Portraits of a fiery evening

Intro by Maddy Costa: The second meeting of the new Margate Theatre Club took place last month and by all accounts it was a night of fireworks. The growing group met to see and talk about Rachael Ofori’s Portrait, a sharp and funny set of vignettes held together by the story of Candice, a quick-witted black teenager with an incisive view on gender and race politics. The brilliant volunteers who run the group managed to bring some first-timers to the Tom Thumb theatre, who stayed behind for the discussion, then wrote these energetic responses. Reading them, I’m consumed with disappointment at not being there myself. The group next meets on November 19 for KILN’s fascinating A Journey Round My Skull: a show that burrows into the brain in ways that should inspire another lively discussion.

By Kat Cutler-MacKenzie

I was inspired, horrified, engaged and even once insulted… but it was one of the best things I’ve done all year.

I knew about the Tom Thumb Theatre – it’s precisely 12 minutes and 14 seconds from my front door – but had I ever been in? Part of me was scared that I would be outnumbered by funky DFLs [Down From Londoners] and local hipsters, the only one who wasn’t ironically sporting a polar neck. I’m just not nonchalantly cool. The other part of me feared a desolate theatre; I imagined the local operatic society performing Cats (jazz hands and all), while myself and an overzealous usher were condemned to front row seats and skin-tight spandex.

However, to my relief the evening began like one might imagine a fairy-tale. The entrance was a secret passage way, lit with fairy lights and nestled just out of sight; enchantingly mysterious but unarguably Margate. There was a golden glow, auditory and visual, that radiated from within. I knew that the theatre club would be cosy if nothing else.

Portrait (Racheal Ofori) was accomplished and particularly poignant to a young woman of 18. It provided an abundance of issues for debate, and drew from us the politically correct to the politely condescending (thanks Racheal). In what was only the second gathering of Margate Theatre Club I couldn’t quite believe that so many people would stay behind to discuss the work.

We agreed, we disagreed. I didn’t want the discussion to end. We were arguing gender, race, class – how could it? Yes, of course, there were the few who “just thought the play was marvellous” and were “ever so proud” of a young black woman setting up in the world. But the majority were sharp – they were quick yet thoughtful and certainly weren’t afraid to challenge my ideas. Ace.

An unfortunate clash of perceptions did leave me feeling a little bruised and it took a day or two to rinse out the sour taste. But it was nothing a drink from the surprisingly well stocked bar couldn’t solve.

The evening ended like a fairy-tale too: I was elated, the clock was slowly nearing midnight and the next day it could all have been a dream. In fact, my companion did lose her shoe on the step and yes, Portrait by Racheal Ofori was something I thought could only ever be wished for.

By Thea Barrett

On a rather chilly Saturday evening, almost the entire audience of Rachael Ofori’s show Portrait stayed in the tiny theatre after the performance to discuss the brilliant piece they had just witnessed. The discussion covered many topics, including racism, sexism and class differences, encouraged by the group leaders who were both thoughtful and enthusiastic, lending themselves perfectly to help the discussion at hand evolve and go deeper into the topics that were displayed so brilliantly throughout the show.

The show itself was thought provoking, as well as surprisingly funny and something most wouldn’t have discovered if it weren’t for Fuel and Margate Theatre group. A one-woman show was territory I hadn’t ventured into before, and was inspired to see a young black woman present such difficult topics that many would have hid away from, while doing so in verse, so brilliantly.

The group managed to be original in its choice of play, supportive of local business in its choice of location and enjoyable in its entirety. I was pleasantly surprised when entering the theatre, not just by its quirky atmosphere and design, but by the completely packed audience. There was most definitely a buzz in the air as people – like myself – weren’t quite sure what to expect, which continued into the discussion after. This featured a fairly wide range of people, yet it managed to stay on topic and, despite disagreements, was as thought provoking and funny as the play.

I will openly admit I left the theatre angry at parts of the discussion I had just taken part in, frustrated at not getting in the last word – but also waiting for the next session to occur, another show to discuss, another argument to present. The discussion was passionate to say the least, the argument heated and the group divided, never the less there was one uniting factor: how brilliant everyone had found the entire experience. As I left, I found myself saying “see you next time” to my previous adversaries, all of us preparing for the next group.

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Acts of giving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New connections

A brief introduction from Maddy Costa: I’m now well into handover with NTiYN, visiting communities not to host conversations myself but support local volunteers in hosting their own Theatre Clubs. And because they’re run by people in and for a place and a community, these Theatre Clubs aren’t just post-show discussions: they’re actual social groups who will meet on a regular basis to see shows, chat and enjoy spending time together. It’s basically my dream come true. Anna Bodicoat is one of the three new volunteers based in Margate: I hope her post inspires people to contact her and join in.

By Anna Bodicoat

I love theatre that makes you think and feel deeply, the kind of theatre that might sometimes ask you to put a bit of work in. I know not everyone feels completely comfortable with this, and maybe sometimes discomfort is partly the point. I wonder how tolerable that discomfort feels, especially if you go to the theatre without a chance to talk about it afterwards.

I am lucky enough, in my work and in the things I do, to have lots of chances to share ideas, explore feelings, and work out what I think through conversation. In many interactions I have I can be tentative and test out ideas knowing that it is a safe thing to do, that I’m not going to be shouted down or told I am wrong.

Even so, I have loved the opportunities provided by Fuel and the NTIYN project, to be part of something that allows people to do that within a framework of exciting contemporary theatre. My first theatre club discussion was after This Is How We Die, a steamroller of a piece that left me in awe. Attending the discussion was as much a part of my experience as the show itself, and I want to shout about theatre club from the rooftops!

I want to tell people how great it is to be given the chance to talk about their ideas, to explore how theatre makes them feel and what it reminds them of.

I want to share what effect one such discussion had on me and the people who gathered in the upstairs bar at Theatre Royal Margate on October 2nd.

We picked Daniel Bye’s Going Viral for the first meet of Margate Theatre Club. The premise that piqued our interest and hinted that there may be a discussion to be drawn out of the play was: ‘An aeroplane flies from India to England. Everyone on board is weeping. Everyone except you. On the ground, the weeping spreads. Is it a strange new disease? An outbreak of hysteria? Or has the world become genuinely sad?’

We were led around the outside of the theatre and through the stage door to be seated on the stage behind the curtain, one of the first plays to be done like this at the Theatre Royal. This created a really intimate feel to the performance, added to by Daniel starting the play seated in the audience, offering nuts, and hand sanitiser and asking direct questions about our state of health! Throughout the play, he challenged the audience to look at each other, to imagine themselves inside the story. I noticed just how responsive we were as an audience, almost hyped up, performing ourselves, ‘acting’ as audience members. Maybe, in part, this was a response to what he put himself through, with scenes where he attempted to induce tears in himself, making us all wince and challenging us to feel for him.

One of the themes of our discussion was connection. We talked about the connection he was inviting us to make, with him and with each other. We wondered about our connection to the world and to people in need, particularly at present our connection to refugees. We thought about compassion and how we show it in a country famed for its ‘stiff upper lip’. I was taken by Daniel stating that the people that make Britain profitable apparently had immunity to the outbreak, saying something about the empathy deficit within the higher echelons of society and big business. We also talked about responsibility, and we thought together about what responsibility the main characters did, or didn’t, shoulder at a time of crisis.

Throughout the discussion I was struck by the bravery people had in sharing, how honest they were about what they thought, even if they may have been in a minority. Of particular note were a couple of people who did not see any metaphors in the piece, and we were able to talk about witnessing the play on completely different levels. A poignant moment for me was talking about grief and how the play explores it. We talked about private and public expressions of grief and sadness, and what is ‘permitted’ in today’s society. I was reminded of the experience in grief where you cannot believe the world still continues as normal, despite someone you love being dead. At a time like that, I want the whole world to be crying too, just like in Going Viral. I wondered whether the contagion of weeping people were carrying the sadness of the main character in a way that he couldn’t find a way to express.

Overall, the play and the theatre club confirmed my experience of the arts as a way of processing and exploring difficult emotions and topics. I think the space in the upper bar gave people a taste of what thoughtful and exciting theatre and discussion can be like. As long as people feel safe enough to express an opinion, and feel heard when they do, I think it is likely that they will use a discussion space to gain much more from a theatre piece, even if they come away with more questions than when they went in.

@Anna_Bod
@MargTheatreClub

The price of connection

By Maddy Costa

In the weeks before I saw Feral in Poole, a voice of suspicion grumbled deep inside me that the project was an unjustifiable extravagance. Feral is a show by a Scottish company, Tortoise in a Nutshell, that was a hit at the Edinburgh fringe in 2013, winning a Fringe First and a Total Theatre award. It tells the story of a humble seaside town destroyed by ineffectual local politics and voracious capitalism, using puppetry to create a live-action film projected on to a screen at the back of the stage. There are two seaside towns participating in NTiYN, so Fuel wondered: what might Feral look like if it were set somewhere not generic but specific? What if, while keeping within the realms of fiction, it reflected a community back to itself?

This is how a chunk of NTiYN money came to be devoted to remaking Feral for Margate and Poole. Fuel funded two week-long research trips, during which members of the company would meet with local councillors and other public figures, chat to shop-owners, wander the streets and get a feel for each place. The set for the show, and a host of peripheral figures, would then be individually remodelled to suggest real-life places and faces in each town. Which is great, except that Feral in Margate was scheduled for only two performances, Feral in Poole just one. Even Ross MacKay, the company’s artistic director, felt that the work and resources were disproportionate to the number of shows.

Was the expenditure of time and money worth it? I can only judge by what I saw in Poole, where even asking the question made me feel kind of ashamed. The Lighthouse Studio was busy and bustling with anticipation; as soon as the company unveiled the centrepiece of the set, a shabby shopping centre named, in honour of Poole’s Dolphin Centre, the Porpoise, people in the audience became audible in their appreciation. There were giggles at shops whose names were slight variations on local High Street landmarks, and snorts of recognition at the exasperation of townspeople stuck at the level crossing. I had my own moment of delight at the appearance of the local councillor: I’d met one with Ross on a day’s visit to the Poole research week, a formidable and dedicated woman who had fought long, tenacious campaigns on behalf of women who had experienced domestic violence and girls subjected to genital mutilation, who startled Ross and myself when she announced that she was inspired to enter politics by the example of her hero, Margaret Thatcher. Sure enough, the tiny puppet councillor of Poole looked nothing like her real-life counterpart – and instead was a miniature model of the Iron Lady, right down to the handbag.

Afterwards I sat down with some of those audience members for a theatre club and played devil’s advocate: did it really make such a difference, Feral being set in Poole? They couldn’t have been more emphatic in their answer: yes, absolutely yes. It wasn’t just the pleasure of seeing the town’s idiosyncrasies (the obsession with pirates, the lack of a local newspaper) noted and incorporated; there was something deeper and more political than that. They experienced in brief and microcosm the destruction of their locale: a place that frustrates them, but that they care for and want to see thrive. In the show, the town is blighted by the introduction of a casino: there’s been talk of that happening here for years, said one woman, and Feral reminded her how vital it was actively to oppose it. Poole can feel quite placid and ineffectual, suggested another woman; it was inspiring to see the community rally around at the end of the story, to see how we look out for each other. For one of the men, it was a strong argument for how much this community needs art: stories and activities that bring the community together, and get them feeling and thinking.

A question that fascinated me was what it would take for the social inequality shoved under the carpet in Poole to spark riots, like those in the show. What might be the tipping point? Many suggested that it would never happen – but that that was no excuse for complacency. One of the people at the theatre club works locally as a producer of live performance and events; for her, Feral in Poole was a call to arms, not to riot, but to create a more active, more vibrant local arts community, one that is inclusive and addresses those social inequalities, that offers free access to art and makes it integral to everyone’s lives.

Questions about value adhere to theatre so vigorously, they come to seem inevitable, natural even: like limpets clinging to rock. But this night in Poole watching Feral speak directly to its audience, and chatting with that audience afterwards, reminded me that the value questions can also be irrelevant. There is a level at which a show that invigorates its audience with a sense of purpose and community spirit is actually priceless. A level at which, injecting money into a touring show to make it not generic but specific shouldn’t be a one-off extravagance but sustainable, standard practice.

What we mean when we say ‘art for all’

by Dan Thompson
NTiYN local engagement specialist, Margate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Town

by Georgette Purdey

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

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

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

ntiyn feral 2
Winner Martin Spier with his bespoke piece of set.

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

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

ntiyn feral 3
Most residents liked it, some didn’t, but they were all on stage, examining the set and engaged in debate about their town. Not a chocolate-box, picket-fence toy town – but a real town with its old-school seaside charm rejoicing in a piece of work made just for Margate, being performed in its beautiful and historically significant theatre.

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

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

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

Looking back, looking forward

by Maddy Costa

With New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood approaching its second birthday, it’s about time that this blog attempted some kind of progress report, surveying the aims of the project and its place in the wider theatre landscape. Catherine Love wrote the last one, all the way back in July 2013, and there’s been nothing of the sort since. I’ve had good intentions: in March 2014 I conducted interviews with Fuel’s co-directors, Kate McGrath and Louise Blackwell, and with Annabel Turpin, chief executive of ARC in Stockton, but both of those recordings are yet to be transcribed, let alone edited into publishable text. Poor show me.

What follows is more-or-less an account of a productive and heartfelt meeting held last month, bringing together the entire Fuel team to look at what is working well with NTiYN, what’s been less successful, what we want to develop further in the project’s final year, and how we might share all this information with other touring companies. The key point, agreed by everyone, is that NTiYN is no longer a “project”: it’s how Fuel wants to work with all venues and with all shows. What that means in practice is:

1: Touring shouldn’t be a series of business transactions in which human relationships fall to the wayside. At its very best, NTiYN has given Fuel the resources to develop personal connections with venue programmers, directors and communication staff, to devise show-specific marketing with them, and build from that to commissioning work for specific communities. At its absolute worst, NTiYN hasn’t succeeded in doing any of these things, a disconnect persists between venue staff and Fuel’s producers – and the effect is demonstrated in the box office, with small numbers of people coming to see the work. Relationships don’t develop overnight and this is an ongoing process, but the important thing about NTiYN is that it foregrounds the desire to work in a way that isn’t one-size-fits-all but to think about what works for each venue and each show on an individual basis.

2: Touring thrives when there are local people in each community who can advocate for theatre, and encourage people to come and see it. Within the context of NTiYN, those community figures are Local Engagement Specialists, who are paid by Fuel to do specific, targeted outreach work for each show. They haven’t always succeeded in boosting box office, but again, it’s an ongoing process – and one that should be additional to engagement work carried out by the venue, not a replacement for it or in competition with it.

Positive stories of LES activities abound: in Malvern, the two LES have been inspired by their engagement with Fuel to start up a new theatre site on Facebook, advocate for other people’s touring shows, and curate their own scratch nights. In Colchester, the LES has forged new relationships with school groups and other local theatres, and is beginning a Student Ambassadors scheme, which will benefit all of the work coming to the Lakeside theatre. In Preston, the LES is tying together her work with Fuel with her own freelance producing work to create a network of interest in adventurous performance. The emphasis is always on boosting engagement with theatre, not just with Fuel.

Meanwhile, Fuel has already begun using the local engagement specialist model elsewhere: when the Uninvited Guests show Love Letters toured rural Scotland this autumn, audiences were significantly boosted by the presence of people in each local community doing informal outreach work. This isn’t rocket science: people are always going to be more inclined to see a show if someone they know and trust tells them that it’s worth seeing. Word of mouth is the most powerful marketing tool theatre has – and in the LES model, word of mouth is given the respect and consideration it deserves.

2a: Again, common sense recognises that it’s a lot easier to talk about a show you’ve seen than one you haven’t. Where possible, Fuel have arranged for Local Engagements Specialists and venue marketing staff to to see touring shows in advance. Instead of relying on the artists’ and Fuel’s marketing copy to describe a show, LES and marketing staff can translate their own experience of it into a language that suits the individual or group they’re seeking to engage. Not everyone speaks theatre: for many people, even the most apparently simple and direct marketing copy can appear impenetrably abstruse. I think of this as the Megan Vaughan argument: on her blog Synonyms for Churlish, Megan writes entertaining, inventive and honest theatre reviews that invariably make me want to see what she’s seen – and she does this by prioritising feeling over thinking. But it’s hard to describe an emotional effect until you’ve seen a show yourself.

3: Touring can be about more than just putting on a show. This is the bit where I get to be shamelessly self-trumpety, but everyone at Fuel is a gratifyingly big fan of the post-show Theatre Clubs I host for them, which invite audiences to stick around for a drink and a chat about what they’ve just seen. It’s a flexible model: in some places (and particularly when I run them) the Theatre Clubs are for audiences only, without any of the show’s makers present; in other places, they take the form of an informal Meet the Makers conversation, like the traditional post-show Q&A but in the more relaxed environment of the venue’s cafe or bar. I’m more interested in the former, book-group format, because I believe it gives audiences a chance to interpret the show for each other, to absorb views that might contradict their own, and through that reach a richer understanding of what they’ve seen – all without asking the theatre-makers to “explain” it for them.

There’s been some debate about how to find the resources for Theatre Clubs to continue after NTiYN as a time-based “project” ends, but my feeling is that as long as there’s someone in the local community who’s interested in talking about theatre, and as long as there’s a spare pound for a packet of chocolate digestives, that’s all that’s needed to get a conversation started.

Those, then, are the headlines from the NTiYN interim report. We have a year left on the project in which we hope to build on what we’ve learned so far, try out new experiments and really bed this learning into Fuel’s general practice. We’re especially interested in building on a success story of Margate, where Fuel has been the catalyst for new closer relationships between different cultural institutions (the Theatre Royal and Turner Contemporary in particular): it feels really important that the theatre(s) in a community aren’t isolated but are in conversation with other organisations and art venues. Much as I love taking part in them, I’m hoping to hand the hosting of Theatre Clubs over to local engagement specialists and think about how I can contribute to the forming of neighbourhood groups around theatre, how I can help encourage local critical communities by inspiring more people to write about theatre, and how I can build on learning from the past, by doing a bit of proper research into the ways other people have created Good Nights Out (and yes, a re-read of John McGrath’s book of that title might well be a starting point). I’ll be doing more regular progress reports over the next year, because again, it feels important to share everything that’s happening within NTiYN across the theatre industry, because this project isn’t about selling a few more tickets for Fuel’s work – it’s about building sustainable local audiences for touring work, for the benefit of everyone.