ARC and the art of audience development: two interviews with Annabel Turpin

by Maddy Costa

When I think of the people I’ve met through NTiYN who’ve most inspired me and transformed how I think about relationships between people who make, watch and write about theatre, Annabel Turpin always comes top of the list. Which is difficult, because she’s also the person who’s had the most troubled relationship with NTiYN, resulting in her making the decision last month to withdraw from the research project. (Clarification: Annabel had talked to Fuel previously about withdrawing from the project; by the time the decision was made for ARC to leave, the decision was mutual and Fuel had reassigned that portion of funding to other NTiYN venues.) Annabel is the chief executive of ARC in Stockton-on-Tees, a multi-purpose arts centre that seemed a perfect partner for NTiYN, because of the low attendance for its theatre programme. And yet the venue and the research project have consistently been in friction, and as NTiYN moves into its final phase, it feels important to address why that is, and what this model of audience development might learn from ARC.

What follows draws on two interviews with Annabel, one in March 2014, a little over a year into the research project, the second in May 2015. Unless it’s relevant, I’ll dart between the two without specifying the date: some big shifts did happen at ARC over that 14 months – not least the introduction of the Pay What You Decide ticketing system for all theatre and dance shows – but Annabel’s frustration with NTiYN remained consistent.

The primary problem for Annabel was the local engagement specialist model, whereby a local artist or arts enthusiast is employed to meet community groups and other local people and talk to them about an upcoming show. This is the part of NTiYN that has been most successful elsewhere, and to Annabel that makes sense: “I think it’s really right for venues that aren’t doing that. But it felt to us that the local engagement specialist was doing what we would be doing anyway. She kept wanting to talk to people that we were already talking to, and I don’t think she had networks that we didn’t already have.” The LES’s focus on Fuel shows also disrupted rather than complemented ARC’s longer-term strategies. “You can’t just burst in and tell people about a show happening next week: it’s an ongoing dialogue, and we have to think carefully about all the messages we’re sending them. So the local engagement specialist was getting in the way.”

Not only that, but for a venue dedicated to “connecting incoming artists with local people”, Annabel often felt that Fuel themselves were getting in the way: “We’re dealing with Fuel, who are dealing with the artists. We’re having to liaise with a third party, so everything takes longer.” When we speak in May 2015, she points to specific examples of problems related to The Spalding Suite, and the programme of workshops connected to it, that arose through faulty communication between venue and producers. She’s particularly exasperated that the workshops weren’t as effective as they might have been – while aware that, without the additional resources of NTiYN, ARC wouldn’t have been able to afford workshops around that production at all.

Asked for useful outcomes of the connection with NTiYN, Annabel returns to the day, just as the project was beginning, when Fuel as a team came to Stockton, to meet local people and talk about why they wanted to present work there. “That felt really positive, and probably the best bit of the project so far,” she said in 2014. Similarly, she was very happy with the opportunity NTiYN created, through Fuel’s production Phenomenal People, for local artist Kathryn Beaumont to spend time with groups of women from the former mining communities of County Durham – people the venue had long been trying to forge a relationship with. “We were particularly interested in targeting that area: it hasn’t resulted in audiences and probably never would, but some lovely artistic work came out of it, and useful learning for Kathryn in engaging with remote communities.”

It’s this dedication not to ticket sales but engagement and interaction that make me so admire Annabel and her approach to audience relationships. At its most idealistic (which is the place I sit), NTiYN isn’t just an exercise in shifting tickets either: it’s an attempt to build meaningful connections between Fuel and the communities they sporadically visit. Annabel isn’t arrogant about ARC’s mismatch with NTiYN: “I don’t want to say we’re doing it all already, because no one can ever be doing enough and no one can ever be doing it well enough, and we were as keen to learn as anyone.” But the fact that she feels “we haven’t learned from NTiYN” makes me want to communicate exactly what ARC is doing, and the methods it has in place from which Fuel, and others, might learn. For the sake of concision, I’ll list them:

1: “Our whole thing is about trying to find opportunities for audiences to meet artists.”

“By meet, I don’t necessarily mean in person,” she clarifies. “Meet, encounter, interact with artists, before the point where we say: now commit your time to sitting in a dark room watching them.” That encounter might be with a letter written by Andy Field to the people of Stockton, beautifully printed and strung like lanterns on a washing line in ARC’s foyer; it might be Tangled Feet visiting the head of communications at North Tees hospital, who then introduced them to other NHS staff; it could be an interview with an artist conducted via Skype and screened in ARC’s cinema. Quite often it’s ad-hoc performances in the town centre, the library or a school canteen, and artists being ushered over to the pub next door to take part in the open-mic night. “We send them in there to make friends, to talk to people,” says Annabel. “That’s our method of marketing, is to talk to people – and artists can do it much better than we can.”

This meeting of artists and audiences performs two prime functions. It humanises the people behind the work, creating a sense of connection. “We’re still working on this, but I’m really keen that we get images of artists in Stockton, in places people are familiar,” Annabel said in 2014. “Familiarity is a word we use a lot when we talk about bringing artists and audiences together: it’s about their not being complete strangers.”

It also creates familiarity with different concepts of theatre: all the stuff that ARC programmes that isn’t what Annabel describes as a “straight play”. “We’re really recognising that we’re asking people to come and see or get involved in work and they don’t know what it looks like,” she said in 2014. Hence the pop-up performances across town, living breathing trailers that put something of the work on show. “It’s about confidence,” Annabel says. “The main reason people in Stockton don’t go to the theatre is they’re not confident to come. It’s about people feeling confident about saying: I know what that person looks like, I know what that’s about.”

2: “Our audience development needs to happen alongside the artist development.”

Since many of those meetings rely on artists being resident in the building, ARC increasingly avoids booking finished touring work, preferring to be involved at the development stage, better still in the commissioning process. “That’s not about telling artists what to do or make. It’s about making artists more audience-focused.” Partly that’s achieved by inviting artists to conduct research in the local community, as in Tangled Feet’s interactions with NHS staff: although Annabel is concerned that this “transaction” should be one of “value exchange”. “Whether those people see the show or not, they should feel that someone cares about their story, and should feel like they’ve had an experience. It’s reciprocal.”

A key audience group Annabel is keen to develop consists of other, local, artists. By getting incoming artists to run “professional development workshops” as part of ARCADE, the venue’s programme for emergent writers and makers, she ensures that the two kinds of development happen symbiotically.

3: “We’re trying to make all staff local engagement specialists.”

For every show that goes on sale, Annabel sits down not only with her programme communicator and marketing people but box office staff and anyone else from the organisation who is keen, and discusses: “who we think might be interested in it, who we’re going to talk to, and who is best placed to have that conversation”. It’s the same work assigned by Fuel to the local engagement specialist – but at ARC, all venue staff are invited to be involved.

Also, when an artist or company arrive at ARC for a week of development work, Annabel sits all staff down with them at the beginning of the week, for a conversation. “I ask the artist about their work, and what they’re trying to do, so all the staff understand and feel empowered to have a conversation with them.” Before those welcomes were introduced, very few of the staff would speak to the artists. “Now the whole organisation understands what artists do, and with that comes a confidence in how to talk about the work.”

Annabel wants her staff to be confident not just in talking, but “listening to our audiences”. “I’m not saying you should trap every audience member after the show and have a conversation with them. But it’s amazing what people say if you ask them. And people feeling like their viewpoint and their interpretation is valid means they’ll come back.”

4: “The vocabulary we use is not just about words.”

Glossy flyers are such a staple of theatre marketing that it’s hard to imagine a production surviving without them. Yet Annabel wonders what kind of messages they’re communicating about theatre. “This is going to sound very patronising, but it’s a little bit like: are you buying from Waitrose or Aldi? If you’re buying from Aldi, there’s no point sending you something that’s packaged like Waitrose, because that will send out a signal that it’s too expensive for you. This isn’t about dumbing down: it’s about being sympathetic to what people might have been exposed to culturally. It’s about the images, the font, the material, the whole way we sell it. You can’t be snobby about that.

“We’ve pulled away from printing lots of high-glass expensive flyers – we love them, but it sends the wrong message. I want people to have the opportunity to choose, and I’m not giving you that opportunity if you’re looking at a flyer and thinking ‘That’ll be too expensive’ or ‘I won’t understand it’. Not having the opportunity to decide: that’s what we’re battling with.”

5: “Pay What You Decide.”

The most radical decision Annabel has taken to give people that “opportunity to decide” has been to make all theatre and dance performances at ARC pay what you decide, “taking the risk out” of coming to see a show. She’s cagey about results, but will say that early signs suggest a tangible positive effect in earnings and audience numbers. “It’s not the be all and end all: we still need to show people what work looks like, and invite them to come. But Pay What You Decide is a really lovely way of inviting people.” (NEWS FLASH! Annabel has now written a brilliant piece for the Guardian blog detailing how successful PWYD has been.)

With so many mechanisms in place to attract people into the building, I wonder how Annabel rationalises the fact that audiences for ARC’s theatre programme, although growing, are still quite small. Her answer is simple: to value quality of experience over quantity of people. “Is someone going to go home and the show be a fleeting memory, or are they going to be thinking about the things posed in the show, and telling other people about it? Making memories is really important. I don’t want to see bus-loads of kids shipped in and out and not remember what they see. And when someone sees things on stage that they can connect with, that resonate with you and reflect your world in the broadest sense, that’s fantastic.”

Is there anything she feels ARC isn’t doing yet, or still isn’t getting right? “I don’t think we’re capturing enough evidence and shouting about it,” she says. This isn’t just a matter of raising ARC’s profile: it means other theatres don’t have the opportunity to learn from their successes and failures. She points to the work done by director Javaad Alipoor in advance of a touring show called My Brother’s Country, programmed at ARC in February 2015. “Javaad did the most amazing audience development work: he came twice in advance, went out and made friends, if he saw signs in Farsi he’d go in for a chat, he found an Iranian group who meet in a church and got invited to one of their house parties. The show was about Islam and homosexuality, which is quite a hard sell, and we had 80 people over two nights. Javaad really went out there and talked to people, and that’s why the show was successful.”

Ever since, Annabel has been planning to write a case study to share with other artists ARC works with, but she just hasn’t found the time. “So that’s what we want to do more of: analysing what really works and trying to capture it.” And until she gets around to it, I’m perfectly happy to do it for her.

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Phenomenal People, ARC, Stockton-on-Tees

by Valerie Fairclough

Those that know me know that I rarely get excited about anything. This makes me reluctant to actually go out at times. I am one of those people who think, “Really, do I have to?”
It was with this same reluctance that I finally dragged myself to the Arc in Stockton some hour and a half after the Phenomenal people show kicked off. Makes me wonder how many others are like me.
I landed at the box office and duly paid my two pounds and made my way into the area set aside like a little garden. I announced my arrival by loudly saying: “Is it this way?” The nice gentleman at the door shushed me and guided me in.
The booklet I found on a table entitled “Phenomenal people” gives the impression that it is about people who are phenomenal, however when I looked on the back of the cover it becomes gender specific: “Think of a woman who inspires you.” What if it was a man that inspired me? Get ’em in under false pretences and slug ’em with feminism, that’s what I say. I am not a feminist, however like religion I pick and choose what suits me. I don’t care for flowers being bought for me, not because it offends me but because they belong on a grave or left where they grow. Chocolates, however… Don’t get me wrong: the ladies who were there were brilliant and I did have that communal, belonging feeling. For the record, I have admired Beatrix Potter ever since my run-in with a Pippi Longstocking-lookalike ignorant feminist, but that’s another story.
The room was laid to lawn – not your Astroturf rubbish, it was the real McCoy. Bushes in pots and a lovely little water feature in the middle full of pennies. Garden benches, tables and chairs were dotted around. I felt like I was walking on to the set of In the Night Garden. With all the lights above, the place was very warm. I was told the air conditioning was on; one look at the potted bushes said different.
I parked my backside on a little grassy mound and listened to a woman reading about her female line lost behind the names of men. I came in half way through her monologue. The lady in question was Kathryn Beaumont and she repeated her monologue later in the day to which I fully listened and appreciated. Kathryn admired the stoicism of her female line and told the story as if she was reading an extract from a Cathrine Cookson novel.
A supposed letter to a daughter was read out, it was written by Anna Reading. At some point I zoned out, then a sentence brought me back again: “When you are a feminist.” I think the letter was about making a better world: not sure if it was a better world for women or everyone, either way do you have to be a feminist to make a better world? There are plenty of men out there as well who want the world to be a better and more equal place for all, not just women.
Next up was the lovely Akiya Henry, who did a silhouette show of the woman she most admired, Joyce Dymock, her foster mother. No spoken words, just silhouettes and written words and dates all played out to music; she did her foster mother proud, even if I did have to go and ask her who the kid was in the wheelchair as she was clearly able to walk. It was her sister.
Lucy Stevens did a roll call of all those involved in the making of the show through singing an operatic song, least I think it was a roll call. I loved her voice.
Jenny Sealey spoke of her admiration for fellow deaf friend and actor Caroline Parker. This woman never allowed her lack of hearing to impede her life and what she wanted to do. She told funny stories of the things she and both of them got up too. Jenny had everyone stood up dancing and signing to a song, she signed by virtue of lip reading, when she lost where she was in the record she picked it up by looking at everyone singing. Jenny Sealey is a phenomenal woman as well as her friend.
I must give a mention to Roger, I’m all about equality I am. Roger was the lovely man who worked with Akiya in the silhouette show.
I have to say I left the show disappointed, not because it was rubbish, but because I was rubbish. I should have attended earlier. I had just gotten into it when it was over. I never learn.
Would I recommend the Phenomenal People show? Hell yes. The atmosphere was so relaxing and calming, the bird song just topped it off. I could have sat for hours.
I have since spoken to friends at work who seem keen to have gone, I have promised the next time something comes along I will give them the option.
Well done one and all, it was a marvellous show.

[Editor note: I met Valerie at a writing workshop in Doncaster Darlington (oops! thanks for pointing that out Val), and wrote about the encounter here. I’m so thrilled she accepted my invitation to write for this blog, and hope she continues. Maddy]