are always completely intertwined”, going on to describe how the organisation thinks carefully about audiences right from the start of the making process.

Connected to this question of audiences is the relationship with venues, who should be much better placed to provide local audience insight for touring companies and artists. While in some cases this collaborative exchange does take place, frustration with the overall lack of cooperation from venues is a recurring sentiment. Crowley argues that “there needs to be a better conversation […] about how we work better to collect the information we need and to nurture our audience collectively”, while an Independent Theatre Council (ITC) conference in February 2013 highlighted how difficult it is for touring companies to collect data and information on their audiences from different venues.

Another concern that keeps emerging is to do with the depth of engagement that visiting artists and companies are able to achieve. A phrase that is repeated with startling regularity is “parachuting in and out”, capturing the fleeting quality of many artists’ visits to different venues. Battersea Arts Centre’s (BAC) artistic director David Jubb claims that “there’s no real level of depth of engagement”, while Crowley suggests that the length of time a production is able to spend in an area makes a huge difference. “You can see a distinct difference when you’re in a town or city for a week,” she says.

For Fuel, a further area that they feel needs addressing is the experience of touring for the artists involved. The fleeting nature of visits to venues all around the country can be both frustrating and exhausting, while the financial strain means that many artists have to hold down additional jobs, restricting the time that they can spend making their work and meeting audiences. As well as developing audiences, Fuel feel that touring needs to be made more sustainable and artistically fulfilling for the artists they work with.

The final major area of concern is, unsurprisingly, financial. As both venues and companies face cuts in their public funding, touring artists are being confronted with challenges on all sides. Venues are now less able to take risks, increasingly opting for box office splits rather than paying guarantees, while the pot of funding available for individual touring projects is shrinking. The shared impression of those at Devoted and Disgruntled was that touring is simply more expensive than it used to be.

There is also the knock-on impact of financial difficulties faced by theatregoers, who as a result are booking tickets later and displaying a decreased appetite for risk. As Caroline Dyott of English Touring Theatre (ETT) notes, “there’s certainly an awareness that audiences are being pickier about what they book and booking later so that they can take less of a risk on something”. This all creates an environment in which touring work that is perceived to be experimental or risky presents an ever growing challenge.

ACE Strategic Touring Fund

One attempt to address the current shortcomings of touring, of which there are more than can be fully addressed within the constraints of this report, is Arts Council England’s (ACE) Strategic Touring Fund. This initiative, launched in 2011, is awarding funding of £45 million between 2012 and 2015 to arts organisations offering innovative touring and audience development solutions.

The programme’s stated aims include “people across England having improved access to great art visiting their local area”, “stronger relationships forged between those involved in artistic, audience and programme development” and “a wide range of high quality work on tour”. There is also a particular emphasis on work for young people and on areas, communities or demographic groups classed as having low cultural engagement.

To date, the Strategic Touring Fund has awarded a total of £16,463,673 across seven rounds of funding, with projects spanning a wide range of art forms, target audiences and regions of the country. Alongside NTiYN, the below projects offer a snapshot of how some of the other successful applicants are using this funding to address the difficulties involved in touring.

BAC’s Collaborative Touring Consortium is transporting the theatre’s Cook Up model of new work, food, conversation and debate to six areas of low cultural engagement. This touring programme is designed to work collaboratively with the six partner venues and to generate a genuine artistic exchange, engaging with local artists as well as bringing in work developed by BAC.

 ETT’s National Touring Group is linking together a consortium of major regional receiving theatres to offer those venues more agency over the work they present and to create a network for touring high quality, large scale drama, with the aim of developing audiences’ appetite for this work.

 China Plate’s Macbeth: Blood Will Have Blood has now completed the initial phase of touring an immersive schools version of Macbeth in partnership with educational organisation Contender Charlie. This project worked with a number of hub venues around the country and brought in students from the surrounding schools, thereby establishing long-term links between education and the arts in those areas. A second phase is currently being planned.

 Paines Plough’s Small-Scale Touring Network is working to establish a connected and collaborative network of around 25 venues across England, to which the company will take regular small-scale productions alongside undertaking audience development work. The hope is that more meaningful relationships will be formed between venues, touring companies and audiences.

 New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood

 “New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood is a pilot research project run by Fuel in order to find new ways of engaging with more and more diverse audiences through touring really exciting and innovative new work.”

Louise Blackwell, co-director of Fuel

The initial six-month phase of NTiYN, funded through ACE’s Strategic Touring Fund and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, has focused on establishing links with partner venues and developing audiences in these areas. The emphasis at this stage has been on research and exploration, with the aim of taking these findings forward into the project’s future life.

The five venues in question are The Lighthouse in Poole, The Continental in Preston, ARC in Stockton, the Lakeside Theatre in Colchester and the Malvern Theatres. Each of these venues received one or more of the five Fuel shows included in the initiative: Uninvited Guests’ Love Letters Straight From Your Heart and Make Better Please, Inua Ellams’ The 14th Tale, Will Adamsdale’s The Victorian in the Wall and Clod Ensemble’s Zero.

Alongside presenting these shows, each venue was also involved in research and audience development work carried out in partnership with a Local Engagement Specialist (LES) hired by Fuel for their knowledge of the local community. This model was designed to provide Fuel with additional networks and contacts in each of the different geographical locations, as well as supporting their desire to establish a deeper connection with the areas that they visit.

The audience development work undertaken at each of the venues by the LES spanned a wide range of activities, including workshops held by the visiting artists, engagement with local schools and universities, communication with existing arts and community networks, ticket offers and discounts, and the promotion of Fuel’s work at other arts events. Fuel has also been working with Maddy Costa of Dialogue, who ran Theatre Club events at a number of the venues. These informal post-show discussions are modelled on the format of the book club and offer an open space for anyone who has attended to share their thoughts with others.

While the key findings will draw in outcomes from all five venues, for the purposes of this report the focus has been narrowed down to two case studies: the Lighthouse in Poole and the Continental in Preston.

Case Study 1: Poole

The Lighthouse in Poole is a large arts centre, catering for a wide variety of audiences in the surrounding area. Its programme covers live music, comedy, dance, film and visual arts alongside theatre, with the building incorporating a cinema, a gallery, a large concert hall, a 669-seat theatre and a smaller studio space. It is a venue with a wide remit and competing demands on its resources, offering a necessarily diverse programme.

Fuel brought two NTiYN shows to The Lighthouse’s studio space: The 14th Tale and The Victorian in the Wall. Fuel supported these visiting productions through the work of LES Lorna Rees, who undertook a range of audience research and development activities. These included running workshops with the artists, targeting audiences at Bournemouth University with the help of newly recruited student ambassadors, forging connections with existing networks of local artists, and working closely with box office staff. While much of the work done by Fuel at The Lighthouse was successful, there were some programming challenges; the scheduling of the shows, for instance, coincided with a major outdoor arts event in the town and with the university holidays.

Fuel’s most notable successes, meanwhile, were achieved through a personal approach. Eschewing the tactic of offering free tickets in favour of adding value, Lorna explored ways of deepening audience engagement through her “Theatre Salon” model. This was successfully used for the first performance of The Victorian in the Wall, after which audience members were invited to stay behind for free drinks and nibbles and an informal Q&A with the show’s cast. This event was well attended and encouraged lively conversation with the cast, creating a much more relaxed environment than the usual rigid structure of the post-show talk. One couple said that they usually never stay for these talks as they worry it will go over their heads, but they enjoyed the Theatre Salon and displayed an interest in attending similar events in future.

Another small but particularly heartening triumph was persuading two teenage boys to attend The 14th Tale. Lorna approached the pair outside The Lighthouse just before the show, offering them free tickets and signing them up to the theatre’s student membership scheme. After seeing and enjoying the show, the two boys stayed behind to speak to Inua and to thank Lorna for the tickets. As Lorna commented in her feedback, “this is what this project does – it gives us permission, with our depth of knowledge, to make decisions and take risks and to maybe, just maybe, with two judiciously applied comps, convert two teenage boys to theatre-going”.

Case Study 2: Preston

The tiny theatre visited by Fuel in Preston makes a dramatic contrast with the expansive, multi-purpose mass of the Lighthouse in Poole. The venue is attached to the back of a pub – The Continental – a little outside the city centre. This space is programmed by They Eat Culture, a small organisation who are involved in organising cultural projects across Lancashire. The Continental itself serves a relatively broad purpose as an arts venue, hosting live music, comedy, spoken word and theatre. As the staff explained to Fuel, music and comedy tend to draw the biggest crowds, while theatre remains more of a challenge.

The only NTiYN show touring to this venue was The 14th Tale, which visited for two successive weekday nights. More difficulties were encountered in this area than in Poole, and despite the efforts of LES Chantal Oakes to bring in new audiences, attendance was relatively low. Once again, planning was an issue; Inua was unable to run a workshop in this area due to schedule clashes, while it has since been suggested that it would have been more sensible to programme one night rather than two. Other challenges included a lack of engagement between the arts scene in Preston and the University of Central Lancashire, stretched resources at They Eat Culture, some difficulties with the show’s marketing material, and the disappointing lack of interest in a theatre bus to provide transport for theatregoers.

There were, however, some successes. A relationship with local young people’s outreach organisation Soundskillz proved fruitful, with a group visit on the second night achieving good attendance. There are also a number of areas, such as the university, where definite potential has been identified, suggesting promising possibilities for the future life of the NTiYN project.

Key Findings – Building Conversations

The results of NTiYN’s attempts to engage new audiences in these first six months were largely successful, with the Audience Agency concluding that “NTiYN undoubtedly achieved significant new audiences”. According to the Audience Agency’s evaluation, at least 25% of those attending a NTiYN show were new to the venue they visited, while Fuel attracted at least 10% new audiences to every show on the tour. NTiYN was also shown to engage with some particularly hard to reach groups for the first time and the direct feedback from audiences was overwhelmingly positive.

I enjoyed the event very much! The venue is great and the effort to put ambitious performances on in Preston is much appreciated.

Audience member at The 14th Tale, The Continental

It was an amazing piece in an unusual setting. Not what I was expecting but a lovely surprise. Loved it!

Audience member at Love Letters Straight From Your Heart, Lakeside Theatre

 This was my first experience of this type of performance. I though the first few minutes came across as pretentious but was soon won over by the honesty and humour and emotion. The stories told weren’t outlandish or extraordinary but were told with grace and power.

Audience member at The 14th Tale, The Lighthouse 

Really enjoyed the show, a breath of fresh air for Malvern and just what is needed to attract a different audience.

Audience member at The Victorian in the Wall, Malvern Theatres

While these audience development results are encouraging, there were also several other outcomes from this six-month research project. As the case studies from Poole and Preston begin to suggest, there are a number of important lessons to be taken from this early phase of the scheme and carried forward as NTiYN continues to develop. While there are many different findings, these can broadly be divided into two key categories: collaboration and planning.

As already identified, one of the problems that the touring model often faces is the failure of companies, producers and venues to work together successfully. Where audience development initiatives have been most successful, there has been open and productive collaboration between Fuel, the venue and other local organisations. Equally, on the few occasions when these relations have broken down it has caused problems.

In terms of collaboration, the appointment of a suitable LES is vital, as they are able to play an essential role at the centre of the many relationships involved. The LES’s local knowledge has in many instances proved to be deeply valuable, while clear communication between the LES, the venue and the NTiYN project manager is key. One particularly successful model was that in Malvern, where an LES was paired with an employee at the venue. Malvern Theatres found this to be an extremely positive partnership, once again highlighting the value of collaboration.

The concept of providing additional support to a venue through the employment of a locally based LES was viewed very positively as a strong approach to reaching new communities and groups. The fact that this person came with their own contacts and skills and was ‘independent’ of the partner venue was also commented upon as very useful.

Audience Agency Evaluation Report

Planning, meanwhile, has emerged as a decisive factor in determining the likely success of audience development efforts. There have been a number of issues around timing, such as difficulty with scheduling workshops around artists’ other commitments and programming conflicts with other events in the area, which could in most cases be avoided with more comprehensive planning in the early stages of the project. Despite students being highlighted as a target demographic, several shows coincided with university holidays; elsewhere, there were frustrating missed opportunities, such as a comedy festival in Colchester that would have been an perfect fit with The Victorian in the Wall.

What these examples illustrate is the importance of a holistic planning process with greater lead times, working closely with programmers to eliminate any scheduling clashes and drawing up plans for audience engagement activity from the moment a project is given the green light. This is reflected in the feedback from the Audience Agency, who have recommended “taking a more informed approach to planning particularly around timescales”. However, it is unsurprising that there were some issues with planning given the considerable ambition of NTiYN and the exploratory nature of this research phase, and the intention is that these findings will inform the next stage of the project.

 A number of the NTiYN findings correspond with the experiences of other touring companies, producers and venues. Just as conversations around this first set of shows have revealed some of the potential problems with the ways in which work is being marketed to different audiences around the country, Gavin Stride emphasises the need to rethink how audiences are communicated with. He argues that more work needs to go into making companies understand that “what they might think makes their show sound esoteric and clever in their world isn’t necessarily the same language that needs to be used to get a show to an audience”. Through the research phase of NTiYN, Fuel are beginning to learn what marketing material is most likely to reach and engage audiences, with the video trailers for each of the shows proving to be particularly successful.

There is also a widely recognised need for “bespoke planning”, as David Jubb puts it, acknowledging and adapting to regional differences. This planning includes a course of action for engaging with both the receiving venue and other organisations in the area, encouraging greater collaboration. As well as more obvious ways of working together, such as sharing of audience data and getting the venue staff behind the work, this collaboration can stretch even further. Jo Crowley, for example, says that a “cross-marketing effort would be useful”, connecting arts networks across different genres to reach people who might have an interest in the work – a strategy that Fuel are beginning to develop through the strength of the LES model.

In terms of audience development, there are a number of strategies that keep reappearing in different guises. Returning to the same areas to build an audience, as Fuel intend to do, is important; Hanna Streeter, an associate producer with Paines Plough, has observed “dramatically” increased audiences in areas that the company has kept going back to. This in turn has a knock on effect for those venues’ programmes throughout the rest of the year. As Fuel and others have discovered, direct contact, conversations and word of mouth cannot be underestimated.

When we return to each of these places, we hope that people there will have made a connection and will maybe have been to see one of the shows and say ‘that’s by Fuel, I don’t know this new artist that they’re bringing, but I’m going to go because it’s a Fuel produced event’. And we hope that by having a deeper engagement with the people that live in these places that will be possible, not only for what we produce, but for the wider theatre landscape.

Louise Blackwell, co-director of Fuel

It is also important not to underestimate the gamble that companies are asking audiences to take on their work. As squeezed budgets makes the purchase of a theatre ticket a relatively significant financial decision, perhaps theatres need to find ways of minimising the perceived risk for audiences without making the work artistically conservative. This might mean remounting work that has already been successful elsewhere, as ETT are doing, or it might mean offering audiences added value with their ticket, like the Theatre Club and Theatre Salon events. And, as a number of different individuals stress, these initiatives should all be executed with the aim of building shared audiences for the future. As Caroline Dyott points out, creating a sustainable audience appetite for this work in the long term has to be the aim.

At the heart of all these tentative lessons is the need for collaboration and dialogue. That can be with and within venues, with local arts communities, with audiences, between different touring organisations around the company. Ultimately it is about people and about relationships. As well as the necessity to work together in order to make any given touring project work, the myriad issues that the UK touring model currently faced are perhaps best overcome through shared learning.

It all starts with conversation.

Sources

 

Interviews with:

  • David Jubb, artistic director of Battersea Arts Centre
  • Caroline Dyott, associate producer, English Touring Theatre
  • Ed Collier, co-director of China Plate
  • Gavin Stride, director of Farnham Maltings
  • Jo Crowley, producer, 1927
  • Hanna Streeter, assistant producer, Paines Plough

This report was commissioned by Fuel as part of the New Theatre in your Neighbourhood project.

Small ways to make things better

In a climate of cuts to public subsidy, and demand that the arts justify their existence economically, it’s really easy to view the audience engagement programme Fuel are testing with NTiYN as a straightforward exercise in putting bums on seats. Things are going well when auditoriums are busy, less so when audiences are sparse. But – even before the commissioning phase begins, in which Fuel artists create new work for and with the collaborating towns and cities – NTiYN is about much more than that. Tucked in the comments on a previous post of mine here is a lovely story from Lorna Rees, local engagement specialist in Poole, about two teenage boys whom she coaxed in to the Lighthouse to see Inua Ellams’ The 14th Tale. They would never have come to see it of their own accord, but they came, and they loved it – and when Inua is next in town, they might even go back. What they saw on stage was a story they could recognise – one that illuminated their own stories, and the world they are growing up in. This, surely, is the key argument for the arts – not whether those boys buy a drink in a local shop or sandwiches from the nearby Subway.

I was in Poole last week for Will Adamsdale’s new show, The Victorian in the Wall, and to attend Lorna’s post-show Theatre Salon. This event was an experiment, building on the Theatre Clubs I’ve been hosting in London with Dialogue at BAC, and with the Two Boroughs Project at the Young Vic, but also trying to incorporate elements of the traditional post-show Q&A. It could have been an uncomfortable disaster: instead, everything about it was delightful. In the gallery at the Lighthouse, currently showing an exhibition of prints by local artists, Lorna had set up a treats table, with wine, olives, flapjacks and tiny Tunnocks-style teacakes. Chairs were gathered around the table for the Q&A, and this circular arrangement took away the stilted formality that might have infected the conversation if we’d stayed in the raked theatre space, making it feel more open and light. After 20 minutes or so, the Q&A ended but the cast stayed in the room and mingled: the atmosphere was more like a party than anything else.

Did we talk about theatre? Yes, and where people live, and the effort they make to come to the Lighthouse, and how they love engaging with art because they don’t feel creative themselves, and the singing that their children do in choirs, and their bemusement that friends would rather spend £15 buying beer in a pub than seeing a story on stage. In a quiet moment, I marvelled at this space Lorna had created, where it didn’t matter what your involvement was with theatre: as long as you had some feeling for it, you had a place in the conversation.

It made me think back to a discussion I co-hosted (with Dialogue) at BAC last autumn, thinking about the relationships between theatre-makers, critics and audiences. We talked quite a lot about the discomfort of press nights, how false and tense they feel, and David Jubb, artistic director at BAC, said something that I’ve wanted to hold on to ever since: it feels so peculiar to him that his theatre should make such a fuss over critics, giving them free wine, the best seats, wanting to be sure they’re having a good time – when the people he really wants to make a fuss over are his audiences, particularly the loyal punters who love BAC and love the adventures it takes them on. In setting up her Salon, giving her audiences a drink and a bite to eat, initiating a friendly conversation with the makers of the work, then gently opening that conversation up to take in the Lighthouse, other work, life itself, Lorna did exactly the thing David Jubb was talking about: made her audiences feel special. One couple I spoke to, aged (at a guess) in their early 50s, told me they never usually stayed for post-show events, because they always assumed the talk would go over their heads. This, though, they had been glad to attend.

So these are the thoughts I’ll be taking with me to Stockton next week, on my first visit to ARC. I’m a little apprehensive, because Stockton is a mystery to me: I know it through local blogs, through the picture of it painted by Louise Blackwell elsewhere on this blog, and, more recently, through the impassioned writing of Daniel Bye, someone I know a little bit and admire a lot, who wrote a terrific blog post in the days following the death of Margaret Thatcher about her deleterious effect on Stockton-on-Tees – indeed, everywhere-on-Tees:

I feel tremendous pride in and love for my home region. The trouble is, I always find it that little bit harder to maintain this when I’m actually here. That business park is nothing to inspire pride and Stockton’s once thriving Georgian High Street is now a mix of charity shops, pound shops and betting shops. Some of the most beautiful Georgian buildings were knocked down in 1971 for a shopping centre, to widespread public fury. This street, where the friction match was invented, within sight of the terminus of the first-ever passenger railway journey, is dying. Not much more than five minutes out of town is a housing estate suspended mid-demolition, with a few scattered houses obstinately surviving the project’s having run out of money. Meeting people to gather material for this project I find an enormous amount of inspiring history, but keep running up against a lack of hope in the present.

From what Daniel says about that project (Story Hunt, at ARC on June 26) elsewhere on his blog, I get the impression it might offer a quiet reminder to its audience-participants that politics, history, the things that change or characterise a community, aren’t just imposed on people: they are made by people, by us, and we all can contribute to the change we want to see. There is something of that spirit in Uninvited Guests’ Make Better Please, the show I’m going to Stockton to see again and discuss with audiences. Make Better Please starts with the audience in groups, reading and talking about the day’s news: this becomes the material for a ritual that gradually transforms into an exorcism. It ends with a flare of hope, an invitation to think about the little (and sometimes big) acts of generosity that make life better, friendlier, more caring. I loved it when I first saw it at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds a year ago: it felt furious and thrillingly alive; above all, it felt inspiring to me – it made me want to go out and look for ways to create change, to contribute to my community. I hope audiences in Stockton feel the same.

Political Stage / Theatre Stage: Where does reality end and entertainment begin?

By Chris Tapner, Poole 

Maggie the musical

Margaret Thatcher died today. A curious Monday morning soon after Easter.

The reactions are coming through thick and fast, either distinctly joyous or sincerely sober.

In a matter of hours it seems to have become an event in its own right. Where were you when you found out? It’s something we all knew would happen and now it suddenly has, leaving a bitter taste in some mouths, and a sweet one in others. It’s at once a very real thing, but also infinitely theatrical.

Currently referenced in two productions on the West End stage, meeting Helen Mirren’s Queen in ‘The Audience’, and being musically lampooned by dancing miners in ‘Billy Elliot The Musical’.

There are certain actors who will have a lot resting on their shoulders tonight.

Thatcher on the ‘political stage’ is fast emerging as the perfect tool for examining the relevance of the ‘theatrical stage’ in today’s society. In a culture of fast DVD entertainment and desensitisation to death, how do we react when it actually happens?

Where is the line between pantomime villain and actual villain drawn?

The town of Poole where I live and work is a Conservative area, and I can see the loss of the Baroness being felt to a great extent. At the local arts centre in 2004 we hosted a satirical revue called ‘Margaret Thatcher The Musical’, a raucous piece of vaudeville that culminated in a giant effigy of Maggie advancing on the audience singing her heart out.

The bar after the event was heaving with excitement at what had just been witnessed.

People thrashing out post show ideas, unsure whether what they had seen was offensive or genius, but either way certain that for an hour and forty minutes they had been part of something exhilarating.

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It gets me thinking about where arts in my area has come since that production, and where it is going next. The Spring season has been sparse in quantity, but high on quality. We’ve hosted children’s productions, vintage revivals, and a fascinating one man show 14th Tale by Inua Ellams from Fuel Theatre.

Interest in the piece was initially slow as the flyer was too ambiguous. People in the community were asked why they wouldn’t want to book for the show, the majority claimed that ‘it’s not my thing’. How do people know it’s not their thing if they are not prepared to see it? Curiosity eventually grew and attracted a large and diverse crowd.

Audiences in my area are clever, but somewhat underestimated. Opinions get lost. There is a strange mix of obligation, wanting to be entertained, and frustration at having to go through the process of booking. Customers being involved in the administration of their own enjoyment seems to stifle the heart of the artwork, and makes me wonder whether more improvised performances would be the best tonic for theatre in my neighbourhood.

At school I remember learning some of Samuel Beckett’s stream of consciousness monologues. I’d love to read them publicly in unexpected places and see what kind of effect if any that they had.

For those people unsure of what they want to see, maybe theatre makers should do purposefully pointless theatrical exercises. How about setting a production of ‘Abigail’s Party’ in the modern day? It would certainly lose some of its original kudos but maybe gain a new level of as yet undiscovered value.

I feel the way forward is for people to talk as much as they can about what they’ve seen, be it good or bad, audiences and theatre makers can keep theatre alive in a community simply by word of mouth, the greatest marketing tool.

Theatre in Poole often feels secondary to events happening in the capital city, ‘always the bridesmaid but never the bride’. Unlike ‘The Iron Lady’ Poole has shown the capacity to be turned, but similar to her, has shown it is not the dowdy spinster that it initially appears to be.

Chris is a writer who lives and works in Poole

Artists and audiences: a two way street

by Catherine Love
“It depends on the nature of the work and your long term aims.” Inua Ellams’ response to my question about engaging with audiences, asked after the first of his two performances of The 14th Tale at the Continental in Preston, all of a sudden prompts me to think about what we’re doing from a slightly different angle. For all the talking that has gone on elsewhere, this is the first time I’ve had a proper conversation about New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood with one of the artists involved. I realise, with a sharp prick of guilt, that in thinking so much about audiences I’ve been thinking less about the work.

Other than taking it to more people, what does a deeper engagement with the audience do for a piece like The 14th Tale? It’s a show that’s now been going for a number of years, playing at venues including the National Theatre and touring all around the country. While it charts Inua’s own journey from Nigeria to London by way of Dublin, the piece is less about place than about people; about Inua’s cheeky, mischief-making younger self, a trouble-maker from a long line of trouble-makers. At its heart this is a sharing of stories, a theatrical form with deep and wide-stretching roots, and a form that invites us to think about our own stories, our own memories and anecdotes. In every place it visits, every community it encounters, those stories will be different.

My conversation with Inua follows a disappointing turn out at the Continental, dampening an encouragingly positive reaction from those who did attend. Christina puts it nicely when she describes the night’s audience as “small but perfectly formed”. Sadly aware of the depleted audience, and with the aims of this particular project in mind, I ask Inua if he finds the current touring structure frustrating. In part, I suppose I’m asking because I know I would be frustrated. But Inua seems surprised by the question. “I don’t know anything else,” he shrugs. For him, the focus is on the work, and touring simply provides a vehicle for it to reach and connect with more people.

This conversation is followed by others the following Thursday, as a number of Fuel’s artists are brought together for FuelFest at the Bristol Old Vic. After the first ever performance of Victorian in the Wall, which will be visiting Malvern, Colchester and Poole during its tour as part of New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood, company member Chris Branch chats to me briefly about his experiences of touring. He sees touring as an ideal way of developing a show over its life, particularly in the case of devised and ever-evolving work such as The Victorian in the Wall. The dynamic can be tested with different audiences, gauging different reactions in different places and feeding that wealth of audience response into the piece as they go. It sounds – to reluctantly use a word that the show itself would probably ridicule – sort of organic.

I’m brought back to these thoughts a few days later, at a post-show discussion as part of Sprint Festival at Camden People’s Theatre. Following a work-in-progress showing of Made In China’s new show Gym Party, a line-up of programmers and producers are discussing a new initiative that has seen four different festivals – Sprint, Sampled, Mayfest and Pulse – collaborate in order to commission the piece. The driving idea behind this joint commission is that it will allow the work to mature over the four festivals, all spaced out across spring and summer, providing opportunities for increasingly developed work-in-progress showings in front of a range of audiences.

While this is a very different proposition to New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood – it’s festival based, it’s supporting just the one show, and the focus is on the artists rather than the audience – it offers a striking model for developing work in partnership with audiences around the country. Although much of New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood is about forming more meaningful connections with audiences, connections – like conversations – go both ways. The positive impact that these deepening encounters might have on the theatre involved during its lifetime and constant evolution must surely be part of any improved model for touring, creating an improved structure for both audiences and artists.

Engaging, not marketing

by Chantal Oakes
In 1724 or thereabouts, Daniel Defoe, the son of a butcher from Stoke Newington in London, asserted that no Briton was more than 24 miles from water. As the train pulled me and my fellow passengers through the countryside, from Bristol up to the Midlands I would have said that 24 miles was an exaggeration. We passed miles and miles of rambling becks, brooks and streams, each side of their banks lined by wild trees and hedgerow that divided the fields we passed through. As a visual artist what stuck in my mind most on the journey home was a glimpse of old Bristol just minutes out of the station. At one point I saw from the train that the River Avon squeezed through some city streets and in my head I flashback through the centuries, imagining a seagoing ship with naked masts anchored dockside, unloaded and calmly waiting for orders to sail off around the world. Tall stumps of residential flats and retail shops mimic the tree-lined streams I see further down the line. I am thinking about the past and landscape again, a recurring theme in my work. Clusters of humanity living and working by water – but for the modern high-rise blocks it could have been Manchester, Preston, Onitsha, Lagos…

I saw “Make Better Please” by Uninvited Guests in the Cooper’s Loft of Bristol Old Vic, after some lovely red wine and plenty of jokes in the downstairs bar the night before. It was interactive, immersive and quite often made you feel like you are in a Dogma 95 production by Lars Von Trier (in a good way). Julie Dove, Fuel’s local engagement specialist from Stockton, said her audiences will love the noise and it was unlikely the actors would be able to get enough silence to hear themselves above the shouting. What a difference in style from the bonhomie of Inua Ellam’s The 14th Tale – yet both performances worked, intellectually and emotionally, proving how, when fully formed, the live/lived experience of performance is its unique selling point.

Unique selling point – that’s very marketing, and something we in Preston are considering as part of our evaluation of Fuel’s engagement here. Was it the marketing of The 14th Tale that deterred audiences when it played at the New Continental earlier this month? The local theatre crowd mostly stayed away; in the days afterwards, I wondered whether it was because they were thinking: “What can this artist tell us about our lives?” or “We need development for our own scene.” I tried to engage with the local black communities, but they mostly stayed away, too. What, I asked myself, are the perceptions about black performers here? When I was talking to people, I even found myself saying: “There’s no swearing…” We also plugged the event heavily to the Lancashire Writers Hub and I thought my whimsy about popular theatre might have intrigued them, but none of them showed. Then, a week later, they were invited to write – guess what – a monologue for a new book published by the Heart Foundation. How inspiring The 14th Tale could have been… Somehow we never reached them.

A good thing about blogs is that they enable reflection. I’ve been thinking about the history of theatre in Preston, and where diversity fits in. Preston had a heyday of carousing theatres along its High Street. Then municipal, social works with theatres took over, centralising and defining the site of theatre and its contents. As economic times have changed, municipal theatre has become less and less viable: now even the pantomime looks shaky. In the shadows lies a possible saviour, though they are gasping for breath now, crumbling and tired. A bundle of social clubs – with their own buildings and car parks and small, awkward stages – still exist. Could we use them to put challenging or new performances in among the community?

As Fuel’s local engagement specialist in Preston, it’s my job to begin the process of dialogue about where and how we can develop the accommodation of theatre here, and make it accessible to its rightful audiences. Fuel has a place in landscapes other than big cities because there is a willingness to share. I look forward to helping artists and cultural fans here better understand their motives and possibilities. There’s plenty more work to do…

A twist in The 14th Tale

by Chantal Oakes
This week, Nigerian poet Inua Ellams comes to the Continental in Preston to perform The 14th Tale, on the 12th and 13th of March. It promises to be a fascinating performance, and this entry explains why I got involved in the project that will bring him here.

I am a massive fan of seeing performance. I didn’t see any theatre until a school trip to Billy Liar in the West End when I was 13 – but what caught my eye as a 7-year-old was the cardboard theatre owned by my sister, with actual lights powered by battery. I was very covetous and have since always tried to be involved in theatre performance in some way.

I have seen videos of some great American performance poets but very little live work around Lancashire (rather than Manchester or Liverpool). The idea of spoken word, for me, raises sharper memories of the great exponents of what used to be called monologue performance. Thora Hird, for example, who was born in Morecambe. And Uppards, a Lancashire version of Longfellow’s famous poem Excelsior, narrated by Stanley Holloway, another great monologist. Where did monologues go?

Right up until the 1960s and the end of colonialism, in much of West Africa as well as the rest of Britain’s colonial world, the act of delivering monologues was part and parcel of the concert-party line-up and the ex-pat experience. My favourite and one my mother tried unsuccessfully to teach me is The green eye of the little yellow god, a monologue containing the telling tale of the British Raj meddling with local religions!

In Nigeria, the performance circuit left behind post-independence was quickly utilised by Nigerian artists eager to revive traditional methods of theatre, and the monologue melded into the work of Wole Soyinka and Duro Ladipo, for example, as well as that of the jeli, griots and storytellers.

Performance poetry, or spoken word, is obviously not quite the same as many of the old music hall style monologues, nor as accessible as Alan Bennett’s television work such as Talking Heads – it is more visceral than that.

All these performance styles – of delivering words instead of music or drama – are only distantly connected to the art of performing epic literature. According to Albert Lord, in The Singer of Tales, they do, however, all have ‘commonalities concerning the oral composition of traditional storytelling’.

This is why I’m looking forward to seeing The 14th Tale for the first time. I will not, however, be poking the performer with a stick like Marriott Edgar’s Albert, or trying to steal his jewels like Mad Carew!