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

by Maddy Costa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5: “Pay What You Decide.”

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

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

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

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

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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.

Same town, different stories

by Maddy Costa

In all the years I worked on newspapers (two with the Evening Standard, six at the Guardian, another eight of freelance time), I knew I wasn’t much of a journalist. My impulse wasn’t to sniff out stories, expose the truth, uncover lies; I wanted to draw people’s attention to things, but that meant pop music and theatre: not much in the way of “hard news” there. I still want to draw attention to theatre, but my sense of myself as a story-gatherer has changed. I want to draw attention to people under the radar, to stories unheard, people unseen. It’s why I’m getting so much joy out of working on NTiYN: it takes me to places too easily dismissed.

Stockton-on-Tees is one of those places. We all know this story: a former manufacturing town now slumped without purpose or hope. Its high street blighted with dust from sluggish building sites, discount stores and dereliction. It has an arts centre, sure, but that’s five doors down from the pub where a pint costs only a pound. Addiction, prostitution, unemployment, the lot. Except. Those aren’t the only things I see when I visit Stockton. And there are other ways this story might be told. I’ve written about this on this blog before: a sense that what separates this high street from my own apparently more chi-chi high street in London is snobbery and narrative. Just because the drinks are five, eight, ten times more expensive in my local cocktail bars, doesn’t make their buyers superior to anyone else getting drunk.

I’ve wanted to tell another story about Stockton for a long time now, a story about community, a neighbourhood coming together in shared space. I was there in August last year for the Stockton International Riverside Festival, on an NTiYN job, inviting people to chat after seeing The Roof. When I first reached the High Street I was astounded: I’d never seen it so full. People of all ages, gathered between the buildings sites, spending the whole day watching outdoor performances. There was something that involved huge plastic flowers protruding from the upper windows of a shop building; a march of Mexican puppets banging drums; a silent dance piece by two men dressed as soldiers, one in a wheelchair, and a woman in a floaty silk gown. I couldn’t imagine any of those people choosing to see that dance piece if it had been staged at the ARC.

Watching The Roof in this context was blissful: so much more fun than when I’d seen it in London. The show hadn’t changed but the afternoon sunlight (in London it hadn’t started until 9pm or so), the open space (in London it was overshadowed by imposing concrete buildings), the presence of young children (despite a 12+ age recommendation), changed the atmosphere for the better. A few people walked out – it was free, they weren’t beholden – but others were clearly entertained, and I enjoyed watching two boys in particular, both aged maybe eight or at most 10, grinning, singing along to the soundtrack and copying the computer-game hero’s dance moves. I could picture them going home and re-enacting his leaps across the simulated rooftop, from sofa to rug to armchair; turning to each other in a year, two years, and saying: “Remember that thing we saw with the guy and the rubber ducks and the monsters with broccoli heads? That was COOOOL.”

Theatre makes memories, makes fun, makes new stories. This is what I love about it. It also, given the chance, gives a community impetus. I went to SIRF around the same time as seeing a couple of shows in London that thought about this incisively. Mr Burns at the Almeida was set after some kind of energy apocalypse; survivors, strangers, gathered in makeshift shacks and consoled themselves by retelling the story of a particular episode of the Simpsons. Fast forward a few years and entire communities have formed, fuelled by amateur dramatics: there is an alternative economy in Simpsons scripts and people have found new meaning in their lives through re-enactments. Fast forward again and those re-enactments are full-scale rituals: there is a new energy charge in these lives now. Those communities survived through storytelling, thrived through storytelling. They found meaning and a way of articulating their own predicament through art.

Mr Burns anticipated the enduring value of pop culture; Idomeneus at the Gate breathed with the ancients. A Greek myth retold by German playwright Roland Schmimmelpfennig, Idomeneus is the story of a Cretan king who promises to sacrifice the first living being he encounters to the gods in return for a safe journey home from Troy; but in this version it becomes multiple stories, a chorus of narrator-characters rehearsing several possible versions of events, each one casting Idomeneus and themselves in a different light. The slipperiness of their storytelling becomes revealing, too, of how history is rewritten by successive generations, and how truth is malleable depending on the purpose to which it’s being put. If that makes it sound dry, it wasn’t: directed by Ellen McDougall, it was pacy and funny and made you gasp with its surprises. And because it was impossible to tell what the “real” story was, you in the audience watching had the opportunity to decide for yourself.

It’s in that invitation to “make” the story that theatre does so much basic democratic work. Another thing I was doing at the time of visiting SIRF was reading The View From Here, a vital paper by a group of artists based in New York who call themselves the Brooklyn Commune Project, which talks about the place art and artists have in the world and the relationships they have and might have with audiences. I reread it regularly, simply because it’s so inspiring, and communicates so brilliantly that art matters not because it generates so many millions of pounds for the economy, but because it builds in people the confidence to be socially engaged. One study it quotes emphasises that art is “a contributor to sense of place and sense of belonging, a vehicle for transfer of values and ideals, and a promoter of political dialogue”. Elsewhere it describes art, and particularly performing arts like theatre, as a “meeting place, a site for the formation of a shared communal identity as ‘the public’ … a microcosm of democratic society, where individual free expression meets public space”.

Is it far-fetched to read all of that into SIRF? Maybe. But I got a completely different sense of Stockton from going to that festival, joining that community, watching disability arts and theatre-through-headphones and flamboyant noisy street processions with them, sharing that community’s curiosity, feeling invigorated by their stamina. And I wondered: who’s telling this story? Who’s framing Stockton and its public this way?

I went back to Stockton earlier this week, again with NTiYN, to give a writing workshop at the ARC connected to The Spalding Suite. Approaching the High Street, I was surprised again: the building site was gone, replaced with wide pavements, clean shop fronts and a large curved fountain that at night shines with coloured lights, bubbling emerald, ruby and sapphire. I remembered the lovely cafe I’d been to last summer, open late into the evening and bubbling with conversation; I wandered into the shopping centre and found a too-enticing sewing stall, old-fashioned bakers, and a sense of character I’d always assumed wasn’t there. (Nothing to do with Stockton, everything to do with hatred of shopping centres.) With the building machinery packed up, the ARC is visible from the High Street; it doesn’t feel disconnected any more but a window on to the town.

I’m really excited by the possibilities of this. I’m excited by the thought that one day, the teenage boys milling around the fountain at 10pm, shouting intimidation at passers-by, might one day spend an evening sitting in the ARC, and that the show they see might be like The Spalding Suite: vivid, pulsing, full of basketball and beatboxing, fiery with the hopes of young men like them. I’m excited that the people drinking in the pound-a-pint pub might encounter Hannah Nicklin, someone who’ll encourage their stories to be heard. I’m idealistic, I know, but I think back to a blog post by Daniel Bye in which he mentions making Story Hunt in Stockton, encountering “an enormous amount of inspiring history, but … a lack of hope in the present” and dream up a future in which ARC becomes the site of regenerated civic hope. I want to keep telling the story of Stockton, because it feels important. People and places shouldn’t be abandoned or sneered at. Common humanity demands better than that.

Dinner with a difference

An introduction from Maddy: the following might seem anomalous on this blog, focused as it is on the New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood project. But I asked Humira Imtiaz, the writer I met at a workshop last October, to blog about Leo Burtin’s visit to Stockton with Homemade for two reasons: partly to keep encouraging Humira to write, mostly because I think what ARC is doing to transform itself into a community hub welcoming to everyone, even those who think “contemporary performance” isn’t for them, is inspirational and that goes far beyond their work with Fuel. This has been sitting in my inbox for a while, but Leo is taking Homemade to Bristol at the end of the month so do catch him there if you can.

Homemade: Bistro at the ARC
by Humira Imtiaz

Hosted by Leo Burtin, the pop-up Bistro offered a variety of delicious food – and an interesting alternative to ARC’s “Pay What You Decide” scheme. Rather than using money as a form of exchange, we used recipes, ones that have a special, subjective meaning to the consumer. It may not sound much, but this project does challenge the idea of monetary exchange as the only valuable exchange between people. It recognises that there are more important things in life, whether it’s sharing a family recipe of pakoras that your grandmother used to make or food that you’ve prepared yourself.

As you may have guessed, the pakoras were my exchange – though my anxiety made me throw in a little recipe for green chilli chutney as well, because you can’t have pakoras without that! I’m not exactly the most social person around, and when it comes to strangers my first instinct is usually to run. But the food and the familiarity of the personal memories linked to that – which can be emotional, ranging from “family favourites” to “something simple to impress the lay-dies” – encouraged conversation. The showcasing of alternative foods and encouragement of conversation between people of different backgrounds is another admirable side to this vision.

The recipe exchanges were written on little postcards and speaking with Leo about this work was quite enlightening. I think I’m going to miss this Bistro: it would be nice to see something like this more often and maybe it doesn’t have to end with food.

Read. Read again. Act.

by Maddy Costa

It’s become horribly habitual that a post on this blog starts with an apology from me that nothing new has been posted in weeks. Two months is a really long time in the rapid-fire world of twitter and buzzfeed and rolling news and constant updates. But that’s the nature of working with a company that tours, and does so seasonally: sometimes Fuel are the focus of my attention, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes Fuel are in your neighbourhood, sometimes they’re not. What does it mean, in the rapid-fire world of the internet and click-on-demand, to maintain relationships across time and distance? To remember, and hold a thought, and pick up where we left off?

If I’d written this in early January as I was supposed to, the blog posts I want to link to would have been fresh and current. Published on consecutive days at the end of December, they feel strangely old. And yet, the ideas in them are vital to the vision I have for what British theatre culture could be, and what I believe New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood is working towards. A culture in which people don’t feel intimidated by contemporary theatre, or feel like it’s a club to which they’re not invited, or feel that it’s something they’re supposed to have particular expertise or education to “understand”. A culture in which theatre isn’t valued for the amount of money it prises out of people’s pockets and directs back into government coffers, but for the effect it has on how people see themselves and each other, how they understand human behaviours, how they vision they own futures, how they accommodate their pasts. A culture in which theatre isn’t a weird kind of cinema where you’re not allowed to eat popcorn or whisper to your friend, but the place communities go to share a moment in time, see each other, and understand each other better.

For instance, in the first post, writer/theatre-maker/Fun Palaces agitator Stella Duffy told the story of her nephew, an electrician who happened to be working within the contract team renovating a London theatre, who almost never goes to theatre because, like so many people, he’s never given the impression that it’s for him. Stella wrote:

“this is OUR fault, it must be, we keep saying we want to include everyone – the Arts Council has arts for all as one of its five core goals, and we’re just not getting there. Arts for all should not be able to be a box ticked-off by a school visit, or one example of community outreach, TRUE arts for all really would mean a sparky working on a building site that is a part of one of our arts institutions feels welcome in that space, is welcomed in that space, is welcomed and wants to stay on, after a long day’s work, because he feels that the space has something to share with him.”

The following day, Alan Lane, co-artistic director of a Leeds-based company called Slung Low, had this to say on the subject of ticket prices, and the introduction of Pay What You Decide – in which audiences are invited to choose for themselves what they want to give at the end of a performance – as a financial model:

“I want a [theatre] system that is available and open to all at the point of performance, regardless of financial situation. If one of the costs of that is a director standing up at the end of the show and saying, Thanks for coming, did you enjoy it? Can you pay for it please? then sign me up. That’s not refusing to deal with money. The truly naive idea is that increasing ticket prices and a relentless focus on philanthropic income doesn’t effect how our theatres behave, and what they do. The truly naive idea is that increasing ticket prices and a relentless focus on philanthropic income doesn’t effect what our theatres are for.

Why is the idea of our cultural leaders spending an increasingly large amount of time charming rich people already standard operating procedure, conventional wisdom but the thought of our cultural leaders talking directly to the audience about financially valuing our work laughable? The complicated question of who our theatres are for is wrapped up in this.”

I remember lots of people reading these posts and being really enthusiastic and supportive of the arguments, but I wonder: how many have re-read them? Acted on them? Is an argument on a blog something people read in five minutes on the bus to work, or over a snatched coffee, or in the final stretch of a lunch break, a genuine inspiration and call to arms, or just another bit of noise in a day of scouting the internet? Or is all this writing seeping through the industry, and actually effecting some change?

Sometimes I feel hopeful: for instance, looking at the ARC in Stockton, one of the NTiYN venues, which rarely uses NtiYN’s resources because it’s already doing much of the community-based work that the project proposes. This season, every theatre ticket at ARC is Pay What You Decide. I feel hopeful whenever I re-read the Albany Theatre’s rejection of the Theatre Charter published last summer. I feel hopeful reading the piece on the Guardian website today by the artistic director of the Point in Eastleigh, which recognises that there’s a world of difference in theatre between financial resilience (which tends to be emphasised) and emotional resilience (which tends to be overlooked). Sometimes, however, I despair that the arts-for-all manifestos articulated by the likes of Stella and Alan aren’t common practice already, the fundamental way that theatre operates. They’re things other people read, not what they do.

The third December blog was by Mary Halton, a radio producer by day who has only recently found the confidence to begin writing about theatre. Mary can thank by name the people who gave her the confidence not just to go to the theatre but to express what it makes her think and feel. And she thinks the job of giving that confidence isn’t just down to big institutions (be they theatres or schools), but to all of us individually. For instance:

“We need to stop just telling people about theatre. It’s not that people ‘should’ go, like they ‘should’ eat their greens. We don’t just need to eulogise and market at people, we need to bring them along. Each and every one of us can do this. Bring someone into a space, make them feel like it’s somewhere they are entitled to be, and they’re allowed to love, hate or feel entirely like they didn’t understand what they saw there. …

I’m thinking especially about critics here. I’m thoroughly and completely guilty of bringing a] other critics and b] friends who could and would buy a ticket to the performance as my +1s to press nights. [But:] Imagine if each and every one of us took a friend/colleague/relative who doesn’t normally go to theatre as our +1 to everything for a month. A year. The rest of our careers.”

That challenge has really stuck with me, and the more I think about it, the more I find myself thinking about the ways in which critics are implicated in the skewed economics of theatre. People writing online mostly do so for free: the way we are paid is by being given free tickets. That helps perpetuate an idea of theatre as product, commodity, a financial object. Lately, though, I’ve started to wonder: on the days that I’m being paid to write about theatre, what might happen if, instead of accepting free tickets, I agreed to pay for them, on condition that the theatre gave the two complimentary tickets to the electrician working behind the scenes, or the shop-owner two doors down, or the woman who organises the local book group who thinks theatre isn’t for her? How many people could be welcomed into theatres by that method?

It’s possible to do a lot of talking about theatre and reading about theatre – I know, I’m at it constantly. But I want to see, physically see, more doing. I want to see more people in the theatre industry not just reading Alan’s or Stella’s blogs once but reading them again and again, then acting on them. I want to see more critics not just talking the talk but walking the walk. Maybe this is a feeling sharpened by this being the final year of NTiYN as a research project, and so the transition year for putting the research into everyday practice. It’s a slow process, but Fuel are committed to changing how they work: not just how they tour their own work, but how they talk to audiences, meet communities, and support other theatre-makers and producers. Are you?

From the community, for the community

by Humira Imtiaz

I moved to Middlesbrough eight years ago and it took me a while to set down roots, so Stockton is a recently discovered destination for me. But it’s also become a favoured destination due to my relationship with Stockton ARC Centre. It’s led me to pursue creative writing and become a member of ARCADE, their network for performance artists, which allows me to see many performances for free. Being able to watch as much performance art and theatre as I have over the past year is helping my writing exponentially.

With this membership I have become a regular visitor of Stockton and discovered that this ‘lovely’ town is host for a variety of performances and holds its own cultural art festival, Stockton International Riverside Festival (SIRF), annually. The performances I have been to see range from surreal to breathtakingly awesome – of course you always see one which disappoints, but if it inspires you to do/find better and allows for intense discussions with friends, any performance can be enjoyable to an extent. Going to the theatre or odd social club to see a performance has helped me become part of a community, befriending people whom I may never have met due to never stepping out of my comfort zone.

My personal tastes have also been challenged and I feel like I have discovered a part of myself. At times I have been surprised at what I have enjoyed, and what I like in performance pieces. There is something pure and personal in these intimate performances, which can be cherished by the audience. I really think we as a community need more performance art in our lives, to help aid in building friendships and discovering different experiences.

Performances within large cities get a level of promotion from the national newspapers, such as the Guardian or Independent – but this is not how I am able to get the information I crave about what is happening locally within the community, particularly Stockton and Middlesbrough. We need to showcase the amazing work that is happening to more extensive audiences. Art is for all and not those who seek it and we need to encourage the public, who think performance art is a little too different for their tastes, to be a part of the audience and discover these unique performances and experience the magic of their local community – especially Stockton where they have such amazing facilities. We need to encourage the public to have an input in what they wish to see within the public sphere of art and performance, not only local to them but nationally.

This is why I wanted to join the North East Artist Development Network’s Reviewers’ scheme (have a quick look at this lovely website full of reviews!). One of the big positive aspects of this scheme is how it encourages the local community to take part in the performance process, even if that’s just letting others know what is out there. Plus, from a personal perspective, the scheme let’s me see what other performances are out there, beyond Stockton. So far I’ve seen one performance piece in Newcastle, but I am sure there will be more to come soon!

But my friends and I are also trying to raise awareness about performance within the Teesside area. Our vision is to have a platform where all artists can freely promote their work, performance, exhibitions, etc. This is a shameless plug, but: Arts Events Teesside has been set up on Facebook to share dates and times of events for the public, and a few critical thoughts on performances we have attended. We are hoping to encourage the community to join in on what is available right on their doorstep, whether is it big events such as SIRF or some small performance down at the local pub. Once I myself had a small taste of watching performance pieces, I began looking for ways to keep actively going to more events but at times I have found it difficult to find information on what was on within my locality and beyond. I really feel that by joining up with others in the community, we can share what is within our area and show others the talent of Teesside.

Wor Lass

A reflection by Kathryn Beaumont on her involvement in Phenomenal People

When Fuel asked me to write about a woman that inspired me, I knew I couldn’t limit myself to just the one. But was there a way to bring many women together in one idea?

Who inspired me?

To inspire:
1. 1) fill (someone) with the urge or ability to do or feel something, especially to do something creative. 




2) create (a feeling, especially a positive one) in a person 




3) animate someone with (a feeling). 




4) give rise to
2. 5) breathe in (air); inhale

Who filled me with ability to do or feel something? Who created feelings in me, animated me, gave rise to me? Who gave me breath? Perhaps I took the question a little literally:

‘But everyone will write about their Mam,’ I thought.

This has been a good year for me: a year for putting down roots artistically and emotionally too. As a backdrop to a run of work with, and produced by, North East companies, I made the decision to stay. Sure, my stuff is still in storage, but there’s a flat on the horizon, and it’s in Gateshead – where my Mam comes from. Home has always been more of an idea than a place, growing up as an expat you get used to not feeling at home when you are at home. I made a friend in Theodor Adorno at university, but have increasingly felt a need to know feelingly where I come from.

In studying transactional analysis and script theory I was taken with the idea that motifs repeat down family trees: that families can pass on ‘scripts’. You see it played out time and again on the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are – professional actors who happen to be amateur yachting enthusiasts find out they come from a line of seaman, etc. I started to wonder whether the women who went before me passed anything on.

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Lucky for me, me Mam has an encyclopedic memory, and gave me a lot of detail that Ancestry.co.uk couldn’t. That already had me thinking about who passes down the stories, men’s names move forward, but it seemed to be the women who passed the legends down from one generation to the next. Thing about looking up your female ancestors is they disappear behind men’s names, either their husbands’ or their Dads’ so tracing mothers requires a little more digging. That’s where the title Wor Lass became obvious, women are labelled in relation to someone else, if not a husband then a father. It’s also a Geordie term of endearment and one that can be applied across the board to sisters and daughters as well as Mams and wives.

I was primed to be told wor lot were barn stormers and ball breakers, shaking placards on the barricades and marching for their rights. What I found, was that my line accepted their marching orders and got in line with everyone else. The first story Mam told me was about my great-grandmother’s sisters, who used to go to town during wartime rationing ‘to queue’. A queue meant there was something worth queuing for, so you joined the line first and asked questions later. This became a metaphor for me throughout the development of the piece, as I started to spot more and more lines that my lineage lived on.

As a sub plot to the development of this piece I was also working as a Local Engagement Specialist for Fuel’s sister project New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood. Talks with ARC made it very clear that the communities they wanted to reach out to are the old mining villages in County Durham, communities who wouldn’t necessarily think of travelling to the theatre for an evening’s entertainment. There was only one thing for it: I was going to have to gatecrash some village halls and find out what the craic is.

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I wish I could remember how to knit. Thankfully I can talk, which is the other major activity at craft afternoons. The craft and chat session in Trimdon has been going for 30 years; the women who attend take it in turns to introduce new crafts to the group, but there’s always the option of bringing whatever bit of knitting, crocheting, bobbin lace or tatting you happen to be working on, and cracking on over a cuppa. There they were again, more lines, of yarn and wool and thread weaving and looping as the lasses talked. I took notes.

So I did what anybody with an approaching deadline and limited time would do: I drew a tenuous literary connection between me and my ancestry. Their lines and mine. They worked on washing lines and factory lines and here’s me wanging on over a blank page. Every new thing I found out about my family seemed to demark a greater distance. They left school, got married, had children: that was success. I’m doing my third degree, happily independent, and would quite like a french bulldog. The lines they drew about what was allowed or desirable look like sentences to me, life sentences that is, of drudgery and acceptance – but only because there wasn’t any choice, the inevitability got my back up.

When I sat down to write Wor Lass the first two lines rhymed:

I’ve been invited here to tell all you’se
About a woman who inspired me muse (!)

That’s all right I told myself, there’s a strong rhythm to draw people in, a cheeky allusion to the openings of epic ballads, and a knowing bathos about writing heroic couplets in Geordie. Canny craic. But then the second pair of lines had to rhyme too, and now I’m writing poetry. Oh bliddy hell. Thing is it fits (my scansion might not always), but what’s more inevitable than rhyme? What is less likely as the subject of a string of heroic couplets than a series of Gateshead lasses who worked in factories and other (grander) people’s houses? Somehow it let me feel more connected to these women who, whether it seems likely or not, inevitably lead down to me. And what’s more, Wor Lass, who has to borrow names from Da’s and Husbands, is suddenly sharing an heroic playing field with Odysseus, maybe. Indulge me. No more tapestry and tatting for ye pet, you’re the epic main event noo. And if it’s good enough for Chaucer’s ‘Legend of Good Women’… Reet, what else rhymes with ‘family tree’…?

Oh, and you’ll never guess what: I start recording my first radio drama this week, playing a factory worker in a munitions factory on Tyneside. This one’s for ye Wor Lass.

Wor Lass

I’ve been invited here to tell all youse
About a woman who inspired me muse (!)

I sat and thought about who got us here?
Who’s stood behind me yammerin’ in me ear

To keep on keeping on and keep ya heed?
Thing is most of those lasses are well deed.

And that got me to thinking about lines
The ones we stand in from the start of time

The kin now buried deep, from yonks ago
Who shaped what we are, but they’ll nevaa know.

And so I started digging for me roots
Past factory clocks and clarty miners’ boots

In censuses the women disappear
You need to knaa whose lass they were, each year

I mean you need their Da or husband’s name
If Mam’s and wives you’re looking to reclaim.

Sometimes they nudge you back by saying ‘née’
Naysaying being labelled in this way.

There’s nee mistaking lineage for the lads
Ancestry gans: ‘here’s me, and there’s wor lass.’

Wor lass! That’s it! I’ll sing her famously
She’s one and many simultaneously

She’s mams and wives and sisters, maids and gannys
She’s mine and yours, she’s wors, and she’s dead canny.

I’ll sing the bords doon from my family tree
Find names for who made me phenomenally

Replace ‘Wor Lass’ with Kathy, Florrie, Lizzie
Wor Mary, Meggy, Rosie, Winnie, Kitty.

And youse could find ya own if you’re not busy
For now I’ll lend ya my lot in this ditty.

“Reet Mam!” I hollered “who comes afore Nanna?
Were we on’t pickets? Did we march from Jarra?”

“Whey nar” Mam said (and her name is Patricia)
“They just cracked on, nee feminist militia.”

Awh.

“Did they not want to change the status quo?”
“You divvent wish for owt if you divvent know –

They just cracked on, the lads went doon the pit
The lasses left school and got on with it.

They towed the line, there wasn’t any choice
Nee buggar telt them that they had a voice.

During the war wor Lizzie’s sisters, two
Would gan doon Gateshead high street just to queue-”

“To queue?” “Aye, well with rationing still on
You saw a line and joined it-“ “now haddon”

“I’m telling ya! Wor Katie and wor Bella
What are we waiting for?” “Whey what’ they tell her?”

“Whatever bit of meat or veg was on
You got in line before it was all gone.

(They had a press packed chocka with molasses
Come World War Three they’d still be sweet them lasses)”

“And what about wor Lizzie?” “Your great gran?
He ran the Askew Arms, but she was banned.”

“He didn’t let her serve behind the bar?”
“No, she refused, felt it a step too far –

“The bar’s nee place for lasses”, so she said
She worked in Sinclairs packing tabs instead.”

Nee place for lasses; what we waiting for?
I follow lines cued by who went before.

Me Nanna, Kathy, was a cracking singer
Worked in Osrams: had asbestos fingers

From testing light bulbs, picking oot the duds;
Would pass yah bait straight oot the oven, nee gloves

“How Nanna man! That’s red hot! Where’s a cloth?”
“Yee’d be nee use on line, yee, ya tae soft.”

Her Mam, wor Florrie, filled her washing lines
With giving birth at hyem a full six times

But only two bairns made it oot the cot
She planted four graves with Forget-me-nots

Nee National Health to help those poor bairns in
And naen for us if the bastard Tories win.

Not one for soft touch, Flo kept up her guard:
“Away with ya slavour”; grief makes you hard.

In factories and at hyem they worked on lines
My lineage file along the winding Tyne

Next, great great grandma, Flo’s Mam, Mary Ann
Had ten bairns, although not to the same man

Widowed at twenty six and mam of two
She left Derry for Felling, to start anew

And lost nee time in courtin’ a new Da
For Rosie and Maggie who didn’t knaa

That Florrie was already on her way
Arriving six months past the wedding day!

Eeeeh scandal! Worse, hypocrisy to boot
She threw wor Lizzie and wor Meggy oot

For getting preggers afore they’d been wed
Coincidentally both by men called Ned.

Meanwhile wor Rosie grafted doon Armstrongs
Making cartridge cases, but afore long

The war was over and her contract too
Was put on short time, or to me and you

A zero hours deal. Sound familiar?
S’Almost as if progress is not linear.

When Wall Street crashed wor Rosie headed South
Laid off and paid off, living hand to mouth

She found a family in that London who
Were looking for a maid, and said she’d do.

Living in service did not gan to plan
The cook was always pissed, she missed her Mam

So Rosie caught a train to come back hyem
“Cockneys” she’d say, “you canna understand them.”

Three of her sisters had since gotten wed
Wor Lizzie and Meggy had married the Neds

Wor Florrie had led the charge down the aisle
Winnie, Kitty, Norah still in single file.

Poor Rosie, an old maid in more ways than one
Still mourned the lad she lost in World War I.

When Kitty started courting, Rosie ‘changed’
They said the menopause made her deranged

Maybe she finally grieved all her losses
Father, sister, lover buried under crosses.

She crowded Kitty’s twosome: suitor flew
“I would be married if it weren’t for you”

The line was drawn between these half sisters
Neither were missus to anymore misters.

Not hitched at thirty and you’re on the shelf –
I’m glad to be free of that sentence myself.

The Beaumonts lead on to Isabella
Living in service ‘til she meets her fella

Miners die young, so did this poor codger
Bella eventually married the lodger.

Her bairn, wor Ella, stops me in my tracks
A mishap at home, she ran oot the back

Starched apron, flat iron, an ember let fly
Her daughter, wor Ethel, watched her Mam die.

And then in another cruel twist of fate
She orphaned her son, who was sent away.

Grasping at straws noo, one more Mary Ann
1831: far as I can gan.

These lines I follow are getting hazy
Wor names are misspelt, scribes getting lazy

Beaumont is Bowman; but with no arrow
To give me a route down straight or narrow

Lines that would link up more roots of my tree
That lead from these lasses reet doon to me

The lines that join birth date with when you’re dead
That quick dash between in which whole lives are led.

Wor lass joined the queue, and worked on the line
Made weapons and warriors along the Tyne

She loved and she lost and she buried in droves
Her husbands and bairns in neat little rows.

Wor lass towed the line, wor lass knew no choice
Nobody had told her that she had a voice.

She sings to me now, sends a call down the line
I’m freelance, and free-wheeling on my own time

No forgone conclusion on whether to wed
I stayed at school and make theatre instead.

Wor lass stands behind me, wor lass is good craic
She’s driving me forward e’en as I look back.

Here is my line; cued by who went before:

Haway wor lass what are you waiting for?