Looking back, looking forward

by Maddy Costa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In praise of: Amy Rainbow

by Maddy Costa

One of the (many) ambitions for this blog is to contribute to movements already happening in the six NTiYN towns to develop a more vocal and vibrant local critical community, whether it’s by flagging up writing on here, or giving workshops to inspire writers to be more adventurous in how they review. Someone I’ve been meaning to flag up for a while is Amy Rainbow: based in the Malvern area, she writes for a site called Behind the Arras, and has a lovely, friendly, no-nonsense voice. A brave one, too: I love the fact that, when writing about Fiction, the new Glen Neath/David Rosenberg show that takes place in pitch darkness, she does so fully confessing that she had to walk out, it made her feel that queasy. She’s since seen two other Fuel shows, Uninvited Guests’ endlessly gorgeous Love Letters and the same company’s This Last Tempest, and her writing on the latter is full of tenderness and admiration. It’s a while before Fuel’s spring season kicks in, but I’m already looking forward to reading what Amy makes of it.

Love Letters Straight From Your Heart, Lakeside, Colchester

by Camela Cuison

When Love Letters Straight From Your Heart came to the Lakeside in Colchester, on February 22, Valentine’s Day wasn’t yet a distant memory, and the never-ending war between the loved-up and the singled-out was still ringing in my ears. Although among the latter this year, I remain a shameless lover of love. Anything that can encourage our cold wintered hearts to thaw can never be fully encompassed by a Clinton’s card.

Enter Love Letters Straight from Your Heart. Prior to the show, members of the audience were invited to send “dedications” to the ones they love with a song of their choosing. (Since music is such a fundamental part of this show, I feel the need to tell you that as I write this I am being serenaded by the King himself with ‘Are you Lonesome tonight?’ and Chet Baker’s heart-breaking 1959 performance of ‘My Funny Valentine’.)

On arrival, the audience sat around a dinner table, armed with a glass of bubbly (merely an accompaniment to my glass of red). As the first dedications rolled out, I felt like I was being sucked into a more consuming version of Mellow Magic’s love letters. But then it dawned on me: these dedications weren’t alien, impersonal voices coming from the radio; they were from those around me. Couples kissed as their words of love were professed, men asked wives for forgiveness, some remained steely-eyed as their own confessions of unfulfilled love were read out, while others could do nothing but be empathetic to those around them.

I fell into the last two categories: I like to think I remained completely passive as my own words were read out. Yet on hearing a dedication between friends, my poker face failed me completely, to which I then proceeded to cough and pretend as if my glasses were causing an irritation that needed to be seen to immediately. The thing is, I can be a bit of a weepy fool, but when I finally got round to looking at the other members of the audience, through what were now misty glasses, there weren’t any dry eyes to be found.

With such a shamelessly romantic title, the meaning behind the play was never going to be a profound secret. However, there was something surprisingly real about sharing the joy and/or pain of people who had loved, were in love, had lost. This wasn’t art imitating life: for those members of the audience who wrote in, this was life, in all its blissful euphoria and consuming angst. It permitted us to be coddled in the cheesy, loved-up, never-to-admit-in-public kind of way that we all secretly desire. In the constant ennui that is third year at university, the intrusion of this play into my emotions shook me into a promising realisation. Maybe “all you need is love”. Maybe.

A longing to share

The New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood project is moving into a new phase now, as you can tell from all the brilliant posts on here by theatre-makers who have gone on think-missions to the towns where, it’s hoped, community-specific works will slowly be created. Meanwhile, I’m continuing to work on the first phase, encouraging new conversations between theatre-makers, critics and audiences. Two events so far have been particularly important to me in demonstrating how fruitful this dialogue can be: one I’ve already written about on here, the bubbly-fun Theatre Salon hosted by Lorna Rees in Poole following a performance of The Victorian in the Wall (which one of the performers, Matt Steer, gratifyingly describes elsewhere on this blog as “better than any post show thing I’ve ever been involved with”). The other was at ARC in Stockton back at the beginning of May; although I didn’t have time to write about it then, I’ve been hymning it ever since.

It wasn’t just the theatre club that struck me, it was the entire day. I arrived in Stockton early enough to have a walk around the centre of town. I was expecting the worst, if I’m honest; instead, it came across as a really likeable place. “But what about all the boarded-up shops?” someone asked me. “The preponderance of pubs, the drug addicts?” I live in a very muddled-up bit of south London, rich and poor in close proximity; I’m on greeting terms with the druggie who hangs around outside Costcutter but rarely-to-never talk to my neighbours; and I have three bookies within a few minutes’ walk of my house, two of which are on the high street, which is otherwise cluttered with competing mini-supermarkets, hodge-podge cheapo shops, charity shops, a pawn shop, fast-food chains and cocktail bars. Where’s the difference from Stockton? Just because it’s got middle-class cocktail bars and not pubs doesn’t make my high street superior: to suggest otherwise is class prejudice of the filthiest kind.

So I liked Stockton. And I really liked Julie Dove, Fuel’s local engagement specialist, who told me about the weird layout of Stockton – wealthy in the suburbs, deprived in the centre – and her mother’s fury when her own nearby village was swallowed up by gentrification and she couldn’t find a basic white loaf for less than £2.50 in the bakers any more. Julie took me to the garishly bright regeneration centre on the high street, and to A Way Out, a charity set up a few years ago to help women who have become stuck in a life of drug addiction and prostitution to find their way back into education, jobs, decent housing, hope. The spokeswoman we met there told us that for the women who come to A Way Out, ARC is nothing more than a big glass building to meet people outside; even if they did pluck up the courage to go in, the well-heeled clientele looking down their noses would soon make it clear they weren’t welcome. And yet, two of the women had been brought the night before to see a performance of Uninvited Guests’ Love Letters Straight From Your Heart. It was their first time going to a theatre, and they loved it. They hadn’t known theatre could be like that.

It would be really easy, Julie told me, to drive around all the village suburbs of Stockton and chat to their genteel inhabitants about ARC, encouraging them to experiment a bit more. But where’s the challenge in that? Where’s the satisfaction of coaxing a new audience whose lives could genuinely be changed by theatre? She’d rather, she told me, bring in two people from the council estates up the road from ARC, than 52 people from the suburbs. Because theatre isn’t just for a certain group in society: it’s for everyone. And that message is more important to communicate than ever.

The thing is, you can’t just tell the uninitiated to come inside and then abandon them. Even the friendliest front-of-house staff can seem intimidating when you don’t feel like you fit in. And who is there to talk to if you walk out having not understood the show, or found it difficult, or traumatic? This is what I love about the Theatre Club at the Young Vic, established by Lily Einhorn last year for participants in the Two Boroughs project. Nearly every time I’ve been to it, someone has said they don’t go to other theatres in London, because they don’t feel posh enough. And they don’t talk to other people about theatre, because they don’t feel smart enough. Only at the Young Vic do they feel at home.

In some ways, ARC feels like a really homely place. It has a vibrant programme of work for children, and a really enticing programme of activities for the over-55s. And yet, there’s also something off-putting about it. The cafe seemed quite pricey to me, particularly the biscuits; I felt guilty for doing it, but bought my dinner at Marks and Spencer’s round the corner. As far as I could tell, there’s no dedicated playspace for kids, while the oldies dominating the public spaces keep teens and twentysomethings at bay. And when the show ends, everyone just hunches their shoulders and heads out into the night: unless I’m mistaken, the bar doesn’t stay open for them.

The night I was there, the bar did stay open, for a Dialogue Theatre Club – the events I’ve been running (following the Young Vic model) with my friend Jake Orr, opening up space for people to talk about a show, not with the makers but just with each other. I had a good feeling about the ARC club, because the show being discussed was Uninvited Guests’ Make Better Please, an extraordinary, challenging, noisy, furiously political piece that looks everything that’s awful in the world square in the eye before exorcising it in a punk-rock frenzy then replacing it with quiet, delicate stories of hope. You form enough of a bond with your fellow-audience members, poring over newspapers together, then poring over humanity, that by the end, you’re curious: what did they all think?

Not everyone stayed for the Theatre Club – there were a few schoolchildren who had to go home, a couple of others with things to do. But the 12 of us who did stay sat talking intently for over an hour; every so often I’d notice someone from Uninvited Guests, otherwise occupied with clearing the theatre, peek round the door and marvel that we were still at it. We talked about how the show had made us feel about our media, and our consumption of media, the narratives of optimism and negativity foisted on us, but that we also foist on others. We talked about how it felt to be assigned imaginative roles in the gruesome stories we’d read, of kidnapping, murder, accidental death. We marvelled at the structure, the care with which we’d been taken on a journey, the breath of fresh air when the exorcism ends, the loveliness of sharing hope. And then one woman, who had been fidgeting uncomfortably for the first 30 minutes or so, finally felt compelled to speak. She hadn’t liked it at all. She’d felt hectored and even attacked by it. She’d found the full-frontal, visceral, obnoxiously loud exorcism upsetting. She had been abused in her life, and it brought the horror of that experience flooding back.

It was a view on Make Better Please I hadn’t anticipated – one that made me, and everyone else singing its praises, see the show in a whole new light. And we were even more startled when another, older woman, who had also sat hunched and silent, was encouraged by the first woman’s confession to make her own: she, too, had been abused in her life, and she, too, had found the show very difficult to watch. And, unlike the first woman, she hadn’t come with a friend. She didn’t have anyone to help her decompress, work through her response to the show, and let it go. She was alone.

I love that theatre takes me to difficult places. But I can’t just absorb it: I have to process it. Sometimes it’s in conversation with friends, sometimes it’s in my blog. The atmosphere in the Theatre Club shifted after those two women spoke: we discussed the responsibility of theatre-makers to their audiences, how important it was to invest in the sharing of hope at the end – and how useful it was to be able to continue the audience community outside of the show, swapping thoughts, finding out more about each other. One of the attendees later wrote a review of Make Better Please, with a few lines on the discussion, which he’d found “fascinating”, in which he said: “I would be delighted if it were to happen after every performance ever.” So, why doesn’t it?

Since that night, I’ve thought a lot about the offers that theatres make to their audiences, and the offers they don’t make. Most of them revolve around money, or rather, extracting money from audiences then making them feel a bit privileged: pay this much and you’ll get to buy your tickets earlier (for a small discount, if you’re lucky); pay this much and you can dress up in uncomfortable clothes and come and feel awkward at a champagne do. And then there’s the offers theatres make around talking to artists: in the auditorium, in clearly demarcated spaces, apart. Where are the membership schemes that say: join our club and we’ll invite you to a monthly tea party, where you can meet other members and the artists we’ve programmed and chat informally over biscuits and cake? Where are the membership schemes that say: hey, we’ve started our own discussion group! Don’t worry if you can’t afford to buy a drink as well as your ticket – we’ll give you one for free. It’s not your money we’re after. It’s your company.

I bumped into Annabel Turpin, chief executive of ARC, in Edinburgh last month, who told me something that, quite honestly, made me want to hug her. Since my visit, they’ve begun experimenting with new ways of getting artists to interact with potential audiences: she’s been putting theatre-makers together with local creative-writing groups, and is about to try hosting a tea party, for people to come in and get to know the people she’s programmed. She told a story about Daniel Bye, who has been working a lot at ARC this year, sitting down in the cafe with a group of over-55s who attend ARC regularly, not for theatre, for creative classes. They asked him a whole bunch of questions, none about his show, all about him personally: when and where he was born, if he has siblings, if he’s married, if he has kids. They didn’t want to know about his work. They were looking for the personal connection that would make them think: yes, I like you, I’m interested in what you do.

Interactions like these are really easy to make happen, aren’t they? So are theatre clubs, and discussion groups, and anything else that breaks down the barriers between the people who make theatre and the people who watch it. All it takes is a different way of thinking about theatre: not as an economy, with tickets to sell that need to be bought, but as stories being told and listened to, by people with hearts and lives and a longing to share.

What can we do about touring?

by Catherine Love

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

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

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

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

Kate McGrath, co-director of Fuel

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

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

Touring Theatre in the UK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ACE Strategic Touring Fund

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood

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

Louise Blackwell, co-director of Fuel

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

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

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

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

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

Case Study 1: Poole

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

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

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

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

Case Study 2: Preston

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

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

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

Key Findings – Building Conversations

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

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

Audience member at The 14th Tale, The Continental

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

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

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

Audience member at The 14th Tale, The Lighthouse 

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

Audience member at The Victorian in the Wall, Malvern Theatres

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

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

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

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

Audience Agency Evaluation Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

Louise Blackwell, co-director of Fuel

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

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

It all starts with conversation.

Sources

 

Interviews with:

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

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