Reaching out, further and further

This month marks the end of NTiYN as a research project, and the beginning of this work as a practice for life. Over on the Fuel website is a page of useful stuff that we’re hoping to share with as many people as possible: an evaluation booklet which discusses the ways in which the project was successful and not so much; the essay of historical precedences that I keep banging on about (sorry! It’s full of others’ good thinking and I’d love people to read it); and handbooks related to the two chief discoveries of the project, with suggestions for how to run theatre clubs and how to work with local engagement specialists.

The Theatre Club handbook I’m super proud of (and no, I didn’t write it!): ever since Lily Einhorn invited me to start hosting one as part of the participation project at the Young Vic in London, it’s been a mystery to me why every theatre in the country doesn’t offer one as part of its events programme. All it involves is opening up a space for audiences to talk about theatre shows without the people who made them present: it doesn’t have to replace the Q&A, in fact it’s best when the two are complementary. But it invites people to speak and be heard who often feel excluded from what looks like a theatre clique, through worry that they don’t have the right language or haven’t understood something. At Theatre Club, it’s brilliant when people don’t understand something, because often that’s when individual interpretations based on particular experiences begin to emerge. The best part of being involved in NTiYN for me has been watching people start up theatre clubs of their own, and through that forging social groups that get people going to the theatre more, in buildings they might not have visited before, and to see work they might not have taken a chance on, especially if they were likely to be attending alone. It’s through such groups that theatre can become less an occasional outing and more the fabric of life.

The people who have been instrumental in inspiring those groups to begin are the Local Engagement Specialists: people who live and work in the vicinity of the theatres to which Fuel tour, who form a point of connection between Fuel/the theatre-makers, the venue and the local communities. During the course of the research project those have been paid positions; Fuel have made the decision to use what they’ve learned to shape a volunteers network, but a necessary question was raised at the NTiYN closing event in Preston last month by Charlotte Bennett, producer with RashDash who runs a similar volunteer ambassador scheme, about the ethics of asking people to do that work for free. As an aside, that closing event was fascinating in the way that it brought people from all sections of the theatre industry – from the artistic director of the Royal Exchange, Manchester to independent producers, makers, actors, students, and the enthusiastic audience members who are Fuel’s new volunteers – into a room for a shared conversation in which a genuine attempt was made to scrub away hierarchies so that all opinions were equally valid. As mentioned on the home page, I came to NTiYN via Dialogue, an organisation (although that’s not quite the right word for it – it’s more a philosophy) that aims to inspire new relationships between people who make, watch and write about theatre. As you can tell from the name, dialogue is at the heart of what we do and think about, and this was a beautiful instance of how a theatre conference could be more egalitarian and creative in its structure. (And, yet another aside, there’s a lovely review of the event here by Olivia Corbin-Phillip, one of the new Colchester volunteers.)

I want to end by talking more about the Local Engagement Specialists, but rather than pull extracts from the handbook, I’d rather let them speak for themselves. Earlier this year I spoke to Jordana Golbourn (Colchester) about her experiences within NTiYN, how it had gone well and what might have been improved. As the only Local Engagement Specialist who stayed with NTiYN for the entire three years, she has a sense of overview that all the others lack. I’d argue that her staying power is in part down to the fact that outreach is the bedrock of everything she does: a freelance theatre-maker who runs projects at the Almeida and Make Believe Arts in London, among other venues, she works particularly with young people, using theatre as a tool to explore the issues relating to their lives. She’s also one of those people who talks so much sense and kindness that she ought to be in charge of everything.

Jordana already had a relationship with the Lakeside in Colchester when she became the Local Engagement Specialist there – and that proved as much a frustration as a benefit. “In the very initial stages of the project, I think they saw the relationship less as a collaborative thing, and more: ‘Jordana’s got this one.’ That was partly to do with how stretched they are as a venue – it’s just three people – so it was a relief to them to be able to have somebody who could work on some projects, and they trusted the model to make things happen.”

What that meant, however, was that: “I didn’t feel like I was doing anything in terms of outreach. I was just another marketing head for the show.” It felt like an opportunity was being squandered: “One of the biggest things [in theatre] is trying to get people out of the rut that they’re already working in. We’re really stretched, so to think of doing things in a different way is a job in itself.” In no way was this a problem unique to the Lakeside, and Jordana says: “It speaks volumes for where we are in theatre at the moment that people have not really grasped NTiYN as an opportunity to learn and reflect on their practice, and be part of something widely, across the country, but instead grasped at it as a bit more money for a bit of extra help.”

Her commitment to the project meant that she was able to trace the shift in approach at the Lakeside, the effect of the realisation that “actually collaborating with it works better”. Partly this happened because she became more assertive about the role she was willing to play: “I was really clear in the later stage that I’m not going to do marketing, I’m not going to take over your twitter handle: that’s your responsibility.” What she saw was that NTiYN “has made a real difference. When we first started, there was a lot of blanket marketing: everything went to everybody. They are now thinking show by show, and about who can we contact for each particular show.”

Communication problems with the venue were exacerbated by communication problems with Fuel. One of those was mechanical: email, it transpires, is a rubbish tool for planning outreach projects across multiple interested parties (to which we chant in chorus: WHO KNEW?). When Jordana says, “I’ve got a lot of love for google docs now,” she laughs at herself but is also sincere. “It lays out all the activity that we wanted to do and all the contacts and it’s really clear who’s doing what. Before using google docs, you’d have an initial meeting and everyone would go off and no one had a clear idea of what anyone was going to be doing.”

But the question of responsibility, and autonomy, isn’t just functional: it’s also emotional, and that proved harder to answer. Even in the final year of NTiYN, Jordana didn’t feel entirely clear what voice she was using as a Local Engagement Specialist. “Who are we speaking on behalf of, when we’re in that role? Am I supposed to be talking on behalf of the venue, or am I employed by Fuel? Do I feel like I have the same ownership over the work as the project managers at Fuel? Do I have enough weight to say: I’m Jordana, I’m a local theatre worker and enthusiast, and these are things I think are really brilliant and I think you should come? Is it OK to change depending on who you’re talking to? Because actually, different people might want different things: when contacting some of the schools I know really well, just being Jordana works, but for other schools that I don’t know so well, to be able to say, ‘I’m from this theatre company and this is what we do’ gives a weight that you need. I still haven’t worked out whether or not that flexibility is useful.”

These are perennial problems faced by freelancers: outsiders who are invited to behave like insiders, but without the privileges that might entail. And yet, in the context of NTiYN, it resulted in moments when barriers were put up between the Local Engagement Specialists and the touring theatre-makers that were not helpful for people attempting to do outreach work on those shows. Jordana recalls a research trip to a dress rehearsal in which the Local Engagement Specialists “didn’t get introduced to the artist or the production team”, creating a sense of distance between themselves and the makers. On another occasion, she didn’t find out that a performer in a show she had been working on grew up near Colchester until his parents came along to the theatre club: “That’s something we should have known and could have tapped into.” Earlier this year I spoke to Annabel Turpin, chief executive of the ARC in Stockton, and she discussed similar issues around communication, sharing of information and access to the artists. This has been one of the biggest learning points for Fuel: the realisation that sometimes they do form an unconscious barrier between artists, venues and communities.

The issue as Jordana sees it is in an industry-wide failure to really consider the question of responsibility when it comes to outreach and engagement. She remembers seeing a tweet by Alan Lane of Slung Low, distributing a photograph of one of the community actors in a show he was directing, Camelot, “going around the local community with posters, posing in the barbershop, having conversations. I thought: why is it only in community and amateur theatre where artists take this massive responsibility for promoting their work? Why is it only in those circumstances that people feel that it’s a proud thing to go out and tell people about it?” If she had her way, outreach wouldn’t be “someone else’s responsibility” but a collective endeavour – and the culture would be so much stronger for it.

The science of experience

The fourth post in this series opening out from my essay looking at some historical precedences to NTiYN is unusual, in that it’s not really a conversation, more a session of close listening. My meeting with Nicola Shaughnessy, professor of performance at the University of Kent and director of the Research Centre for Cognition, Kinesthetics and Performance, began with a 10-minute preamble from me talking particularly about the post-show Theatre Club audience conversations I’ve been doing with Fuel and elsewhere. And then she started to tell me about her work, and I was too engrossed to interrupt.

I haven’t published everything she said for the simple and lazy reason that transcribing is one of my least favourite aspects of my job; in particular what’s missing is detail about Nicola’s current research, using neuroscience as a framework, on the ways in which people with autism and Alzheimer’s respond to theatre – and the surprising similarities between those responses. That editing has required me to juggle her words around quite a lot, in an attempt to make this both as expansive and compact as possible. What I’ve focused on is her response to the notion of audience discussion, and her historical perspective – the theatre salon – because that is the material I couldn’t fit into the essay.

Over to Nicola:

One thing that struck me as you were talking about theatre clubs – about the wine and crisps on the table, and the book club – is that when I was writing about women and modernism, I got very interested in the concept of salon theatre. This goes back to some of my earliest experiences in terms of why I got interested in theatre in the first place. My PhD thesis looked at Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, and the corpus of neglected or hidden plays: I was interested in why these three celebrated prose or poetry writers were drawn to theatre and a dialogic medium as a means to explore particular issues behind the scenes. Stein’s plays were ultimately discovered and made popular through the work of Robert Wilson, but she wrote, I think, 101 operas and plays and they’re considered unperformable by a lot of people. The play of Plath’s I was particularly interested in, Diary of a Ouija Board, is all about her relationship with Ted Hughes; with Woolf it was her sexuality, her relationship with Vita Sackville-West. The theoretical approach I used was psychoanalysis: I ended up psychoanalysing the texts, because to a certain extent I was arguing that the drama was the repressed finding expression through theatre.

The theatre salon was a sort of private theatricals, it’s a very interesting modernist culture. In the salons you’d sit as a community and watch a piece: often they’d be very experimental, sometimes it would be more like performance poetry – and of course, because they were private events, it was quite poor theatre, or often it might be a rehearsed reading. The issue with them is class: the salons were very much associated with the coffee houses and a culture for very rich privileged artists – I sometimes think, of course you’re a fantastic writer Virginia Woolf, you never had to go to work, you were just moneyed, wouldn’t that be nice. Although what is interesting, it was an artist community, and they weren’t necessarily rich, some of them were incredibly poor, but they were artists, and it would often be visual artists mixing with writers, mixed communities of practitioners, people were dabbling in different things and might be capable of both.

I think the talking about theatre, the after of the experience, what it means to you, is incredibly important and something that has been neglected or lost. Or actually, because of the way that theatre studies has become a subject, and when you go to the theatre in schools, especially if you’re studying drama, you then write the essay after, we’re turning people into critics that have to think and talk about theatre in a certain way, and judgements are made through that process. Certainly I find that there’s a fear of not being capable of articulating that experience or not making the appropriate judgements. People say this about book groups as well: when I talked about starting a book club, people said, I couldn’t possibly come to a book club with you because you’re already a critic and you speak the language. So there’s this kind of fear of not being capable of the intellectual endeavour, when actually it should just be a conversation. And it is very difficult to find the right language to talk about something that is experiential. That’s another reason why I like theatre, because it is an experience, it’s an experience that we share with other people, and I’m really interested in the affect that theatre and performance has on audiences, and all different kinds of audiences, how we talk about that audience perspective and how we evaluate it. I think that has been a neglected area.

The research that I do now draws upon cognitive neuroscience and affect theory: the two are in tune with each other but theoretically they’re in opposite camps, so I’m trying to bring them into dialogue. Neuroscience can be a really useful tool: it provides a means for writing about audience experience, it gives the language and rigour to be able to talk about emotion and empathy and attention. It’s always interested me that theatre has survived cinema because the cinema is in some respects more sophisticated than theatre, so why has theatre continued to thrive? For me it is about the physicality of theatre, it’s the liveness, being aware that you are experiencing something in the moment, with other people, having a relationship with something on stage that is live and that can never be reproduced. In that moment in the theatre you are experiencing the past, the present and the future simultaneously and that’s a very complex process. It means that you’re actually experiencing a kind of grieving for something that can never be reproduced: you have it and it’s fantastic and you’re never going to get it back, and it means that it’s very, very precious. The best theatre puts you in touch with something that can only be allied to the sublime, and creates what Woolf calls “moments of being” – but there’s a sense that it’s a solitary experience, because your experience will be different from mine.

I’ve come full circle thinking about this, because I very much used to argue against the immersive experience: I teach contemporary performance and I started out teaching students about acting in quotation marks, we leave the concept of pretence behind, and you stay aware of yourself as an audience member. But when I discovered the neuroscience I said to my students: it’s OK to have emotion in theatre, theatre is there as an emotional experience. What theatre offers is a safe and controlled environment in which to have a very intense experience and that’s because we know it’s not real: there is a safety, there is a contract we sign up to that we’re going to go in and anything can happen and it will be an experience.

I think the idea of having an opportunity to talk about theatre afterwards is good but I would say not just talking: what I would look for in the after-show experience would be a variety of things that you could do. I’m imagining an environment where, instead of there just being wine and crisp on the tables, there are doodling opportunities, and an opportunity to reflect quietly. Theatre is very odd, it’s very collective and solitary, and the after-show thing is about not trying to generate some kind of uniformity of experience but having a means of honouring that solitude as well as then extending that into sharing. So you’ve got to find a way in which you can have both within the same experience and you can move between the two, so that after-show experience becomes part of the whole experience. It could be that you buy different tickets, but I like the idea of the thing being there as an opportunity for anyone to walk into that wants to.

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.

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

Into the light

It’s transition time for New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood, as Fuel enter the final period of the research project and shift to doing this work – of building stronger relationships with theatres and communities – as their daily practice. A big step into that shift has now been taken, with the establishment of a network of volunteers in the five NTiYN towns, people who will act as ambassadors in their local communities, invigorating interest not only in Fuel’s shows but any intriguing touring productions in the upcoming autumn and spring programmes.

I have mixed feelings on the volunteer front: on the one hand, it’s great that this invitation to work in partnership with theatre-makers is so open and wide-reaching: the volunteers recruited over the past couple of months might be theatre fans, but very few of them are specialists or practitioners; instead they bring a variety of work backgrounds and an age range spanning at least three decades. On the other hand, they’re not paid, and that jangles.

And on the other hand again, there is in the fabric of the network a different economic structure, an exchange mechanism which values endeavour not with money but barter. As a matter of course that will include free tickets to see Fuel’s (and, it’s hoped, other companies’) shows; but to get the network going, it meant something bigger. It meant the volunteers being brought from all over the country to Edinburgh, to spend a weekend at the fringe festival with Fuel, seeing shows, sharing thoughts and generally having fun – with travel, accommodation, food and tickets covered.

I joined the group to host a few Theatre Clubs, and to lead a writing workshop, as a way of encouraging the volunteers to create their own discussions and blogs as part of their advocacy work. It’s always fascinating introducing Theatre Club to new people; it’s based on the book group, but not everyone appreciates the absence of the theatre-makers and the chance that affords to articulate perhaps unformed, contradictory or deeply personal responses to a show; often there will be someone who feels frustrated, so full is their head of questions that dig into why and how this work was made. I particularly noticed, with this volunteer group, how quick I can be in dismissing the idea that the theatre-maker(s) should be involved: I recognised the extent to which that reflects my experience of working alongside theatre, and resolved to experiment more with ways of including makers in the discussions.

The group took the time to sit down together after each of the three Fuel shows we saw – Potrait, I Am Not Myself These Days and Fiction – and compare reactions. Portrait inspired a lot of praise for its writer-performer, Racheal Ofori, and some thoughtful political conversation about race inequality and feminism. All of us were impressed with the way Ofori makes direct criticisms of the social structures of white privilege without coming across as hectoring or alienating; and with her reflections on female experience, the daily battle with expectations around body image, relationships and ambition. Tom Stuart’s adaptation and performance of the autobiography I Am Not Myself These Days left some in the group shaken by its often visceral portrayal of a young drag queen’s obsessive affair with a drug-addicted male prostitute, while others were too aware of the virtuosity of the writing and staging to feel that deeply moved. Fiction was just as divisive: some in the group loved not really knowing what this dream narrative was doing or saying, others desperately wanted to sit down with writer Glen Neath and director David Rosenberg and interrogate them about the work and their thinking; some people were exhilarated by sitting in the pitch black with voices whispering, cajoling and barking in their ears, others experienced a nauseous sense of claustrophobia and needed to gulp down some fresh air immediately afterwards.

The writing workshop was illuminating, too: we talked through a set of reviews, some published by “professional” critics in newspapers, some from online theatre publications, some from local press, some from individual blogs, essentially reviewing the reviews. I always find workshops like this fascinating, because again, my involvement in writing skews my opinions on it: I incline towards experiment, personal insight and poetry – exactly the stuff that others find indulgent, waffly and obscure. We got off to a difficult start with many in the group finding the set of reviews of the Uninvited Guests show This Last Tempest intimidating: so wordy and full of knowledge that the volunteers felt they could never hope to write anything like that. There was much more excitement about a review presented as a Whatsapp conversation, and another that used memes and gifs to respond to a show: this felt, particularly to the artists in the group, like a brilliant, conversational and accessible way into writing about theatre. Sure enough, a couple of days after the workshop, one of the volunteers – Helen Lee, based near Colchester – sent in the following to response to Fiction. At the risk of sounding like a soppy idiot, I couldn’t feel more proud that this was what the workshop inspired her to do.

fiction helen review

Update! Another new volunteer, Anna, has also written the following brief but tender reflection on one of the Edinburgh shows, this time I Am Not Myself These Days. And again, I’m ridiculously excited that this encounter with Fuel has encouraged her to start a blog and share these thoughts:

Last month I was swamped by fabulous theatre and fascinating discussions. It is hard to pinpoint exactly what I love about theatre but a big part of it is the transportation to other worlds, other ways of being and perspectives.

I Am Not Myself These Days showed me a world very different from my own, with the glamorous and fragile Aqua taking us on a tour through the world of a successful drag queen in New York, with all the booze, drugs and hogtied businessmen that that entails.

Despite how alien it was from my own experience, I was struck by the universality of love and relationships. The triangle of Josh (who works as Aqua at nights, whilst working in an office by day), Aqua and Jack (their partner) was shown to us in heartbreaking detail with all its messiness. As Josh navigates his, and Aqua’s, places in the world and in love, I was captivated and moved by their story, and laughed and cried (well, wept, if I’m honest) along with it.

I could see devastating similarities between Aqua’s spiral into despair and alcohol and that of friends, family and people I have worked with as a psychologist. At times I just wanted to give her a hug, and protect her from the world.

In our discussion group afterwards, it made us think about what we have to leave behind of ourselves in order to grow up, to be safe, to be happy. We talked about vulnerability and making mistakes, we talked about what mistakes shape us, and we wondered whether experiences that we don’t regret can even be counted as mistakes.

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.

Sparking desire

by Maddy Costa

It’s been a good couple of weeks for reflections on how more people might be encouraged to come to the theatre. Playwright David Eldridge revived his blog with a rumbustious argument for “a vigorous new theatre which can reach out to a wide audience”. He confesses to a growing anxiety that: “new theatre is becoming too inward-looking, focused disproportionately on formal experiment and innovation, and collapsing the boundaries between traditional theatre and play-making, and live art.” He believes most people are put off by that kind of work; most people “want to go the theatre when they think they’re going to have ‘a good night out’.” And, he states, theatre-makers can best give them that by: “making an audience laugh and cry and catching them in a drama, and telling story and exploring ideas through dramatic action”.

A few days later, Matt Trueman wrote a column for What’s On Stage, reflecting on David’s blog alongside a couple of surveys of audience numbers and demographics. While agreeing with David to a point, Matt argues: “Accessibility is more than a matter of plain comprehensibility.” Attention needs to be paid to the culture beyond the show itself: as Matt puts it, people come not only because they anticipate a good night out, but when they “have the resources and the desire to get out to see these shows”. It matters not only what the work itself is like but where it’s programmed, how much it costs, how people hear about it, and what residues remain.

These are all questions Fuel are addressing through New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood. In developing the local engagement specialist model they’ve been looking at how word-of-mouth and personal invitations encourage more people in to the theatre, employing people who live and work in each community to make contact with local groups who might feel a particular sense of connection to a show. They’ve been looking at how touring work might be tailored to reflect a specific community, giving additional R&D time to Tortoise in a Nutshell to remake their show Feral for Margate and Poole. With Phenomenal People, staged in a gallery space in Colchester, and The Red Chair, programmed into a community hall in Malvern, Fuel are beginning to look at how they might attract audiences by staging their work outside of theatre buildings (which they do as a matter of course in Preston, programming their work into a pub, the New Continental). And, through the Theatre Clubs that I host for them, they’ve been looking at how post-show conversations might give audiences a chance to digest what they’ve seen in a fun, informal, social way that encourages them to come back and see more.

These shifts in Fuel’s relationship with audiences are vital because a lot of the work they produce is experimental, innovative and collapses the boundaries between theatre and live art – that is, precisely the stuff that David represents as elitist and off-putting. But NTiYN refuses to see this work as inaccessible to a wider audience. It says it doesn’t matter if you’re a schoolchild or a retired schoolteacher, if you earn £5,000 a year or £50,000: whatever your background, this work could be for you. It says that this work, like more traditional theatre, has the capacity to make you laugh and cry and think, it just does so in different ways. Above all, it concerns itself not with a generalised “wider audience” but a series of communities, each one made up of individuals, each one with their own resources and desires.

Working on NTiYN has encouraged me to look past the big picture to a panoply of small ones. When Matt talks about theatre shows as “social interventions that should leave a mark”, I think about Kathryn Beaumont working with groups of women in the Stockton area: women who didn’t make it along to Phenomenal People so won’t show up in its audience figures, but had a heartful time together thanks to its existence. I think about the conversation I had with two teenagers at Phenomenal People in Colchester, explaining the UK political system to them. Two years after this happened, I still think about the two teenage lads in Poole who were given free tickets to see a show by Inua Ellams, and afterwards sought him out to shake his hand, they’d loved it so much. For both of them, it was the first time they’d set foot in a theatre. It matters to me that it might have been their last, but at the same time, it doesn’t matter at all.

Theatre-maker Hannah Nicklin had similar stories in mind when responding to Matt’s piece through a series of tweets. She reflected on her own work in “community-based storytelling participative theatre” – work she doesn’t even call “theatre” when talking about it with prospective or actual participants, because: “it’s an unuseful word”. This work doesn’t show up in the kind of audience surveys that Matt made reference to, because it’s usually free or “pay what you decide”, and its profile is even lower because it doesn’t get reviewed: as Hannah puts it, “I wouldn’t invite a critic to it as that’s not who it’s for”. (I always feel a bit sad when “critics” are considered a separate species of human.) This work happens off the radar – yet it’s vital to the UK theatre scene, being the very definition of a social intervention that leaves a positive mark.

In Hannah’s work, and in the touring model NTiYN is developing, theatre isn’t a product but a cultural interaction: an invitation to step out of the ordinary, to reflect on previous experience and encounter or imagine something new. And the thing Matt doesn’t really address in his column is the extent to which, at this moment in time in the UK, under this government, the value of such cultural interactions is being systematically eroded – and, along with it, the possibility that more people might have the resources or the desire to go to the theatre. At this moment in time in the UK, under this government, theatre isn’t seen as essential to education, to social debate, to a definition of citizenship, to the health of the human brain. It’s superfluous, unless it can be quantified and measured according to market values. This is what makes me anxious every time there’s talk of “wider audiences”, every time percentages are used in reference to people. I feel like the economic argument, and the terms of that debate, are winning.