And the lessons of am-dram

By Maddy Costa

In the introduction to my essay looking at some historical precedences to NTiYN, I mentioned a few things that I had to leave out for the sake of stopping the pamphlet from turning into a small book. Most of them have now appeared on this blog, in the series of full(ish) transcripts of interviews with Vicky Featherstone, Stella Duffy, Anna Reading and Nicola Shaughnessy. Only one subject remains, and that’s amateur theatre – and my failure to include it in that series is basically typical of a “professional” theatre person’s approach to am-dram. We know it’s there, we believe it’s a good thing, but we ignore it in favour of the work being made by “professional” artists.

“It should not be necessary to preface a book about an amateur theatre company with an explanation of its nature and purpose. Unfortunately, the arts world has become mired in ways of writing about its practice that are as misconceived as they are unproductive. Ever-increasing pressure to ‘prove’ worth in a public culture that struggles to distinguish value from price has produced a narrow emphasis on evaluation among those who distribute and depend on public subsidy.” So wrote the formidably brilliant Francois Matarasso in the opening pages of Where We Dream, the first of his Regular Marvels projects looking at “alternative ways of understanding people’s experience of art”. Where We Dream focuses on the West Bromwich Opera Society: a company that sells tickets in the thousands, has a loyal local following, and regularly takes risks in what it chooses to programme – and all this, as Matarasso points out, in an area of the country that, according to government statistics, has “low engagement in the arts”. The same sense of hierarchy that keeps WBOS little-known and under-celebrated in the wider arts ecology also works to the detriment of making theatre (especially contemporary theatre, like that Fuel produces) feel or look accessible to all.

Two of the academics I spoke to for the NTiYN precedences essay held up amateur theatre as a potentially useful model for rethinking audience engagement. Nadine Holdsworth, professor of theatre and performance at University of Warwick, is currently collaborating on a funded research project looking at “the classic am-dram groups”, in particular “how they work with their audiences”. She suggests that the am-dram audience come less for the “actual product” and more for “the community gathering”: whether that means supporting a friend or family member in the cast, supporting the venue that is staging the event, or simply coming along to support the idea of theatre happening at all. As a result, theatre-going is “a more social activity than it is in the professional realm”, and more “celebratory” to boot.

Helen Freshwater, reader in theatre and performance at Newcastle University, and author of the terrific book Theatre & Audience, which (among other things) contemplates the lack of documentation of audience experience, and what that means for our understanding of theatre and its potential impacts, is similarly enthused by the “different models” of amateur theatre. Here, she says, “the company becomes the community: it’s not an expression of another community, it is the community itself”. Anxieties commonly expressed as barriers to theatre are eliminated and swapped for “an excess of engagement”: “any of the concerns you might have about going along and feeling completely isolated for the whole evening, and then leaving at the end not having spoken to anyone, are completely swept away”, along with the notion of “buying a certain quality of experience”, to be replaced by “a relationship between audiences and makers that can be so invested and so intimate that it completely transforms the experience”.

My relationship with theatre didn’t begin properly until I was in my early 20s, so even as a student I didn’t see much amateur work. However, I’ve been thinking about this post at the same time as Christmas productions have been happening at my children’s school, and something clicked for me watching my six-year-old son and his classmates perform their show. It began with the story of the Great Fire of London, told through documentation of a trip to Pudding Lane and the Monument, video of them setting fire to a cardboard Tudor city, songs and storytelling and (be still my heart) a ballet vignette in which several children dressed in red and orange flickered and leapt like flames – and then, in the middle, was rudely disrupted by characters from Roald Dahl’s The Twits, which the kids had loved too much to leave out, and so they presented the nasty couple arguing with each other, eating worms and then, in a triumph of stagecraft, being chased off the stage by a gaggle of little monkeys bouncing off an indoors trampoline. If my local community can watch an amateur show that smashes narrative and form with such aplomb, what’s stopping them going to the nearby Battersea Arts Centre, or Young Vic, to watch “professional” theatre-makers do the same?

The answer, of course, is that they don’t feel the same emotional attachment to these places as I do: many of them don’t even know they exist. This is in no way intended to denigrate the outreach work at either of those buildings – particularly the Young Vic, whose Two Boroughs participation project (co-led by Lily Einhorn) has taught me almost all of what little I know about audience engagement. It’s my echo of a call made by Lyn Gardner in the Guardian a couple of years ago, for amateur and professional theatre to work together better.

A rethink is needed from critics here, too. One of my favourite pieces ever written about theatre is this one by Megan Vaughan, on the experience of attending an am-dram show, because it captures beautifully the overwhelming love I feel really often going to the theatre – a love that has little outlet, except in occasional posts on my blog. In her most recent column for the Stage, Megan urged readers to go to a local panto:

“And I mean local. Pure amdram. None of that ACE-funded shit. I want you go to a panto where the dame is also a quantity surveyor and interval drinks are served from the Girl Guides’ tea urn. Then I want you to applaud. Applaud until your hands bleed. I want you to put a fiver in the charity tin, go home, get pissed, kiss your loved ones goodnight and sleep soundly.”

and reading it, I wanted to cheer. Amateur theatre doesn’t need the approval of critics: but we do need to create a new narrative that includes it, acknowledges what it does triumphantly, and celebrates the relationships it makes possible.

Incidentally, that “fiver in the tin” reminds me of how Slung Low’s Hub works. It’s a venue that presents “professional” theatre to a loyal local community, invites them to pay what they decide at the end, gives them cheap drinks and often food as well: a venue, in other words, that merges the best of both worlds to perfection. There’s a lot that professional theatre can learn from amateur – and the total rethink of values it requires might benefit not just the industry, but the society that holds it as well.

Advertisements

Being local, being chatty, being excellent

by Maddy Costa

For the final planned post in this small run of pieces about relationships between theatre (buildings) and audiences, I want to take a moment to look back on some writing on the theme that’s been published elsewhere. Ever since Stella Duffy posted it on the Fun Palaces blog at the start of June, I’ve been thinking about her call to redefine “excellence” in the arts. She questions the idea that art is “excellent” in and of itself: for one thing, by whose taste is this innate quality being judged? You only have to look at the UK’s pool of theatre critics – which has begun changing in terms of age, but is still mostly white and middle-class – to see in microcosm a problem of homogeneity among the decision-makers, money-handlers, praise-givers and gate-keepers of art. Turning her attention to audiences, Duffy asks if art can really be deemed excellent, if large numbers of people feel intimidated by it, feel that it’s not inviting them or that they have no connection with it. Rejecting elitism, she calls for a new consideration of excellence: of participation and engagement, not just for a few people, but for many.

On the Guardian blog later in June, Lyn Gardner argued for a similar change in the value system: from theatre as a product presented to communities to theatre as a social activity that all sorts of people come together to make. Reporting from the Devoted & Disgruntled/In Battalions open discussion on how theatre might better liaise with a Tory government, Gardner pointed out that the key to increased support for arts funding lies in conversation with the general public – “including those many millions who think the arts is not for them”. More theatres should have participation programmes like that at the Young Vic in London, so beautifully described by Lily Einhorn in her guest post which began this series; and those that do have them should get better about making their activities public.

Also on the Guardian blog, at the beginning of July, Sarah Brigham detailed the many ways in which artist development and audience development at Derby Theatre, where she is artistic director, aren’t separate activities but interrelated. Both are fed by a focus on the local community: giving opportunities including “residencies, scratch nights, masterclasses and business support” to emergent artists and companies, which in turn encourages them to pay attention to the main-house programme that might previously have seemed irrelevant to them. There’s a lot in this thinking that aligns with the approach of Annabel Turpin at ARC in Stockton, discussed in the interview with her earlier this week.

Returning to the beginning of June, I was very struck by extracts from a speech delivered by Sarah Frankcom, artistic director of the Royal Exchange, Manchester, at a Sleepover event at her theatre designed to inspire new conversations between the building and its audiences. Frankcom already has a number of informal chats with different audience members, but said: “As lovely and affecting as these encounters are, they are random and hidden and really just a collection of anecdotes. I am hungry for a more grown-up dialogue, a space where I can understand more about what you think theatre is about and what this building in the heart of Manchester is for.” In his review of the Sleepover, critic Andrew Haydon (who has recently moved to Manchester) noted with admiration: “There was something particularly special about the relationship that the Royal Exchange seemed to have with its audience and the care and respect with which it treated them.” Clearly, Frankcom is already doing something right. And I know I’m biased, but I’m really heartened by the inclusion, in the theatre’s upcoming Flare festival programme, of “Talk Back” events: discussion sessions in which artists and audiences gather to talk about the previous night’s performance. They sound just like the theatre clubs I host. As far as I can tell, Talk Back isn’t integral to the Royal Exchange programme yet – but if Frankcom wants more “grown-up dialogue” to happen at her theatre, that seems to me as good a way to have it as any.

I began by saying this was the final planned post in this series: actually, I’d love to carry it on – if only I knew who with. As Lily Einhorn pointed out on twitter earlier this week, work like hers at the Young Vic is “probably going on in pockets across the UK. It all tends to be so secret.” I’d like to find ways to make it less hidden: so if you’re at a venue and focused on community collaboration and conversation, please get in touch with me via maddy[at]welcometodialogue[dot]com. Thanks!

The what happens after

by Maddy Costa

This story begins in Newcastle, in the middle of March. As part of my ongoing quest to encourage more people not just to write about theatre but to do so in different and exciting ways, I was running a workshop with the Cuckoo Young Writers, and by chance met Ruth, newly commissioned by the Clod Ensemble to act as a local engagement specialist for their touring production The Red Chair. Ruth was feeling frustrated: she had come up with a fun social media campaign, and made contact with some interesting local groups, but so far it hadn’t translated into many conversations, let alone ticket sales. She felt she wasn’t getting anywhere.

I’m always open about the fact that I have no actual experience in outreach or engagement work, I’ve never worked in a theatre, and have no specific theatre training. However, instinctively I’m pretty certain that to think about outreach or engagement in terms of ticket sales is going about things the wrong way. This isn’t a criticism of Ruth, by the way: it’s a general observation. A fundamental belief that if you’re going to make the effort to talk to people, it’s got to be with a view to more than getting them to part with their cash.

Ruth told me about the groups she’d approached, particularly associations for blind and visually impaired people: The Red Chair, she felt, relies so much more on language, sound and hearing than on sight that she wanted to encourage these groups to come along, and use that as the beginning of a more general conversation about access to theatre. Which all sounded like the right kind of work, if only she could feel less disheartened. Four days later, she sent me an email, telling me about a conversation she’d had with the chair of the Newcastle Disability Forum: although no one was free to see The Red Chair, Ruth was organising an alternative theatre trip for them – and they had a long discussion about the good and bad of audio-description, which Ruth expected to continue. She concluded:

‘The longer-term outcomes seem to be where the heart of this is and I am starting to shift my head about that … I want to get as many people who may enjoy the show to see it … but actually what happens after that is key.’

The middle of this story takes place in Gloucester a few days later. I was there for the Strike a Light festival, which has grown up as part of the Collaborative Touring Network, a strategic touring project funded by Battersea Arts Centre. I hadn’t been to Strike a Light before, but it was instantly obvious how this spring festival was building on the previous autumn one (and on the two festivals before that). There was quantitative data for this – a clear increase in ticket sales – but what interested me were the ways I, as an outsider, noticed it in the atmosphere. In the way people stayed behind after a work-in-progress performance and talked about how it compared with another, earlier version of the same show. In the number of people who came out on a Sunday evening for another work-in-progress performance: students, theatre-makers, locals. Last year, there was an argument at the bar about making work as a person of colour in the region; this year there was a programmed discussion on the subject, more than 20 people debating passionately with each other – people who hadn’t met before, but could go on to work together. It was like seeing a community come into bud.

There are six CTN festivals, all of them in areas where there isn’t much theatre going on, all of them blossoming. Lyn Gardner wrote a Guardian blog about another one, run by Doorstep Arts in Torbay, which she described as: “a terrific celebration of the transformative power of arts engagement”, praising it for “growing a future model of arts engagement that could flourish all over the country”. That model is simple: galvanising and supporting communities to build the infrastructures they need to present touring work and inspire local makers.

This story now has a twist: on a Saturday in mid-April I went to Preston for the last weekend of the Derelict festival, a brilliant week-long programme of performances and fun. It ended with a discussion – my favourite kind of discussion, in which people of all different ages and backgrounds, from students to artistic directors and chief executives via producers, practising artists and academics, gather on equal terms. We began talking about the need for stronger infrastructure in Preston, to make it more possible to present and encourage people to attend theatre/performance/art, and one person suggested that it was important for the people of Preston to make this alone, and not allow others to build it for them. “Others” including Fuel – Preston’s Continental being one of the six NTiYN venues. I found this resistance really interesting: are organisations like Fuel and BAC riding roughshod over locals, who could quite happily build an arts community themselves? I don’t think so – but then, I’m always the Londoner in these situations, the outsider.

It was fascinating to encounter that oppositional perspective, and while not agreeing with it, I want to hold it in my thoughts. What makes me disagree is knowing how much autonomy people like Emma Jane in Gloucester and the Doorstep Arts team in Torbay have in shaping their festivals for their own communities. What begins as a potentially cynical opportunity for BAC to access new and hard-to-reach audiences is transformed by a genuine desire to support, on the one hand, local grassroots activity and, on the other, the entire theatre ecology. Similarly, when I see Fuel organise mentoring for a programmer in Preston (for instance), it’s not just to get more of their own work on: it’s so that programmer can learn new approaches to building a stronger, bolder venue, which could become a hub for locals and touring artists alike.

This story ends in Colchester on the last Friday in April, at an event curated by Jordana Golbourn, the local engagement specialist for the Lakeside. Since starting work with NTiYN a couple of years ago, Golbourn has sought to reach beyond the Lakeside’s campus community and forge links with people across Colchester and in nearby areas like Jaywick and Wyvenhoe. Inspired by Fuel’s Phenomenal People, she organised a social for local women, with me as host, to take place in the Lakeside’s cafe. It was another one of those perfect circles: the university’s head of Humanities and other top academics sitting at the same table with students, artists and theatre-makers, plus the mother and daughter who run an activist event called Colchester Soup. You could hear the electricity crackling across the table as women discovered like-minded souls, people with whom they might collaborate or from whom they could learn. In one short hour, the university feminist society had several new members; we learned about one woman’s art therapy practice, another’s work as a clown doctor and a third’s intention to build retreats for artists in Jaywick; pledged to support the university’s brilliant scheme for scholarships for young women and marvelled at how Colchester Soup directs funds to people with community-benefiting ideas. Somewhere in the mix we invited everyone present to come to the Phenomenal People show: I hope they come, but I hope much more that this was the first of many events, the beginning of a proper network, in which women can find mentors, share experience, build together.

The Colchester social might end this particular blog story, but it’s also a beginning and a continuation. Sometimes, like Ruth, I get disheartened on NTiYN trips, that it’s still so hard getting people to come and see shows. But time and again I remind myself: that’s not what it’s about. It’s about cultural shifts and making connections across communities; not individual shows but the way neighbourhoods function; not theatre as a product but theatre at the beating heart of society.

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.

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.

Lost and found in Landscape II

“I told him I was going to see something called Landscape II and he said: what’s it about? I said I didn’t know. So he asked what Landscape I was like.”
“But there isn’t a Landscape I, is there?”
“No. But I guess if you’ve seen Ice Age it tells you what Ice Age 2 will be like.”

Melanie Wilson’s Landscape II is a demanding piece of theatre, for performer and audience alike. Wilson sets herself a fiendish technical challenge: as well as narrating the text, which interweaves the lives of three women who exist in different geographical and historical time zones, she operates the sound and backdrop images from a computer and mixing desk in front of her, fingers moving busily throughout, again as though working a loom. It’s up to her audiences to see the patterns in this material for themselves. The first time I saw it, I spent as much time concentrating on concentrating as I did watching. Reading the reviews, I discovered I wasn’t alone. Here’s a bit of Andrew Haydon’s:

I found the beginning pretty hard going. … The piece starts quietly, slowly: incredibly still. And, while the words, images and sound are beautiful, they’re also incredibly slow and fractured. I felt like my body and mind were operating at the wrong speed; like I really needed to have slowed down before entering. On top of this, I was conscious of Thinking Too Hard. Because of the fractures, and the space between the words, I felt like I was both overthinking everything I was hearing and at the same time not quite managing to piece everything together, and missing some of what was being said because I was too lost in my own mind listening to my overthinking – all the while thinking, this is really beautifully done, why aren’t I following it better?

Dan Hutton’s review conveys how long it takes to digest:

Throughout, you find yourself floating within the gaps, trying to grasp at what’s ‘real’, but just as something seems to be sliding into focus, it’s pulled away and you’re in the dark again. … It’s only now, two days after I saw Landscape II, that this has all actually begun to crystallise in my psyche. In the moments after the piece ends, you’re left raw and confused. But as your brain wanders elsewhere in the following hours, things start to become clearer, and images drift into view. It’s by no means a piece which immediately satisfies; its scope is far wider and all-encompassing than that.

And Matt Trueman’s tells you how typical this is of Melanie’s work:

To attend a Melanie Wilson piece is to drift. Such is the quality of her voice – quilted and hypnotic – that it’s simply not possible to stay present throughout. You start to float out of your chair and off, up and away, into another headspace altogether; one where ideas begin to unfurl while the piece continues in the background, infusing extra ideas into an ongoing thought process. Her work is only ever perceived as a blur.

I saw Landscape II twice, and both times I spoke to people who were frustrated, even furious, with the piece: they found it confusing, impossible to follow, and because of that felt it was pretentious and self-indulgent. I also spoke to people who were enthralled by it, excited by its storytelling and dazzled by its intricate artistry. These conversations happened because of post-show events Fuel had organised at NTiYN venues: the first was a Salon at the Lighthouse in Poole, an informal Q&A session with Melanie followed by a general chat; the second was a Theatre Club at the Lakeside in Colchester, an even more informal discussion at which no one involved in making the show was present. The differences between these two events was fascinating, and taught me a lot about how people talk about theatre, and talk to its makers, and how difficult it is to articulate the questions that might help you get to grips with a complex piece of art.

At least, I found it difficult formulating those questions. In Poole I was leading a post-show discussion with a theatre-maker for the first time, and I have a lot to learn about how to do it – especially in a situation like this one, where I felt neither sure nor secure of what I’d seen. There were moments when the conversation flagged because I was nervous about jumping in and dominating the event; there were things Melanie said that afterwards I wish I’d pushed her on; and although I interview people often, it’s rarely with an audience – that was surprisingly nerve-racking. So although it was a long conversation, and lots of useful things were discussed, it felt dry and awkward to me, perhaps to others, too.

We talked quite a lot about Melanie’s work as a sound artist: that’s where her theatre begins. Every piece she makes is a development of what she can do with sound, so for instance Landscape II introduces film, which she’d never worked with before; next she’s working in opera. A particularly interesting strand of the conversation – and I so wish I’d delved into this more – involved Melanie’s desire to challenge her audience, and her readiness for her work to be divisive. I find that brave, because you can’t take such risks and be complacent, and because it’s desperately uncomfortable trying to perform amid the creaking sounds of disengaged, fidgety people shifting in their seats; but I also feel for the people who pay money to see such work and spend a portion of their evening feeling bewildered. Is this a discussion it’s possible to have straight after a show has finished? I think Melanie would have been up for it – but I shied away.

Someone asked who her inspirations are, and she talked beautifully about Patti Smith’s forthright politics, and her art, poetry, and books combining the two. Melanie admitted that she’s thinking about producing a similar book to accompany Landscape II – which would deal with the complaint, voiced by more than one person, that the programme didn’t tell them enough about the show. One woman, who recognised the landscape in the film (made by Will Duke) from having grown up in Devon, talked in some detail about the kinds of plants that had been photographed and asked about their significance; I felt an undercurrent of general perplexity that the individual natural images seemed to have no specific import, but didn’t quite know how to unpick that. One man asked whether Melanie always makes work alone, so we talked a little about her previous piece, Autobiographer; another asked why this one is called Landscape II. It’s a perfectly valid question, because there are two landscapes in the piece, North Devon and an unidentified war zone in the Middle East, and the title might seem to suggest that the work is about one of them, or a sequel to an earlier work (as attested by the lovely conversation I’ve quoted above, between two audience members in Colchester). But it was also a question that the journalist in me, or the snob in me, recoiled from, as one that Melanie must get asked everywhere, making it boring for her to answer. To her credit, she answered it gracefully, but something still troubled me.

It was this: I spoke to the same man and his wife after Melanie had left the discussion, and confirmed that they’d both had huge issues with Landscape II. They’d found it obscure, opaque, impossible to piece together. I told the woman that it reminded me of reading poetry: I love reading poetry, but frequently feel bewildered by it, so what I get from it isn’t necessarily comprehension but a feeling, an atmosphere, something I absorb. She frowned a little and said: I don’t read poetry. There was something she and others in the room wanted to access in Landscape II, a code almost, which would tell them everything about the humans in the piece whose lives felt beyond their reach. I wish asking the question, “Why is it called Landscape II?” or “Why isn’t there more information in the programme?” could have given these people what they needed, but I don’t think it did. As the person hosting the discussion, and steering it, I had a responsibility to ask better questions – but I didn’t know what they might be, either.

The discussion in Colchester couldn’t have been more different. That was partly to do with the audience: the Lakeside is on a university campus, so there were a lot of students, and a lot of those were drama students. But age, or gender, or relationship with theatre, by no means determined response. The most enthusiastic speaker at the Theatre Club was a man in his 50s, who thought the pace, delivery, delicacy, narrative, politics, sound design, use of film, every single element that made up Landscape II and the balance between them was perfect. The least enthusiastic were two female teenagers who didn’t understand anything about the characters, found the film and music distracting, and argued that this work didn’t belong in a theatre, it should have been in a gallery. Everyone else at the Theatre Club – and at its biggest we might have had 30 people gathered – fell somewhere in the spectrum between those two poles, making this one of the liveliest conversations I’ve ever had about a show.

Without Melanie present, the audience became responsible for expanding each other’s interpretation and appreciation of the piece. That’s a wonderful shift in dynamic. Instead of asking Melanie why she wanted to use film in her work, or why she chose North Devon as her setting, we discussed the effect the film had on us. How distracted were we by it? If the close-up images of plants or rocks didn’t signify anything specific, what did we get from them being there? Susan Sontag’s writing on cinema came up, and one woman talked about our conditioning by Hollywood to receive all the imagery in a film as part of a single narrative. Landscape II, we agreed, uses film differently: not as a shorthand to speedy comprehension, but as part of a longer meditation on our place in the world and our connections to each other.

That difference between linear narrative and discursive meditation charged a lot of the conversation. Although the two teenagers were the most bamboozled, they weren’t the only people who had struggled to fit together the relationships between the three women in the piece. It’s not surprising: even trying to explain the story ties sentences up in knots. Wilson “plays” (it feels like the wrong word because she spends the entirety of Landscape II sitting behind a desk, talking in the first person, but mostly narrating from a script) a war photographer called Vivian, staying in an isolated barnhouse in North Devon; a century before, her great-great-grandmother Beatrice stayed in the same house, and Vivian gets to know her through a sheaf of diary-letters Beatrice had written and left behind. The third woman, Mina, lives somewhere in the Middle East; Vivian formed a relationship with her while on a long assignment there, but their friendship ends in violent circumstances, which Vivian is struggling to assimilate.

I was honest with the group: it had taken me two viewings of Landscape II to appreciate the subtlety of the links between the three women, and to register fully that Beatrice and Mina are connected, despite the time and land that separate them, in their understanding of the role of women in life, and in their experience of being constrained by society. And it was really enjoyable to compare notes with everyone else as to the things they had and hadn’t picked up. We asked each other: should a piece of theatre be so complex as to confound people who are probably going to see it only once? Should theatre be more clear in its storytelling, arguments and ideas? That might resolve issues for the people who felt lost, but where would it leave those who had relished the work of finding the feminist and political resonances for themselves? The question of Melanie’s background in sound design came up, setting off a vigorous debate about dynamics: some found the restraint of Melanie’s delivery drew them in, some felt repelled by it, all had an opinion. Would they have expressed those opinions if Melanie had been sitting among us, I wondered? The teenager said yes: if she thinks something, she’ll say it, and not worry what anyone thinks. (As it happens, when Landscape II played at the Theatre Royal in Margate, Melanie was faced with an audience as divisive as that in Colchester, whose negative quotient challenged her vociferously in the post-show discussion. The event was a lot livelier than the Salon I hosted in Poole, but a lot more tense, too.)

Taking part in these two discussions sharpened several questions for me. Are theatre-makers the best people to elucidate their work to audiences – and is a post-show discussion the best time and place for this to happen? How can audiences be invited to elucidate it for each other? Where does this expectation that a piece of theatre stands or falls on what happens in the moment in the room come from? I recently went to the Ashmolean in Oxford to see the (thoughtfully curated, frequently illuminating, heartily recommended) Francis Bacon/Henry Moore exhibition: it begins with large-scale photographs of the two men’s studios, and throughout contains sketches of work in progress, maquettes of sculptures, information about the historical, political and biographical context of many of the works. Why is the making of theatre shrouded in such secrecy – and might better access to the questions and notions that come up in a rehearsal room offer audiences a code to crack complex work? The people who got on badly with Landscape II struggled because it didn’t give characters, story and resolution on a plate, but required its audiences to participate in making the meal together. I remember being very struck by how Melanie begins her performance in the same space as the audience, and smiles at them conspiratorially before saying a word: my role in the room, as interpreter, felt clear. But is this subtle acknowledgement enough preparation for less regular theatregoers? What else could be given to them to draw them into Melanie’s world?

I’ve also been thinking about honesty, the levels of honesty that are possible in talking about theatre. While I’ve been wrestling with this blog post, another critic, Miriam Gillinson, has published a sizzly blog on the Blouin ArtInfo site, on how tricky but useful anger is as a response: “Sometimes it’s the clearest sign that a show is actually working,” she argues. “It shows us that we care, that we want to understand.” And yet, how useful is anger to a post-show discussion, if it fuels defensiveness and incrimination (the declaration “that wasn’t good theatre”), without shaping the questions that might help an audience care about what they’ve seen, or understand it?

The following day, Lyn Gardner published a delightful piece on the Guardian website, advocating the importance of “responding as we really feel – and saying what we really think”. Something Lyn alludes to, and Andrew Haydon develops in his astute comments below the piece, is the difference between responding to work and judging it, be that positively or negatively. This difference isn’t often taken into account when talking about theatre, particularly in a culture where theatre is rated using a star/numbering system. Plus there is a problem in culture general in talking openly about how we feel: it’s considered self-indulgent, unnecessary. There is an intellectual anxiety to overcome when work confuses us. The hierarchies of opinion embedded in our culture – the voices of theatre-makers or critics are those of authority, the audience can’t be trusted – discourage people from trusting their own responses. I fall prey to this too: the first thing I do when I walk out of a play is get on my phone and look up reviews, by Matt Trueman, Andrew Haydon, Catherine Love. How different would it be if I turned to the people around me and asked: what did you make of that?

I learned more about Landscape II from talking with a confused, angry, transported, politicised, engaged audience in Colchester than I did from asking Melanie Wilson decorous, careful questions about her work in Poole. That isn’t a criticism of Melanie, or her audience in Poole, it’s a recognition that audiences are being done a disservice when they’re not encouraged to respond to work with more than a thumbs-up on Twitter or a comment below a newspaper review, when their subjective interpretation of work isn’t encouraged, and when the only opportunity they’re given for conversation with theatre-makers is the fragile hour after a show has finished. Theatre needs to open up more places in which these complicated dialogues can happen – which is a lot of what the New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood project is about.

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.