Old buildings, new foundations

The third post in this short series of conversations looking at some historical precedences to NTiYN is with Vicky Featherstone: theatre-maker and artistic director of the Royal Court in London, although the bulk of our conversation was about the National Theatre of Scotland. Funnily enough, before she became artistic director of NTS, Vicky ran Paines Plough, a producing company that tours new plays, and yet in the entire time we spent together I didn’t think to ask her how she approached questions of audience engagement within that context – despite the fact that Paines Plough are now beginning their own Strategic Touring funded project, taking the Roundabout venue to Barnsley,Margate, Lincoln, Kendal, Cornwall, Stoke-on-Trent and Salford, where they hope to forge strong and lasting relationships.

M: What was the starting point for National Theatre of Scotland?

V: For me, it wasn’t at all about starting something new, but it felt very new for national theatres, in terms of how I’d observed national theatres behaving. When I think about a national theatre, it’s always about a big spectacle on big stages, that aims to impress and that we should be daunted by and admire, that we respect and go, they’re sort of heroes. I knew that in setting up the National Theatre of Scotland that was totally, totally, for so many reasons the wrong approach: just because personally I hate that anyway (she says, sitting at the Royal Court), it’s not what I believe theatre is, but also when I was at university – I went to Manchester university and in my second week someone gave me John McGrath’s book A Good Night Out and it completely transformed the way I thought about theatre. I hadn’t known anything about that before: I’d grown up in London, I’d gone to see shows at the Young Vic, at the National, so I hadn’t got to know about this kind of communication, this kind of theatre, it felt really right.

When I went to Scotland, I went thinking about that, and I went thinking what that was, and when I imagined how a national theatre would be effective in Scotland, I didn’t imagine it in terms of what would we put into theatres, I imagined it geographically. I thought: what is the geographic demographic of Scotland, how do I need to speak to those different people in different ways, and where are the places and what are the ways to do that? Of course, one of the ways to do that is [with] the communities that come around village halls or around those centres that they use for multi-purpose. That really excited me: I’m always obsessed with the fact that the architecture of a theatre can really define its brand, if you like, and actually that can be problematic; often when you run a building you’re having to persuade people that you’re not your architecture, so I was really excited about the fact that we could get people to come to spaces where they had a multitude of preconceptions about what the space was for, whether it was their school hall or car park or whatever. And within that programming, saying there are some things that feel totally right and have genuine integrity to be put into that conventional theatre architecture, because they were written for that, there is an audience for that and we want to do it.

And then the question for for me was: how do the audience then own that piece of theatre when it comes to them? How does it feel like it’s a piece of theatre which can do all the things that we want, like challenge and provoke, all those words that we use easily around theatre, but also mean something to them? I thought a lot about class in this: there’s a really interesting thing about class, often contemporary theatre (whatever that means) can feel even more class-alienating because of its – how would you describe it? – its intellectual endeavour or artistic context, than a piece of theatre which you have to pay £100 a ticket for in the West End. That really challenged me.

So for me what was really exciting was actually going back to story, which is something that I felt my conversations and the work that I did had kind of rejected. Story unifies people, whereas a fractured narrative or form doesn’t unify people, and if you are going to be taking work to people, they can have a difference of opinion but they need to be unified in some theatrical moments – and often some of my most amazing experiences in theatre, the audience have been totally not unified, and that’s exciting as well. So all of that was a really interesting thing, about what are the forms that you use that unify people.

Then there was this thing, which was so simple, about the ceilidh, and the other things that happen in those spaces. When I went to Scotland there was quite a lot of negativity towards traditional form, in music and storytelling, because it was felt that it had become old-fashioned: it felt a bit low down on the pecking order of what everyone wanted international theatre to look like. When I went to Scotland, people thought about [the 7:84 show] The Cheviot, The stag and the Black Black Oil nostalgically, but had rejected it, and suddenly it’s now part of the story again. It’s because we need those things, we need community and we need things to hold on to, and those things give us that sense of community.

The new conversation that I’ve been having at the Royal Court about that, is that in the late 90s and early 2000s we lived in such a time of horrific stability and plenty that theatre-makers felt like they wanted to smash that up, which is where I think we all became obsessed with breaking the form and pushing it and not knowing whether we wanted to break it. I feel we’re in a moment of shift, which was already happening in Scotland with what we were doing, which is: because everything is so fucked up – I mean this is really simplistic – I think we are craving a unity of feeling when we’re all together. Chris Goode talks about this amazingly. We used to not care, we used to think it was all right if the audience didn’t go with us because we felt what we were doing was our art, and now we feel that’s wilful and awful if we don’t take the audience with us. So for me this is all about the kind of work that you make: it takes the audience with you in order that you can then have a conversation with them at the end about it, so they haven’t been rejected and they haven’t been made angry by the act of the theatre itself. That still happens, but I feel I’ve really stopped, I don’t want the audience to be made angry by the act of a piece of theatre that they see: they can be really made angry by the ideas, but I need them to feel some kind of unity.

M: One of the basic things that keeps coming up in conversations about why people don’t go to the theatre is a sense that they shouldn’t have to come to it: it should come to them – and you were doing that.

V: Exactly, and also finding the right place for the right piece of theatre, that really excited me. It’s about context. In London, the context is often London itself, which is a massive thing, and it’s a thrilling thing, but it’s not quite enough, because London is much more varied than that. Whereas in Scotland I really was able to question and then think about the context that each piece of theatre grew from or was in, which was exactly that thing about taking it to people. And of course when you start having those conversations with the artists: someone like David Greig creating Prudencia Hart is a really good example, that was a piece that took four years to develop and it used such traditional forms of Scottish storytelling, theatre, music, all these things which 10 years before, five years before, were really unfashionable and would have been rejected – you get theatre-makers of that ability really giving a shit about that kind of storytelling and you put those things together and you end up with something that is an extraordinary piece of theatre for anybody, whatever your theatre-going history is. That’s when it becomes incredibly exciting.

I think the best work that we made while I was there were the pieces of work that felt unbelievable unique to us at that moment in time, that no one else could have done. There was a piece of work I did, it never quite hit, called Long Gone Lonesome, about a guy called Thomas Fraser: he’d lived on Shetland, he’d been a fisherman, and he’d been quite rejected by his community, but he was an amazing musician, he bought a reel-to-reel and recorded himself using all these weird techniques singing blues songs. He then died, his grandson found all the tapes and sent them to Nashville, they thought he was an American blues original – and he’d never left Shetland. So I made show about his life story with a group of traditional musicians from Orkney who’d also never really left Orkney, that ended with ceilidh, and the circuit of where we went to with that, going into those communities and the people that came, was really one of most amazing experiences of my life, because the people who are making the piece, you could see that even though they were articulating about someone else, it was also their story. The audience really reached out to that.

In our first and second years we created, we called it the Ensemble, this village hall touring circuit: for me it’s always really dangerous to say that a community is one community, because it’s not, so we split it in age, we took an ensemble and we took three pieces of work, we took a piece of work for adults, a piece of work for young people and a piece of work for children, into those village halls. What we were trying to do was have a conversation across all those different aspects of the community: I don’t mean post-show talks, but conversations with those different groups. It was really important to me, that if we’d gone somewhere, we’d really made an effort to engage with the variety of people. The other thing about young people that’s really interesting, in those communities, whatever they are, in my first year I met with a big group of young people in Aberdeenshire, in a rural community, and they said the big problem they have is everyone thinks they want to see work about being a teenager in a rural community. They’re like, please, we love hip-hop as much as anyone who lives in New York. It’s such an obvious thing to say but I really felt that people patronise them with theme and idea. So that was a massive part of what we were doing as well, was saying we should be trying to be as radical as we would be with anyone, or as up to date, or whatever, we shouldn’t patronise people with theme.

M: How deliberate were you about making conversations happen, especially in village halls – how long would they be open afterwards?

V: Well of course the whole thing about that is the social occasion. What’s really interesting about the economics of that, is that if a village hall was paying for you to go, they would also have the bar open from an hour and a half beforehand, people would turn up for drinks and to socialise, then there would be the show, and the bar would stay open afterwards and people could stay and socialise and talk about it. There’s a really interesting dual thing which is that having a piece of theatre there would mean they would also earn their money from the social side of what the space was doing, that was a really important factor. So often the reason conversations don’t go on in conventional theatres is because we can’t afford to keep the bar staff on – and it’s really interesting when you go into a more held community, where the ecosystem is much more symbiotic, and the environment enables that to happen. Therefore it’s been a good night out for everyone: for the people who run the bar, the village hall, for the theatre-makers, for the audience. I know I’m talking specifically rurally, but there’s so much to do with these structures: there was so much work that we took into council-run buildings and that so played against any of those conversations. When we took Black Watch on tour, it would often play in sports centres and the audience absolutely wanted to stay and talk afterwards, and the council’s security guards would chuck everyone out into a car park. That used to really upset me.

M: Touring these communities, did you have a sense that you were building on something existing, or building new foundations?

V: I think it depends: in the more imaginative rural communities we were definitely building on a row of bricks, but in the towns where the struggle to live was much harder or different in a way, it felt we were often starting from scratch, and that was quite a challenge. The big thing for us was trying not to parachute in with a show and not come back: it was about how much do we build and what do we do and how do we create long-term, meaningful relationships with these communities. The big thing I brought to the Royal Court from that is that we don’t do Theatre Local any more: that was the thing we did in Peckham, the Royal Court would take up residency in the Bussey Building for two to three months, really good work, it was such a great idea – but the problem I had was it was literally about the work, there were lots of workshops, and then it would go. The projects we’re now doing – there’s one in Tottenham, and one in Pimlico because it’s our neighbour and we’ve never had a relationship with them – are three-year projects, full-time, and about finding artists, ambassadors to engage with, about community, about this whole thing, without knowing what the outcome will be. We make lots of interventions, lots of different bits of things happening, and at some point we’ll make a big piece of theatre with those communities, whatever that is. That’s the big thing I’ve brought back: it has to be really long-term and it has to be constant, there have to be people there who are prepared to completely connect.

The projects we used to do in Scotland were called Transform, we did 16 of them while I was there: we’d spend a year in each community, funded by Scottish Power –

M: Was a year enough time?

V: No, but a year was all we could do because it was too expensive. In London it’s easy to do three years, we can go to Tottenham all the time, we can go four times a week, but it was too expensive at that point to do more. But it wasn’t a year and then we left: we would really prioritise going back, touring back to those places, we built up those relationships.

I think one of the reasons why in this country it feels really hard to build those foundations currently is – well, Elizabeth Freestone from Pentabus would say it’s NT Live. Because what’s happened is that she rings up a village hall and says, would you like my new show, and they say we can’t, we’re having x for less money than your theatre show – and it’ll sell out. I think that’s become a real issue in terms of the lack of live [experience], we’re training people out of it, in terms of what theatre is, and in terms of discussion and conversation with the audience. [Live theatre is] asking something of these audiences, as well as giving something we’re asking something of them, if people get trained out of that, that’s really hard.

As part of everything we’re doing in Tottenham, the Bernie Grant Centre said they’d like a piece of theatre, so we took Liberian Girl: 85% of the audience had never been to the theatre before, and what we realised after the first night is that they had to stay around to have a conversation. There was a real hunger to discuss it and think about it and meet the actors to talk about what it was like, and we had to respond.

I’m really fascinated by the class thing at the moment, because the point about a good night out is about working class theatre in terms of form, in terms of communicating with the audience. The work can challenge an audience but it would not work if it intimidated them or overcrushed them, so it’s a really fascinating thing about do you end up watering the art down in order for it to feel accessible to the people that you need to have the conversation with or not? I don’t know, I think it’s a really challenging thing. If defiantly not, are you up your own arse or going to the wrong people?

M: How much did you have to shift mindset coming to the Royal Court?

V: To begin with I found it really, really hard. I really questioned what I had gained for what I’d lost, in terms of the scale of the questions that I was able to ask and apply and affect. And then I thought, actually, it’s incredibly focusing to be able to be very singular, to really, really trust in the writer, and be able to ask: what is the voice of that artist and what do they need to do that. And that is an intellectual question, and the question in Scotland – although they were intellectual questions, there was actually more of a context of philosophical questions we were asking all the time. It’s really thrilling to be able to ask that singular question. And the thing that I’ve definitely brought is that we have the right to ask that question singularly, and we can’t expect that everyone will want to know the answer, but we also have a role to encourage people – a shit expression I’ve used is democratic intellectualism, which is shit, but I use it, it’s a thing about, we mustn’t be scared to be intellectual. Because we are in Britain, and what we need is to encourage people not to be scared to ask those questions.

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.

Money and time and time and money

Over the past few days a vital conversation has been initiated by the performance/theatre-maker Bryony Kimmings on the difficulty of negotiating a tour as an artist. More specifically, her difficulty not just earning a living wage but communicating to venues/programmers what that entails in her particular case. Her blog post on the subject makes fascinating reading, because people are rarely so honest about money, and because people rarely talk openly about the things that frustrate, anger or hinder them in their working lives, essentially because they fear never being able to work again if they do.

Her sense that theatre operates by a false economy prompted another performance/theatre-maker, and also producer, Andy Field, to write a blog in reply, recommending potential solutions to what he crystallises as a problem of transparency. “Some of the fundamental conflicts and suspicions that arise between artists and those organisations that support and present their work could be immediately improved if we found ways to hard wire a greater degree of transparency into the relationships between them,” he argues.

I’ve been gripped by the debate because so much of my life over the past couple of years has been dedicated to encouraging and supporting that transparency, whether as critic-in-residence of Chris Goode and Company, as a co-collaborator in Dialogue, as a writer-in-residence responding to In Between Time, or as a critical friend travelling alongside Fuel/NTiYN. Increasingly what interests me is the process of making theatre: not just what happens in a rehearsal room, but everything that happens outside the room that has an affect on the audience’s relationship with that work. The more I talk to the people who fill those outside-the-room roles, particularly producers and programmers, the more important I think it is for their voices to be heard publicly. But they’re nervous: of course they are, transparency and accountability are terrifying. I thought it was interesting that David Jubb, artistic director of Battersea Arts Centre, chipped into the Kimmings/Field debate on Twitter with a link to this document on his theatre’s website, which sets out in some detail how BAC apportions money to programming and producing work. Dialogue has had two residency periods at BAC, and I’ve been struck both times by the willingness of its senior production team to share with us its internal working practices. I’m excited by the prospect that – as in so many things – where BAC leads, other institutions will follow.

Andy’s blog suggests as a route to transparency that we talk more openly about money: who earns what, who pays what. This idea appeals to me a lot, if only because it would do so much to combat assumptions about arts funding. Imagine how differently we might feel about the National Theatre’s disproportionate subsidy allocation if we knew how much was spent on developing work in the NT Studio that feeds out across the industry. But I also agree with Paul Burns, director of programming and production at DanceXchange, who points out in the comments below Andy’s blog: “It’s difficult to compare both fees and costs without a wider context”. I can corroborate this from my own bizarre pay structure, in which the money I earn bears no relation whatsoever to the work I do. I’m not paid for my work with Chris Goode and Company (but might be one day), nor for anything but the occasional project with Dialogue (eg, our recent residency at the Bush in London). I was paid for the In Between Time residency and associated publication, but that fee in no way reflected the number of hours I spent at the festival and writing afterwards. I’m paid for this work with Fuel, and feel constantly amazed and gratified not only for that privilege, but the opportunity to think out loud, and even agitate, under the organisation’s banner without stricture from anyone at Fuel. All of this is subsidised by my more conventional writing for the Guardian, and even that is made possible by the fact that I’m married to someone who doesn’t work in the arts.

One of the pieces I keep meaning to write for the Argument section of this blog is a reflection on a discussion about touring that took place as part of Devoted and Disgruntled 2013. What that conversation made clear is that the frustrations Bryony articulates – about money, lack of communication, false assumptions – are felt by artists across the country, makers and producers alike. Over the next couple of months, there are several opportunities to discuss these further, and work collaboratively towards some kind of solution. Action Hero have begun a doodle poll to find a date to discuss Bryony’s specific concerns, that’s here. Devoted and Disgruntled 2014 takes place 25-27 January in London, tickets for that can be booked here. And the touring theatre company Paines Plough are organising a one-day seminar on the future of small-scale touring, taking place in Manchester on January 30. I plan to be at all of them, and hope to see you there. Oh, and do scroll down to the comments beneath the Paines Plough blog post on the seminar: you’ll spot a certain Bryony Kimmings offering her services as a speaker. Paid, of course.

What can we do about touring?

by Catherine Love

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

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

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

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

Kate McGrath, co-director of Fuel

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

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

Touring Theatre in the UK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ACE Strategic Touring Fund

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood

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

Louise Blackwell, co-director of Fuel

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

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

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

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

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

Case Study 1: Poole

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

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

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

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

Case Study 2: Preston

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

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

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

Key Findings – Building Conversations

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

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

Audience member at The 14th Tale, The Continental

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

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

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

Audience member at The 14th Tale, The Lighthouse 

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

Audience member at The Victorian in the Wall, Malvern Theatres

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

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

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

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

Audience Agency Evaluation Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

Louise Blackwell, co-director of Fuel

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

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

It all starts with conversation.



Interviews with:

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

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